The history of television seemed to be forty years of nearly constant routine with three and then four networks dominating the landscape. HBO and other cable networks certainly made dents, but it wasn’t until a network like AMC came into the fold that prestige television could move beyond the fringes of your television viewing and into a Sunday night habit.
Shows such as Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead turned AMC from a movie channel into a television powerhouse. Thanks to so many other networks and streaming services deciding that they need the next buzzworthy hit, AMC is not the most desirable place. However, Mad Men’s place in television history should never be questioned.
Although not highly rated, it commanded high end advertisers. Even though it didn’t make AMC rich, it allowed the network a chance to enter the Sunday night fray and create genuine buzz. Creating buzz with television critics and online has become almost as important as ratings. CBS will always have success with low brow comedy and procedurals, but nearly every other network needs to throw darts at a board to see what sticks.
For seven years, Mad Men did stick. Its first four years produced some of the best television ever created. On one hand, it functioned as a soap opera examining the various relationships that sometimes landed on the tawdry sides. At other times, it could be an office place sitcom. Still other times, it functioned as a tragedy of sorts as some characters met their doom while others faded into existence.
One of the most complicated relationships was between Don Draper and Peggy Olson. They started out as boss and secretary. Peggy slowly elevated her way to becoming one of the best writers in whatever company Don Draper and his cohorts found themselves running.
What makes “The Suitcase” special is it deeply delves into Don and Peggy’s relationship in a very different way than any other Don and Insert Woman’s Name here. This wasn’t about sex. It stopped being about that the moment Don turned Peggy down in season one. This is about a mentor and mentee. Don sees so much of himself in Peggy. In many ways, they’re similar. Both are trying to run away from mistakes they’ve made in the past. In Don’s case, he’s a completely different person. In Peggy’s case, she’s running away from an unwanted pregnancy caused by a sexual encounter with Pete.
The centerpiece of the episode is a Sonny Liston versus Cassius Clay fight. Mad Men connected the show to history frequently in a very natural and mostly understated way. Don yells at Peggy in the first five minutes, and Peggy has a conversation with Duck Phillips where it’s revealed it’s her birthday. Both Duck and Don are falling apart in different ways. With Duck, it’s more obvious given the desperation in his voice and the fact he’s drinking at 11:45a.m. Don is already divorced from his first wife Betty and is scared of making a phone call to California because he knows the real Don Draper’s wife has died of cancer.
Don turns down a chance to watch the fight on closed circuit in order to work because this is what he does so often. He’s a man afraid of being vulnerable and hides it away in alcohol and various trysts. Hell, it’s this season where Don decides he’s happy being punched in the face by a hooker. Allison Brie is a very pregnant Mrs. Campbell and she has a run-in with Peggy in the bathroom. Don forces Peggy to stay in the office to work.
Peggy is supposed to go to a dinner with her boyfriend Mark, but she decides work is more important. We can see how obsessed with work both of the characters are in this episode. Peggy has her chance to leave but literally walks away from a standing elevator in order to go back to work and ultimately break up with Mark. This becomes a version of a bottle episode as Don and Peggy first have it out and then bond over Roger Sterling’s tape recording of his autobiography.
Every time Don hears a phone ring, he stares and is horrified by the very idea of hearing about Draper’s wife dying. The MacGuffin is a suitcase ad Don and Peggy are trying to come up with throughout the whole 45 minutes. “The Suitcase” works as a mini-play and could easily stand on its own, but with the knowledge of everything that has come up previously, it also functions as a strong continuation of everything Matthew Weiner had been building up.
In the final act, Peggy has to deal with both a drunk Duck and drunk Don. It’s humorous and sad at the same time because Don defends Peggy’s honor after Duck calls her a whore. When Mad Men was at its best, it was able to be funny, sad, and dramatic. This episode accomplished so many things plotwise and characterwise. What’s most impressive is how both of these people could behave like such assholes yet still be sympathetic and be incredibly human. The tragedy of Matthew Weiner’s creation is that a group of successful men and women could never quite achieve happiness. This episode exemplified those feelings as Don Draper looks into a just woken Peggy’s eyes and bursts into tears after hearing about the death of the only other person who really knew him.
But at least in the end, they solved their solved their suitcase problem.