Mad Men, “The Suitcase”

I’ve been taking some much-needed R&R over the holiday weekend, a little rest up that included a television without AMC. But I couldn’t take it anymore when my Twitter feed completely blew up last night with hyperbolic praises for last night’s Mad Men. I didn’t read any reviews, but multiple folks were using phrases like “best ever,” “most powerful,” etc. and I just had to watch it this morning.

And really, all those statements I read last night on my Blackberry are true. “The Suitcase” is certainly the finest effort of an already great fourth season and definitely one of the series’ high-water marks. Unbelievable performances and sharp writing help make this episode, which is essentially a two-person play full of emotion, subtext and history. Despite my love for Mad Men as a series, I rarely find myself just itching to watch an episode again right as it ends the first time, but “The Suitcase” is absolutely that kind of episode.

Anyway, thematically this episode doesn’t beat us over the head like some other Mad Men efforts, but there’s definitely something here about letting people know you and the dangers that come with being open with someone, even if there’s a strong trust base. Don has been struggling all season with his lack of connection to anyone around him. Even when he was with Betty and their relationship was at his lowest point, he was still connected to her, if only by law. As Don Draper, he had Betty, he had the kids. And as Dick Whitman, he had Anna Draper, the only person who ever really knew him — supposedly. With all that basically gone, he’s been flailing around just trying to grab anything, whether it be a 20-something liberal hippie or the strong, mysterious type from the office. None of it’s worked, there’s been no connection. Meanwhile, Peggy’s been successful in making something of a connection with Mark, but it doesn’t seem as if it’s really been what she hoped for. So on Peggy’s 26th birthday, she’s trying to make that connection work while Don is lamenting accepting that it might never happen for him again because he knows that the phone call from California he missed said that Anna is now gone.

Put those two personalities and current states in various rooms together for nearly an entire episode, with their history and we have ourselves one hell of an episode. Separate, Don and Peggy have issues, big issues. But for reasons we’ve always known and they’ve always known but rarely talk about, Don and Peggy work well together, both as employee-employer and something more personal. Amid all the messy relationships with other people, the two of them have been through some seriously major moments together. Peggy has never slept with Don, but his visiting in the Dick persona when she was in a rough state after the pregnancy is certainly one of the most intimate moments Don has ever shared with a woman. In many ways, the first three seasons of the series have been priming these two characters for a serious relationship with one another, romantic or not. Don’s always been intrigued by the independent, complex women who make him think, but is scared to let them know who he really is. Peggy’s wiser and more intelligent than her age and has thus been looking for a relationship with older (Duck) and perhaps interesting (the journalist from earlier this season) who can appreciate that she’s a progressive who wants a career. Now, Don’s hit rock-bottom and Peggy is frustrated with her life, and the time they spend together in this episode getting out some of the things that have been bubbling in the subtext for years suggests that both are ready for something, whether it be romantic or not.

The wonderful thing about this episode is that instead of continuing to build up the workplace tension between Don and Peggy until some sort of blow-out near the episode’s end, it deals with that problem much earlier on so it can then transition into letting these characters really sit down with one another for the first time in ages, bonding over the ridiculousness of Roger’s book and Bert’s lack of testicles. It’s almost as if the major argument over Glo-Coat is a relief for both of them because they’re so hurt and upset over other things that there’s an additional layer of catharsis in yelling at the person who trust the most to take it and subsequently give it back to you. I think Don yells at Peggy because he knows she can take it and I think Peggy takes it because she knows where Don’s coming from, but they needed to have this argument. Sometimes, we just need to scream and be enraged and oftentimes the person we trust and believe in the most gets the raw end of said rage. When it’s all over, the fact that Peggy can let months of frustration (and perhaps a years-worth if we date back to last season before Don’s apology in the finale) go says something.

From there, Don and Peggy share a number of personal moments with one another, things they don’t share with anyone else, things they don’t want to share with anyone else. She can mention the baby, he can mention his father being killed by a horse. They can smirk about Peggy’s mom hating Don for coming to see her and pushing her to become this woman that she is in 1964. When Duck Phillips shows up to hilariously “leave a gift” and call Peggy a whore, Don can make a valiant attempt to protect his friend and her feelings (I’m guessing he also hates the word whore). When Peggy lets Don subsequently pass out on her lap instead of leaving him there to marinate in his own filth, she knows that it’s his way of fully letting his guard down. And of course, the hand grab. Oh boy, the hand grab. It’s a sign of a beautiful, effective series that a five-second, non-romantic handhold between the two main characters depicts years worth of emotions and history in just that short moment.

So as I said, both of these characters have been making choices and doing things that led to this exact moment. Don might just be ready to turn his life around after the tears and his drunken ghost vision of Anna, while Peggy has finally seen that this man she shares an odd connection with might be worth saving, might be worth fixing in a sense. I’m not sure Don is really on the right path just yet, but this night with Peggy and his subsequent open door is sure one hell of a start.

Other thoughts:

  • I’ve been thinking since I started this recap about what we’re supposed to take from the Samsonite and the conversations about strength and breaking them. In a way, the suitcase signifies the differences between Peggy and Don. She’s never been on a plane, he’s flown multiple times. Peggy wants to get away, and Don has been down the road too many times already. In another way, the suitcase represents the time the two of them spend together, as their night-long journey is something of a vacation and a refreshing, eye-opener to the lives they could have. But when the lights come back on in the office, that’s all over and it’s time to face the strange together, I guess.
  • Also obvious: Amazing work by Jon Hamm and Elizabeth Moss here, who should both submit this episode for next year’s Emmys. Matthew Weiner will probably win the writing award for this one, too.
  • Sterling’s Gold is the best title for a book that I’ve heard in a long time. AMC would be smart to follow ABC’s business model they have with Castle and actually publish that bad boy. Especially if it involves more stories about Bert Cooper’s secret surgeries. I wondered why the ice cream line from last week was in the “Previously On,” but I hope now that we get more and more of this memoirs each week.
  • No Betty this week, and again, she’s not missed. If Peggy’s going to be more involved with Don’s personal life, we really don’t need the former Mrs. Draper, right?
  • Poor Mark, he should have known better than to bring Peggy’s family into their already shaky relationship. Fool.

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