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But the Fighter Still Remains

By Sarah Carlson | TV | September 7, 2010 |

By Sarah Carlson | TV | September 7, 2010 |

The seventh episode of “Mad Men’s” brilliant Season Four, “The Suitcase,” plays out in one day — May 25, 1965. It’s the night of the second Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston boxing match for the world heavyweight championship, which the show’s writers parallel with their own matchup between Don and Peggy. This isn’t the two’s first go-around, but it is the most poignant, and the “The Suitcase” is full of what largely was missing from previous seasons: Pathos. I’m a broken record, yes, but Season Four of “Mad Men” has finally struck the right balance of not only being nice, but enjoyable, to watch. Characters are loosening up, and Roger isn’t the only one making jokes. Most importantly, we’re seeing new sides to Don and Peggy, who combine to form the heart of the show. The intertwining of their storylines for one night, with each taking as many blows as they give the other, was nothing short of beautiful. And, like the Clay-Liston fight, there was no predictable outcome or easy answer. What did occur, though, was memorable.

Everyone is talking about the upcoming fight at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and Freddy is selling tickets to a screening of the Clay-Liston (although Clay had already changed his name to Muhammad Ali) match at a movie theater. Danny wants to know why Freddy expects his coworkers to buy tickets they know he got for free, which prompts Freddy to say, “You’re such a Jew.” Danny plays along, first asking “Do your friends in Hollywood know you talk like that?” and then saying that perhaps Freddy is the one who is Jewish for trying to make money off the tickets. Jew jokes! I’m immediately uncomfortable. Don walks in, thank goodness, and agrees to pre-fight steaks and cocktails at The Palm with Freddy and the others, adding that he has put $100 on Liston. Don soon tells his secretary, Miss Blankenship, to make a dinner reservation for him and Roger at anywhere but The Palm. It’s past 11 a.m. when Don arrives at work, and as Peggy, Stan, Danny and Joey meet in his office to show him their Samsonite luggage commercial pitch, Peggy points out that the meeting was supposed to be in the 9 a.m. range. “I’m late, but you’re not. Good work so far,” Don tells her in a deadpan. If we’ve learned anything from Jon Hamm’s appearances on “30 Rock” and last week’s Emmys, it’s that he has great comedic timing. The writers have been working more sarcasm, wit and humor into Don, molding him into someone more relatable than his previous Byronic Hero, and it’s wonderful. Hamm shines this season and this episode, showing that in drama, he can do more than just play stoic.

The Samsonite pitch is a hokey TV ad designed around guest football quarterback Joe Namath. Essentially, the Samsonite suitcase can block any of its competitors thanks to its strength, but Don, saying endorsements are lazy, isn’t thrilled. He likes Danny’s concept about the toughness of the product, though. He asks the guys to leave him and Peggy alone, telling her “I’m glad this is an environment where you feel free to fail.” It’s back to the drawing board to play off the toughness concept, and as Peggy goes to her office, she sees a vase of flowers and a card from Duck — it’s her birthday. He remembered, and she calls to say thanks. She opens the present he sent with the flowers, business cards inscribed with “Phillips-Olsen Advertising.” Surprise! He wants to start a new agency with her, this one specializing in women’s products with Peggy serving as creative director. Peggy is gracious but cautious, and she wants to know if he’s lost his job. He’s calling from his “home office,” and he’s already been drinking (we saw him last week being escorted from the industry Clio Awards for being drunk and unruly). Her questions make him snap, “I know it’s not a diamond necklace, but I did spend a lot of money on those cards!” She says she suspects he’s been drinking, and he admits that he’s “falling apart” and needs to see her. There’s a knock, and Stan calls “pull your hands out of your panties!” as a way to get her to open the door. Peggy ends the phone call to Duck, and Stan, Danny and Joey invite her to eat. “Come on, it’s your birthday. We’ll let you talk through lunch.”

Stephanie, Anna Draper’s niece whom we met earlier this season when Don stopped in L.A., has called and left a message for Don, saying it’s urgent. Don knows what’s coming; Anna was dying from cancer, although her sister, niece and doctors had kept the news from her. Don attempts to call Stephanie back, but can’t. Roger comes in complaining about Freddy and Cal Rutledge of Pond’s, who don’t drink, coming to watch the fight now. Roger has been waiting 15 months for the fight and wants to drink and have a good time, not sit around and listen to Freddy. Don says he’s not going to watch the fight after all but will stay at the office to work on Samsonite. “Are you serious? We can solve this problem with a flask!” Roger says. “I wouldn’t be good company anyway,” Don says. “That’s never bothered me before,” Roger replies. As the work day ends, Peggy heads to the restroom to primp before her boyfriend, Mark, takes her out for a birthday dinner. There, she runs into Trudy, Pete’s wife, now very pregnant. “It’s an incredible feeling having this baby kick me,” Trudy at one point says as the two small talk. “Is it any different than living with Pete?” Peggy jokes. “You’re witty,” Trudy replies. “I always assumed that, but it turns out it’s true.” Trudy says she’s heard it’s Peggy’s birthday and asks what her plans are. A secretary pops her head in to tell Peggy that Don is looking for her, and as Peggy and Trudy leave the restroom, Trudy tells Peggy, “Happy birthday. You know, 26 is still very young.” A waiting Pete glances between the two women uneasily for a second; Trudy is, of course, a walking reminder of the baby Peggy had with Pete and gave away. Peggy heads to Don’s office as her male coworkers turn and run, not wanting to get sucked into working any more for the day and letting Peggy take the fall for not having anything on Samsonite.

Don isn’t happy with the status of the ad, complaining that he gave Peggy more responsibility only for her to squander it. “You think elves do this?” he says. They’re going to work on the ad right now, he says, and Peggy heads to her office to call Mark at the restaurant, mumbling to Don, “You’re just gonna change it anyways.” “Excuse me?!” he yells back. Peggy tells Mark she’ll be about 15 minutes late, which he then relays to the surprise guests also at the table, who include Peggy’s mother and sister. Peggy lists off ideas the team has come up with for the ad as Don, who has been drinking all day, offers commentary on the upcoming fight. He doesn’t like Clay. “He’s got a big mouth. ‘I’m the greatest!’ Not if you have to say it.” That gives him an idea for the ad, though: There are three classes of suitcases — featherweight, lightweight and heavyweight, and Samsonite is a heavyweight. Peggy says that idea is great and prepares to leave as Roger calls Don. He’s hiding from Freddy and gang and sneaking a cocktail, and he begs Don to join him to watch the fight. “Did you know Freddy Rumsen collects Indian arrowheads?” Roger says sarcastically, but Don tells him he’s still not coming.

Peggy’s phone rings, and it’s Mark, telling her the 15 minutes has turned into an hour. Peggy says she just can’t leave. “Dammit, Peggy,” he says, “I’ve got your whole family here for a surprise dinner, OK? And the only way you can make it worse is by not coming at all.” Peggy says she’s sorry, and goes back to tell Don that it’s her birthday and she’s leaving. She could have told him it was his birthday, Don says combatively, eventually turning it back on her and claiming it isn’t his fault for “ruining” the day for her. “Do you know when my birthday is?” Don challenges her. “I was your secretary!” So, that’s a yes. “By the way,” Don says. “You’re 20 … something years old. It’s time to get over birthdays.” He says he can work on Samsonite himself, and Peggy aims to leave but decides against it. She calls Mark to tell him, and when he gets angry, she says that no one asked him to throw this surprise dinner. Peggy’s mother grabs the phone from Mark and tries to berate her into coming, saying, “I don’t know how many nice boys you think are lining up for you.” When Mark gets the phone back he tells Peggy that her mother is right, and Peggy then suggests that he date her instead. He’s already sounding just like her mother in his demands for her to leave work, Peggy says, and she can’t believe he would turn what should have been a romantic dinner into a night filled with the very people she can’t stand. Before they know it, he’s breaking up with her in front of her family. “It’ll be fine,” Peggy’s self-righteous sister tells Mark. “Couples fight, ask Jerry,” she adds, gesturing to her husband. Jerry’s nod says it all.

Peggy returns to Don’s office and tells him she thinks she and Mark just broke up, and she’s soon complaining to Don about being “stuck” at the office “because of some stupid idea from Danny, who you had to hire because you stole his other stupid idea because you were drunk.” Then it’s on to arguing about the Clio Awards and Don’s recognition for the Glo-Coat ad that Peggy worked on. Don says that Peggy’s ideas were only a “kernel,” which he then built into a commercial. “But you got the Clio!” she protests. “It’s your job,” he fires back. “I give you money, you give me ideas.” “You never say thank you!” she yells. “That’s what the money is for!” he yells back. Besides, she’s too young and too early in her career to be counting her ideas. “Everything is an opportunity,” he says, “and you should be thanking me in the morning when you wake up, along with Jesus, for giving you another day.” Peggy starts crying. “Oh, come on,” Don says, and then Peggy runs out of his office. “I’m sorry about your boyfriend, OK!” he calls after her, but she goes to the women’s room and cries some more.

Don pulls out a tape recorder to come up with ideas for Samsonite. A mouse scurries across his floor just then, but he lets it go and loads more tape into the recorder. Peggy is on her office couch, sulking, when Don knocks on their joint wall and calls for her to join him. She reluctantly goes, and at his desk he plays her the tape he’s uncovered. It’s Roger’s recordings for his memoirs, and Don is almost in tears from laughing. In the segment he plays, Roger is discussing Bert Cooper and how he thinks his partner resented him earlier on in his career because of Roger’s “sexual prowess.” He discusses the young Ida Blankenship as the “queen of perversions” and reveals that Bert had his testicles unnecessarily removed. Don is cracking up as he stops the tape, but Peggy says it feels like reading someone’s diary. “Come on,” Don says. “Ida was a hellcat? Cooper lost his balls? Roger’s writing a book?!” He asks Peggy to stay and visit, and she does, soon talking about Mark. “We’re supposed to be staring at each other over candlelight, and he invites my mother?” she says. “He doesn’t know me. I guess I’m back to square one — single,” she adds in a sing-song voice. Then she screeches as she sees the mouse, and Don goes after it, trying to trap it with the suitcase. “You know what, there’s a way out of this room we don’t know about,” he says. Then he offers to buy Peggy dinner.

They eat at a diner, their booth next to a mural of Greece, and they continue brainstorming about Samsonite and suitcases. They discuss the purpose of traveling, and Peggy reveals she’s never been on a plane. Then she says, “Cooper has no testicles?” The image does stick with you. Don continues the suitcase talk with a story about his uncle Max, who always had a packed suitcase on hand because he said “A man has to be ready to go at any moment.” “Jesus,” Don says, looking confused, “maybe it’s a metaphor.” Peggy thinks there’s something in that idea, but she can’t tell the difference between what’s good and what’s awful anymore. “I know what I’m supposed to want, but it just never feels right. Or as important,” she says. They chat about their pasts, Don telling Peggy he was in Korea and both sharing that they each watched their fathers die. Don’s dad was kicked in the head by a horse; Peggy’s had a heart attack in front of her one afternoon when she 12. She asks Don about his mother, but he says he never knew her. Then she asks, looking at the mural beside them, “Why is there a dog in the Parthenon?” “That is a roach,” Don says. “Let’s go some place darker.”

They arrive at a bar in time to listen to the fight on the radio. Peggy says she hates dating and that she’s not good at it, but Don reassures her that she’ll find someone and that she is “cute as hell.” Peggy lets him know that coworkers think she slept with him to get her job, but he says he hasn’t tried to sleep with her because he has to “keep rules” at work — not that she isn’t attractive. “Not as attractive as some of your other secretaries, I guess?” she says coyly, taking a sip of her drink. Don looks down and smiles a bit but says, “You don’t want to start giving me morality lessons, do you? People do things, all right?” Peggy tells him that her mother thinks Don is responsible for her pregnancy because he was the only visitor she had at the hospital. She hates him, Peggy says, and Don asks if Peggy knows who the father actually is. Of course she does, she says. “Ever think about it?” he asks. “I try not to, but it comes up out of nowhere,” she says. “Playgrounds … .” (Seeing the father’s pregnant wife, perhaps?) The fight has been playing in the background, and the bar patrons start yelling at the radio and for Liston to get up. Clay appears to have won, but already the patrons are doubting the knock out.

Peggy helps a stumbling Don back to the office and to the men’s restroom, where he lunges to a stall and vomits. Peggy stands there, asking him if he needs water and then saying she’ll be right back. In the hallway, she sees another drunken figure, and she discovers it’s Duck, who has found his way into Roger’s office. He thinks it’s Don’s, and he pulls down his pants and tries to defecate on a chair as a “present.” Peggy tells him he’s being disgusting, and besides, he’s got the wrong office, and she begins to escort him out. “I’m not going anywhere without you,” Duck says. “Baby, baby, I need you so bad.” Now in the hallway, Don sees the two and asks what is going on, telling Duck he doesn’t belong there. “So Peggy,” Duck says. “I see you’re not alone. Guess when screwing me didn’t get you anything you had to go back to Draper.” Don is stunned by the news that Duck and Peggy were together, looking between the two of them. “That’s right,” Duck says. “We were in love. Turns out, she’s just another whore.” Don takes a swing at Duck but misses, and the two drunkenly wrestle until Duck pins Don and, raising his hand ready to strike, says “I killed 17 men in Okinawa.” Don says “uncle,” and Duck says, “You still think you’re better than me?”

Peggy gets rid of Duck and returns to Don’s office, where Don is now sitting on his couch, eyes bloodshot, vomit on his shirt, sore. Peggy starts to apologize for the fight and explain that her relationship with Duck came during “a confusing time.” Don stops her, saying she doesn’t have to explain anything and asks her to make him a drink. “How long are you going to go on like this?” Peggy asks. “I have to make a phone call, and I know it’s going to be bad, OK?” he says. “Oh. Do you want to be alone?” “Just make me a drink.” She does, but as she sits on the couch he puts his head in her lap to sleep. He says he’s sorry if her embarrassed her, but she shushes him and takes a sip of his drink. Soon, we see they’ve fallen asleep, Don’s head still in her lap, Peggy collapsed against the couch, both looking spent. There are footsteps, and Don opens his eyes and sees a ghostlike image of Anna carrying a suitcase. She smiles at him, then turns and disappears, and Don knows that Anna is gone. He falls back asleep but wakes at daybreak. He calls Stephanie. “She’s gone,” Stephanie says. “She wanted you to know.” Anna had her body donated to science, so Don doesn’t need to worry about traveling for a funeral, Stephanie said, adding that she’d like to stay in her house for a bit as she takes time off school. “She’s in a better place,” Stephanie says, and Don chokes up. After a pause, he says, “That’s what they say.” When he hangs up, he sees Peggy awake and watching him, and he bursts into tears. Peggy stands up and goes near him, asking him what happened. Someone important to him died, he says, the only person in the world who really knew him. That’s not true, Peggy says. She prepares to leave the office, but as she stands by the elevators she again changes her mind, returning to her office to sleep on the couch.

Peggy wakes up to a whistle being blown in her face by Stan. He, Joey and Danny are discussing the fight, arguing over the outcome, and Peggy walks to Don’s office. He’s freshened up and has drawn up his Samsonite idea playing off the fight and the famous photo of Clay standing over Liston in the ring that ran on the cover of most of the nation’s papers that day. Peggy asks questions about the ad, wondering how it could be made into a commercial, and Don asks “Why are you shitting on this?” She’s just tired, she says, and the ad is good. Don reaches over and covers her hand with his for a few seconds, and they look at each other. Then, he tells her to go home, shower and return in an hour with 10 tag lines for him. Does he wants his door open or closed? she asks. “Open.”

The look in Don’s eyes as he held Peggy’s hand was more pained than hers; Peggy’s exuded more wisdom. But both were thankful for the other, and to an extent, Peggy was right in saying that the friend Don lost wasn’t the only person who knew him. Peggy doesn’t know all of his background and life as Dick Whitman, and Don doesn’t know that Pete was the father of Peggy’s child. Still, you don’t have to know every detail about someone to understand them, to have a connection with them. They’re hard on each other because, as Don has told Peggy before, they see themselves in each other: They’re strong, bright and self-made, but most importantly, they don’t give up. They both may break down at points, but they’ll always keep going.

The explosions throughout “The Suitcase” were healthy for both parties, especially as Peggy unloaded her baggage, as was the banter they shared over dinner and drinks. So much of “Mad Men” can be filled with the gee-golly phrasing of suits such as Pete, the ’60s speak that, while historically accurate, makes the characters less relatable. Don and Peggy’s fight night ran the gamut of emotions, but never did the interactions feel forced or unbelievable. Whether they were laughing about Roger’s memoirs or consoling each other over losses, Peggy and Don always were genuine. Perhaps they are written this way on purpose, with the lesser characters getting the lesser lines because either they have less character, or the writers don’t want to take the time to develop any for them. If the latter is the case, the more we see of Don and Peggy, the better. They’re the fighters, after all. And fighters generally have a way of surviving.

Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama with her overly excitable Pembroke Welsh Corgi.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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