Those who are up-to-date on the television series “Mad Men” watched an interesting episode prior to the season finale, but the widespread discussions that follow every show failed to even reference what I found the most profound point. To that end, perhaps readers will indulge this piece about a fictional 1960s advertising agency, beginning with a “spoiler alert.”
Many viewers were disappointed with Lane’s suicide, having seen it coming for quite some time. It was couched in clever detail, not the least of which was the temperamental Jaguar — whose account proved to be an ethical Disneyland for the firm — but most characters acted true to form.
What I saw in the episode were two seemingly unrelated stories coalescing into one. Besides the tragedy of Lane’s choices, there was the story of Sally, an angry young girl caught between two self-absorbed parents, Don and Betty. She endured their eventual divorce and ensuing marriages, with each seeing her more as annoyance than person. Since she didn’t want to go on a ski vacation with her mother, Sally acted out in the most insolent way possible, ramping up the decibels of rudeness until her mother relented and sent her to spend the weekend with her father. There — unannounced and inconvenient — she could proceed with a surreptitious plan to meet with a young man.
So with this backdrop, the story culminated with Lane barricading himself in his office and hanging himself, and Sally shocked to discover her first period — leading her to quietly duck out of her rendezvous, and causing panic by her disappearance. Why are these related? What could possibly connect such disparate stories? They overlapped because both come down to the human body and our relationship with it.
As tragic as Lane’s desperate move was, what fascinated me was the reaction. Don, being the last to arrive at work Monday morning, found the partners in shock and disbelief. His own shock intensified to learn that no one had cut the body down. Astonished, he barrelled his way into the office and undertook the macabre task without delay — for despite all his faults, his sense of decency compelled him. One doesn’t leave dead bodies hanging from cords out of reverence for the human person.
Likewise with the other story. Everyone was upset with Sally — for her rudeness, her lies, her escape, and her lack of consideration for all who loved her. And yet, all was swept aside when the reason was discovered (in the most awkward of settings, she had her first period). The war with her mother dissolved (for the moment), Don’s wife, Megan, who was frantic with worry forgave all — knowing that it’s deeply traumatic and a confusing time for girls. Indeed, in this instance it was worse, for Sally was an abandoned child stepping into womanhood in a conflicted age amidst a crumbling culture.
So we have a fiercely competitive advertising agency which reduces people to markets — employing manipulation on employees, clients, and the public for gain. Almost every person in the office has transgressed his own dignity through a multitude of grievous sins. Although each character draws his or her line in the sand — indicating what he or she will not do — the audience watches those lines move repeatedly as those personal ethics unravel. Indeed, that honest portrayal is the brilliance of the series — for each sin bears a consequence.
This particular episode was fascinating because, for all the buttresses and categories that were constructed to depersonalize humanity, it came down to a dead body and a young girl’s period. Each had to be given proper reverence. For all their myriad faults, Don the father and Betty the mother came through. One laid Lane reverently on the sofa to await the coroner, the other laid the bewildered young girl to rest on her own bed. Don’s wartime experience gave him the manly courage to do his task, and — for all her faults — Betty instinctively knew that only a mother’s embrace could begin to comfort her child.
The “Mad Man” death spiral will continue — we know because we’re still enduring it all these dark decades later. But the lesson we cannot ignore is that persons have an inherent dignity, the human body deserves reverence, and those who set their own comforts aside in order to attend to that truth will brighten the gloom and illuminate that which endures.
[The Anchor 6.15.12]