As we move toward the conclusion of Season 4, and the Great Mad Men Re-Watch altogether, we get some of the series’ best work. Indeed, the next three episodes might be the results of a show cresting at its creative peak.
“The Suitcase” is widely considered to be one of the best, if not the best, episodes of Mad Men, and I would wholeheartedly concur. Written solely by Matthew Weiner, it’s a rare feat of dramatic alchemy, in which the two lynch pins of the series—Don and Peggy—go toe-to-toe for a momentous evening of personal catharsis. The episode, set almost entirely in the SCDP offices, begins near the end of a workday and with a whirlwind of activity, as much of the staff is headed out to watch the rematch between Muhammad Ali (still being billed as Cassius Clay, despite having announced his name change and conversion to the Black Muslim Brotherhood) and Sonny Liston on a closed-circuit broadcast at a Manhattan movie theater.
It’s Peggy’s 26th birthday, and Mark, her nebbish boyfriend, has arranged a surprise family birthday dinner. But Peggy makes the fatal error of popping into Don’s office on her way out, and thus begins an evening of knocking heads together over the Samsonite luggage campaign. Hovering over the proceedings is an urgent message left for Don from Stephanie in California. Don knows what’s on the other end of that call—news about Anna—and avoids returning it until the following morning. It’s a brilliant move, as each of our heroes now has something incredibly stressful hanging over them throughout the night—Don, the knowledge that the person he trusts and loves most is gone; Peggy, the knowledge that her family is gathered at a fancy restaurant, accompanied by a guy she doesn't feel particularly strongly about. "We're supposed to be staring at each other over candlelight, and he invites my mother? He doesn't know me," she says.
That pressure makes Don and Peggy act out, addressing things about their strange, mentor-mentee relationship that have gone unspoken for four seasons. Peggy lashes out over what she felt was Don’s appropriation of her ideas for the Glo Coat ad, without so much as a thank you (“That’s what the money’s for!” Don barks at her, in a stunningly succinct reduction of the rat race), sending her scrambling to weep into a bathroom mirror. Yet she never leaves the office, because to Peggy, work is where she feels most at home: "I know what I'm supposed to want," she’ll later say at a dinner, "but it just never feels right, or as important as anything in that office."
What’s perhaps so impressive about “The Suitcase” is how deftly it oscillates between heaviness and hilarity. Most memorably, there’s that recording Don discovers of Roger’s dictated memoirs, including the juicily unbelievable revelation that Roger once bedded Bert’s old secretary, a.k.a. “the queen of perversions, Ida Blankenship.” Also, that Bert had “an unnecessary orchiectomy,” a.k.a. testicle removal surgery. And then Duck Phillips, let go by Grey and at the end of his rope, getting caught in the act of dropping his trousers and leaving a steaming present for Don... on Roger’s gleaming white chair. (The fart sound made that moment viscerally real for a second there.) There’s something so comforting in knowing that Mad Men is willing to go there—and it’s never too far, but just far enough.
The episode ends with an image of deep intimacy between Peggy and Don: It’s two hands intertwined, a rare moment of Don physically interacting with a woman that involves no sexual overtones. It’s comforting to them, and equally comforting to us, to know they are there for each other.
– The historic boxing bout in question was a rematch from the year prior, and ended in 90 seconds after Ali’s “phantom punch.” Many thought Liston had thrown the fight for his mafia connections. Learn more about the fight in this short feature:
– The restaurant that served as the location for Peggy’s ill-fated surprise birthday dinner was The Forum of the Twelve Caesars, a ridiculously over-the-top, Roman-themed eatery that once existed in Rockefeller Center. (You can read all about it here.)
There’s a new breed of creative in Season 4, a bratty boys club that wears sportswear to the office and enjoys puerile humor, usually at women’s expense. Stan and Joey are the chairman and vice-chairman of the club. In “The Summer Man,” Joan’s slide down the totem pole continues when Joey, who’s emerged as a conceited punk, mouths off to her in the most offensive of ways: “What do you do around here besides walk around looking like you want to get raped? I’m not some young girl off the bus. I don’t need some madame from a Shanghai whorehouse to show me the ropes.” It’s particularly awful in light of what we already know—that Joan was raped by her own husband on Don’s office floor. In her next scene, Greg, who’s already enlisted as an army surgeon, announces he’s been called to basic training: “It’s eight weeks,” he tells her, and he suggests she talk to her friends at the office.
The spectre of losing her husband in Vietnam ends up being the same thing that finally empowers Joan against her tormentors. After Joey pins a dirty cartoon of Joan on her knees before Pryce to her office window, she storms into the creative lounge and declares: “I can’t wait until next year when all of you are in Vietnam. You will be pining for the day that someone was trying to make your life easier. And when you’re over there, in the jungle and they’re shooting at you, remember you’re not fighting for me, because I never liked you.” It’s enough to put the fear of God in all of their eyes, Joey’s included, but Peggy goes one further and gives him the ax, with Don’s blessing. It’s enormously satisfying, but here’s where Mad Men refuses to play to the cheap seats: In a conversation between the two women in the elevator, Joan makes her anger clear over what she deemed to be an undermining move from Peggy, who she’s always envied, as opposed to a show of womanly solidarity. Overall, a rough episode for Joan.
Another solid effort, hampered slightly by the introduction of Don's "inner voice" as he begins journaling his thoughts. Something felt off about getting that direct line to what was going on inside his head.
Regardless of whatever else happens in “The Beautiful Girls,” it’s unlikely you’re going to recall anything outside of the sudden, tragicomic death of Ida Blankenship, who’s discovered by Peggy sitting lifeless at her desk, then tips forward with a “thunk” when Peggy nudges her. Her passing hits Bert particularly hard—God knows what their history entails—and gets everyone pondering their own mortality. No one more so than Roger, who is consoled by Joan, and who gets possibly the line of the season: “She died like she lived. Surrounded by the people she answered phones for.” Actually, Ida’s death inspires several memorable epitaphs, not the least of which is Bert’s observation, during a group obituary-writing session: “She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She was an astronaut.”
The second big event, and even bigger once we know what’s coming down the line, is that Joan and Roger do the nasty in an alley after getting held up at gunpoint. (The mugger has just taken Joan’s wedding ring, somewhat symbolically.) Dr. Faye, for all her insight into the human condition, has found herself to be completely useless around children, and Sally in particular. Sally throws a tantrum for the ages in the hallway and takes a spill, and it’s Megan who winds up being the only comforting female presence. That’s probably the moment Don first realizes Megan would make a suitable mother-figure to his kids.
The episode ends with another all-female elevator ride, this one in complete silence: As the car descends, Joan, Peggy, and Dr. Faye contemplate their lives—each feeling somewhat incapable of unlocking the secrets of the male id, and each at various levels of peace with that fact.
Farewell, sweet Ida. You will not be soon forgotten.
1. For both Joan and Peggy, work has become their central relationship and tether to self-esteem. Yet as Peggy continues to flourish, Joan faces humiliation and violation. Discuss.
2. Any passing thoughts on Ida Blankenship? Favorite lines?
3. The women who revolve around Don like satellites each bring out different aspects of his personality. Who do you think is healthiest for him?
– The Great Mad Men Re-Watch: All Hail the Blankenship
– The Great Mad Men Re-Watch: The Bachelor Tells All
– The Great Mad Men Re-Watch: Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce
– The Great Mad Men Re-Watch: The Lawnmower, Man
– The Great Mad Men Re-Watch: Peggy Gets High
– The Great Mad Men Re-Watch Examines the Season 5 Poster and Delves Into Season 3!
– The Great Mad Men Re-Watch, Part 9: California Dreamin'
– The Great Mad Men Re-Watch, Part 8: Men Behaving Badly
– The Great Mad Men Re-Watch, Part 7: God, Sex, and Irish Setters
– The Great Mad Men Re-Watch, Part 6: Season 2 Begins!
– The Great Mad Men Re-Watch, Part 5: Carousel of Broken Dreams
– The Great Mad Men Re-Watch, Part 4: Hearts, Diseased
– The Great Mad Men Re-Watch, Part 3: The Miseducation of Peggy Olson
– The Great Mad Men Re-Watch, Part 2: A Basket of Kisses
– The Great Mad Men Re-Watch: Here We Go!