The Suitcase: Mad Men, Season 4, Episode 7 (Commentary)
Let’s go some place darker. ~ Don
And so they do. In “The Suitcase,” Don and Peggy go into a little heart of darkness together, have several heart-to-heart talks, and come out as…what? Closer colleagues, real friends or future lovers? I think the first two, although that touch of the hands at episode’s end will leave many people wondering. It mirrors a scene in the very first episode of the series, when Peggy shuts the door, takes Don’s hand and thanks him for defending her honor after Pete has insultingly evaluated her body in front of Don. Don takes his hand away and sternly corrects her, “I’m not your boyfriend. I’m your boss.”
Now not only is he the one to take her hand, but the vulnerable searching look he gives her reveals his need for connection and even reassurance – which Peggy gives with a small nod of understanding as well as words of approval for the campaign he shows her, one based on a fight that ended swiftly and with an unexpected champion. Will Peggy be the unexpected champion of Mad Men, the younger challenger who others have underestimated but who knocks out the older competition, even if they’ve never been felled before?
Don disdains that youthful challenger, even hypocritically mocking his desire to change his name from Cassius Clay to Mohammad Ali (perhaps it seems better to Don to take a name for profit than to take a prophet’s name), and sneering that if you have to say you’re the greatest, you aren’t. He also gets angry at Peggy’s desire for recognition for her work, saying she’s too young in her career for accolades (although too old to celebrate her birthday – clearly she’s at that awkward in-between age where you get nothing). When she argues that the main idea for Glo-Coat was hers, he retorts that he’s the one who turned her mere “kernel” into advertising (and Clio) gold, an interesting gender reversal that makes Peggy the impregnator and Don the gestater. But winners are always clear in business: Danny describes the Liston-Ali fight as “90 seconds of boxing followed by three hours of analysis and we still don’t know who won,” but Joey knows the score, “Clay won – read the paper.” Or in this case, the Clio nomination announcement. Don angrily tells Peggy that it’s her job to give him ideas for the money he pays her and when Peggy tries to explain that it’s really appreciation she wants (“you never thank me”), he snarls “that’s what the money’s for!” -- once again proving his emotional disconnection from everyone around him.
Train’s leaving the station, honey -- get on board. ~ Duck to Peggy
Just as he disdains Peggy, Don thinks the passionate young fighter is all talk while the experienced Liston methodically “goes about his business, “ but in fact Don’s the one who talks for a living and can’t fight. Defending Peggy’s honor once again when a drunken ex-lover calls her a whore, Don takes a swing at a man who lives up to his name by avoiding his punch and ends up swiftly downed by a Duck. (Shit)Faced with a man who warns him that he killed 17 men on Okinawa in World War II, Don (who earlier told Peggy he didn’t kill anyone in Korea – gee, doesn’t killing Dick Whitman count?) softly cries, “Uncle.” Perhaps that would be his Uncle Max, who always kept a suitcase packed, because “a man has to be ready to go at any moment.“
“Jesus, maybe that’s a metaphor,” Don abruptly realizes.
Metaphors for death are much on his mind, since the episode begins with Blankenship telling him he has an urgent message from Stephanie in California, and Don knows what that must mean. But no matter how much he drinks (which means until he pukes and then some), he can’t bring himself to make the call and actually hear the news even if Blankenship offers to initiate the call “before I depart.” He ends up missing Anna’s earthly departure, but fortunately she makes a ghostly appearance carrying a small piece of luggage and smiling benevolently on him.
This after Don chooses to ignore his own baggage by working on the Samsonite campaign that’s not due for two weeks, and making Peggy pull an all-nighter with him on it. To be accurate, she chooses to “get sucked into his web” (causing her co-workers to say “she’s dead” as she crosses the threshold of Don’s office rather than escaping for the night as they do). Like Don, she’s postponing what awaits her – in her case, the romantic dinner her boyfriend Mark is waiting to buy her for her 26th birthday. But Mark has taken it upon himself to give her the surprise she’s claimed she’s never had, and has invited her whole family to the restaurant, where they wait impatiently for her to leave work until Mark finally gets so disgusted that he surprises her in a different way, by breaking up over the phone.
A surprise on top of a surprise. ~ Peggy’s relative
Peggy hasn’t actually told Mark the truth, because it turns out she was surprised when she was 12 and her father died violently of a heart attack in front of her while no one else was home. That’s one piece of Samsonite that she shares with Don over the course of the very long night that everyone in the episode is having (well, except for Sonny Liston) – a night in which many truths are revealed. The fun starts when Don stumbles onto a recording Roger’s made for his book, Sterling’s Gold (a pun I made in my recap last week, I'll note) and wants an initially reluctant Peggy to join him in laughing at the secrets of their co-workers -- “C’mon, Ida was a hell cat, Cooper lost his balls, Roger’s writing a book!” It’s not long before they’re playing their own late night office version of To Tell the Truth (that TV show of the 60’s in which players had to guess which of three contenders was the real person that they all claimed to be, and which were the imposters), each revealing more and more to the other as the hours and the drinks flow by.
Every time we get into this, we abandon the toughness idea. Maybe there’s something to the elephant. ~ Don
Don matches Peggy’s load of Samonsite by telling her that he also saw his father die, and that he never knew his mother, as well as sharing some literal war stories. Peggy says that she tries not to think about the baby she gave away, but then, “Playgrounds.” – that single word conjuring everything that Trudy’s very pregnant belly incapsulates. Don rather indelicately asks if she knows who the father is (if she’d seen his Lost Weekend, she might understand why he could think someone might not know) and she assures him she does, but that her mother thinks it’s Don and so hates him. She further divulges that the entire office thinks she slept with him to get her job but that they also treat it as an impossible joke, which pains her, causing Don to reassure her that she’s plenty attractive and it’s just that he has those rules…. “But not as attractive as some of your other secretaries,” she taunts, leading him to chide her, “You don’t want to start giving me morality lessons, do you?” No, she doesn’t, but you’re making it damn hard for people not to do so, Don. As Peggy asks when he wants another drink after spewing his last twenty in the men’s room, “How long are you going to go on like this?”
Blankenship provides the answer to that question when she informs him, “You got a call when you were in the toilet.” With his life going down the crapper (almost literally thanks to Duck), Anna’s death appears to have affected him in some way that other crises have not, something we surmise not just because he breaks down and sobs when he hears the news from Stephanie, but because he does so after seeing that Peggy is awake and watching him. He finally risks being seen by someone other than Anna, and it's not a wife or a lover, but a woman who works for him and whose respect and obedience he has curtly demanded. When he tells Peggy that the only person who really knew him is gone, she tells him softly and simply that he’s wrong.
Earlier, when he invited her to have a personal conversation, she’d retorted that they never did that and that she thinks they both preferred it that way. But having broken on through to the other side, it’s clear that they each welcome the change. Rather than the denial he exhibited with Allison over their merely physical intimacy, Don acknowledges the greater nakedness he’s had with Peggy by that literally touching gesture of taking her hand as well as letting his feelings show plainly on his face. The episode ends with the first open door of the season after a series of closed ones, signaling that rather than being ready to leave at a moment’s notice, this man has finally started unpacking his suitcase.
You know what…there’s a way out of this room we don’t know about. ~ Don