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May 19, 2016

The Suitcase


On Friday night we watched “The Suitcase”, which might be my very favourite episode of Mad Men ever (along with “The Wheel”, “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” “Meditations in an Emergency,” and and and…). Although it’s significant to note that it’s taken us three months to get to “The Suitcase” after (re)watching the first three seasons at almost an episode daily throughout January and February. Part of this is circumstantial: we went away for the first week in March, we spent some time watching other things (including a Mad Men-inspired viewing of The Apartment, which was so wonderful), and I also stopped watching TV daily because I wanted time to read. But part of it is also the nature of Season 4, which was a turning point for the series. It was always Don Draper’s domestic situation that interested me most about the show—the contradiction of his character trying to fit the mould of husband and father—and by Season 4 that situation has disintegrated. (He eventually gets together with Megan, but their relationship never mattered to me as much as Don and Betty’s did, partly because it was hard to believe it really mattered to either of them. The stakes were never high enough.) Season 4 is also painful to watch in places—Don Draper is falling to pieces. It makes me think about the freedom Don is promised by the end of his marriage, which sounds like what he was sold as a child in “The Hobo Code” about being able to sleep so much better without the chains of a mortgage, etc. But it doesn’t turn out to be so freeing after all.

But with “The Suitcase,” Season 4 finally starts to get it together, just like Don does. It’s a pivotal episode for Peggy as well, who finally breaks up with her mediocre boyfriend and begins to see herself on equal terms with her boss. (Remember back in Season 2 where she calls him “Don” for the first time? It’s like that.) We see the depth of Don’s descent in this episode too, which we’ve only glimpsed in previous ones. He’s gross, and ugly, and mean. But he also makes himself known here in a way he doesn’t very often. At no point in this episode did I have to write, “What is Don Draper thinking?” in my notes is what I mean, and I always have to write that. When Peggy suggests that Anna is not the only person in the world who knows Don, she’s not wrong. She doesn’t know the details, but she gets him. She knows what he’s thinking, and she takes her knowledge to apply to her own situation to get where she’s going. But in this situation also, she can use it to be a friend. (And neither of these characters has very many of these.)

The episode is also really funny, delivering that legendary scene in which Duck Phillips tries to take a shit in Roger’s chair. “I killed 17 men at Okinawa.” Fantastic bathroom scenes too—Megan and Peggy, and then a heavily-pregnant Trudy Campbell and assures Peggy that she’s still young. (Also, “You’re witty…) And then the look on Pete’s face when he sees Peggy and Trudy together. They are a fascinating triumvirate. We find out Peggy’s resentment at Don taking all the credit for the GloCoat ad: “You never say thank you.” “That’s what the money is for.” They go out to eat and Don asks Peggy, “What’s the most exciting thing about a suitcase?” “Going somewhere,” she answers. They talk about how you know when you’ve had a good idea. Coming back to the question of wanting and desire, which has been a fixation of the series from the start. “I know what I’m supposed to want, but it never feels right,” says Peggy, articulating something that Don has never been able to do, but certainly understands.

The_suitcase_peggy_and_don_barThey talk about how they both saw their fathers die. Don reveals that he never knew his mother. He tells Peggy that she’ll find someone, “You’re cute as hell,” and she tells him that everybody thinks she got her position by sleeping with him. He says that he didn’t sleep with her because she was unattractive, but because he has rules for work. She reminds him that he’s broken those rules. “You don’t want to start giving me morality lessons,” he tells her. “People do things.” And then he asks her about her baby—do you know how strange this is? For Don to be curious about anybody’s inner life? (I wonder if there is a connection between the mother he lost and the baby Peggy gave away.) “Do you think about it?” he asks her. She tells him, “It comes out of nowhere.”

And then when Don calls Stephanie and gets the news that Anna has died, and he falls apart, and they sleep together, but only in the literal sense. And then she returns to his office later that morning and he’s all fresh as though nothing has happened, and she’s gone to sleep on her office couch, and we’re all ready to see him punish her for having witnessed his vulnerability—it’s certainly happened before. But he doesn’t. And how he how he clutches her hand. All this anticipating the wonderful episode in Season Six (or Seven?) when they dance together. And also referring back to when she stroked his hand provocatively in the first episode of the series and he rejected her (and I suppose also how he takes Betty’s hand when she tells him she is pregnant at the end of Season 2—interesting how a man supposedly so fluent in ideas is most honest with a wordless gesture).

When she leaves the room, the door is left open. And Don Draper is ready to start climbing again.

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