Best TV 2012: Lane Pryce’s suicide attempt in his Jaguar.

Mad Men: Lane Pryce sits in his new Jaguar.

AMC, June 3, 10:31 p.m.

The partner wakes up in the middle of the night, or perhaps he’s never been asleep at all. Down to the garage he goes, to the new car his wife—his poor, oblivious wife—gifted him this very day. He cuts the hose. He stuffs the rag into the tailpipe and seals the window. He snaps his glasses in half, the look of dull misery on his face replaced for a fleeting second by one of determination. He turns the key and presses the ignition. And then: nothing. Jaguars? They’re lemons. They never start.

In a season of Mad Men defined by its characters’ reinvigorated pursuit of success, the suicide of Lane Pryce was a stark reminder of the human toll of that pursuit. Desperate Lane, who embezzled from the company and then couldn’t talk his way out of the consequences when confronted by Don—he had no intention of going back to England, tail between his legs, and dignity didn’t allow him to tell his wife what he’d done. “Think of an elegant exit,” Don tells him in their showdown. He does. But then the one thing that might have given him a final moment of happiness—a poetic, peaceful death in the bosom of a sports car—just turns to crap.

The moment is a perfect Mad Men one: Shocking on a plot level, carefully laid-out by the writers (who called it “the most agonizing thing we’ve ever done” in Slate’s TV Club), rich with meaning, grimly funny. As viewers of TV dramas, we’re part angel, part executioner: Watching this moment in June, I found myself dreading Lane’s end but also gleefully anticipating the delicious shock of his death. When it became clear that he wouldn’t die in that car, the admixture of relief and disappointment I felt was unique, I think, to the audience—the victims?—of great storytelling.

Of course the Jaguar won’t start—it’s because of things like Jaguars not starting that Don wants Chevy, not Jaguar; Firestone, not Dunlop. His reignited fire is part of the reason that he wouldn’t cut Lane any slack when he found out about his deception. Salvation for Lane is short-lived, however. This is the last time we’ll see him alive: one glasses lens held up to his eye, peering bewildered into the Jaguar’s hood. After this it’s just the grim task of cutting down his ghastly, hanged corpse from the office door.