September 5th, 2010
“Open or Closed?”
Not writing up last week’s Mad Men was inevitable: I watched the episode in the wake of writing about the Emmys, and then it was my first week of my PhD program, and there were just too many reasons to let it go. I also didn’t feel like “Waldorf Stories” was particularly rife for critical analysis: it was a very good episode, but it was fairly devoid of subtexts. Don Draper continued his self-destructive behaviour, but the episode fairly elegantly laid it out for him, analyzing his behaviour itself and making my job more “pointing out the obvious” than “examining the episode.”
However, “Waldorf Stories” was another strong bit of escalation in a season which is unafraid to be “slow”: a lot of time has passed so far this season, but Don Draper seems to be stuck in a single moment, best exemplified by the scene where Don wakes up to discover someone entirely different in the bed beside him, an entire weekend gone like sand through the hourglass (and yes, these are the days of our lives).
“The Suitcase” is memorable because it is the point at which the show slows down to meet Don’s shattered life: as he lets Peggy into his world, the show stops to capture a single evening in the life of a broken man, an evening where he regains his connection to reality on the same evening where he loses the one connection to his past. It is the moment the season has been leading up to, that moment where Don less regains his previous form and more admits that he is entering a new stage in his life.
And, simultaneously, Mad Men’s fourth season heads into its next stage with a truly stellar episode of television.
Story-wise, “The Suitcase” is of those rare breed of episodes which simultaneously engage and force reconsideration: the episode itself is a stunning two-hander for Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss, perfectly encapsulating where Don and Peggy stand as characters in May of 1965, but it also gives greater context to the first half of the season, as well as the entire series. The night which Weiner creates for these two characters, weaving in and out of the infamous rematch between Clay and Liston, is a pivotal moment for these characters, but it is the climax of a multitude of stories. It is about Peggy and Don’s relationship, but it’s also about Peggy, and it’s also about Don, and it’s also even a little bit about the show itself if you choose to read some of Don’s policies regarding ownership of ideas as a veiled commentary from Weiner on his writing process. It doesn’t try to suggest, however, that all of these things are connected beyond this night: rather than try to resolve them all in one fell swoop, Weiner uses this whirlwind evening to break down the walls which kept these characters from seeing the world around them for what it really was. Nothing is resolved so much as it is made clear, a door opened where before it was closed.
Duck Phillips plays an important role in the episode, beyond trying to take a dump on Roger’s chair. He represents the person who Peggy allowed herself to be in the past, the person who stayed in touch with Duck despite the fact that he was creepy, manipulative, and only sleeping with her as a measure of revenge against Don (since he, like everyone else, presumed that she had slept with him as well). Peggy is the kind of person who isn’t going to give up on someone like Duck: she’s going to keep connected to him because she wants to help him, because she in some way needs to feel that she wasn’t the one who sent him over the deep end. And here, he’s the person who makes her realize that Don is going over the deep end, a realization that Don has himself when he sees Peggy juggling the two drunk ad men in her life and discovers that he is one of them. There was never any chance of Peggy leaving with Duck, but there was a chance of Peggy leaving without going back into Don’s office: Peggy starts to leave numerous times over the course of this night, but there’s always something that brings her back, and Duck is the moment when she and Don both realize the roles they’re playing and settle in on the couch to sleep out the evening.
As far as their relationship goes, that hand squeeze at episode’s end is something I choose to read as platonic: I just don’t think the show can go in that direction without entirely losing Don Draper’s humanity. Yes, the early parts of this episode offer a pretty bleak picture of Don already, as he shows little respect for Peggy’s abilities as a writer and eventually takes part in that vicious back and forth in his office. That scene brings everything to the surface, as Peggy’s frustrations over the Glo-Coat ad emerge and Don reveals his life principle: he doesn’t thank Peggy because, you see, that’s what the money is for. It’s a brilliant line from Weiner, and brilliantly delivered by Hamm, because it ties beautifully in with how he treated Allison, or how he treated his brother when he arrived way back in the first season. Cut off from his emotions, Don used money to buy a certain degree of civility, but the limitations of that civility are clear in Peggy’s response: she is hurt, and what would later become playful banter (as she more or less teases him about sleeping with Allison with a slight smile) instead emerges as rage and anger. And yet, as the episode goes on, you see that Don does understand their connection, but it is simply one of many things which he lost sight of in the midst of his depression – it’s moments like the roach on the Acropolis, or “Sterling’s Gold,” which help sober him up to the world around him.
By the end of the episode, he is showing Peggy a side of himself that very few others have seen, and as the ghost of Anna walks off with a suitcase in hand it’s only fitting that Peggy would walk back in to “replace” her, even if replace is the wrong word. Their new relationship is, like Anna and Don’s, one which is based around each individual regaining a sense of who they are: it is an arrangement wherein two people offer one another key elements of support while maintaining their individuality, a couple without the coupling or a relationship without the romance. It isn’t that each knows everything about the other, but rather that each would theoretically feel comfortable with the other party knowing all but the most volatile of details – for example, Peggy is comforted in knowing that Don is aware of why she was really out for six months before returning to her copywriter job, but she isn’t going to tell him that Pete is the father out of fear for how Don would respond. Similarly, Don has his conversation with Stephanie knowing full well, at least subconsciously, that Peggy is listening in, but he doesn’t tell her all of the details. It’s a relationship built on trust rather than honesty, which is precisely the kind of relationship that Peggy needs from a mentor and that Don needs from someone who looks up to him and looks down on his recent behaviour.
I don’t need to say just how fantastic Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss were in this episode, surely considered a frontrunner for each’s Emmy submission this year considering how much screentime they have and how many scenes they share with one another. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions, if you’ll forgive the lazy turn of phrase, but it never feels like it moves too fast: despite packing a lot into an hour, including a breakup and a death, the episode still lingers as opposed to flitting by. It is, perhaps, not unlike Liston and Clay’s 90-second match: a few minutes of boxing, and then three hours of analysis as cultural and historical permanency is created through the hype surrounding the event rather than the event itself. Here, those key scenes go by in a hurry, but the longevity of this night allows them to linger, forcing to the surface key issues surrounding these characters and their future.
It’s also a great episode for Matthew Weiner and Jennifer Getzinger, who really put together a strong piece of television beyond the performances. Weiner’s script is perhaps the most theatre-like the series has done, echoing Breaking Bad’s “Fly” in terms of pairing up your two leads largely within a confined space and allowing the episode to unfold primarily around their perspective (although here without being an actual bottle show in the process, as Don and Peggy escape the Office). Getzinger, meanwhile, doesn’t just sit back and let Hamm and Moss do their thing: there are some key moments where Peggy returns to Don’s office which are sold through light (either turning off or remaining on) that she really nails, and the detail with the phone towards the end of the episode was just haunting. I love the way that the phone rings loud at first but then it becomes clear that it’s in Peggy’s office: every ring of the phone is the call that Anna has died, and so to Don every ring starts in his office before revealing itself to be coming from elsewhere. It’s paranoia that he doesn’t want anyone to see, and the episode does a beautiful job of capturing that aurally as well as through Hamm’s performance.
And yet, while all of this makes this an incredibly important Mad Men episode, perhaps what truly elevates it is the idea that it serves as the perfect pivot for the season. Not only does it make us reflect back on where Don has been all season and how Peggy has weathered the changes in her life, but it also asks us where they go from here, and what lies in store for them in the future. It manages to create both hope and despair, reveling in the latter while offering a glimpse of the former, not unlike how Anna’s smiling face appears as a spectre before Dawn as if the signal both the tragedy of her passing and the hopeful spirit she embodied. “The Suitcase” may have featured a life-altering night for Don Draper and Peggy Olsen, albeit to different degrees, but for Mad Men itself it wasn’t so much a departure as it was a reminder: we may not have needed to be reminded of the series’ greatness during what has been a strong fourth season, but this was certainly a welcome stunner either way.
- This episode confirms that Elisabeth Moss and January Jones will be switching places at the Emmys, what with the former being so prominent and the latter nearly scaled back to recurring at this stage. Moss was a lead actress in this episode, and lived up to the title in every fashion.
- Love the moment where Don, relaying his Uncle Max’s suitcase story, stops and ponders whether it might be a metaphor: it’s part sarcasm and part realization, as if he had never before thought of it that way and yet once he has it seems silly. It was just a really sublime little moment, and it nicely tied in with Anna’s suitcase in his dream of sorts.
- Blake Bashoff’s Mark wasn’t the right person for Peggy, as she was quite right to be wary of many of his conventions, but I like Bashoff and thought he acquitted himself well in this his most substantial episode. I thought it was also interesting that Weiner avoided crowding the scene with any discussion of Peggy’s dangerous liaisons with her underground art friends, and simply let the moment speak for itself.
- No real purpose to the early scenes leading up to the boxing match, but putting a pregnant Trudy in the same ladies room as Peggy was too delicious an idea to pass up, especially when Don would later ask Peggy whether she ever thinks about her child. Plus, any Alison Brie = welcome Alison Brie.
- I don’t know how I lived with myself before I knew that Bert Cooper has no testicles.