Monday, September 13, 2010

Suitcase for Summer

When I take a spur of the moment vacation to remote parts of Vermont and Maine, the bonus that all you Puddlers receive is an extra-special, double episode review of Mad Men.  I will make up for a week of silence by combining reviews of the episodes, “The Suitcase” and “The Summer Man.” In a way, I am glad to be writing about both of these episodes at the same time as they showcase the two different sides of Mad Men episode delivery as well as serve as key back-to-back statements on the state of Don Draper at the current moment in time.  I, like most people, was completely on edge to see how Don Draper would follow up on the personal revelations and experiences he went through with Peggy in “The Suitcase” in “The Summer Man,” so I suppose its only fitting that I get to write about his cathartic night as well as the immediate (for Mad Men) aftermath.

“The Suitcase” has already been widely regarded as the best episode in Mad Men history.  This is funny to me, because many of the early episodes of this season seemed to stake that claim.  However, “The Suitcase” was a coup in so many ways that it was impossible to say that any other episode of the show even came remotely close to the storytelling, drama, precision and overall excellence of that episode.  Much has already been written about this episode and I was so engrossed by it that I read the more Mad Men commentary about “The Suitcase” than I did about any other episode.  I did this mainly because it had such a profound effect on me when I finally was able to watch it that I wanted to make sure that I didn’t completely copy what other people had written about it.  Yet, it remains difficult not to mention the main themes and touchstones of the episode.

Clearly, the relationship between Don and Peggy has been one of the centers of the show.  It’s hard to discount many of the important character relationships and interactions on Mad Men, but over time, we have seen just how vital and important the relationship between Peggy and Don is to the overall themes of the show as a whole.  Their first key interaction comes in the pilot episode where Peggy, after being cajoled by her co-workers into thinking that it is duty to sleep with Don since she is his secretary, grabs Don’s hand in a gesture leading towards sexuality.  Don responds by telling her that he is her boss and not her boyfriend, firmly establishing his rules in relation to his secretaries as well as how Mad Men plays with the work and home environments; who you are at work and who you are at home are drastically different identities and often the politics and the language of that work identity can seep into the identity of who you are outside of work – that is, business can seem personal.  Peggy and Don have navigated these waters before, mainly throughout Season 3 and most notably in “Shut the Door, Have a Seat.”  In that episode Don must confront the fact that he has not been fair to Peggy because he views her as an extension of himself and quite literally, what should have been about business and the quality of ideas that another person was bringing him, became personal to Don as he related Peggy with any shortcomings or frustrations he had with himself. In the end of his conversation with Peggy, he states that he will spend the rest of his life trying to get her to join his new firm because he acknowledges the similarity they share in perhaps my favorite line in the entire show:
“There are people out there who buy things. People like you and me. Then something happened. Something terrible. And the way that they saw themselves... is gone. And nobody understands that. But you do. And that's very valuable.”

That is, it was my favorite line and moment until “The Suitcase.”  As Season 4 has gone on and Don has become drunker and drunker, he has fallen back into the pattern of lashing out at Peggy. However, the change this season has been that that Peggy now feels the confidence to talk back to Don and correct him as she did over the mistake he made with Danny’s tag-line in “Waldorf Stories.”  In “The Suitcase,” Don is on Peggy’s back for a new campaign for Samsonite suitcases.  Don is clearly still drinking very much at work and at the end of the work day before the Clay vs. Liston fight, which happens to be Peggy’s birthday, he calls her into his office to go over the work she has done for Samsonite.  After shooting down all of Peggy’s ideas, he makes her stay late to stand up her fiancĂ©e, which eventually leads to Mark breaking up with her over the phone.

This brings us to the big confrontation when Peggy expresses her anger at Don for not giving her credit for the Glo-Coat ad she believes she was responsible for.  Peggy’s confrontation leads to this exchange:

Don: That’s the way this works.  I give you money, you give me ideas.
Peggy: But you never say, thank you.
Don: That’s what the money’s for!

This is perhaps the quintessential statement about work, which is to say that it’s the quintessential statement about Mad Men.  Young, ambitious people want it all when they start working, not realizing that they are actually working for someone else.  We come from years of school where there is no real “boss,” we work for ourselves and to achieve the grades that we deserve.  When you work, there is a boss who gives you money for the work you do – you work and spend your time to make someone else look good; that’s their job, that’s what they get for the time they have put in over the years.  It’s a hierarchy that people often forget and it may seem antiquated and can be exploited at times, but that’s what happens to all hierarchies in the hands of the wrong people, but that’s the way it works.

Now, bosses can obviously show appreciation, but Don has a history of not “valuing” relationships as Roger once said.  Here, Don shows that he does value relationships as he did in “Shut the Door, Have a Seat.”  He shows Peggy how he values her, how they actually value each other through the night that they spend together in the office, at the diner, in the bar and at the office again.  They exchange intimate details, sometimes directly, sometimes skirting around the subject such as how their fathers died, where they came from, and relationship issues.  They even hint at how much they actually know about each other by referencing Don sleeping with Alison and Peggy giving away her baby. “People do things, right?” Don says to Peggy.  It’s like a strange Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus moment for the two characters.  They are like souls who connect on this specific day and allow themselves to open up. It turns out that there is a bit of a cosmic significance as we find out that Anna Draper has died in California, leaving Don feeling very much “alone” (I personally didn’t mind the ghost of Anna appearing as a hazy middle of the nigh image, but I know some people did). Don realizes that he isn’t alone as Peggy comes over, places her hand gently on his back in some mystic moment of healing, and tells him that Anna wasn’t the only person that really knew him.  The episode ends (now famously) with Don holding Peggy’ hand over a new ad campaign idea.  Peggy looks at him once, her hair tousled from sleeping in the office, her skin pure and clear and soft and looks absolutely beautiful in the morning light, the most beautiful that she ever has on the show.  She looks at him once with her piercing green eyes, then once more, almost muttering, “I know,” before asking Don if he wants to leave the door open, to which Don responds that he does.

On that note, the viewer wants to know if Don’s life will be more open, if he will stick to what seems to be a new approach to life.  In “The Suitcase” Don saw a drunken Duck stumbling around the office and could almost see where he was heading in many ways.  Peggy also asks him at once point how much longer he can keep up his drinking. As “The Summer Man” begins, the viewer is greeted with a shot of Don swimming at a pool club.  He becomes exhausted after one lap and we get a voice over narration, which is Don keeping a diary.  Don is trying to get himself organized and into shape.  He admits he has a drinking problem and soon, in a rare licensing moment, “Satisfaction” is playing as Don surveys the streets of New York and takes a pull of cigarette, thinking about how he can smell corn and summer before confidently walking to the office.

Where “The Suitcase” was classic Mad Men, putting two characters in a pressurized situation with pointed dialogue and thorough references to the history of the two characters and the show as a whole, “The Summer Man” is experimental.  There is the voice over, the beginning story telling is slightly disjointed, we hear “Satisfaction,” there are camera tricks played when Don takes a drink at work and feels himself removed from the world.  This is meant to jar the viewer.  Don is making a change, and when we make changes, often we need something drastic or out of our comfort zone to do it, Don admits as much when he confesses to feeling like a little girl writing his journal.  And Don is slowly grabbing the world around him and learning how to place himself in it.

It is a complicated episode that has a lot to do with feeling satisfied.  Does Betty feel satisfied in her new life? She has thought so, until she sees Don on a date with Bethany and can barely breathe. She is so angry at him that it takes Francine telling her how much she has to realize that she should be satisfied with her new marriage, with her children, with all that she has.  However, we leave Betty at the end of this episode, looking longingly at Don and perhaps she is still not satisfied.  Is Henry satisfied? He has the beautiful wife he wanted, much like Don did, however he is slowly realizing that she is a child and that perhaps she still loves Don in some way.  He even says that they may have rushed into their marriage.  In many ways, Henry isn’t satisfied with himself or the position he is in as he makes a weak power play in having Don remove his things from their home on the day before Gene’s birthday.  He does not feel confident and wants to keep Don away.  Can he feel satisfied with his little act of mowing the lawn while stacking Don’s boxes on the curb without acknowledging him?

Joan and Peggy are also looking for satisfaction.  Joan is receiving less and less respect in the office, perhaps less than she even had at Sterling Cooper.  The rules of the world are changing and Joan can’t use her sexuality to get things done behind the scenes.  She has a legitimate office position and the young guys at the firm don’t respect her. But, they don’t respect women at all, as Joey plainly points out when he tells Peggy he doesn’t like working with women because they have no sense of humor.  Peggy isn’t satisfied with this as an apology from Joey or a justification for his actions towards Joan and the pornographic picture he drew of her and Layne.  So, Peggy fires him after she receives encouragement from Don who seems to be keeping up his new approach to treating her right after their night together.  However, Joan is not satisfied with this result as it only perpetuates the polarizing views that men had of women either being objects or humorless bitches.  Joan overall is the least satisfied character.  Her husband is leaving, she has no one to connect to at work and her overall vision of the world seems to have failed her.  She is definitely in a tight corner.

Don, however, receives satisfaction in a couple of ways.  Bethany pleasures him after their date in the back of the cab and he is able to get the date with Dr. Miller that he is looking for. Dr. Miller is even willing to go home with him.  However, Don instead of reaching for “what should satisfy him” is trying to figure out what actually satisfies him and very often that can mean not sleeping with someone if you have the chance; not doing something just because you can, but because you actually want to.  Dr. Miller, whose talent is being able to read people and anticipate what they want or what they will do (much like Don) is surprised by this, which only furthers the theme of the show that she and Don have vocalized of “what I want and what is expected of me.” This theory is being actualized and shown to us in many different interactions and ways this season and if Don and Dr. Miller continue the relationship that may be starting between them, we will obviously see this idea pushed even further and further forward.

There is a lot coming in the next few episodes.  I have not even mentioned how Don seems slightly behind trends like Joe Namath and Muhammad Ali as cultural icons and pitchmen, how Pete seems to still be forward thinking, how Roger’s memoirs are becoming a symbol for how disconnected and lost he is, how Peggy is going to figure out to gain the respect she wants now that she has cleared the air with Don and cemented a huge part of her identity.  And what will become of Betty Draper?  With a slight of hand, Weiner suddenly made her a very interesting character again this week. This season has not disappointed and I think will be the most rewarding yet, and if not, it will at least make us try to see who really knows us – and maybe think about how valuable that is.

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