Best Episode Ever # 40: ‘Mad Men’
Last month when I attended the PaleyFest red carpet for “Mad Men,” I told Elisabeth Moss and Jon Hamm what I was thinking for Best Episode Ever. Both of them approved my choice, and Moss enthusiastically so. Season four, episode 7, “The Suitcase” is a monumental episode for both Don Draper and Peggy Olson.
On the night of what we all know is the historic Muhammed Ali/Sonny Liston fight, Don and Peggy stay late at the office working on the Samsonite campaign. Don has rejected a proposal for a Joe Namath celebrity endorsement, sending Peggy’s team back to the drawing boards. It’s Peggy’s birthday and she’s supposed to have a romantic dinner with Mark (Blake Bashoff), but just before she leaves, Don asks her for an update on Samsonite.
Peggy shows Don the new concepts her team has developed since the morning meeting, and he rejects them. Despite all her hard work, the ads are just not good enough. Frustrated, Peggy makes the astute observation that whatever she brings him, Don will change it anyway. This is poignant, the futility of working your hardest when you know it’s just a formality. What Don says is also poignant. It doesn’t matter how hard you work if it’s not good, and if you came up with something brilliant in 10 seconds it would have more value than days of poor work.
I know a little something about this. I work in an industry where you have to produce a lot of work for a boss, in this case my editors. Earlier in my career I had editors that just turned the story into what they wanted anyway. It had to be done though, because they were paying me to do the grunt work. Fortunately, that trained me to deliver what they wanted the first time, and do it quickly. Peggy gets a salary. As a freelancer, I only got paid for what was published so it was impractical to spend inordinate time on those pieces. I’m happy to say my work attracted editors who didn’t feel the need to change my copy dramatically, but Matthew Weiner is hitting on some truisms of any industry here and illustrating them dramatically. This is what molds great artists and artisans, and we get to watch it happen before our eyes.
So Peggy stays to go over Samsonite ideas with Don. She’s just trying to get out of there so she agrees to whatever he says. She’s almost out too, but he gets distracted by a phone call just long enough to start second guessing his own idea and keep working on it. I’ve been there too, people that just want to talk it over and over and over when you know it just comes down to getting the work done.
Peggy is blowing off Mark’s birthday dinner, not realizing that Mark gathered the Olson family for the occasion. When she finds out, Peggy still chooses ambition and cancels on both her boyfriend and her family. I relate to this too. It’s trick because I was always better at time management than Peggy, so I wouldn’t really put my family/friends in situations where I cancel at the last minute, but sometimes it’s worth choosing ambition and opportunity, as long as you offer flexibility to your loved ones on other occasions. One on one time with the boss is to Peggy what a last minute interview with Nicolas Cage might be to me.
However, when she reveals to Don that it was her birthday, he correctly points out that she could have just told him. He wouldn’t have demanded she stayed, and all things being equal, the work would still be there tomorrow. The deadline wasn’t for a while anyway, but I get it. It’s not in her to talk about her needs. Her instinct is to always deliver when the boss asks, an admirable trait. Bosses respond to that, but you’ll find if you share a little bit, most bosses would rather you attend to your personal life and come back refreshed. But Don may have inspiration tonight and Peggy doesn’t want to miss her chance for input. She didn’t speak up. Don doesn’t apologize for keeping her. It’s just a practical lesson. That’s good, but what happens next is the real meat of the episode.
The meeting explodes in a fight between Don and Peggy that’s been a long time coming. Peggy complains that Don gets all the credit for everyone’s ideas and never even says thank you. I’m sure a lot of people starting out in an industry feel that way, but Don’s retort is what needs to be said to get Peggy out of her self-wallowing funk. The agency owns all the ideas. The reason Don makes the final call is that he got to the place of expertise and he’s assembled the right team to do the basic work. You don’t get anywhere by claiming credit for every individual idea. You have to move forward and become the person that people count on for ideas. In the meantime, your services are compensated. “That’s what the money is for,” Don says.
This is how “Mad Men” brilliantly combines the drama of a business with the drama of people trying to identify themselves at work and home. Peggy is great at her job, especially for how young she is and how rare it was for women to have that job in the ‘60s. She’s a fast learner, and she’ll learn this lesson quickly too, but it has to be learnt. Don tends to lead by passive-aggression. Earlier in this episode he tells Peggy he’s glad she feels free to fail. It’s good that he lays down the law explicitly. So much of “Mad Men” is about what’s not said that it’s cathartic when Don gets this direct.
Now that they’ve had it out, Don and Peggy can talk for real. The business is on the table and there’s nothing more to say about that. That’s when employers and colleagues really get close, as I have also been fortunate to experience when we’ve gotten the business out of the way and spent time getting to know each other (I love you guys). They bond over finding a recording of Roger Sterling (John Slattery)’s memoirs and Peggy joins the drinking club. They still have the whole history of Peggy’s baby between them and they talk about dating and real life woes. This is actually relevant for employers to know, and vice versa. You’re going to be together the majority of your wakings lives working, and it can fuel your work to know where each other is coming from.
It turns out Peggy is an important caretaker to Don. Doug Phillips (Mark Moses) and Don get into a drunk fight over Peggy. It’s the first time Peggy is tempted to leave the firm, but she’s smart not to put her eggs in Doug’s basket. There’s no glory in soothing Don to sleep after he’s vomited on himself and lost a scuffle, but it’s real. Real is better than credit, I think, especially when she’s there after Don finally accepts the news from L.A. that Anna Draper, widow of the real Don Draper (long story) has passed away of cancer.
The next morning, the whole team is back in the office and everything’s back to normal. The famous photo of Ali defeating Liston becomes the Samsonite campaign, and it’s Don’s idea again. Peggy is back to work, assigned to write 10 taglines, because that’s what the money is for. Don and Peggy know they shared something though. They touch hands and share a moment of silence.
It’s entirely possible that the remaining season of “Mad Men” will top “The Suitcase” or at least give us an equivalent episode between Pete and Joan or some other characters. Perhaps it was unfair to pick an explosive episode when “Mad Men” in general is a slow burn. It took the slow burn to set up “The Suitcase” though and when it culminates as explosively as it does here, that makes it the Best Episode Ever.