Mad Men went to the fights this week. In an episode set against the media backdrop of the second Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston bout, battle-lines were being drawn everywhere. Don fought with Peggy and her Samsonsonite ad team over what he thought were their unimaginative ideas. Peggy fought with Mark over having to stay late at work. In a turn that would have seemed ridiculous had writer Matthew Weiner not arranged it so beautifully, Don took a swing at Duck… and the drunk (Duck, not Don, though Don was inebriated, too) ended up on top of Don, a wobbly, momentary victor.
And I suppose for the purposes of my organizing metaphor, I’m supposed to say that Anna lost her battle with cancer, but the dignity of her death — the immensely sad wit she made of her own demise — deserves more than that dreadful cliche.
The episode gave Don and Peggy equal attention. Don tried to avoid returning the call from the West Coast that would inform him of Anna’s death, and spent the work day taking it out on everyone. No surprise that even in talking about the heavyweight championship with which America was obsessed, Don would be among the many who’d persist in calling Ali “Cassius Clay” and predict Ali/Clay would lose for that most Donnish of reasons: “‘I’m the greatest’ — not if you have to say it,” he sneered.
Don kept Peggy working late at the office, on this, her 26th birthday. This allowed for a priceless reveal: Mark the sap boyfriend left stranded with his surprise birthday gift for Peggy — her hideous family, sitting like gorgons, waiting for her in a restaurant. The thoughtful yet utterly clueless Mark roused his pique to blossom into something close to anger, and broke up with Peggy over the phone. In doing so, he left Peggy as she’s been so many times, but never as movingly: alone yet not alone, stranded with a man she for whom she felt ambivalence. And the fact that I could be talking about Duck as much as I am about Don shows you how far Don has sunk.
As viewers, we felt elated that Peggy seems to be rid of Mark, yet even as she said, “He doesn’t know me and it’s not my fault,” we also knew why she’d also burst into tears one of this week’s many high points, overcome with the burden of being lonely and too smart for everyone in the room — or not in the room.
The scenes shared by Don and Peggy had a remarkable intimacy. (Don, too, broke down sobbing.) As they discussed family deaths and the secret they share about Peggy’s baby given up for adoption, they were at once brought closer even as we saw how utterly different they remain. That last quality was encapsulated by a quick exchange.
Peggy: “I can’t tell the difference between something that’s good and something that’s awful.”
Don: “Well, they’re very close.”
Exactly. Peggy might as well have been talking about her break-up, or Duck, as she was a Samsonite luggage ad. And Don, who would later see a vision of Anna smiling, holding a gleaming Samsonite suitcase on her way to “a better place,” knows how close good and awful are.
In Weiner’s construction, Peggy was Ali (quick, a changling, trying to make titanic struggles look easy) and Don was Liston (sullen, methodical, banking on hard work and stoic denial to save himself). Peggy’s line, early on in her argument with Don — “You win, again” — showed how battle-scarred they both are. This episode, entitled “The Suitcase,” was a knock-out.
A few lighter points:
• Roger’s dismay at having to dine with AA-sobered companions yielded some superb humor, including his slurry line, “They’re self so righteous!”
• Deconstructing Roger’s dictated tapes (“Ida was a hellcat?” “Cooper has no testicles?”) is going to keep Mad Men media scholars in PhD territory for months to come.
• Duck trying to leave a excremental gift for Don, but dropping his drawers in Roger’s office, was matched in glorious grossness only by Don’s violent, seemingly endless vomiting, which approached Monty Python’s Meaning of Life in its copiousness.
What did you think of this week’s Mad Men?