Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "The Suitcase" (season 4, episode 7)

Mad Men - "The Suitcase" (season 4, episode 7)


Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of seasons four, five, and six. The last season will be covered in the summer of 2022. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on September 5, 2010/written by Matthew Weiner; directed by Jennifer Getzinger): The big 1965 match-up between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston inspires the entire office to gamble and booze (not that they need any particular excuse, as this episode endlessly reminds us). Ali, a year past taking his Muslim name, is still universally referred to by the admen as Cassius Clay with condescending contempt; the heavyweight champion of the world remains an upstart in their eyes, his previous victory a fluke to be rectified later that night for paying, ticket-holding audiences at closed-circuit TV venues. However, with a Samsonite meeting scheduled soon, Don insists that Peggy stay at the office and brainstorm with him while everyone else migrates to their parties. Peggy is skipping out on a surprise family birthday dinner organized by the furious Mark, who breaks up with her over the phone (with her equally frustrated family's sympathy). Don is avoiding not just a lame gathering with dry drunk Freddy and an increasingly desperate Roger (whose self-aggrandizing, gossipy taped memoirs Don and Peggy stumble upon and bond over after Don has made Peggy cry by ferociously berating her). He's also putting off a dreaded call to Stephanie in California where he is certain Anna has passed away from cancer, or soon will. Peggy's and Don's mutually assured distraction draws them closer and eventually drives them from the office; opting for the free radio broadcast rather than a ticketed event, a drunken Don and dumped Peggy flirt over drinks at a dissolute bar, listening in shock as Liston falls in just ninety seconds.

Likewise, without being gracelessly on-the-nose about it, "The Suitcase" reveals the typically stern but unusually bullying Don as a pathetic shell of the old authoritative Mr. Draper, an abusive but deeply insecure boss while the sensitive, assertive Peggy will tenaciously hang on and outlast him in terms of composure, commitment, and eventually even literal consciousness. The duo's night together is equal parts "dodge, weave, and parry" match-up and classic Beauty and the Beast redemption tale. If Don is brought low, it's still implicitly incumbent upon Peggy to take care of him all night, a responsibility rewarded with emotional (but not sexual) intimacy rather than material compensation. Peggy can't find her place with the women; Pete's wife cheerfully condescends to her in a way that makes her uncomfortable (though not as uncomfortable as Pete will be seeing the two women side by side, one very pregnant with his child, the other having given his child away years ago). Nor can she be "one of the guys," let alone the star of her own show. As for Don, he spills a few of his biographical secrets to Peggy, who shares that she too saw her father die as a child. Don then pukes in the toilet (and on his own shirt) allowing reliable escort Peggy a rare, wryly executed glimpse into the men's room. And finally he loses a late-night scuffle to the way-off-the-wagon Duck who shows up at SCDP to defecate on Don's couch - an act he accidentally almost performs in Roger's office instead - and whimper that Peggy is a "whore" for betraying him with Don (or so he assumes, like everyone else it seems).

Duck even pulls rank, boasting that he had numerous kills on Okinawa while Don has recently acknowledged to Peggy that he never shot anyone in Korea. If you were to ask someone who'd never seen an episode of Mad Men to summon up an image of it, they very well might imagine this scene of two hammered middle-aged men tackling one another on the floor of a chic sixties New York advertising agency. Duck's abject descent is depicted as nearly a slapstick affair throughout the episode; earlier in the evening he calls Peggy just as she receives his gift of a business card with her name listed as creative director next to his. She's initially flattered, especially after yet another patronizing putdown from Don, but Duck unravels instantly. If his sloppy speech, glass clinking into frame, and the hotel environs revealed by a wider camera angle don't make his circumstances clear, his increasingly desperate excuses - "I was inspired by Don," "it was mutual" - indicate that he's recently been fired and has no clients to speak of. The whole thing is a pipe dream. But if Duck's delusions are more obvious, Don's may be more perniciously (self-)destructive.

As Anna Draper's physical form collapses across the country, what's left of "Don Draper's" facade crumbles into dust, leaving just the old Dick Whitman behind. (There's some irony in the fact that Don, one of the most eager to mock Ali, also refuses to live under the name he was born with - perhaps for the opposite reason, running toward conformity and away from his roots.) It's Dick whom Peggy spends the night personally acquainting herself with; at the same time, paradoxically, she reaffirms her deep professional connection to Don, the man who helped build her career while always keeping her at arm's length. At dawn he finally calls the west coast, gets his expected news, and breaks into sobs just in time to be caught by an awakened Peggy (who cradled him in her lap as they snoozed the night away on the couch). This feels like a cathartic moment for both characters but of course, this show has always been awash in false (or rather, stalled) starts, detours, and moments of truth that fade with the demands of another day. Whether Ali captured in a legendary front-page photo seen around the world, the Samsonite depicted looming over its competitor in a similar boxing ring sketched by Don the next morning, or Don himself clinging to this half-baked concept (and, more tangibly if fleetingly, to Peggy's hand at his desk) as a form of survival if not salvation, "the champ" might as well enjoy victory while it appears as if it's going to last - on series television, as in life, nothing does.

My Response: This is Getzinger's fifth episode of Mad Men, borrowing elements from all of her previous entries: Anna's impending death haunting Don in the midst of his post-divorce tailspin (introduced in "The Good News"), Don coming as close as he can to bearing his soul to a close female companion (see Betty discovering his Whitman past in "The Gypsy and the Hobo"), Peggy spending a memorable night at the office (more pot- than alcohol-inflected in "My Old Kentucky Home"), and Peggy asserting her value to Don (calling him by his first name for the first time in "The New Girl"). Hardly a mere Greatest Hits collection, this episode plays more like a culmination - certainly the best episode of the fourth season thus far. By coincidence, I assume, "The Suitcase" bring us to the exact halfway point of the series which is kind of perfect: it's 1965, the midpoint of the decade and for once - no exceptions come to mind - we're dealing with a single storyline (I can't call it a two-hander since many other characters roll through the scenario, but I can't recall a single one who isn't sharing a scene with either Peggy or Don). The action is also quite concentrated: a single less-than-twenty-four-hour-period from near the end of one work day to near the beginning of the next, organized by a dreaded phone call, a stymied ad campaign, and - of course - an infamous prizefight.

It was only while writing this piece that I realized this couldn't be the first Ali-Liston championship bout (which occurred - offscreen in the Mad Men world - early in 1964, right around the time the Beatles arrived in the U.S. and indeed took a comical photo with the then-still-Clay). Rather, it's the boxers' second and last confrontation: a fascinating event involving the confluence of Malcolm X's recent death, Sonny Liston's organized crime connections, a last-minute relocation to the fairly obscure Lewiston, Maine, and the eternal unresolved question of whether Liston's first-round collapse was a legitimate knockout, a confused technical error due to Ali and the referee, or a straight-up fix on Liston's part (nobody appears to assume Ali was in on it, even the wildest conspiracy theorists who assert that Liston's entire family was kidnapped by the Fruit of Islam and threatened with death if he didn't take the fall). Little of this features directly in the episode itself, which uses the heavyweight fight as a real-world counterpart for the sparring matches not just between Don and Peggy but between Duck and Don (literally in their case), Peggy and Mark, or each one of the two leads with their own individual demons. Yet the episode isn't called "The Fight" - it's called "The Suitcase." Why? Perhaps the answer lies less in the endless variations on a Samsonite pitch than in Don's recollection of a relative who always kept his suitcase packed ("You never know when you might have to go somewhere")...as well as Don's vision of the spirit Anna carrying her own luggage to wherever she is travelling now.




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