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Mad Men: Hands and hands and hands in “Commissions and Fees”

[ 11 ] June 6, 2012 |

As with the previous Mad Men post, I’ll begin here with the title (“Commissions and Fees”) as it structures the underlying irony of the entire episode. As Lane Pryce explains to the partners early in the episode, the difference between commissions and fees boils down to be erratically paid fifteen percent based on a finished campaign (commissions) or regularly paid with the possibility of a one or two percent bump based on the success of the campaign (fee). The fee system fails to offer the potential rewards of the commission, but the steadiness of the payouts appeals to an orderly man like Pryce. That Campbell follows Pryce’s explanation with the news that Dunlop contacted him and wants to work with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce enhances the appeal of the fee system because it suggests the possibility of a synergistic structure: land the car company and the manufacturer of its tires follows. The neatness of this risk-averse business model entices Pryce because it provides for reliable growth in an industry predicated on the whims of a hypothetical entity Pryce is incapable of understanding: the American consumer.

Put differently: a person who craves order in the world would prefer fees to commissions based on temperament alone; but a person who (1) works in an industry based on a muddy understanding of the psychological and sociological motivations of the American consumer and (2) relies on unpredictable flashes of insight from mercurial ciphers would consider fees to be a means of imposing order on the world. Which means that Pryce is as quick to encourage the adoption of a fee structure as Draper is to dismiss it. Director Christopher Manley captures their differences in a pair of medium shots designed to draw attention to their hands:

Mad men - commissions and fees00124

As Pryce explains the difference between fees and commissions his hands are turned inward in a gesture reminiscent of an artist molding a block of clay. He is a gentleman gathering the messiness of the world and bringing order to it. But when Manley reverses to Draper rejecting the fee structure:

Mad men - commissions and fees00163

The depth of feeling from which his dismissal originates is present both in the tone of his voice and his inversion of Pryce’s gesture. Draper’s hands tear apart and toss aside the orderly world Pryce just produced for the partners. These gestures represent in minature the manner in which the episode pits the risk-seeking, commission-loving Draper against the risk-averse, fee-loving Pryce. But there’s another reason they’re significant:

They’re made with hands. Bear with me here:

If the firm had a fee-based structure it would’ve been able to pay out the Christmas bonuses; if the Christmas bonuses would’ve been paid out, Pryce wouldn’t have had to forge Draper’s signature on that $8,000 check; if Pryce hadn’t had to forge Draper’s signature on that $8,000, he would still be alive. Forging that check in “The Christmas Waltz” represents one of the few moments in which Pryce embraced risk, but even as he did so director Michael Uppendahl made it clear that it was done meticulously. He opens with a medium-long shot of Pryce:

Mad men - commissions and fees00132

Then cuts to Pryce’s hands opening the ledger:

Mad men - commissions and fees00138

Then back to the medium-long shot, then back to his hands removing a check:

Mad men - commissions and fees00143

Then to a medium shot of Pryce examining the checks:

Mad men - commissions and fees00147

Then to a close-up of his hands as he examines it:

Mad men - commissions and fees00146

Then back to the medium shot, then to an extreme close-up of his hands as he forges the check:

Mad men - commissions and fees00149

The pattern should be apparent by now: even when Pryce takes risks, the camera emphasizes that this is a man who shapes the world with his hands. The precision required to produce the forgery is akin to the fastidiousness that governs his entire life. He’s a man whose hands represent the degree to which he can manipulate his circumstances. He’s a man whose hands are meaningful. But he’s a man whose hands will fail him. His first attempt at suicide in “Commissions and Fees” is structured, visually, in a fashion virtually identical to the scene from “The Christmas Waltz.” It begins with a medium shot of him carrying something:

Mad men - commissions and fees00019

Then Manley cuts to a close-up of his hands:

Mad men - commissions and fees00020

First they cut the hose, then they stuff the pipe:

Mad men - commissions and fees00023

Then a long shot of him entering the car:

Mad men - commissions and fees00025

Before returning to a medium close-up of him examining the window as he insulates it:

Mad men - commissions and fees00027

Then back to the long shot of the car, then back to the shot above, then to a medium shot of him drinking, then to a medium close-up of him breaking the item required to continue examining things:

Mad men - commissions and fees00039

Then back to the long of the car, then to a close-up of his hand starting it:

Mad men - commissions and fees00043

Or failing to. Then back to the medium close-up of his frustrated face, then to an extreme close-up of his hand as he attempts to start the car:

Mad men - commissions and fees00048

Another medium close-up of his frustrated face is followed by another close-up of his hand attempting to start the car. The editing provides a rhythm to his increasing frustration: face, hand, face, hand, face, hand. The rhythm allows the viewer to register the frustration his face reveals at the failure of his hands. Moreover, as the scene progresses the irony of his firm’s prized acquisition failing him mounts. He finally exits the car, but instead of cutting to a long shot of him exiting, Manley cuts straight to:

Mad men - commissions and fees00057

Then back to:

Mad men - commissions and fees00058

Then back to:

Mad men - commissions and fees00061

The scene doesn’t conclude so much as shift to the office in a manner that somehow suggests that Pryce never got the car started. But the significant thing here is the hands, because the similarity of the scene of the forgery and his first attempt at suicide suggests that he wanted to die as he lived: by his own hands. But he couldn’t even manage that.

Sad, isn’t it?

 

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  1. Raise your hand if you couldn’t get The School of Athens out of your head when you were reading the first part and Drawing Hands when you were reading the second.

    *raises hand*

  2. Icarus Wright says:

    I agree that Lane Pryce’s stuffing the tailpipe was significant, but it seems to me your post is written with 20/20 hindsight. Really, who among us really thought Draper firing Pryce wouldn’t end in suicide? Lane has always been weak and impulsive.

    (I didn’t think he’d do it in the office, tho; that part seemed overly dramatic, if not actually lazy. but then again I can see how that device would be necessary to advance Draper and Joan’s characters, while also underscoring Pryce’s role -and identity- as a company man)

    He’s been portrayed as somewhat unhinged across several episodes; to reiterate, weak and impulsive. Pete Campbell is similar, but less morally refined: he lacks the capacity to feel remorse or shame.

    • SEK says:

      I agree that Lane Pryce’s stuffing the tailpipe was significant, but it seems to me your post is written with 20/20 hindsight. Really, who among us really thought Draper firing Pryce wouldn’t end in suicide

      Well, it had to based on hindsight, since I hadn’t seen “Commissions and Fees” until I saw it. Only then did I look back at the event that precipitated his suicide, and only then did I notice the parallels in shot scale and editing pace. My argument here’s based as much on the visual content as narrative, after all, and having the “foresight” required to see Pryce’s suicide coming isn’t the same as actually seeing his attempts at it.

  3. 미진놈 says:

    Wait a minute – we’ve never seen any of the partners on this show do anything with their hands except hold drinks. In this episode Price talks with his hands and all of a sudden he’s:

    “…an artist molding a block of clay. He is a gentleman gathering the messiness of the world and bringing order to it. …want[ing] to die as he lived: by his own hands.”

    Is Megan McArdle moving up in the world and you’re hoping to use this Randian fanfare to audition to be her replacement?

    Maybe the point is exactly the opposite – maybe all these (master of teh universe type-) guys can do with their hands is bring on oblivion.

    • SEK says:

      Wait a minute – we’ve never seen any of the partners on this show do anything with their hands except hold drinks. In this episode Price talks with his hands and all of a sudden…

      Not “all of the sudden.” Forgery’s an art, after all all.

      Is Megan McArdle moving up in the world and you’re hoping to use this Randian fanfare to audition to be her replacement?

      I’m not even sure what that means. Where’s the “Randian fanfare”? I’m pretty sure I’m talking about the illusion of the kind of control Pryce imagines a fee structure would afford him.

      • 미진놈 says:

        Eh, it was an attempt at humor. If you wrote about real heads of industry the way you write about SDCP, ~

        they live by their own terms, by their own hands, shaping the world as an artist shapes clay –

        you could totally take your pick of jobs: Paul (Ryan, Rand, or Ron) staffer, Megan McArdle fill-in, or Ayn Rand Fanboi.

        Pretty tempting, huh?

        • SEK says:

          Sorry, eight straight office hours drain me of humor/humanity. But no, not tempting at all. I’m the guy who writes about visual rhetoric on a political blog, which says a lot about what I think about what I’m supposed to write. (That said, I’m also a poor adjunct, so maybe I could…)

  4. […] manifestation of the guilt Don feels about his complicity in the suicide of Lane Pryce in “Commission and Fees.” Weiner signals as much in the form of the phantom that accompanies Don’s […]

  5. […] Rick bandaging his hand, and hands are important. Hands do things. And the director of “Indifference,” Tricia Brock, is not about to let the audience forget […]

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