'Mad Men' Season 4, Episode 7 Recap
"You know what? There's a way out of this room we don't know about."
In Sunday's terrific 'Mad Men' episode, 'The Suitcase,' Don Draper said that about a rodent in his office. But he might as well have been talking about himself.
The episode was one of the series' best hours and a sensational acting showcase for Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss.
If anything, 'The Suitcase' made the case even more strongly that, as I wrote last week, this is the best season of 'Mad Men' yet.
In Sunday's episode, Don tries to escape from the pain of Anna's imminent death. He doesn't go to the prizefight broadcast, knowing he shouldn't be that far away from the phone (a phone he doesn't want to pick up). He makes Peggy stay late and takes his emotional turmoil out on her. He drinks gallons of alcohol but it's increasingly hard to blunt the impact of the dread and agony he feels.
Don finds that the only way out of the situation is through it -- through the grief that he can no longer fight off. And when the pain finally hits him like a tidal wave, he is not alone. That may be the most significant thing about not just the episode but about Don's adult life.
Don has opened up to people before, but they were people safely locked away in separate compartments. Rachel was a mistress who didn't travel much in his workplace orbit. Midge got to see a more relaxed side of him but never really was allowed into his world. Betty found out his truths, the bare facts of them anyway, but wasn't that interested in getting to know his difficult history. Anna knew him intimately but was thousands of miles away.
But when he sobbed like a child at the news of Anna's death, Peggy was in the room. He actually let someone in on his pain, someone who's known him for years, someone who's seen many sides of him, good and bad. Earlier, Peggy even got bits and pieces of his Dick Whitman history -- a history he no longer goes to great lengths to hide.
He called Anna "the only person in the world who really knew" him, but Don had to know that wasn't true -- in that moment, Peggy knew him more deeply than any woman aside from Anna had. He may have thought she was asleep, but the fact that he wanted her there all night, to be his friend when he needed one, was a massive step forward.
Peggy did not turn away -- she comforted him, she stayed at the office for him. And we had a lovely callback to the first episode of season 1, when Peggy the rookie, unsure of what Don expected of his secretaries, put her hand on his. If he'd taken her hand and more back then, that would have been unfair, it would have been Don taking advantage of an underling (a mistake he made with Allison).
But in this episode, he took the hand of a good friend and a trusted co-worker. In his own halting way, he recognized her worth and value, and that was far more valuable to Peggy than Duck's dependence or the stability Mark offered. Don may have lost Anna, but he still has someone in his life who knows him and loves him despite his flaws. Peggy may have given up her fiance, but her best qualities are appreciated by the only man who's ever understood what drives her. Peggy and Don both emerge from the experiences of that pivotal 24-hour period better off.
He's spun out of control for much of this season, and in last week's episode, he may well have hit bottom (A drunken, rambling pitch? A waitress named Doris? Losing entire days? Those are some serious low points). But the fact that Don is able to open up means that he may survive -- not just the Sixties, but his life.
It's appropriate that the advertising story line of the week revolved around luggage, and that Anna appeared with a suitcase in her hand. Don's in the process of trying to leave baggage behind, and one of the legacies of his past is reticence, a reflexive need to wall himself off from others and nurse his wounds in private.
The generations coming up after him don't understand that approach to life, and as the vision of a beaming Anna retreated, perhaps Don finally put down his own baggage. The man whose suitcase had always been packed was ready to stay put. Maybe he's ready to be Dick Whitman, or a mixture of Don and Dick. As Don laid his head on Peggy's lap (which he did with Allison, before he took things too far with her), he's able to recognize that all he wants is emotional intimacy and comfort. And he gets it from the right person.
Hamm and Moss are so shockingly good on a consistent basis that it's entirely possible to take their skills for granted. But we shouldn't. We should review the many different tones and moods they had to create.
'Mad Men' is a show stacked with many different levels in almost every scene, and Hamm somehow nails all of them. That could be a purely technical exercise, but through it all, you never forget that Don is essentially an emotional creature -- but who has, through painful experience, learned to shut away his true self away most of the time.
This time, he couldn't repress what he was going through, and Hamm was spectacularly moving in the way that he portrayed Don's pain. When a well-meaning Stephanie uttered the cliche that Anna was "in a better place," the way Don's face convulsed was heartbreaking. "That's what they say," he finally responded, but his face said everything -- that such phrases don't help when your soul is breaking apart.
in the course of the hour, Peggy cycled through resentment at her tough boss, anger at her fiance's "surprise," irritation at her mother's melodramatic declarations, easy friendship with Don, flummoxed alarm at Duck's appearance, caretaking duties with both Don and Duck, as well as a wistful sadness at the recollection of the child she gave away. With one word -- "playgrounds" -- we understood the pain that Peggy has kept private all these years.
Many times in this episode and this season, Peggy has had to make choices between her career and other aspects of her life. She seems forever poised at the elevator, torn between groups, trying to figure out whether to take her coat off or put it on. And it can't help to have a perky Trudy tell her that at 26, Peggy is "still very young," which probably wasn't meant as a dig at Peggy's unmarried status but served as another reminder of how isolated she is as career-oriented woman over 25.
Peggy's in as much flux as Don, but with less guidance, and sometimes it's all just too much. In another callback to season 1, when she resisted the urge to be the girl who cries at work, Peggy actually wept in the bathroom. Don is a tough boss, but the more she hangs in there despite his anger and attempts to driver her away, the more she appears to be his heir apparent. They both have the kind of tenacity and creativity that find their best expression at work. They're two of a kind.
But when the time came for compassion, Peggy knew exactly what to say to Don. She knew when to leave him alone -- but she also knew not to go far. Moss had to be forceful in the episode's earlier scenes yet utterly subtle and quiet in the later ones. Like Hamm, she has complete mastery of timing and an amazing ability to modulate every one of Peggy's moods to make it all hang together seamlessly.
Don was understandably shocked to find out that she'd had an affair with Duck, but one of the things that made this episode truly great was the way that many truths came out into the open. 'Mad Men' has been very well paced this season, sprinkling in just the right amounts of setup material, character development and forward plot movement. But every so often, the show unleashes an episode like this, in which the focus comes down to a few people and many cards are put on the table. As I wrote last week, the richness derives from the amount of history these people have, which gives their every encounter and discovery layers of meaning and import.
To see Don and Peggy come out and openly argue about many issues that had been percolating between them for ages was magnificent. It was a cross between a prizefight and 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,' and it also reminded me of the 'Breaking Bad' episode 'The Fly,' another episode that basically consisted of two people talking in a room. But that can be transfixing when those two people are wonderfully nuanced characters arguing, sharing truths and revealing secrets.
There were many fights this episode -- the Muhammed Ali-Sonny Liston bout, the sloppy brawl between Duck and Don, the donnybrook between Peggy and her fiance, the internal battle between Don's desire to know about Anna's condition and his desire to block out the truth. But the most riveting battle was between Don and Peggy as they argued about who got credit for Glo-Coat, who was more valuable, who should be recognized, who needed whom. Don wants Peggy to be like Sonny Liston -- to do her work methodically and not cultivate the spotlight, not bask in attention, as Ali did.
But Ali was the victor in that famous (and controversial) fight with Liston. Ali may have been cocky and full of himself, but he delivered the goods. So can Peggy. And as much as Don promotes the idea that underlings should be egoless about their work, he has an ego himself. He loves recognition (from the Clios and even from Peggy). And the mindset of 1960 -- that people should do what they're told and never speak up -- is going out of fashion very quickly.
Don isn't just sensing that change, he's living it. As the cultural and social barriers are relaxing all around him, the barriers between Don and Dick are falling away. The walls he's kept up around his inner self and his deepest secrets are coming down. There was one wall left between him and Peggy, who's in the office next door, but even that came down, figuratively speaking.
There's no guarantee that, next week, Don won't yell at Peggy or rip apart someone's ideas or be a cad to a woman. He's not perfect, and he still has a long way to go.
But like the mouse, he may have found a way out of the room he'd been trapped in.
A few final bullet points:
* Just how much hilarity do those 'Sterling's Gold' tapes contain? If the entire hour had consisted of listening to Roger talk about Bert Cooper's unfortunate surgery and Miss Blankenship, office temptress, it would have been an hour very well spent. Every single thing about those Roger tapes is comedy gold and I very much hope we keep revisiting Roger's memoirs. Oh Roger. The man with no baggage but a full highball glass.
* Best Roger lines: "You know what gets you over something like that? Drinking!" "Lyle Evans, M.D. I think he had him killed."
* The master-student relationship between Don and Peggy was still very much in flux, given that Don wanted Peggy's approval and she critiqued his work as an equal would.
* "The fact that you would stay there ... " Peggy can't respect Mark for not having the self-respect to leave the restaurant. And though she accused him of being manipulative, she herself tried to manipulate Don and make him feel bad about her missed date and breakup, but that gambit went spectacularly awry; he soon launched into a tirade about her resentment and desire for credit. As she left his office, ready to cry, he called after her weakly, "Sorry about your boyfriend!"
* Credit where it's due: Pete and Danny, among others, thought Ali would win the fight.
* I kept waiting for Don and Peggy to hit on the idea of having a gorilla stomp on a Samsonite bag, but that ad didn't come out until 1970 and it was actually for American Tourister (which was not acquired by the company that owned Samsonite until the '90s).
* Thanks to the wide range of tones and settings, "The Suitcase" didn't feel static. There were other bits and pieces sprinkled in here and there: Peggy's relationship with Stan, the art director she tamed with nudity, appeared to be much improved; Joey actually stood up to Joan (which he may come to regret); and there was the briskness of the failed Samsonite pitch and the relaxed scenes in the diner and bar. For an episode intently focused on two characters, one of whom was facing down a wrenching crisis, the episode didn't feel cramped and airless. It was a brilliant character study and, like a good novel or short story, took you on a satisfying journey with characters whose lives and dilemmas seem absolutely real.
* "Why is there a dog in the Acropolis?"
* I cannot get the idea of Ida Blankenship, Queen of Perversions, out of my mind.
'Mad Men' airs Sundays at 10PM ET on AMC.
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