(Keith is out again this week, and he was shocked to discover his destination does not have access to AMC. So you have to put up with me again for a week. - TV)
Mad Men is unique among televised drama series because its most central, most important relationship is between a man and a woman, both attractive and single (now) and reasonably within the range of each other's dating prospects, and yet the show has rarely, if ever, flirted with the idea of making them a romantic couple. It is a series based around the idea that these two are creative and professional soulmates but shouldn't necessarily be personal ones, that the culmination of this relationship could be something as simple as the two of them having mutual appreciation and respect for each other. It's a relationship that won't culminate in the two tumbling into bed together - though, this being Mad Men, I'm sure that could happen somewhere along the way - but rather in the two coming up with one perfect idea, one perfect pitch that briefly patches over everything that's unsatisfying in their lives.
I'm speaking, of course, of Don Draper and Peggy Olsen, and what I'm realizing at this moment is just how little the show has directly commented on the connection between the two. "The Suitcase" is perhaps the most sustained time between Don and Peggy that the show has ever granted the audience. It's also, not coincidentally, one of the best episodes the show has ever done. Even its weird, off-format elements feel of a piece with its melancholy tone. 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.
The seventh episode of any season of Mad Men is a chance for the series to break out of its normal episode types and do something off-format. Since Mad Men is a show that rarely has "typical episodes," this is harder than it would seem to be. Yet, every season, the show figures out a way to do this, and it usually rewards viewers with one of the stronger episodes of the run. Season one's entry, "Red in the Face," is the famous episode that takes up so much time with Roger's visit to the Draper household and Don enacting his unusual form of revenge on his boss. Season two's entry, "The Gold Violin," takes up an enormous amount of time on contemplation of an odd painting Bert Cooper has purchased. And season three's entry, "Seven Twenty Three" (another I'd rank among the series' top five or ten), follows Don, Peggy, and Betty through three very different vignettes about their lives at that moment.
"The Suitcase" breaks format by turning, for most of its runtime, into what's essentially a short play about two characters. It blends a surprisingly large number of elements into its plot stew, but it uses all of them in service to a story about Peggy and Don, what the two want from each other and what they actually mean to each other. Look at all of the stuff that Mad Men drops into the pot in the first ten minutes of the episode. Peggy and her team have been struggling to come up with a pitch for Samsonite luggage, which has led to Don being perhaps unnecessarily cruel to his star pupil. It's Peggy's birthday, and her boyfriend/self-described fiancee is taking her out to dinner. It's the night of the famous Sonny Liston bout with the up-and-comer Cassius Clay (the one that ends with the famous shot of Clay - recently become Muhammad Ali - standing over Liston triumphantly). Duck has delivered Peggy flowers in honor of her birthday, along with an offer to join him as creative director at a new agency. Don has an urgent message from Stephanie in California, and he knows it can't be good news. The frathouse-type atmosphere that Peggy works in is giving her fits. All of the young guys - and an already-showing Trudy - are going out to watch the fight at a local theater, as is Roger, who will be forced to stay drinkless, thanks to the presence of Freddy Rumsen.
The best thing about individual Mad Men episodes is that you often can't predict just where the storyline is going to go from the individual snippets at episode's beginning. On nearly every other show on television, you can have the storyline narrowed down to a certain range of possibilities in the early going, and on more formulaic shows, you'll probably have everything figured out within the first 15 minutes. Mad Men, however, is fond of taking random left turns into other storylines entirely or tying up loose ends through completely unexpected means or having a bunch of storylines dovetail in a way you wouldn't expect them to. It's not exactly like Don Draper steps out of his office one morning and gets on board a spaceship, but the show is always careful to find a way to do what you least expect it to, but still make it seem completely natural. It's the only show on TV right now that is unpredictable in almost the exact way that life is.
One of the reasons for this is something that hasn't been tackled a lot in critical writing about the show. On most TV shows, an episodic script is written in such a way as to make every scene get us from point A to point B in the most efficient manner possible. The gang at the CSI lab interviews suspect after suspect, then sees how the evidence matches up. The castaways confront a problem or mystery and in so doing, remember their pasts. Walter White backs himself into a corner, then cuts himself a hole to get out of that corner. I like every single one of the shows I'm referencing above, particularly the enormously artful and entertaining Lost and Breaking Bad, but I do think there's a certain sense that each episode is a collection of scenes that add up to a greater storyline, where you can pick out just how each scene led to the scene that follows it, even if it only follows obliquely (like, say, Walter talking to a stranger in a bar about family and racing off to see his surrogate son afterwards).
Mad Men doesn't always avoid this trap, but its best episodes follow the weird rhythms of short stories. Actually, its best scenes follow the weird rhythms of short stories. The show's best episodes don't break down so much into scenes that tell a larger story but into individual sequences that add up to a larger character study. Take "The Suitcase," for instance, which breaks fairly neatly into four parts: Don and Peggy receive news while dealing with office shenanigans, Don keeps Peggy around after hours on her birthday and it eventually leads to an argument, Don and Peggy bond over Roger's book and then head out for a night on the town that bonds them, and Don and Peggy's new closeness is reaffirmed by the events of the next morning. All four of these sequences naturally add up together, and they naturally become an episodic storyline, but you can remove virtually any one of them and make it its own episode or delete it entirely or move it elsewhere in the episode, and it will still make a kind of dramatic sense, even if it will change the meaning of the episode. Subtly adjust the timing of the sequences and shift, say, sequence two to the very end, and it changes the tenor of what happens, but it still mostly makes sense as an episode. Mad Men's genius at its best has always been its ability to create whole episodes out of smaller pieces that could be episodes in and of themselves. It's enormously hard to do (no other show that's attempted it has fully pulled it off), and even Mad Men struggles with it from time to time.
Again, look at that list of things that the episode tosses at the audience within the first few moments of the runtime. Any single one of those elements could become the basis of a complete storyline on another show, and many of them have been elements for episodes earlier in the series' run and in this season. The genius of "The Suitcase" is that the episode blends all of them together into a potent cocktail of regret and resentment, then brings the conflict to a head earlier than we expect it to - in the second sequence - before showing us just how little it matters in a long and illuminating sequence (that dominates the episode), which calls on us to remember everything about the relationship between the two throughout the series so far.
It's here that I should point out how fantastic Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss are throughout this episode. The show has always relied on their chemistry to carry scenes laden with subtext, and they've always delivered. In this episode, which calls on them to make some of that subtext text (like when Peggy tells Don about how she sometimes remembers her child at playgrounds), they're able to accomplish what Matt Weiner (who takes sole credit for the episode, uncharacteristically) asks of them without making any of it too obvious. There are moments in this episode that should play in a way that makes us groan, with the characters outright stating things we've been thinking for seasons, but Hamm and Moss always underplay them, and it really sells the connection between Don and Peggy yet again. When Duck asks Peggy to go with him and Don walks off into the darkness, we all know where she'll turn up to close out the episode, but when she walks into Don's office and asks if he's OK, it's enormously moving.
There are two moments in the episode that I can see ringing false to some viewers. The first is Duck's arrival at the SCDP offices after hours to "leave a present" for Don, in a scene that seems out of some broad comedy. The episode has been enormously funny up until this point - check out Roger ranting about how the way to get over killing someone while driving a motorboat while drunk is more drinking - but this threatens to undercut its poignancy completely. Instead, I think the episode saves itself by showing, again, just how unimaginative Duck is (his revenge scheme is nowhere near as clever as Don's in "Red in the Face") and how, when push comes to shove, Don will go to the mattresses for Peggy. Even though he loses, the fact that he does says to her all she needs to know. Similarly, I was caught offguard on my first viewing of the episode by the sight of Anna Draper's ghost staring mournfully at Don and then walking off into the distance. Translucent people rarely work well on TV, and I was prepared to write this off as a minor flaw in a tremendous episode, a flaw the episode gave itself a pre-emptive guard against via the scene where Don says it's hard to tell a good idea from an awful one. At the same time, though, I've come to like the scene on subsequent viewings. Anna functions less as a ghost and more as a reminder of things Don thinks he's totally lost, even though he hasn't. Duck and Anna serve the same function in the episode. Don and Peggy lose dreams they once had for themselves, but they re-find those dreams in each other. It's not a romance, but it's a bond almost as deep.
I've recently finished reading Per Petterson's new, wondrous novel I Curse the River of Time, a book about memory and rueful regret, as well as confronting the idea that we will all die. In it, Petterson writes of the moment when you realize that you are dying, the moment before you simply cease to be and your brain is able to register that fact: "I was scared. Not of being dead, that I could not comprehend, to be nothing was impossible to grasp and therefore nothing really to be scared of, but the dying itself I could comprehend, the very instant when you know that now comes what you have always feared, and you suddenly realise that every chance of being the person you really wanted to be, is gone for ever, and the one you were, is the one those around you will remember." It's a beautiful piece of writing, and it kept running through my head throughout "The Suitcase," an episode full of thoughts on death and change, of course, but also one stuck on that central idea of a suitcase, packed full of clothes, ready to go somewhere new, to a better place, really. (Even Anna carries one as she walks away, perhaps to suggest that this is all a dream Don is having in the murky, late hours.) The long night Don and Peggy spend together seems almost like that better place, a world apart from the one they usually occupy, but the lights come on in the morning, and the guys come in to loudly blow whistles in Peggy's face. Nothing can last forever, no matter how good.
That sense of melancholy, of the world always rushing forward and leaving us behind, is one of the dominant moods of Mad Men. The show's set 45 years ago, for God's sake. It's under no illusions that the world it paints is somehow a good world, entirely, or a better one in any way. The progress we've undergone since then is a good thing, it mostly realizes, but it still longs for reinvention. These are people who long to escape who they actually are and become someone else, but the world carries them ever forward. Over your life, you will become many different people, and the journey from one person to another is one of discovery and excitement. But there are also moments and places where you'll long to return, memories you'll wish to fold up and place in a bag next to each other. And then someday, you'll find yourself no longer who you were, really, and that bag of what you wished to hold on to will be all you have left. And you, too, will head off into the unknown.
- I'm so much worse at the advertising references than Keith is, but animals beating the shit out of luggage is something I DO know. Here's a famous ad where a chimp beats on a suitcase (though not a Samsonite), and I could swear there was an ad that showed an elephant doing the same, but all I can turn up is a series of TV news "elephant tests" of new luggage. Yet, my wife also remembers an elephant ad. Readers?
- I've officially reversed myself twice on Miss Blankenship at this point. I thought she was funny at first, then tired of how one-note she was, and am now back to finding her funny, because of the show's perverse delight in giving her one-note jokes to say. She's Mad Men's version of the "Cape Feare" rake gag. "If I wanted to see two Negroes fight, I'd throw a dollar bill out the window"? That line is hilarious in its ridiculous inappropriateness.
- Simon and Garfunkel close out the episode, the series' latest indication that we're moving forward into the world of the '60s more properly.
- Simon Abrams on my Twitter feed points out that Cassius Clay took on the name Muhammad Ali AFTER the Liston fight, which would make this one of the show's more glaring anachronisms. A cursory Google search suggests the Ali name might have been out there in the culture before the fight, but it does, indeed, seem as though after the fight was when Muhammad Ali took on the name Muhammad Ali. (Update: See "Shifty" in comments for an answer to this. Ali was Ali for the rematch fight between Liston and Ali in 1965, though he was still Clay for the first fight between the two in 1964. Hence, the confusion. Thanks, Shifty!)
- I like the way this episode uses all of the characters, but particularly Trudy and Roger. The constant intrusions from the night Don's NOT having are always very funny, and the series somehow avoids bald-faced commentary on how Peggy has everything she wants but doesn't have a husband and a child via Trudy. (Peggy, of course, comments directly on how she doesn't want what other girls want later on, but I was impressed by how the show essentially reversed the nice little scene between Peggy and hot-secretary-I-can't-remember-the-name-of by immediately having Trudy - with full belly - enter.)
- Do we think Don suspects Pete was the father? I tend to think no, but I can't imagine him not having some inkling of the relationship between Pete and Peggy.
- I'm sure plenty of people will want to read lots of "Matthew Weiner is DON!" stuff into the scene where he chews out Peggy, particularly the lines, "You never say thank you." "That's what the money is for!" A funny scene, but one that perhaps reveals more of the creator than he'd want it to.
- I will pre-order that copy of Sterling's Gold right now. Another example of the show undercutting tension with unexpected humor. Plus, Dr. Lyle Evans returns!
- Trudy, with a taste for homo-eroticism: "I wanna see those two men pound each other."
- Trudy, with a taste for homo-eroticism: "My father loves blood sport." (OK, I don't know that there's anything homo-erotic about this, but wouldn't it be funny if there was?)
- I'm fascinated by Don's tendency to align himself on the side of what end up being losing causes, despite his immense adaptability. Sonny Liston becomes his latest Richard Nixon.
- Jack from Jack and Bobby best not sass Joan. We all know how that turns out.
- "Peggy, I'm glad this is an environment where you feel free to fail."
- "Then there's all the talk about drinking where they start with the funny stories and then end up crying?"
- "And they're self-so-righteous!"
- Thanks for putting up with me again! Keith will be back to take you to season's end next week.