Monday, September 6, 2010

The Wanderers

Mad Men, Season Four, Episode Seven, "The Suitcase"

I like seeing "Written by Matthew Weiner" cross my TV screen during the opening music; it usually promises an extra-rich episode. Nobody gets at the depths of Don's character like his creator. An amazing amount happened last night, yet the episode did not feel too busy; it was just an incredibly deep and rich hour of drama, in which the typically reserved Don travelled an immense emotional terrain. The 'suitcase' metaphor/device worked well on a number of levels.

I loved seeing Don and Peggy as fellow travellers. They're both on a journey; both are wanderers, trying to remake themselves, figure out who they should/want to be. I think back to the late last season episode "The Gypsy and the Hobo." In writing about it, I reflected on how Don has always been something of a gypsy--traveling from identity to identity, from woman to woman, always with this sense of restlessness. As we are made to watch him fall apart and self-destruct this season, we're allowed into a different type of wandering on his part, more internal. And in this episode, he was able to explore those wanderings with Peggy by his side. While "The Gypsy and the Hobo" happened on Halloween--that night where the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is rendered more translucent--"The Suitcase" occurs on the night when Anna Draper is leaving this world. Don's awareness of this sad fact seems to propel him into his night with Peggy. While I was troubled by his inability to call Stephanie back right away, that piece of paper in his shirt pocket all day burned into his psyche the knowledge of the passing of the only person who truly knew him. It seems to have propelled him into a level of honesty and openness with Peggy that he's never allowed himself before.

For quite awhile, Peggy's been the one person at the office who knows him best. That deepened this evening. Did Don somehow realize that with Anna's death he really needs someone else to whom he can turn and with whom he can be himself? Peggy is the natural choice. They already know each other on a deeper level than most at work. They're equals in a lot of ways. Their relationship is non-sexual--something that allowed his relationship with Anna to be as rich as it was. Someone wrote last week after the waitress called Don "Dick" that Dick apparently wants to come out and Don is allowing that to happen more and more. While last week it happened as part of a drunken blackout, this week he dropped pieces of information about Dick while fully aware of what he was doing: from 'I grew up on a farm so I know what a mouse looks like' to 'when I was on my way to Korea, some kid who was a bigger hick than I was...' to sharing that he too had watched his father die and that he never knew his mother. Peggy hears all of these bits of information that are so central to making Don who he is--whoever that might end up being. And, she's there to witness his phone call to Stephanie and his subsequent sobbing, which he does not attempt to put off until Peggy is no longer there. When she rubs his back and tells him that it's not true that Anna was the only person who really knew Don, we can see that perhaps Peggy will help to fill the void left by Anna's death. And I can't help but think that Anna would approve. When her spectre appeared to Don, suitcase in hand, ready for her journey out of this world, she smiled at him, as if bestowing a benediction. I can't help but think that she was happy to see him peacefully sleeping with his head in the lap of a woman who truly cares about him, who possesses some understanding of him.

And Peggy's not afraid to call him out. While Don was being a jerk to her earlier in the episode, she gave as good as she got, yelling at him for being so drunk that he stole one of Danny's ideas and had to hire the idiot. (Did Danny really have a pipe in his hand in the first scene? Is he going to become the next Kinsey?) When he asked her to make him a drink after he'd spent time throwing up in the bathroom, she point-blank asked him, "How long are you going to go on like this?" He needs Peggy. And the best part was that on the morning after, he acknowledged that. Unlike after his sexual episode with Allison, he let Peggy know (although wordlessly) how much their evening meant to him. That moment where he put his hand over hers before sending her off to rest at home and then bring him ten tag-lines was so sweet and redeemed much for Don, who's been so unlikeable the last few episodes.

And Peggy's wanderings with Don were something to watch too. For the first time, they talked about her time in the hospital. Instead of just telling her she shouldn't think of such past difficulties, he asks her if she ever thinks about it and she replies that it can be hard not to when she goes by playgrounds. Her revelation that her mother believes Don the father of her child because he was the only one to visit her was fascinating. The dynamics between her mother and her via the phone calls to Mark at the restaurant were so revealing. She's right to break up with Mark, but it was sad to watch her process what it means that he doesn't really know her. The contrast between Mark as ex-boyfriend and Duck as ex-boyfriend is too stark (though at least Duck serves to remind us that there are bigger asshole drunks than Don out there). But, through her ruminations with Don, she seemed to work to an understanding that she does want to be a career woman; she doesn't want to succumb to the cultural and familial demands that she become just a wife. "I know what I'm supposed to want. It never seems as important as what's in that office" is quite a self-revelation.

Finally, I just have to note that rarely have we been treated to such an in-depth view of the creative process these characters engage in. Don and Peggy's all-nighter--ostensibly on behalf of Samsonite--while showing much of themselves to each other also revealed much about how the minds of these two characters work and how their creativity travels from seed of an idea to full-blown campaign. The way that their personal experiences and the context in which they find themselves shapes their thinking was readily apparent. From musing on the Parthenon picture on the diner wall ("What's the most exciting thing about a suitcase?" "Going somewhere.") to the final product being a mirror of the Liston/Ali photo on the front page of the paper, ideas pass fluidly between permeable walls that barely separate minds, real-world images, past experiences. Don's rebukes to Peggy's tirade about the Glo-Coat ad were in part self-serving, but also brought up crucial points about collaboration that still get discussed in academia with regard to plagiarism. When does an idea truly belong to someone? If you hear someone else's idea and use it to develop it into a new direction and it ends up being something else, is it yours or that of the person who came up with the original seed? In collaborative work like that which happens in an ad agency, to whom does a final product "belong?" Don tells Peggy that all ideas belong to the firm. "I give you money; you give me ideas." To her protest that "you never say 'thank you,'" he loudly retorts, "That's what the money's for!" Is he being mean? ungrateful? jerky? or a realistic businessman? After sharing a night of brainstorming ideas, is the final product of the fight-related Samsonite ad Don's or Peggy's and Don's together or SCDP's? It was an interesting glimpse into some important questions.

Final thoughts I don't have time to delve into more fully:

--the context of the Liston/Ali fight and what it meant for the culture at the time and all those who went to see it, including a visibly pregnant Trudy, putting on her white gloves, talking about being ready for some "blood sport." As my husband noted, it's interesting to see an ad man like Don be disapproving of Muhammad Ali's self-promotion. Isn't that what advertising types do all the time? Many people didn't like that about Clay/Ali. Is it because he's Black? Peggy seemed to hit on that when she mentioned how her father got rid of all of Nat King Cole's records when her mother made an approving comment about his looks, much as Peggy had revealed to Don that she thinks Cassius Clay is handsome. Don: "I don't like him." Peggy: "You're not supposed to."

--the other pugilistic references and subtexts from Don and Dick's fight over Peggy to Peggy's revelation that at age 12 she'd watched her father die of a heart attack while watching a violent sporting event so that she's never liked sports since.

--Mrs. Blankenship and Bert Cooper? "Bert Cooper has no testicles?" I guess that's a metaphor they can explore more fully in another episode.


  1. The moment that Don covered Peggy's hand with his was beautiful. And he's had moments like that with Peggy before. Remember how he went to her apartment, at the end of last season, and told her he'd spend the rest of his life trying to hire her if she said no?
    Peggy's birthday is the day that Anna dies.
    I don't think that's a coincidence.
    And - I did love the line about the "hellcat" Ida Blankenship. Who knew?
    Great, great show! Wonderful comments, Cathy.

  2. I like the symbolism of Anna's death day and Peggy's birthday being the same. I hadn't thought of that. It stresses Peggy's symbolic reincarnation as Don's soul mate.