Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Canon #2: Mad Men - "The Suitcase" (2010)

My favorite image in the history of ever

The Canon is a recurring feature where I look back on movies, tv episodes, albums, books, etc. that I love; inducting them into my own imaginary canon of all-time favorite things.  (Inspired by the now-defunct podcast, Extra Hot Great)

There's a frequent occurrence in my life that I have dubbed "Night Madness."  It's a term I use to describe what often happens to me at night when I'm trying to go to sleep.  My brain decides that since it doesn't have to devote its energy to walking and talking, instead of getting some sleep, it's going to reallocate that energy to fretting over everything.  And I mean everything.  Past mistakes and embarrassments, current predicaments, and future prospects all meld together to form a miasma of stress that clouds my brain and prevents it from any hopes of peace.  Eventually, all of this stressing just spins out of control, to the point where I feel like I'm going to scratch off my skin or that my brain will pop out of my skull at any moment.

Mad Men's classic episode, "The Suitcase," is Night Madness in televisual form.  Plopped right in the middle of the show's towering 4th season -- the 7th episode of each season is usually known to be the most experimental -- "The Suitcase" serves as both a detour from the action of the season and also a ruminative inspection of everything that has happened up to this moment.  It's a big night for America, as the upcoming fight between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston is poised to be the event of the year.  But it's also an important night for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, with the deadline for their Samsonite ad looming.  The episode could be classified as a bottle episode, choosing to mainly focus on Don and Peggy as they toil away on a pitch in the dead hours of the night.  Incidentally, there's also a confluence of circumstances in both Don and Peggy's lives too that add to the stakes of the night.  Don receives an urgent message from California that's likely to be about Anna's deteriorating health and he's dreading making the call.  It's also Peggy's birthday and she's got big dinner plans with her fiancee.

One of the joys of long-running serialized television, and why I vastly prefer television to movies, is that it allows for a grand construction of character arcs and relationships.  There's this slow accumulation of information that you gain about everyone and if you have a show as good as Mad Men, which constantly calls back events from the past, it can be extremely satisfying to see small details pay off in big ways.  Part of the reason why "The Suitcase" is one of my favorite television episodes of all time (really, I'd only put Buffy's "The Body" and maybe an episode or two of The Sopranos above it) is because it's all about the payoff.  Everything we see is a result of things that have happened to these characters over the past three and a half seasons.  The main tension running through the episode is one that's been present throughout the whole season: Don and Peggy's growing distance.  Despite the fact that just at the end of the third season, Don was begging Peggy to come back and work for him, he's been unnecessarily cruel to her in the 6 episodes that come before this one.  Don's lack of appreciation, coupled with Peggy feeling like he stole her idea for what eventually became the award-winning Glocoat commercial and Duck Phillips courting her to work with him, are all ingredients contributing to the stew that is Don and Peggy's estrangement.

From there, "The Suitcase" lets the tension explode.  Don and Peggy argue, and the amazing performances by Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss -- neither of which won an Emmy that year -- really sell the raw emotions of these two fighting about everything that's been bothering them over the last few months (and years).  There's a weird flow of moods to these arguments too -- one second they're bickering and the next second they cool off a bit, only to get into a bigger fight.  Through these scenes, we get to see just how much they're tied to each other.  Both are guarded individuals, consumed by their work, and drawn together because of their mutual understanding of one another and the things they know about each other that nobody else does.  The episode makes a point of constantly giving Peggy the chance to choose between Don and something else and she always chooses Don.  When she has multiple opportunities to just leave Don to be a grouch all by his lonesome, she decides to stay with the man who gave her a career instead of being with her family.  Later, when Duck shows up and scuffles with Don, she could easily leave with Duck, who seems to appreciate her talent more, but she still sides with her old mentor.

The Don and Peggy relationship is my favorite thing about Mad Men.  Sure, I love its beautifully glacial pace and its examination of how people react to the societal changes barreling towards them, but the show would lose a significant amount of its heart without Don and Peggy on the fringe, occasionally having a moment of solidarity.  Much like Peggy does, all I want to see is Don approve of her and voice his respect for her.  This constant push and pull between Don's callousness and his need for Peggy doesn't seem like it would be fertile territory for dramatic tension, but it works immensely.  At the same time, if the balance veers too far in any given direction, then the whole foundation falls apart.  I always joke that I will stop watching the show if Don and Peggy ever kiss, and even though I'd never quit my favorite show on television, I'd probably never forgive it either.  Luckily, Matt Weiner has such a perfect command of the boundaries of their relationship that I trust him not to.  Platonic friendships are hard to come by on television, but Weiner has crafted one of the greatest of all time, and some of the best moments of "The Suitcase" come when Don and Peggy directly assess the state of their relationship.

Once all the fighting falls away, the episode slows down and takes on a more languid feel.  The two begin to open up to one another about their parents' deaths, relationship troubles, Don's experience in the war, Peggy giving up her baby at the end of season 1, etc.  There's a real somberness to these scenes and the script and performances perfectly capture the rhythm of a conversation between two individuals wearily commiserating in the dwindling hours of the night.  On a show that's built around opaque interactions, it's refreshing to see the rare moment of clarity that Don and Peggy share with each other.  The night is set to the backdrop of Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston, two titans battling until only one is standing, so how beautiful is it that Don and Peggy entered the night at odds and came away with a new appreciation of one another?

Night Madness is full of sorrow and regret and rage.  It's terrifying and it hurts.  What's worse is that you go through it all alone.  "The Suitcase" finds beauty in the idea that you don't have to go through it by yourself.  The sadness will still come, but it's so much less painful to suffer through when you have somebody to share it with.  Don may know that Anna, the woman who knew him the most, is probably dead, but he sees her ghost while laying in the lap of Peggy, the only other woman who understands him.  "Open or closed?," Peggy asks Don the next morning in regards to his office door, when the haze of the night has ended and the reality of daylight has set in.  They may never speak of the night before ever again, much like they never previously spoke about the things they told each other in the moment, but they'll always have that shared experience.  "Open," Don says.

1 comment:

  1. While I would never call "The Suitcase" one of my favorite episodes on television (Or even my favorite episode of Mad Men, that honor is reserved for "The Gypsy and the Hobo" [Season 3]), I can fully appreciate it for what it is and it is certainly a great episode of Mad Men.