Critics Unpack “The Suitcase”
September 6th, 2010
It’s pretty much consistent across the board: last night’s Mad Men, “The Suitcase,” was a season and even series highlight. As Todd VanDerWerff put it in his must-read review at The A.V. Club,
This is the kind of episode that, years from now, we’ll think of when we try to remember just what it was we loved about Mad Men, an episode that uses virtually every weapon in the show’s arsenal, yet leaves almost all of its moments and scenes unexpected. It’s so good that I want to call off the rest of the TV season and say this is as good as it’s going to get.
That’s generally the consensus, albeit to different degrees of hyperbole, which would make delving further into the episode myself a bit redundant: I already wrote my rave about the episode, and the week’s reviews pretty much cover everything else. So, instead, I want to spend a bit of time dialoguing with the recently returning Maureen Ryan, who is now the lead television critic at AOL Television (which runs TV Squad). She posted two substantial pieces on the season thus far last week, and then jumped back into the review game with “The Suitcase,” so I figured there’s no better way to welcome her back than to delve a bit further into her commentary (which I’ll do after the break).
In her first “official” post in her new gig, Mo raised an all-important question: is this, in fact, Mad Men’s best season yet?
Don, Peggy, Joan, Roger, Pete and the rest of SCDP both represent and resent the changes that society is going through, and that has given rise to the most complicated and compelling dilemmas of the show’s four seasons. Will SCDP be nimble enough to survive, despite the conflicts at its core? Will the staffers pull together to get the firm through its difficult growing pains or will they look out only for themselves? Will the characters enjoy the new range of possibilities that surround them, or hide from the mistakes they increasingly have the freedom to make? Will the tumult in their lives and careers allow them to make honest connections or divert them into emotionally draining blind alleys?
To answer the question that Mo is posing, I will say that this is probably the most confident the show has been in the early stages of any season: there is a weight to the episode which was there from the very beginning, the thrill of operating without a net (within the narrative, not in terms of the series’ production) really giving the series a sense of purpose. As Mo points out, we’re constantly left with questions about whether the tenuous balance can hold, and this paragraph is followed by a list of the various questions about Don’s life specifically, which are piling up by the episode.
However, I reserve judgment on the season as a whole, as the show is really reversing its previous patterns: while before the show tended to deconstruct an established structure (whether it is Don and Betty’s marriage, or Sterling Cooper’s ownership) at the conclusion of each season, the fourth season appears to be about building something. There is not yet, truly, a Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to deconstruct, as no one truly knows what it could be. Sure, it is more clearly formed than the fake agency which Duck had business cards printed for in an effort to woo Peggy, but it remains an idea rather than a reality, and that imaginary second floor continues to represent its potential yet unrealized. And in some ways, while I’ve very much enjoyed the season thus far, I need to see what comes of the second floor before I place this amongst the other seasons – I don’t really have any concerns that Weiner will drop the ball, but I really do think that the show is in uncharted territory in regards to the final half of the season, which is both incredibly exciting and uncharacteristically indefinite for the series.
Mo also went back and reviewed the four episodes she missed while she transitioned between her two jobs, and I want to focus particularly on a part of “Waldorf Stories” I myself did not get to comment on.
…the real lynchpin of the episode was the Life pitch meeting, which was a strange, funny and ultimately sad parody of all those great Don Draper pitches of the yore. A keyed-up, drunk Don thinks he can just coast on the fumes of his own past and win over the clients through sheer charm, but his charm isn’t want it used to be, and his invocation of “nostalgia” — a word he used so eloquently in season 1’s ‘The Wheel’ — is almost grotesque.
What’s interesting about Don is that he is operating without any sense of security (both professionally and personally), and we’re seeing him in ways we’ve never seen him before. Before, Don was guarded not only in keeping secrets but in maintaining a persona which would keep him from being judged as he is here. I love the idea that the clients themselves are too drunk to really know just how far gone he is, and that it is instead the rest of the office (and the audience) who understands what they’re seeing. And yet, in some ways this is a necessary step in his recovery process: that he is forced to hire Danny Strong’s worthless hack due to his mistake is like a constant reminder of what happens when he goes too far, just as his renewed relationship with Peggy in “The Suitcase” is the result of his emotional breakdown following Anna’s passing. When Don lets his guard down, there are consequences, and while “Waldorf Stories” highlights the negative consequences of doing so in public and while under the influence, “The Suitcase” shows how letting someone else in emotionally (as we saw in his conversation with Faye in “Chrysanthemum”) can actually be an improvement even if it results in the pain we see as Don breaks down following his phone call to California.
Finally, Mo has some thoughts about “The Suitcase” specifically in her first full review following her return – her voice has been missed amongst the critical community, and this review is a nice indication of why.
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.
As always, the value of post-episode analysis shines through, as a connection is made between this episode and the pilot which I had never really considered (and which NeoGAF user anaron captures in GIF form here). Admittedly, I spent that entire handholding scene on the edge of my seat hoping that it didn’t extend into anything more, so I was very pleased to see that the scene was devoid of romance (if not romanticism, which is acceptable). Frankly, just the reversal in terms of who instigates the connection is a switch: there’s always been the sense that it’s Peggy who needs to be the one to reach out to Don, as ever since her initial employment their connection has been largely one-sided, Don coasting on his initial kindness and expecting a sort of devotion as a result. Peggy has been more than willing to oblige, but here we see that moment where it could all change, where Don’s transformation from mentor to overgrown child could wear thin, but Don reveals himself to be just damaged enough to deserve Peggy’s support, and in turn returns the favour with that small moment the next morning where he appears just as vulnerable as he did during the Life pitch but in a productive fashion which would serve him well in the future.
However, as always, Todd and Mo weren’t the only ones writing about “The Suitcase” this week, so let’s run down the links.
Peggy doesn’t have the whole Dick Whitman picture, but she has enough of it, and she knows Don Draper even better than Anna did. She’s been his secretary, his protege, his partner and the closest thing he has to a friend. If anyone can help him through this rough patch, it’s Peggy Olson – if he’ll let her in long enough to do it. And the moment they share at his desk at the end of the episode – with the squeeze of her hand saying more than any words could – suggests maybe he’s ready to do just that.
The nuanced yet utterly realistic progression of scenes between Don and Peggy not only places them on new, more promising ground, but it constitutes some of the most artful, smart dramatic writing to take place on the small screen.
How do we know that this is to be non-romantic? Despite him saying she’s a good-looking girl, he never gave Peggy that same look he gives to all the other woman that were supposed to collapse into his arms in sheer rapture. He never tries to seduce her.
Faye Miller’s insertion into the show this season has given Don an interesting female character with whom to interact, but has also given the show a voice to express society’s increasing need in 1965 to share what was once hidden, to express what once remained unsaid, to present one’s full self to as wide a gaze as possible.
Don is an imposter, an artificial construct whose uniform consists of dark suits, Lucky Strikes, and Brylcreemed hair. The phrase “the real Don Draper” is a joke, and Don knows this better than anyone.
While the major theme this week seemed to be unwanted guests–from the unwelcome appearance of Peggy’s family at Mark’s surprise birthday dinner, Duck’s near-defactory cameo at the office, the mouse in the office, the roach in the Parthenon–it also delved into notions of identity and perception. If the people who know us in the truest, deepest sense of the word are no longer alive, no longer remembering, are we still intrinsically us? If our pasts are scrubbed from memory, can we escape who we were? Who we are?
[Will update when more reviews go up later in the day – MM]