Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Mad Men - Season 4 Episode 7: "The Suitcase"

Peggy: “It's personal.”
Don: “We have personal conversations.”
Peggy: “No we don't. And I think you like it that way. I know I do.”

First off, before I say anything else, I have to give credit to Matthew Weiner for his great writing on this episode, and to both Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss for turning in, potentially, their best performances to date. With lesser actors, this episode might have fallen apart, but those two were up to the task. The result is the most emotional, and probably best overall, Mad Men episode so far this season.

Your take on this episode will probably depend on how you read two key moments: Anna Draper's spectral appearance at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and the squeeze Don gives Peggy's hand in the final scene. It's hard to say whether Don's vision of Anna is meant to be a legitimate ghost sighting -- as Anna had likely died by the time she materialized in Don's office -- or a product of too much booze and guilt. The suitcase she held would seem to imply the latter, linking as it does with an anecdote Don tells earlier in the episode:

"My uncle Mac said he had a suitcase that was always packed. He said 'A man has to be ready to go at any moment.' Jesus, maybe it's a metaphor..."

Naturally, a ghost dreamed up by Don would bear the same metaphorical baggage. Either way, she certainly seemed happy to see Don with Peggy. Her smile felt like a blessing, or a passing of the torch, with Peggy perhaps becoming Don's new confidant -- or more, if you read that hand-squeeze as something more than a deeply-felt thank you. But we'll get back to that in a bit.

"The Suitcase" plays with a number of this season's recurring themes. The "what we want/what's expected of us" dynamic shows up in the expectations tied to Peggy's birthday. Receptionist Megan tells her "Well, you're doing that right, aren't you?" upon hearing that Mark wants to take Peggy to the ultra-expensive Forum of the Twelve Caesars for her birthday. Trudy Campbell, meanwhile, tells Peggy that "Twenty-six is still very young," with the obvious implication being "You still have time to marry and have a child, just like me!" Even Mark expects more of the relationship, thinking that he can score points by bringing her family along. And most of the SCDP staff thinks Peggy slept with Don to get her job, expecting that she would want to do so. But none of these people know what Peggy REALLY wants, which seems to be recognition for her work, and Don Draper's gratitude.

Meanwhile, Don's slide into being old-fashioned -- and his struggle against it -- also makes an appearance. Much of the episode is centered around the second fight between the boxer formerly known as Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston. Don bets on Liston, mostly because he doesn't like or understand the cocky, young Muhammad Ali and needs Peggy to explain the appeal. Similarly, he underestimates the popularity of the equally cocky and young Joe Namath, rejecting the gang's idea to get Namath to endorse Samsonite. Don is overly picky about the Samsonite account, always seeking to top himself in order to remain relevant.

The last, and most relevant, recurring theme is the instability of identity, and the isolation these fabricated identities force our characters to endure. Don's outlet, the "only person in the world" who really knows him, has died. He's got no real friends and nothing other than work and the bottle to take his mind off of his misery, guilt, and self-loathing. On the other hand, Peggy doesn't really have anyone who really knows her. Neither her family, nor her boyfriend, nor her juvenile colleagues in the creative department, know a thing about what she's been through, and she could never tell them. And of course, the parallels between Peggy and Don have always existed, so it makes sense that they would take steps -- both tentative and bold -- towards becoming outlets for each other.

The episode, mostly playing out over one work day and the subsequent long night, takes Peggy and Don on quite a journey together, one that zigs and zags in directions that we, as viewers, would never be able to predict. In the last episode's recap, I talked a bit about how Don treats Peggy almost like a daughter or a student, and early in this episode, Peggy talks back and overreacts just like a daughter. Later, she ranges from shunning him (while, importantly, still not leaving the office) to laughing with him over the discovery of Roger's dictaphoned book sessions, to taking care of him in his drunken, beaten state. Through their arguments and frank discussion, they air basically all of their grievances and seem to reach an understanding by the end, an understanding that, while they both deny it, they both NEED someone with whom to have "personal conversations."

But while Peggy is like Don, we get a couple of reminders that she's not yet at his level. Don himself tells her she shouldn't be so protective of her ideas just "two years into your career," and that she's got to earn her place the same way he did before she gets recognition. And, in the episode's final scene, a disheveled Peggy checks on Don in his office, only to discover him looking as clean, fresh, and put-together as usual. If she's going to live this lifestyle, she's going to have to learn to maintain her public face at all times. But now that she's had a peek behind Don's mask, seeing the real, emotional, suffering man beneath, she's got an increased understanding of what it takes to be like him.

More than most other shows, Mad Men is almost entirely character-based. That's why episodes like this one, mostly consisting of characters talking to each other, feel so rewarding here. There's no need for huge action or major events. Tiny moments, like Peggy's admission that she thinks about her child near playgrounds, or Don squeezing Peggy's hand, do far more in character terms than any big plot developments. And even when things look like they'll turn "big," such as the drunken brawl between Don and Duck, the character implications mean far more than the action itself. Duck bests Don, making him cry "uncle" and asking "You still think you're better than me?" as a dejected Don wanders off. But the important thing, here, is that Don starts the fight in an attempt to defend Peggy, who finally realizes that Don truly does care for her. For Don, the fight represents his lowest point, and he probably needed something like that -- and Peggy's subsequent admonition, "How long are you going to go on like this?" -- to see what he had become.

Back to that hand-squeeze, for a moment: There will definitely be some who will wonder if it portends some romantic development between the two. My gut instinct is to say no, but then again, the shot did center on a ring on Peggy's finger, so who can say for sure? For now, I read the squeeze (and accompanying knowing glance) almost as a secret handshake, a sort of small, thankful indication of the personal bond these two professionals now share. I do hope they continue to trust and invest in one another, and that the episode's last exchange (Peggy asks, "Open or closed?" and Don replies, "Open.") is about more than Don's office door.

Notes and Quotes

  • Roger's book is titled Sterling's Gold. Now there's a merchandising tie-in I could get behind! I, for one, would love more stories about young Roger's adventures with "the Queen of Perversions," Ida Blankenship!
  • Other Rogerisms this week:
    • "Then there's all the talk about drinking, where they start with the funny stories and they end up crying..."
    • "I'm gonna count to three, then I'm gonna start saying a lot of words you don't like, sweetheart."
    • "And they're self-so-righteous. I never pissed MY pants! And this guy Rutledge killed a man with a motor-boat! You know what gets you over something like that? DRINKING."
  • And, not to be outdone, Miss Blankenship's take on the big fight: "I dunno why everyone cares so much about it. If I wanted to see two negroes fight, I'd throw a dollar bill out my window."
  • I really liked the scenes involving the new "team" at SCDP. Danny Strong fits in very well, even if his character is terrible at his job, and even Rizzo was somewhat less odious this week.
  • Joey, to Danny: "I don't know what it is, but I look at the side of your neck, and I wish I had one of those James Bond pens so I could jam a dart in it."
  • I WAS a fan of Joey, but his attitude towards Joan might change that. If he's going to keep taking shots at her, he'd better hope (for the sake of the back of his head) that there aren't any vases around...
  • Allison Brie is an inveterate scene-stealer as the goofy, bubbly Trudy Campbell: "I want a rare steak, and I wanna see those two men pound each other!"
  • I can't help but feel bad for poor Duck. I don't think things will end well for him.
Anyway, time for me to go pack up my suitcase, just in case! I'll be back next week with another recap for you, though the timing may be off slightly depending on travel plans. Til then!

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