Monday, September 06, 2010

Mad Men: The Suitcase

I apologize that I haven't had a chance to blog on much of this season of Mad Men. But last night's episode was extraordinary, and I simply had to say something about it.

"The Suitcase" is basically a set piece, almost like a play featuring Don Draper and Peggy Olsen, with all of the other characters just playing the chorus, moving in and out of the action while never being a focus. The way Weiner played with these two, moving them like chess pieces back and forth across the board throughout the episode, was incredible.

At the beginning, Peggy and the three dunderheads she now has to tolerate in the copy writing room put on a ridiculous (but hilarious) performance of the Samsonite commercial they want to do. Peggy never really seems to have her heart in it, and Don can tell. Half-drunk and generally falling apart, he bites her head off and tells her to go back to the drawing board. Most of his actions in the ep are driven by the fact that he's received a phone call from Stephanie, Anne Draper's niece, and he knows what the call is about -- Anne has cancer, and she's probably just died. He can't bring himself to make the call, because he can't handle actually hearing the words that this woman -- the only woman who truly knows him, as he'll later say -- could be gone. He's been hanging by a thread for most of the season, and the only time he seemed like himself was when he was with her and being, well, himself: Dick Whitman.

And so he takes out his frustrations on Peggy. It's Peggy's birthday, and she has a date with her wiener of a boyfriend (who played Karl on Lost, he of the Room 23 brainwashing scene), who, unbeknownst to her, has arranged the dinner with all of her loathsome family. Don keeps her after work, and in between dealing with Don's drunken rages, Peggy continually calls her boyfriend at the restaurant to keep telling him she'll be a bit later. To every viewer's relief, he eventually blows up at her and breaks up with her over the phone (he's the Joe Jonas of his time!!) and Peggy wanders back to Don's office, where he finally shuts up for once when he sees her misery. Though... that doesn't stop him from telling her off for being a big suck on her birthday. Don hits a new low in this episode -- the difference is, this time he KNOWS it.

There are many parallels drawn between the Peggy and Don relationship: Don giggles hysterically as he listens to Roger's tapes of his autobiography, where Roger talks about playing second fiddle to Bert Cooper and worrying that Bert won't think he's good enough. Just as Roger had to pander to Bert, Don had to suck up to Roger, and now Peggy finds herself in the same position, trying to win Don's praise. But unlike all of the men, Peggy won't compromise who she is, and never changes: She stands before Don in this episode and finally tells him what she thinks of him taking the glory for the Glo-Coat commercial that she'd come up with. She reminds him of the many good ideas she's had along the way. She knows that she owes Don -- he took a chance on her, and on a personal level, he was the guy who came to her in the hospital right after she'd had a baby and suffered a mental breakdown -- but she's done owing him. When he finally shapes up and takes her to a Greek restaurant, where they sit under a painting and talk about travel, they sit across the table as equals, not one person battling the other. There's no hierarchy or rivalry in this scene.

From there they go to a bar, where Peggy -- unlike all of the guys at Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce -- does NOT get drunk, and they listen to the Liston-Clay fight that ended less than 2 minutes after it began. Cassius Clay would become Muhammad Ali, and he trounced Sonny Liston. He was the one no one saw coming (even Don bet $100 on Liston). Similarly, throughout this season we've watched the great, unstoppable Don Draper fall time after time, and he's becoming as useless as Roger on the job. How can this be the same guy who did the monologue about the Kodak carousel at the end of season 1?

Broken by his failed marriage, his wife and kids, his stressful job, and younger people who are doing their jobs better than he can, Don has found solace at the bottom of a bottle (well, and between the legs of just about every woman he sees). He's destroying himself, and just as Peggy was picked up at her lowest point by Don, here she sits and talks to him, and finally tells him what he's doing to himself. He tells her about the dreaded phone call, and falls apart. She holds his hat while he vomits into the toilet, and she strokes his hair as he falls crying into her lap. Don couldn't be alone on this difficult evening, and it's important that Peggy is the one he's with.

When Duck Phillips stumbles into the offices to leave a "gift" for Don, Peggy's fling with him is now apparent to Don, but considering many of his past transgressions, he can't judge Peggy for what she did, and he doesn't. He waves it off, she gets rid of Duck, and we know that Peggy won't go with Duck to the new firm -- she's smarter than that.

The next morning, Don gets up and finally finds the nerve to make that fateful phone call, only to find out it's worse than we thought -- Stephanie wasn't calling to say Anne was dead, but that she was at death's door, and wanted to talk to Don. He missed his opportunity, and now she's gone. His fear and self-destruction kept him from his last conversation with Anne (which probably wouldn't have been a good one, but it would have been something). The moment she died, however, he had awakened in his office with a vision of her, holding that Samsonite suitcase and waving goodbye as she left on her exciting new journey. Peggy had pitched an idea of Samsonite being the ultimate case you take with you wherever you go, but Don didn't like it.

The next day, disheveled and tired, Don and Peggy awake in the office. He shows her the ad that he'd come up with that mirrors the Liston/Clay fight, and Peggy begins to question his work the same way he does hers. He takes offense in much the same way, and she waves it off, saying she's just tired and tells him it's very, very good. Just before she leaves to go home and get cleaned up, Don takes her hand and holds it. They gaze at each other for a long time, and Peggy leaves. She'll return a couple of hours later, and it'll be business as usual at the firm as far as everyone else is concerned. But what happened that night was monumental. Don was K.O.'d, but Peggy helped him back up. The relationship between the two has changed, and perhaps they can move forward more as equals, rather than the traditional ageing boozehound and the young upstart who's out to push him to the side.

"The Suitcase" was a phenomenal episode, and one of my favourite hours of television of the year.


Colleen/redeem147 said...

I just watched it On Demand (I think I missed it last night because I thought today was Sunday - silly long weekend) and I was thinking the same thing - what an extraordinary episode.

I think Don and Peggy have a brother/sister vibe and I like it.

There was that moment with what I'm sure was a ghost that seems genre yet universal - I had a similar moment the night before my grandmother died.

Wonderful stuff, and as much as I love Lost, I never quibble when Mad Men wins the Emmy. Every episode is like a finely cut gem, but this one was a diamond.

margosita said...

I think you are spot on with most of this. There are also some great moments that recall earlier seasons. When Peggy goes to the bathroom and cries it is just like the beginning of the series, when she goes into the bathroom and sees another girl crying and decides to toughen up. But what has all her toughness gotten her? It's taken her far, but she is still fighting with Don. And in this episode she has to renegotiate and redefine herself again. It's a testament to how different she is than some of the men in her office that she is able to continually do so.

Also, when Peggy wakes up disheveled, Don is already clean and fresh. Peggy even comments on this. and for a moment it's as if it is back to business as usual. Don gets personal during a drunken night but in the bright light of day he puts on a new shirt as if nothing ever happened. But he invites Peggy around to show her his work. Because they are colleagues, more than anything else. And then he puts his hand over hers, just like she once put her hand over his. But when she did it, in season one, it was out of confusion and because she thought it would help her. But now it is a sign of friendship and an acknowledgment of what happened between them. I think Don and Peggy are the only real friends that we've seen on the show, with the complicated exception of Don and Anna.

I also think it's important that Peggy is the one Don looks up and sees when he thinks everything is lost. He thinks he is alone, he thinks he needs drinks to get through it, but Peggy reminds him that there is another way.

And god, that door open line at the end. Killer.

Andy said...

Mad Men is next on my list of shows to start watching or catch up on. I was behind on LOST (watched all 3 seasons two months before 4th started) and just now watching Friday Night Lights Season 1 (but probably won't finish before Season 5 begins this fall)...Really good post. I'm intrigued even more about this show.

JS said...

I loved this episode too. I was worried that it would somehow become romantic. Not only do these two need a friend more than a lover, they need each other as friends, the only other person (and oponion) they respect.

I thought Don was right that if she wanted to go she should have said something; but like other super ambitious people, she chose work.

And of course Don is a hold out, continuing to call him Clay, after he has changed his name to Ali.

Edna's a hellcat! Cooper has no balls! Sterling is writing a book!!

Roger - "they are self so righteous". Great!

Fiveagainst said...

I couldn't help but feel that when Don was yelling at the radio for Liston to get up...he was really yelling at himself to pull up his socks and get out of his depression.

Great episode, I agree. I hope that Don makes a turn around before the end of the season, I can't stand seeing him so down and out.

David said...

Wow, I just watched this episode and it is amazing, probably the best of the series! One odd thing, when Don called Stephanie, Stephanie answers, 'She's gone'...Don says, 'I know', obviously remembering the vision he had during the night of Anne in the office. Don then asks if Anne had wanted to talk to him, but Stephanie says 'She wasn't really there.' So, was this an alternate scene to what you saw Nikki? It made sense I suppose as Anne always seemed to not want to burden Don/Dick and did so right up to the end. He cries pretty hard after hanging up for the reason he states about Anne being the only person that really knew him, but also I think because he realizes no one really needs him anymore...if Peggy had not been there in that moment, Don may have dove out his window....Great episode!

Nikki Stafford said...

David: That is the same scene I saw. Stephanie means she wasn't really there mentally, but there's also something in her voice suggesting she was making an excuse to make Don feel better. When we first see the note, I took it to mean she was already dead, but when Don calls it sounds like she died only a few hours earlier, and would have still been alive if Don had called earlier.

And yes, you're spot-on in your comments that no one needs him. Especially when he says, "I'll come out and deal with everything" and realizes that everything's been dealt with and there's nothing more needed from him in that world. It's a devastating conversation.

Anonymous said...

It was hard to pay attention to what anyone said once Don had that vomit-splash on his shirt.

-Tim Alan

David said...

Nikki: Now I get it! I watched the scene again from the perspective you mentioned and I see it now. Thanks for leading me through the darkness...I guess I am rusty picking up on things now that Lost has ended. =(

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Batcabbage said...

I'm a week late on this, but I've just finished the episode, and wow. It's my favourite of the entire series so far, if not the entire run of the show. Jon Hamm was brilliant, I had tears in my eyes when he broke down. Matter of fact, I think that this episode featured the best performances this show has ever seen, and the best in any series I've seen in a long time. I love it. Nik, your description of the episode as a play was spot on, it was an episode that you couldn't look away from, and I loved every minute of it. I so hope that this show doesn't go the way of almost every show I fall in love with (I'm still mourning Deadwood and Carnivale), because I could watch quality television like this for years (and I probably will, over, and over, and over). Please, Nik, keep the great posts for different shows coming. The Mad Men posts are great, I'm REALLY looking forward to the S3 Fringe posts (and to know what you thought of season 2), and I'm hoping that you might start blogging about Supernatural Season 6. Perhaps Dexter as well? Hell, whatever you blog on, I'm gonna read it. :)