Aired: September 5th, 2010
[Cultural Learnings’ Top 10 Episodes of 2010 are in no particular order, and are purely subjective – for more information, and the complete list as it goes up, click here.]
The atypical nature of nearly every episode on this list was not really something I planned, but “The Suitcase” sort of feels like the apex of that particular trend. On the one hand, it’s everything you expect from a Mad Men episode: it’s moody, it’s emotional, and it features two amazing performances from Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss. This is nothing out of the ordinary, and in those terms the episode is par for the course as far as Mad Men‘s “formula” for great television.
However, from the perspective of story and character this is anything but typical. Mad Men‘s entire fourth season was built around the differences between appearances and reality, of the way in which Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce had to invent an imaginary second floor in order to convince clients they were the right agency for the job, and “The Suitcase” makes the logical leap to explicitly connecting this to Don Draper’s personal subterfuge. In an intense battle with the most important female presence of his present, he reveals the wounds felt by the loss of the most important female presence in his past, and the result is perhaps the year’s finest hour of dramatic programming.
In revisiting “The Suitcase” months later, I had forgotten about its attention to detail. The episode is built around an historical event (the Clay/Liston match), and yet my memory had more or less blocked that out; it features Peggy’s breakup with her boyfriend, and yet Blake Bashoff’s Mark had been more or less forgotten (although he was quite strong in the episode). The episode has sort of already become historicized, important for its connections to the show’s larger history as well as for those qualities and elements which have entered into critical discussions (“That’s what the Money is For!” having even become a meme of sorts).
Yes, the episode will be remembered for its stunning two-hander storyline for Moss and Hamm, as Don and Peggy spend the night delving into their unique relationship and uncovering a sense of purpose and history only the audience had been privy to before that point. I think it showed the characters what we had always known: while Peggy initially needed Don as a mentor, by the time we reached the fourth season Don was the one who needed Peggy. This could never have happened any other way: the power dynamics were too far off in the beginning – it would have been another Allison situation – and both characters needed to move in opposite directions, Peggy towards maturity and Don towards despair, for each to realize the role they were meant to play in each other’s lives.
All of that is haunting and beautiful as a part of the series’ larger arc, but “The Suitcase” sells it beyond the story – little moments like Peggy’s run-in with a pregnant Trudy in the Ladies’ Room are clever and meaningful, but the episode should be commended for some fantastic visual storytelling. Director Jennifer Getzinger doesn’t simply sell the angst and frustration in Don and Peggy, but captures sound and image in ways which go beyond the events to accentuate the history being discussed. This night isn’t just about what happens: in fact, as with Breaking Bad’s “Fly,” what happens is far less important than how that experience plays out. Getzinger is very much responsible for selling the almost ethereal (and, at one point, actually ethereal) qualities of the hour, and without her contribution the episode would not have been as successful as it was.
In his review of the episode, Todd VanDerWerff suggested that “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.” I think this is very much true, but I simply want to make sure that our memories reflect that this was more than just an acting tour de force, and more than just an integral moment in Peggy and Don’s stories – this was a great episode all around, and certainly one of the finest of the year.