“The Suitcase” is the season’s zenith even as it’s Don Draper’s nadir. Mad Men defines character-driven drama, and Don and Peggy are two of the most compelling characters ever to grace a screen.
As Peggy listened to Roger’s tape and the revelations contained on it, she was initially scandalized and compared it to reading someone else’s diary. I suspect that line was a conscious nod to the discomfort that viewers were likely to feel watching the episode unfold. For such a beautiful show featuring such beautiful people, there was a lot of ugliness going on tonight–the kind of ugliness that feels transgressive even to watch. I’m not complaining, though; Peggy’s ugly-cry scene in the bathroom, Don’s audibly messy vomiting, and Duck’s vile attempt at soiling an office chair may have been shocking and even disturbing to see, but the episode overall is one of the best hours of television I have ever seen.
Speaking of Duck, I hope this means we have truly seen the last of him. He’s fine in small doses and as a cautionary tale about the effects of over-indulgence, but his attempted (literal) crapping on SCDP is about as much as I ever want to see of Duck again. I found it fascinating that Peggy felt she needed to apologize for him–was she apologizing for his behavior tonight or for her relationship?
Peggy’s fling with Duck was only one of many revelations, though. Peggy initially seems more open than Don, yet we learned new facts about her life tonight: her father died in front of her when she was twelve, her family loathes Don as they assume he was the father of Peggy’s child, she still gets reminded of that dark time in her life despite her mostly successful attempts to move beyond it. She’s sometimes struck me as a difficult character to read, but in “The Suitcase,” she became much less enigmatic and more compelling.
Meanwhile, Don came off as vastly more self-aware than I’d previously assumed. He knows he drinks too much and shares too little. He even knows why Joan gave him Ida Blankenship as a secretary and acknowledges that he deserved that punishment. I was happily surprised to find that the reason he takes Peggy’s work so for granted isn’t ingrained sexism, but his assumption that she already knows “that’s what the money is for. Thanks aren’t necessary for doing one’s job in Don’s view.
An even bigger surprise was how revelatory he was with Peggy. Betty didn’t know how Don’s father died or that he’d grown up on a farm, not even after a decade of being Mrs. Draper. Anna may have been the only one to know the real Don/Dick, but Peggy is now closer than anyone alive to knowing that enigmatic man.
The real Mrs. Draper, Anna, spent only a few episodes on screen, but because of her strange and moving relationship with Don, I felt her loss. After Peggy’s diner conversation with Don about luggage’s association with travel and going to exciting new places, it was a beautiful touch to show her spirit–or Don’s mental image of her spirit, at least–with suitcase in hand.
Longtime Mad Men viewers undoubtedly noticed the self-referential imagery in this episode. In season one, Peggy watched a secretary bawling in the ladies’ room and never wanted that to be her. Her clumsy initial attempt at flirting with Don back in the first season involved her taking his hand; tonight, he took hers in an entirely different and more heartfelt context. I don’t know if the symmetry is symbolic, but it’s satisfying to watch.
Mad Men deserves the Best Drama Emmy it won last week, but if Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss remain Emmy-less next year, it would be a travesty. They’re outstanding actors in every episode, but putting them together in extended scenes as in “The Suitcase” shows just how brilliant they are.