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Unwanted Guests: Emotional Baggage on This Week's Incredible Mad Men

Though Don might have once told Peggy Olsen always to look forward and never look back, it's an impossible credo to embrace completely. Regardless of how much we might attempt to escape the trappings of our past, they have a nasty way of staring us right in the face, whether that's an inevitable phone call, a playground, or a pregnant rival.

It's the past that we always carry around with us, dragging our failure and shortcomings at our heels, shoving them into whatever baggage we might grab at the moment, whether it's an army duffel bag or a stylish Samsonite suitcase.

This week's beautiful and intense episode of Mad Men ("The Suitcase"), written by Matthew Weiner and directed by Jennifer Getzinger, swung the focus back around to the central relationship between Don Draper and Peggy Olsen, two sides of the same coin, each grappling with the intrusion of an unwanted guest into their structured and compartmentalized lives.

Threaded around the Cassius Clay/Sonny Liston boxing match, the episode shines a spotlight on the often contentious relationship between Don and Peggy, each of whom proves in this week's installment that, no matter how many times they get knocked down, each of them manages to get back on their feet again. Like a piece of Samsonite luggage, they can take a hit and keep on swinging. This season has been noticeably scant on Don and Peggy intimacy as their relationship seemed to take a bit of a hit when they moved to the new agency... and Don's Clio Award cemented a frustration on Peggy's part, as did his constant needling of her ideas.

Of course, Don is hard on Peggy because he's hard on himself, more so than anyone else. Like he does with himself, he holds Peggy to an unrealistic expectation of perfection, one than no mortal can meet. If Don had to be the best in order to overcome his upbringing, his lack of education, and his lack of experience, so too has Peggy. They have to be the best at everything because Don has seen that it can all so easily be ripped away from them.

"I know what I'm supposed to want," says Peggy, sadly, "but it just never feels right, or as important as anything in that office."

While the major theme this week seemed to be unwanted guests--from the unwelcome appearance of Peggy's family at Mark's surprise birthday dinner, Duck's near-defactory cameo at the office, the mouse in the office, the roach in the Parthenon--it also delved into notions of identity and perception. If the people who know us in the truest, deepest sense of the word are no longer alive, no longer remembering, are we still intrinsically us? If our pasts are scrubbed from memory, can we escape who we were? Who we are?

Despite the fact that Don has long known that Anna Draper was going to die, Stephanie's call from California still comes as a shock and he does everything in his power to delay making the call, the call that will forever alter his life as he is forced to contend with Anna's death and its inescapable implications. He goes so far as to keep Peggy at the office lest he have to deal with picking up the telephone, throwing himself into work, shielding his heart behind the office walls. His intransigence towards Peggy, towards the Samsonite campaign--not due for two more weeks--is an effort to delay the inevitable.

But he can't forget. The phone remains omnipresent throughout the episode, each time it rings it becomes the clarion symbol of some painfulness he's hoping to avoid. But each time, it's Peggy's boyfriend Mark, increasingly fed up with the fact that she is making excuses and keeping all of them waiting for her. While Peggy's frustration with Don mounts, it's really Mark who she's the most upset with, once she learns that he brought her entire family to dinner, her overbearing and clucking mother who disapproves of her lifestyle. It's as if, Peggy tells Don, he doesn't know her at all.

So who does know us in the end then? It's those who see us at our best and at our worst. For Peggy, that's Don Draper, the only one who visited her in the hospital, who nurtured her talents and promoted her, who gave her the life that she was so desperate to live, a life that she chose over her own baby, given away for adoption. He has seen Peggy at either end of the spectrum, just as she has done with him. They both still have their secrets; while both have revealed truths about themselves, each has chosen to conceal something powerful about their pasts--Peggy that Pete is the father of her child, Don that he stole another man's identity--but that doesn't diminish the bond between them, one forged in the fires of honesty, the late nights at the office, the frantic calls, and the sometimes horrific consequences of their mistakes.

It's fitting that Don attempts to bring Peggy back around by sharing with her his own discovery, the tapes that Roger has been making for his autobiography, entitled--of all things--"Sterling's Gold." Among the juicy tidbits we learn: that Don's secretary Ida Blankenship was once the "queen of perversions" and that Bert Cooper had his testicles removed... for no good reason.

It sets up what ends up being a night of truths, not just ones coerced from illicit tapes but ones shared openly between Don and Peggy, their fractured relationship breaking down once she erupts at him... and then finally being knitted back together over coffee at a Greek diner, drinks at a bar, and a trip to the men's room. (I loved Peggy's reaction upon seeing the urinals therein.) All before Don attempts to protect Peggy's honor when a drunk Duck calls her a "whore." (If Duck was hoping to woo Peggy into his bed or his office, he failed miserably on both accounts, particularly after he nearly defecated in Roger's office.)

Throughout it all, both Don and Peggy drag their own emotional Samsonites across town, circling back into the office. (Don cracks his open to tell Peggy that he grew up on a farm and his father was killed by a kick from a horse.) But each is a heavyweight in their own right, their inner selves unable to broken by just anybody, even when it's being hefted from the height of the Eiffel Tower. Rather, each is able to open up those suitcases for one another.

Don's breakdown in the office removed any semblance and artifice from his relationship with Peggy, a moment of such agony and pain--upon hearing confirmation that Anna had died--that he is not embarrassed by his grief, nor by expressing it in front of Peggy. In fact, there are similarities between the way that Peggy is painted in this episode and the way that we've seen Don's relationship with Anna, one that's not encumbered by a sexual dimension but rather by a familiar rapport that marks them more as siblings rather than would-be lovers. Don falling asleep on Peggy's lap on the couch marks their relationship as strictly platonic, a mirror image of Don and Anna.

It's fitting that Anna's ghost, appearing to Don in the wee hours of the morning, carries with her a Samsonite suitcase, a receptacle for everything they shared, the knowledge of Don's true self. After all, Don sees her passing as the death of not just his best friend in the world but also, in a way, of the last connection to Dick Whitman in his life. It's not just Anna who dies, in that sense, but also Dick as well. She was "the only person in the world who really knew me," says Don. But that's not true, not really. While she doesn't know the full story, Peggy does know him. She knows the man he is today, his flaws, his courage, and his charm. She's seen behind the facade and lived to tell the tale. When she says that it's not true, we feel that she's telling the truth inasmuch as anyone can know anyone else.

There might be another way out of the office, one the mouse is capable of navigating, but Don and Peggy don't find it that night, each of them grabbing some kip on the couch in their respective offices before starting a new day tackling the Samsonite campaign once more.

The question before the final scene, unspoken but hanging in the air like smoke, is whether Don would acknowledge the very real moment that passed between them the night before. Would he look forward as always, or would he admit that what had happened between them--the supreme moments of connection over a shared evening and open truths--had actually happened?

After all, that's all that Allison had wanted: Don to admit that they had slept together, that it wasn't all in her head, that he hadn't somehow drunkenly forgotten, that he wouldn't pretend that nothing had occurred. Don wasn't able to do that with Allison. He switched into his standard operating mode, one of no regrets, no looking back, sweeping the unpleasant and the awkward under the thick rug.

Not so with Peggy. While it might be all business--another take on the Samsonite pitch, this time using Clay's victory as a basis--Don breaks the spell, taking Peggy's hand in his and holding on. It's an acknowledgment of what passed between them, of the depth of their relationship, and of the unbreakable bond that they share.

I'll admit that I freely started crying at that part, not by what's been lost but by what's been found for each of them. We might not be able to ditch our emotional baggage but we can sometimes in life find those willing to help us carry it.

Next week on Mad Men ("The Summer Man"), Joan and Peggy deal with high-jinx in the office.

Comments

Bella Spruce said…
One of my favorite episodes so far. It was beautiful and heartbreaking and yet, somehow, hopeful too. I loved reading your thoughts on this episode too - intelligent and insightful as always!
evie said…
What a lovely review of an amazing, amazing episode. You're obviously a fan.

I never thought I'd see an episode better than "Shut the Door." I was wrong. Ironically, it ended with an open door and a hand squeeze heard around the world.
JanieJones said…
Excellent review. It was a beautiful episode on so many levels.
I was tearful at certain points-sad that Anna died without Dick/Don seeing her one last time. Don and Peggy have both suffered losses and made choices.
Don, who always gets what he wants (until this season) and Peggy making a decision to choose her career over other things such as the baby.
Poignant, funny at times...
Fantastic performances from Hamm and Moss.
linda said…
For me, this was the best episode of the season so far. When Don held Peggy's hand I literally lost my breath. The performances by Hamm and Moss were stunning.
Thanks for the wonderful review - it's nice that not only do you write as a reviewer, but also, as a fan.
Anonymous said…
Enjoyed your recap. Thanks. Dee
Unknown said…
A spot on review of this oftentimes painful-to-watch episode. You are amazingly in-tune with each nuance of these complicated characters and their complicated world. I always enjoy your take, but especially loved this one, Jayce. So happy to be able to share on this site. No one in my "world" watches the series. Ginny
Jaime said…
The only thing that kept it perfect for me was the "ghost." Didn't need that.

Otherwise, brilliant episode.
Abbytaz said…
As always a thought provoking, beautiful recap. Thanks Jace.

Don Draper+Peggy Olson=Awesome
Anonymous said…
Beautiful review.

Just had to point out that there's a small (very small) indication that Don and Peggy might not be purely platonic, or at least not end that way.
You left out the part in the episode where Don tells Peggy that she's "cute as hell" and essentially the only reason he hasn't tried to sleep with her is because they work together (in a much more important way than a secretary/boss relationship).

Also, and this is just a fun fact, the real people that Don and Peggy are based on wound up married.

It'll be interesting to see how exactly all of this unfolds.

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