In a season obsessed with the emergence of youth and the resignation of the old guard, it is fitting that the two most climactic scenes in this pivotal episode involve the physical embodiments of life and death. “Commissions and Fees” suggests that the price of entering the brave new world of the late sixties must be paid in blood. Lane’s suicide may be bloodless, but his puffy, ashen face evokes blood by its conspicuous absence. Blood comes up again after Don’s speech about the insatiable nature of desire with Roger remarking that Don should wipe the blood off his chin. However, actual blood only enters the frame with a brief red flash on a young girl’s underpants. Sally has been playing at female adulthood throughout this season: talking back to her mother, quasi-flirting with Glen, wearing makeup and Go-go boots, and acting as though she and Megan are the same age. Nevertheless, like many tween girls who long for the trappings of adulthood but are horribly frightened and confused by the often crude realities of womanhood, she runs back into her mother’s arms the moment her pubescent female body makes itself known.
Sally is standing in front of the Museum of Natural History’s diorama of a Pleistocene couple, talking with Glen about the couple’s offspring when she experiences the unique pain of menstrual cramping. After a very expensive cab ride, she returns to her mother’s bed and is spooned like a child as her mother tells her that this pain, blood, and sadness simply indicate that everything is working properly. Sally, like the Pleistocene woman, can now have a baby. Betty is, of course, correct, and it’s a much better response than the standard bromides about becoming a new woman, but what does it say about femininity when properly functioning adulthood equals pain?In the episode “At the Codfish Ball,” Sally first witnesses the “dirtiness” of female sexuality as she spies Megan’s mother going down on Roger Sterling. The episode implies that women are all replications of an original Eve—a being whose identity is wholly tied to her fertile body. The campaign that wins SCDP the Heinz account in this episode involves a single woman fixing food for her child from caves to space stations. Times change, but the woman remains the same. She is trapped by a fertility that menstrual blood signifies. Sally is then apparently no different from the cavewoman or Betty. She is one more woman trapped inside a body she can’t control.
The “Fat Betty Draper” storyline has often been written off as a means to hide January Jones’s pregnancy or an excuse to push Betty to the side as a remnant of the fifties, but I believe the weight gain reveals a woman literally imprisoned in her own flesh. When Betty sits in front of her two bites of Thanksgiving dinner or yearns to binge after seeing Don’s love note to Megan, it is hard not to feel sorry for this ice queen despite her horrible parenting methods and general selfishness. This humanized Betty reveals the problems of desire and control at the heart of mature female identity. When Betty ties her depression and self worth to her battles to restrain her appetite, she is transposing her desire for greater control of her own life to her relationship with her body. Sally clearly responds to this weight gain by restricting her own food intake, trying desperately to escape her mother’s corporeal prison. But as she attempts to staunch the menstrual blood, she finds she is more like her mother than she thought.
As long as Sally’s identity is tied entirely to her body and how this body is read by conventional society, she will be nothing more than a replication of Betty who will one day tell her own daughter that suffering is what it means to be a woman. But this season has suggested that this is not the only alternative. The change in her body doesn’t need to represent pain and self-annihilation. It can, quite literally, represent a change.
Sally has tied herself to Megan throughout this season not only because Megan has never told her to bang her head against a wall but also because Megan seems to embody a different form of female adulthood. Don asked Megan for a child, and she said that his children were enough. Megan wishes to exist outside of the lineage of women lacking identities beyond their roles as wives and mothers. While I don’t believe that Megan’s wish to do so by commodifying herself will yield any tangible results and will probably leave her little more than a rich man’s wife, the desire does suggest a cultural shift—an alternative to the narrative of the campaign of replicating Eves.
The shift is better exemplified by Peggy and Joan who are beginning to demand sex and motherhood on their own terms. They still want pleasure—and maybe even babies—but both wish to maintain their own identities in the process. This shift from the well-worn path of men in grey suits to the unchartered waters Megan, Peggy, Joan, and even Sally are entering has been the crux of this season’s narrative. It is not a clear future these women are entering but one wherein the blood and violence of the old era is finally flooding to the surface.
Lane is the ultimate symbol of this old world. As an Englishman, he is literally from the old world, so it is he who must be sacrificed so that Mad Men can leave the fifties—with its ties to Europe and the post-war era—behind it and enter the tumult and promise of the late sixties. It is then fitting that this episode takes place near Easter. Critics have remarked that Joan says “Jesus” as they are cutting down Lane’s body, suggesting that he is supposed to be a Christ figure, but I feel it would have been more appropriate if she had muttered “Judas.” Lane betrays the company through embezzlement and subsequently hangs himself for an amount of money that, in the end, seems as insignificant as fifty pieces of silver. Few were surprised by Lane’s suicide because it was inevitable from the moment he forged Don’s signature. Just as Judas’s betrayal and subsequent death are a necessary part of the Christian narrative, Lane’s crime has to occur to highlight the death of an era wherein men got away with everything and Sally could only see her blood with terror and sorrow.
Menstrual blood is unique in that it signifies life as well as its unfulfilled potential. That monthly red stain means no egg has been fertilized, yet it offers the continual promise of new life as long as it flows. Life and death similarly form the Janus head of this episode. Lane can’t enter the new America—he can’t even get the car to start—but Sally can. Sally, like America, may still be a child frightened to enter a complicated, changing world that one cannot control, but this doesn’t matter. Change is going to come.