Spy stories are great vehicles for exploring ideas of identity, and I’ve always loved the moment that often comes when the spy goes so deep undercover that there’s only one person who knows that the spy is actually working for the good guys. Invariably, this lone handler is killed, leaving no one to vouch for the spy’s true identity. The drama then becomes less about the spy convincing people of his lies and more about him trying to convince people of the truth.
This is largely the situation Don Draper (Jon Hamm) finds himself in in this week’s Mad Men, “The Suitcase” (written by Matthew Weiner and directed by Jennifer Getzinger). When Anna Draper (Melinda Page Hamilton) succumbs to cancer, Don loses the one person he feels ever truly knew him; she knew his past and his secrets, and she loved him anyway. Now Don has been robbed of his one connection to the truth he spent the first three seasons of Mad Men trying to conceal. Like a spy without a handler, he’s left stranded in a web of fabrication without any means to return to home base, and the foundation upon which he built his life has seemingly crumbled.
But “The Suitcase” isn’t about Don and Anna; it’s about Don and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss). Their relationship has always quietly served as the show’s backbone, but this episode focuses on it to an extent we haven’t seen before, limiting its scope to the two characters and one night they spend together (sort of reminiscent of Breaking Bad’s “The Fly.”)
Most of the episode takes place on May 25th; it’s Peggy’s birthday and the night of the infamous Liston/Clay rematch. From the first shot of Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) passing out tickets for a closed-circuit broadcast of the fight in a movie theater, the episode stresses the social importance of the boxing match. Don puts $100 on a Liston victory, as the veteran boxer’s no-nonsense way of going about his business appeals to him, as opposed to Clay’s brash and arrogant antics. Hypocritically, Don even sneers at Clay’s decision to change his name to Muhammad Ali. Peggy, meanwhile, couldn’t care less about the fight, because her boyfriend Mark (Blake Bashoff) is taking her out for a romantic birthday dinner (which he’s secretly turned into a dinner with her entire family).
For the umpteenth time this season, Don has thrown himself into a drinking binge, precipitated by an urgent call from Anna’s family in California that he can’t bring himself to return. Having left Anna knowing that she didn’t have long to live, Don already knows what the urgent news is, but he isn’t ready to face it. So instead he drinks, and gins up reasons for Peggy to stay in the office working with him, rejecting all of her ideas for a new Samsonite suitcase ad so that he doesn’t have to be alone. The loneliness that Don is facing here extends beyond even that with which he was left after losing his family. Anna, the widow of the man whose identity Don stole, became Don’s one true confidant; she had every reason to judge him, but instead she accepted him and gave him a home for the first time in his life. She blessed Don’s decision to use her late husband’s name, and by doing so gave him the validation he needed to begin pursuing everything else he wanted in life.
Don ruins Peggy’s birthday night by insisting that she work late, causing her to repeatedly delay and finally cancel her plans with Mark. Peggy’s mother chastises her over the phone; she’s horribly disappointed that Peggy would throw away a chance with a nice boy like Mark in the name of some job. Mark agrees, and publicly breaks up with Peggy. Of course, this seems like the better option for Peggy, rather than walking out on Don, because no matter how drawn part of her may be to ideas of domesticity, her true driving force is career success (a concept Peggy so often ties together with Don’s approval).
Don yells at her for not telling him that it’s her birthday, and says that he would have let her go, but Peggy claims that there would have been repercussions anyway. She’s probably right, but still, her decision not to tell Don that it’s her birthday until after she breaks up with Mark seems intentional, as if she’s consciously sabotaging her own personal life so as to prove to herself her own devotion to her career. Several times throughout the episode she has the option to leave the office, but every time she chooses to stay, and she becomes only more steadfast in doing so after learning that her family is waiting at the restaurant with Mark. By shunning her family she proves to herself that she made the right decision to give up her child and pursue a professional life. She is leading the life she believes is important to her, and somewhere deep down she knows that if it’s worth giving up her child, it should sure as hell be worth giving up Mark.
Mad Men has been really fond of expressing dualities through shots this season. Though there’s no glass wall separating them, the side-by-side shot, earlier in the episode, of Peggy and Trudy (Alison Brie) approaching an uncomfortable Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) perfectly expresses the contrasting routes all of their lives could have taken. It comes off as a sight gag, but you know Peggy’s internalizing how painful it is to see the life she gave up and will likely never have. It’s a very effective precursor to Peggy’s later confession to Don that she still thinks about her child when she sees playgrounds.
Every sacrifice Peggy makes in the name of Don Draper’s vision raises the question of whether she’s achieving the sort of success that would justify giving up the life she could have had. Mark is simply the latest representation of that life, and it’s not losing him that upsets her, it’s losing the life she sees reflected back at her by Trudy. Trudy comments that Peggy has done well for herself, considering she’s just turned 26, yet soon after she feels the need to console Peggy, assuring her that 26 is still “very young,” ostensibly because Peggy has yet to marry or have a child.
Of course it’s not Peggy’s age that is pushing her, but rather the knowledge of what she’s already given up. She has no choice but to not only accept her lack of a family but to embrace it, pushing it to an even further extreme by blowing off Mark and her mother. She invests all of herself into her work, and into Don. When Don refuses to acknowledge her pivotal role in creating the award-winning GloCoat ad, claiming that she only provided the “kernel,” she breaks down, retreating to the bathroom to sob uncontrollably. Her need to have her work affirmed far exceeds her 26 years, something Don fails to understand.
At the same time that Peggy needs validation from Don, Don requires something even more fundamental from Peggy. At the beginning of the episode Don makes plans to spend the night drinking with Roger, and it’s not insignificant that after hearing about the call from California, he repeatedly refuses to go out with Roger and instead finds excuses to continue working with Peggy. After Anna, Peggy is Don’s closest thing to a friend.
After hallucinating Anna’s ghost departing, suitcase in hand, Don is finally able to wake up from his stupor and call California to receive the bad news. Afterward he hangs up, looks up to see Peggy staring at him, and then he bursts into tears. It’s questionable whether Don would have allowed himself to react like that in front of anyone else, or if he would have just buried the pain under his mid-western stoicism. But either way Peggy offers him something no one else could: when he tells her that the only person who ever really knew him died, she responds, “that’s not true.” Normally that would just sound like something people say, but in this case, I actually believe her. And, I think, so does Don.
That sounds like it should be a contradiction: Peggy knows a different man than Anna did, and yet they remain the two people who have ever truly known Don Draper. It’s not that Peggy’s going to learn all of Don’s secrets and replace Anna; even if she did learn the entire story of Dick Whitman, it wouldn’t make a difference. Peggy and Don share an understanding between two people driven toward creation and self-realization. Whatever Peggy understands about Don has nothing to do with where he came from or what his past sins are. But their relationship is profound regardless.
During the episode Don expresses his dislike for two soon-to-be iconic athletes: Cassius Clay and Joe Namath. The easy reading is to say that Don simply falls on the wrong side of history, as opposed to Peggy who understands the appeal of both Namath and Clay. But the Samsonite ad Don finally creates suggests something different. Don was deeply troubled by Clay’s success, not only did he lose $100, but the inexperienced loud mouth who was supposed to get his comeuppance won instead. It is something Don didn’t see happening, and even something he wished against, but nonetheless he recognizes its cultural importance. In fact, it’s perhaps because of his personal reaction that he’s able to recognize Clay’s win as something transformative. He recognizes the iconography of that image of Clay, standing over a fallen Liston, refusing to return to a neutral corner.
Don is a man who builds upon kernels, whether it’s the idea for an ad or the fundamental foundation of his identity. His genius isn’t so much in creating something absolutely new, but in what he can do after finding some small foundation from which to start. It’s something Cassius Clay provided him with for Samsonite, and something Peggy provided him with for the GloCoat ad. But it’s also what Anna Draper gave him, and something he now needs from Peggy.
I’ve written at length this season about the importance of fabrication and building identities, but it appears that, just like how every spy requires a handler, Don Draper needs some fundamental kernel of truth to cling to. To whatever extent he has that with Peggy is significantly different than what he had with Anna, but whatever that difference is, it may be the most significant element of the Don Draper character moving forward. Like Dick Whitman, Cassius Clay had already changed his name prior to May 25, 1965. But after that night, the transformation was complete. The fundamental kernel Don has been relying on for years is gone, replaced now with something new. It wouldn’t surprise me if this episode represents the most significant change in the trajectory of Don’s arc since at least “The Color Blue.”
Perhaps the answer to the contradiction I mentioned is that we often look at relationships from the wrong angle: truly knowing someone isn’t a matter of learning some static truth about them, rather it’s a matter of eliciting some spark of self-creation. Don came to Anna utterly lost. The relationship he formed with her became his kernel of truth and allowed him to create something for himself. The Don of season four is lost again, and it seems that the only thing that can bring him back is his relationship with Peggy. The Don that Peggy knows can’t possibly be the same person that Anna knew because in a very real way the person is shaped by the process of that ’knowing.’ When we reveal ourselves to someone, we do so absolutely, and we can never do so in the same way again.
We don’t see how Don pulls himself together after his breakdown. He “spruces up,” as if by magic. But as he shows Peggy the new campaign he’s based around Muhammad Ali, it’s clear that something about him has changed. The most exciting thing about a suitcase, according to Peggy, is going somewhere new. Last week I wrote about characters becoming “iterations” of themselves, and I’m excited to see where this new iteration of Don Draper, having lost Anna and having revealed himself to Peggy, is going.
But regardless the outcome, “The Suitcase” made for some absolutely tremendous television. Don and Peggy’s respective breakdowns all but guarantee that this will be the Emmy tape for both Hamm and Moss, but the true genius of the episode (and their performances) comes in the finale moments. In a strange way it reminded me of the films of Yasujirô Ozu, one of my favorite directors: the scope is limited to just a few characters, we watch quietly as they make their way through a difficult time, food and alcohol are shared, and somewhere along the way the profundity sneaks up on you, and by the final shot it’s somehow overwhelming.
When Don briefly grips Peggy’s hand and gives her one of those expresses-what-words-can’t-say looks, it’s the most beautiful moment of their relationship to date. As Simon and Garfunkel begin to play, and Don tells Peggy to keep the door open, it may be the first time this season that Mad Men, through all the heartbreaking moments, leaves me feeling genuinely good about its characters.
• I probably shouldn’t be as amused by this as I am. Don’s pain is funny.
• Joan (Christina Hendricks) has minimal presence this episode, but I love her scene chastising the creative team for making a mess of the office. She’s the quintessential mid-20th century professional woman who carves out a high-profile position for herself before there’s a matching high-profile title. (She’s an office manager, but her husband still thinks her job is to “file papers.”)
• Again Peggy’s drinking (or lack thereof) is used as a device in this episode. For the first half we see her continuing to turn down drinks (the beer at the beginning, for examples), only to finally give in and take a drink after she breaks up with Mark.
• A lot has been made of Miss Blankenship’s racist zinger about throwing a dollar bill out the window to “watch two Negroes fight,” but no line made me laugh more than Roger’s, “they’re self-so righteous.” Though really the funniest moment of the episode came in the “Previously on Man Men” segment, as dramatic music plays over an inexplicably isolated clip of Roger dictating his tragic story of being force-fed vanilla ice cream.
• Don stays up until all hours of the night drinking himself stupid, pukes all over himself, gets his ass kicked, has an emotional breakdown over a dear friend’s death in the early hours of the morning, and then cleans up and produces fantastic copy before 10:30? Say what you will about the guy, that’s impressive.
• I seem to be getting later with these every week, and I apologize. Next week’s episode airs just after the men’s final at the US Open, so I should be distraction free. Go Nadal!
For more recaps of Mad Men, click here.