6
Sep
2010
Mad Men: Season 4, Episode 7
The Suitcase
Jordan
To begin with, I should say that "The Suitcase" is definitely one of the five or so best episodes of Mad Men the show has yet produced, and may even come to be my favorite over the many, many times I will view it in the days to come (I have already watched it twice, which I have never done before writing the review in the past). The writing is pretty much perfect, its excellently directed, and Jon Hamm and Elisabeth moss turn in performances that will almost surely win both Emmys next year (especially since Bryan Cranston won't be eligible, due to the late start of Breaking Bad, which hurts me inside). "The Suitcase" is also an off-format episode of Mad Men, if the term even applies to a show that so avoids serialization; it takes place almost entirely in the office, focuses so heavily on Peggy and Don that all other characters exist only in service to the study of those two characters, and plays more like a play than an episode of television. The episode is divided into four segments, really, and to make the task of tackling what will probably be my favorite episode of any tv series this year (though Breaking Bad has some contenders, and the fall may hold some surprises) a little more manageable, I will approach my discussion in the same way.

The first portion of the episode sets the stage for what's to come, giving us an idea of where both Peggy and Don are going in to the night that takes up most of the running time. Peggy is dealing with the frat-boys she is forced to work with every day, trying to come up with a pitch for Samsonite and hoping to brainstorm something that will keep Don from degrading her like he usually does. Its also her birthday, which is a mixed blessing. As nameless attractive secretary points out in the bathroom, Peggy has done a lot for her age, especially considering she's a woman in the '60s; yet only moments later a pregnant and happily married Trudy Campbell walks in and reminds Peggy of the other side of the coin. Peggy has achieved much professional success (even though Don undercuts her achievements at every turn), yet her personal life is not where she wants it to be. When Trudy tells her that 26 is still very young, she means it to sound as passive aggressive as it does, but she probably doesn't realize how close to home her comment strikes. The point is driven home even further as Peggy delays meeting Mark (and, initially unbeknownst to her, her entire family) for dinner to brainstorm Samsonite with Don. All of that lets us know Peggy's complex emotional state very quickly; In Don's case, all we have to hear is, "A call came in from California. Stephanie, no last name. She says its urgent" and we know exactly where Don is emotionally.

The second portion of the episode is a bit of an antagonistic dance between Don and Peggy, as he abuses her even more than usual, and she for once refuses to take his insults and engages him directly. Peggy points out that Don is ruining her plans and Don mocks even the idea that he should feel sympathy. She then reminds him its his birthday, and he scoffs at the notion that he should have any idea when that is, even telling her, "You're twenty...something years old. Its time to get over birthdays!" Peggy continually feels like Don does not appreciate her contributions, and his comments cut her to the core. She rages back at him, bringing up the Clio he won for what she thinks was her idea (though from what we've heard, it sounds like Don made enough changes that it wasn't really Peggy's, at least not fully), and yelling, "You never say thank you!" to which Don harshly replies, "That's what the money is for!" All of this tension has been building between the two for years now, as Don pushes Peggy to work harder than everyone else, mostly through cruelty and dismissiveness, and Peggy works as hard as she can, mostly for Don's approval. This struggle between the two has been subtext as far back as season one, but "The Suitcase" makes it text. That would be enough to make a great episode, but there are still two segments left in this story.

After Peggy leaves Don's office in tears, the two continue working separately, Peggy having broken up with Mark to stay in the office, and Don having nowhere else he'd rather be. After the fight they have just had, it would make perfect sense for a rift to separate the two, yet when Don discover's a tape of Roger dictating Sterling's Gold, his autobiography, the two are bonded by the realizations that Roger slept with Blankenship (who he calls "The Queen of Perversions"), that Cooper lost his testicles in his prime (which, to my mind, explains a lot), and that Roger is writing an autobiography, despite having done basically nothing. The absurdity of these revelations quickly smooths over the tension between the two, and Don takes Peggy out for dinner and drinks. This is the segment that's the real game changer, as Don and Peggy finally engage on a personal level, after years of building a professional relationship that each insisted remained that way. The relationship between Don and Peggy is a fascinating, as they are probably the central male and female characters, and the show focuses often on their relationship, yet even the idea of a romance between the two is generally laughed off immediately (and thank God. The two are so much more interesting as they are). This episode deepens their bond beyond just professional respect, but it does not, to my mind, change the nature of that bond. It just allows each to share their secrets and their sense of loss with each other, as Don admits to growing up on a farm and to serving in Korea but never killing anyone, while Peggy admits to thinking about the child she gave up and feeling strange because she's single but not really focused on marriage like she is on work. The two also bond over the shared experience of watching someone die.

In fact, the spectre of death and aging hangs over the episode, from our knowledge early on that Anna is dead, to Peggy's recurrent fear that she is getting too old to be focused on career over personal life, to the discussion I just mentioned about the violence and trauma of watching someone die, and finally, when Don faces it directly (for a moment at least), when Duck pins him during their drunken brawl and mentions, threateningly, the 17 people he killed in Okinawa. And, in the background, the brutal violence of a boxing match preoccupies all of the other characters. Speaking of Duck (king of segues that I am), he and Anna serve similar purposes throughout this episode, reminding Peggy and Don of the people they were, the things they've tried to be, and the things they've given up to be who they are today. As the two spend their night together in the office, both Duck and Anna haunt them in a sense, but so does the Samsonite account, which on the surface appears to be just the Macguffin that allows for their lengthy interactions, but is in fact an essential piece of the episode. As Don points out, he had an uncle who always kept a packed suitcase around, ready to leave at any moment, and as Peggy mentions, she wants to travel, if only so she can take a plane for the first time. The two dance around one of the major themes of Mad Men, as does the account they spend the episode working on. The show, in a sense, is about the fact that life is always moving forward, forcing you to recreate yourself to fit the changing world around you and your changing place in that world. The characters at the center of Mad Men are caught in a moment of immense change and are struggling (and sometimes failing) to reinvent themselves for what's to come. The third segment of the episode ends with Don waking up, briefly, to see a spectral Anna walking in, suitcase in hand, smiling at him, then turning and walking away forever. I know this moment, translucent Anna and all, will be considered a flaw by some people, but personally I think it closes out Don and Peggy's night together perfectly. Anna looks at Don with Peggy and smiles before she leaves them together. She knows, as Peggy reassures Don the next morning, that Don has someone else who understands him now. And when Don, sobbing, explains to Peggy that the person who died was, "the only person who really knew me," her response, "that's not true" is believable and profoundly moving in large part because of what the two have just gone through together.

The final segment shows us the morning after, and allows us to see how things have subtly shifted since the night before. Peggy still has to deal with the frat boys, and still has to wonder if she'll ever settle down; Don has still lost perhaps the most important person to him (so far anyway). Yet before them is a winning Samsonite campaign (which, to my mind, is not better than the one Don rejected at the episode's opening, remniscient of his admission that the line between awful and great is a thin one), a bright new day that they can face fresh faced, and the fact that they can still adjust themselves to the world they live in now and prepare for the changes to come. Don has spent most of this season closing the world out and living in the past, with his heavy drinking, antique apartment, and feeble attempts at seduction. The last words of the episode change all that, as Peggy asks him "Open or closed?" and for the first time all season, Don responds "Open."

Grade: A

Notes:

-If an A+ was a reasonable grade, this episode would get one.

-This is also a very funny episode, which I mostly glossed over before. Here are some of the great moments:

-"If I wanted to see two negros fight I'd throw a dollar bill out my window." Blankenship hasn't gotten old yet...at least not as a throw away gag.

-"I wouldn't be good company anyway." "That's never bothered me before." Don and Roger's serious drinking has drawn them together, and gotten so out of hand that Roger thinks Don isn't coming because they won't be able to drink through dinner, and sneaks off to a bar to drink himself throughout.

-"Its an incredible feeling having this baby kick me." "Is it any different than living with Pete?"

-"This guy Rutledge killed a guy with a motorboat. You know what gets you over that? Drinking!"

-"As Danny would say, there's no use crying over fish in the sea."

-"There's a way out of this room we don't know about." That is a much more meaningful line than Don realizes when he discusses the mouse's disappearance. By episode's end, I would say he's found the other way out.

-"You'll find someone. you're cute as hell." That was very sweet, Don.

-"You don't want to start giving me morality lessons, do you? People do things." Don's life philosophy in three words.

-"She's in a better place." "That's what they say." One of several times in the episode where I wished I had the tear ducts to cry.
Tags: Mad Men
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