Mad Men will begin airing its final episodes on April 5th. Both of us Beans have been fans of the series since it premiered way back in 2007, so we’re going to re-watch one season per week before the final season begins. Each of us will put together their own reflection about what makes each season special, and what aspects stick out on the umpteenth viewing.
The 4th season of Mad Men is terrific. The shakeup at the end of last season gives the series a shot of energy as new characters and setting propel us through the middle of the 60’s. But we’re going to ignore almost all of that and focus on just one episode: “The Suitcase.” In the whole run of the series there may not be a better episode than “The Suitcase,” so we’re honing in exclusively on that. I’ll quote the Wikipedia article for a quick plot summary: “The episode focuses almost entirely on the characters of Don Draper and Peggy Olson. A deadline is looming over a campaign for the suitcase manufacturer Samsonite. As the rest of the office leaves to follow the May 25, 1965, Ali vs. Liston fight, Don makes Peggy stay behind to work on ideas.” So, Becky, I know this episode has always been one of your favorites. What leaps out and makes it so special?
I’ve always felt that Mad Men is fantastic at slowly evolving its characters and story lines, instead of using splashy soap-style storytelling. “The Suitcase” is a great example of this slower story telling. Even though most of the episode revolves around Don and Peggy trying to come up with ideas for an ad, that is just the means for gaining insight into these two characters. In this episode, we fully see the care Don has for Peggy and everything that the two of them have been through together. Peggy’s pregnancy is brought up when they share a meal at a greasy spoon. The painting behind their table is of classical ruins, recalling Don’s trip to Rome. And then Duck shows up, to remind us that these two, despite their similarities, can treat people very differently.
Despite that, “The Suitcase” lets us into their relationship in ways that the show usually doesn’t allow. The spend this night together in the office because they are trying to avoid parts of their lives that they are not content with. It is Peggy’s birthday, but she spends it with her boss, and not her boyfriend or family. Don gets a call from California and knows that it means a loved one has passed away. But instead of calling her relatives in California, he passes the time diving into the Samsonite ad with Peggy. They find solace in each other.
One thing that I’ve always wondered is what Don saw in Peggy, his onetime secretary. He promotes her to copy writer and nurtures her career for years, yet it doesn’t seem like he has ever stuck his neck out for anyone else in the office. What do you think was their connection originally?
Secrets and striving. Which sounds so dark! But there we are. I don’t think Don and Peggy have a true bond until he finds her in the hospital after she gives birth and tells her “…listen to me, get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” At the very core, that is Don’s credo and it’s what gets Peggy back on her feet. From that point on, Don knows her secret and she slowly gets closer to his. What’s so surprising (and non-soapy) is that Peggy has not actually discovered Don’s past, but is instead witness when the emotions that are wrapped up in that past come pouring forth here.
The sequence where that happens in “The Suitcase” is astonishing, even after watching it many times now. Don keeps putting off the call to California that will confirm the death of Anna, the widow of the first Donald Draper. In Don’s words she was “The only person in the world who really knew me.” The “me” is Dick Whitman. That abused and neglected bastard child who ran away from Pennsylvania and died in Korea, but found a new life with another man’s name. Anna was the first person to see the new Don, and the only one who had a choice in accepting the transition from Dick to Don. With her and the family life he built with Betty in shambles, it must feel like the whole world Don has constructed is all but gone. The tears that pour out of Don are as gut-wrenching as Peggy’s support and tenderness in that moment is touching.
Becky, I think it’s significant that the episode doesn’t end with Don and Peggy sharing a night of deep catharsis, but rather in the morning after. What’s that mean to you?
Before I respond, it’s so interesting that Don doesn’t tell Peggy his real background. He’s at such a low and still has the self-control not to let the mask slip too far. It’s such a telling character moment.
Anyway, I think that getting to the next morning is really key to the striving part of what you mentioned earlier. Don and Peggy are not characters who give up or wallow. If the show had left them in that low moment it would have been an incomplete arc. We need to see them waking up, getting it together, and going back to work. It’s also hilarious to see how much better at that process Don is. When Peggy leaves him around dawn he is a disheveled and teary-eyed mess. Credit to his long history of late nights and philandering, because he looks like nothing has happened by 9 A.M. By contrast, Peggy looks like a walking disaster in her rumpled clothing and post-nap hair. She may have bought into Don’s credo, but she hasn’t figured out how to live it yet. Maybe next season?