Labor Day–the most ironic of all holidays–is dedicated to not working. But after last night’s incredible episode of Mad Men, I am moved to put in some time to discuss this pivotal moment in the show’s history. And yes, it might be important enough to necessitate this hyperbole.
Peggy and Don have always had a close and unique relationship on Mad Men. The show is populated by people who have secrets and try to hide them at any cost. Be it homosexuality, cheating on a spouse, or telling your wife that you paid for boxing tickets, everyone has something to hide. Our two protagonists carry some of the heaviest burdens around, unable to fully deal with them.
Throughout the series, there has been a small battle going on for Peggy’s soul, coming into focus this season. We’ve seen Peggy with her new boyfriend and her reaction to a guy she would have longed for in season one. Unfortunately, that’s not the same Peggy. Not after her pregnancy, not after “my name is Peggy Olsen and I’d like to smoke some marijuana,” not after going to a “happening,” getting hit on by a lesbian, and making out with a rebel reporter in a closet
She’s been trying to align what she is told she should want and where she actually wants to go. A few episodes ago she was caught looking at a colleague’s wedding ring, putting it on her finger as a trial run. As she looked at it, the common thought being that she was longing for a husband. First glance shows her looking longingly at her possible future, but it’s possible she was trying to figure out if she would ever want to don one herself. Peggy has already moved past the expectations set out for her–even goes so far as to wholly dismiss them–but no one can understand her point of view; or no one watches close enough to realize it.
The number of lies Don Draper has at this point is staggering. The biggest, however, is his very self: that he is Dick Whitman, a cowardly country boy whose first instinct is to get going when the going gets tough. The very idea of Don Draper is as much an advertisement of who he would want to be as it is an actual person. Throughout this season, we’ve seen Draper fade into Whitman, slowly losing his grip on those things which he had the most control over: women, his family, and his job. His only centering point is the one woman who should have the most malice against him, Anna Draper, the woman who gave away her husband’s identity and follow up with unfettered acceptance of her new “husband.” Now she is near the grave, leaving Don/Dick with nothing to hold on to, nothing to base himself off of, no history. He is a man apart.
That brings us to The Suitcase, which has both characters trying desperately to ignore the essential questions and problems that they carry with daily. What does Peggy want? Who is Don? What are they becoming? Instead of confronting these issues, they concentrate on work, their only salvation. The work and the work alone is what drives them forward and keeps them from falling to shambles under the weight of everything they’ve built to this point. It won’t exclude them from the eventuality that awaits them outside the office–as the constantly ringing phones remind us–but it will get their minds off of the issues at hand, as they have no way to resolve them and no way to get it off their chests.
Through working out their problems on the Samsonite ad, they stumble upon resolving their own personal issues. Truths begin to slip out. Don remarks, “do you know when my birthday is?” Peggy responds with, “I was your secretary,” unaware that she actually doesn’t know what his real birthday is (although a southern stewardess does). Later, Peggy notes, “it’s not my fault you don’t have a family or friends or anywhere else to go,” and Don lets it slide without much note. Even when he screams at her over the creative process, the same thing we saw Don go through with his various campaigns when he was a magical pitchman in season one, as soon as she starts to cry he drops his beet-red berating and talks to her plainly. In many ways, it’s the first give-and-take relationship Don has ever had in our four years with the show.
This leads both characters to freely discuss things they have not readily told anyone on the show up to this point. Don casually tells Peggy how he grew up on a farm, how his father died and his mother was an unknown quality (because she was a whore who died in child birth, natch), even going so far as to mention how he saw someone die in Korea, not letting it show that it was actually OG Don Draper. When Peggy informs us of how she feels being an ugly duckling and the pain that seeing children brings to her, it becomes clear that they just gave each other crib notes on what they’ve been going through all along. What’s shocking is that we know all of this, but we have had a privileged vantage point; they can’t really hide anything from the audience. The fact that they’re sharing it with someone else–and scratching the surface at bearing their souls–is as important as it is touching, especially considering how Don usually conducts his charges.
I was discussing this episode with my friend nate and he mentioned how much influence the exchange of money has in Don’s relationships. When you look back, it’s revealed that Don has treated every relationship like that of a prostitute. He pays off Allison in exchange for sex in that Christmas bonus. His entire marriage with Betty was giving her what she wanted (a house, a family, lots of money) while giving her nothing emotionally, and his inability to understand what she wanted helped doom their marriage. So when Peggy asks for credit, an incredulous Don screams, “THAT’S WHAT THE MONEY IS FOR!” putting a very definitive line in the sand for Peggy and the rest of humanity. Even Anna Draper, the woman he holds so dear, is supported by Don, using his money as a means of making amends for all the damage he has done to her emotionally. Except Peggy won’t accept that. In fact, she does not accept Don in the shape he has put himself into.
Don has been staggering toward rock bottom the last few weeks, but he does not actually hit until the lame Duck Phillips, already shown to be a complete mess on the phone with Peggy earlier, gets the best of a defeated, disheveled Don, covered in his own filth. Having him say “uncle” on the floor of the business that has his name on the door at the hand of someone he already disposed of so swiftly a season ago, was the most pathetic we’ve ever seen Don. Especially demeaning is the fact that Duck just tried to take a shit on a chair, even farting (farting!) on Mad Men, which is akin of farting at a funeral. To top it off, Peggy leaves with Duck, letting Don sulk off to his office, alone, beaten.
Peggy returns–as she did all episode long, as she has done all series long–to find him in shambles. The office is as stark as it has ever been, wonderfully matching the bleakness of our current Don Draper. He asks for a drink, the only thing he’s been able to use to dull the pain, and instead takes Peggy’s lap. As he falls asleep, we realize this is the first time he’s probably ever slept with a woman without sex being involved. Just as he breaks down that wall, he whispers, “I’m sorry if I embarrassed you,” the only time he has apologized on his own in the history of the show. When Don sees the spectral Anna crossing over (carrying his baggage?) she notices how Peggy has filled her role; Don notices the same, nods, and then goes back to sleep in the comfort of his new friend’s lap.
When the morning comes, it is literally the dawning of a new day for Don Draper. He instantly goes to the phone to come to grips with the realization of Anna’s passing, even though as he says to Stephanie, he already knows she’s gone. He then attempts the usual Draper routine, saying he’ll fly out there to deal with the arrangements and to take care of the house, but both have already been taken care of, leaving him to simply deal with the emotional toll with no distraction, no power play to shift the issue to something else. He even tries to drag the conversation out, but Stephanie hangs up. The call is over and the situation is real.
As Don hangs up the phone, you can see that he is alone. And for that second, he looks just like he did after being confronted with the Dick Whitman evidence by Betty. But then he looks up and makes eye contact with Peggy, who has been awake for some amount of time, and just loses it. He finally has someone that he can bare not his entire soul to, but just enough. When she asks who it was that he lost, he says “someone close to me,” giving enough information to find some sort of emotional catharsis while keeping enough hidden to be comfortable. Much like how Don knows about Peggy’s child but not all the details, they can both acknowledge what they need to while hiding just enough to be comfortable.
When we see Don again at 10:30, he seems back to normal, looking crisp and lively against a New York skyline, sitting in an office beaming with light. It is the Don we’ve been waiting for. Even if we only get a glimpse, it’s easy to see. The fear is that Don will forget what happened the previous night, or push it under the carpet as he did with Allison. Instead, in a small, quiet moment, grabbing her hand and reciprocates the motion Peggy attempted in the pilot. In that moment of silence he tells her more than he’s told anyone in the show’s history, including his ex-wife. In that look is empathy, gratefulness, and the acknowledgment of a shared bond. Then, right back to work, as they both want it to be, now buffered by a real relationship.
* * *
Not to be the wet blanket after all of this love and equality I’ve been yammering on about, but we shouldn’t get used to this level, if the show’s any indication. The writers on Mad Men (there are other writers than Weiner, right?) have always used real-life historical events to show the divide between the new and young and old and out of touch. From JFK/Nixon to the “Lemon” VW ads and now the Liston/Ali fight, we get clues as to who will move on as the 60s hit, and who will turn into dinosaurs.
The foreshadowing does not look good for Don. Not only does he take Liston (for his age and experience, no less) but he does not see the value in Ali as a pitch man, nor will he buy into a celebrity endorsement for Joe Namath, considering it lazy. Ali became a beloved American figure and outside of “the guarantee,” Broadway Joe is best known for his TV ads (and smooth moves with sideline reporters), showing that Don will be proved wrong. Further, when Don asks Peggy if Ali is handsome, she says yes to Don’s amazement. Peggy counters, “you’re not supposed to,” then tells a story about her dad. Not the most flattering thing for the cutting-edge Draper to hear, I’m sure.
This is reinforced by a number of shot selections, as Mad Men always uses the set and shots to further explore the story going on with the characters. One of the most striking images from the series is the shot of Don from behind, mirrored in the logo and opening of the show. Here we see the world unfolding in front of him, everything in play before him, standing over it like a conqueror. It is a shot that almost exclusively belongs to Don and usually given only when he is in a position of power.
As the scene between Don and Peggy unfolds in the bar, we open with a shot of them from behind to establish the scene. During their conversation, the radio shouts out the play-by-play of the boxing match. Soon the match is nearing it’s completion (even though it’s barely started) and in doing so, we push in closer and closer on their backs, until finally we get one of those definitive Don Draper shots with Peggy in equal measure in the frame, just as Liston hits the mat and Ali screams over him.
Obviously the shot gives some credence to Don accepting Peggy as an equal and the show doing the same in kind. But where it goes from here has larger implications for the series. Either this means that the two of them will work together (as seen in the final scene) and together will take SCDP to the top of the industry, or we are seeing the point where Don is on his way down as Peggy takes off.
Whichever it is will be told in time. Regardless, we’ll never see the show–and these two characters–the same away again.
Photo by Michael Yarish, copyright held by AMC/Lion’s Gate Studios. Original image can be found here.