4.7 The Suitcase
25 May, 1965. The day Sonny Liston fought Cassius Clay in one of boxing’s most famous and controversial fights. And in the world according to Mad Men, that same day was filled with its own spectacular confrontations, some verbal, some physical.
As Peggy and her fellow ad creators struggle to come up with the perfect pitch for their new client, Samsonite, episode seven soon reveals its central theme: toughness. It’s a brilliant, brilliant episode, perhaps the best we’ve yet seen of Mad Men, its effortless dialogue sliding seamlessly between tragedy and mordent wit.
That it’s also the most structurally simple, minimal episode of the season so far perhaps isn’t a coincidence. The Suitcase is made all the more poignant and engrossing thanks to its decision to concentrate almost exclusively on Don and Peggy, Mad Men’s most rounded, intriguing characters.
While SCDP prepare to watch the Clay/Liston fight, Don has more pressing issues on his mind. As we learned earlier in the season, his closest friend, Anna, has been terminally ill for some time, and when Don learns that he’s missed a call from Anna’s family, he knows it’s bad news.
Desperate to put off the inevitable, he immerses himself instead in work and alcohol. Peggy’s been struggling to come up with a satisfactory advertising campaign for Samsonite suitcases, and as everyone else leaves the office to watch the fight, she reluctantly stays behind to help Don come up with a killer idea.
The strange, eventful evening Peggy and Don share together becomes the canvas for the rest of the episode. Through a series of arguments, quiet conversations in brightly-lit diners and dimly-lit bars, and a bizarre drunken skuffle between Don and one of Peggy’s old flames, we’re reminded of just how similar these two characters are.
Both have fought a path to success, despite the respective constraints of class and gender. Both have secrets to hide, and both are ruthlessly committed to their work.
And as Don finally finds the strength to pick up the phone to hear the news he’s dreaded all along, his devastated response, and Peggy’s quiet, sensitive reaction to it, is a perfectly played, typically understated moment.
It’s an episode that reminds us of what’s great about Mad Men. Its narrative is always moving, its narrative always keyed in to a particular moment in time. Where most dramas exist in some kind of historical vacuum, where characters are trapped in the same year for season after season like Groundhog Day, Mad Men is always moving, its dynamics changing.
Don Draper, once the man with all the answers and all the ideas, has drifted far from the persona he initially sought to project. No longer so self assured, he now frequently makes the wrong decisions – it’s significant that, when betting on the Clay/Liston fight, he puts a hundred dollars on the loser.
As for Peggy Olson, she’s fought her way up from the lowly position of being just another of Joan’s expendable secretaries to a woman who could soon supplant Don as the company’s creative force. And on the day that Cassius Clay infamously knocked Sonny Liston to the canvas with a phantom punch, Peggy proves that she has a formidable fighting spirit of her own.
Read our review of episode 6, Waldorf Stories, here.