Mad Men recap: The Sweet Science
Peggy and Don go 12 rounds -- and totally knock us out
”Get up!” Don barked at the radio, faithful Peggy at his side.
Earlier the episode opened with Harry giving out passes to the screening of the fight between Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay. He was charging his friends money for tickets he’d been given for free which gave the guys a chance to lob some Jew jokes at each other. Who to bet on? ”Sonny’s old,” was the consensus. ”He’s experienced,” clarified Ken. ”Don!” they cried at their bosses’ entrance. The man has been circling the drain all season. Is he doomed to self-destruct, ruined by age and drink and demons he doesn’t have the nerve to look in the face and fight? Or can he use his baggage, his experience if you will, to find a way to stand back up?
May 25, 1965. It’s our darling Peggy’s 26th birthday. Doofy Duck sent her some cheap carnations and business cards for the big day. ”Phillips-Olson Advertising,” he promised, with declarations that Tampax was on its way up! (Groan.) All she could hear was the clink of ice on the other end of the line, as he whined and snapped of his need for her. She hung up on her former lover when the three bananas slipped into her office. Joey, Danny, and Stan made a couple crude jokes and roped her into a birthday lunch. Maybe it’s because I am so in love with Elisabeth Moss as an actress. Maybe it’s because every single word, breath, gaze of Peggy’s delighted and moved me so deeply this evening. But it’s hard for me to imagine that every man at that office isn’t at least a little in love with her. Later in the ladies room, staring at herself in the mirror as she tried to at least look like a girl excited to go meet her beau for a fancy romantic dinner, the receptionist Megan declared that she was doing pretty good for herself at just 26. Enter Trudy and her enormous belly, a giant silky blue Easter egg, to hack away a little at her heart. Trudy, hungry for raw meat and bloodsport, complimented Peggy on her wit. Which is something, you know, what with being such an old maid. When Pete saw the two women of his two separate lives in the hallway together he looked like he might have Peted his pants a little.
Peggy must have put on her jacket and that adorable little hat a dozen times last night in her attempts to leave the office. But an evening with goofy Mark wasn’t enough to exert a real pull. Let alone when she realized that he’d stupidly arranged for a surprise party with her depressing family and her hilariously dreary roommate. She stayed even after Don, so impressively purple in the face, yelled at her that he didn’t need to say thank you for any of her ideas. ”That’s what the money’s for!” he said. Peggy ran to the ladies room and sobbed in the mirror, the same place she’d been standing when confronted by Trudy. It’s like she was crying over not just one loss, but every loss. But Don needed her, and she loves Don and needs him too. So back she went.
NEXT: Peggy and Don, round two
Miss Blankenship — ”racist hellcat!” as one of my friends in his Facebook status update instantly christened her — had given him the message that there was an urgent call from California. His heart, which Jon Hamm managed to wear that amazing face all night, constricted. He could not return the call. He could not answer his phone. ”Let it ring!” he cried to Peggy. He could not bear to be in the presence of the young guns or the drunken empty wit of Roger or wanly sober Freddy. The only person he could bear was Peggy, so of course he picked a fight with her to get her to stay. He wanted a newer, better pitch for Samsonite and it couldn’t wait until morning. ”The suspense is killing me,” he sneered, though of course it was the drama of news of Anna’s demise that was really eating at his pickled soul.
And there kicked off one of the finest two-player performance pieces I can remember from TV history. (Hyperbolic? So what. I’m drunk on feelings of love and goodness. And from pressing repeat on ”Bleecker Street.”) It was like watching a play unfold, as Peggy and Don circled one another, spitting out long-held accusations — he’s a drunk, she’s a child — and sharing revelations from their similarly traumatic childhoods. Elisabeth Moss had so many brilliant moments. ”I guess I’m back to square one,” she told Don after Mark broke up with her. ”Single!” she tried to sing-song, with a sad clown tip of her glass. God, perfection. And then the way she tried not to laugh when Don revealed that his father died in front of him after being kicked in the head by a horse. And then the cagey way she spilled to Don that everyone at the work joked that she’d slept with Don to get her job, as if that would never happen. What a thing to have the subject of sex brought up between these two. And then the girlish way she paused with Don in her arms to consider if she should take him to the ladies room or the mens room to barf. And then the way she opened her eyes wide like a child to take in the foreign sight of a urinal and innocently offered up her toothbrush and toothpaste.
”You know you’re cute as hell,” Don told her at the bar, before reminding her that he had certain rules of professional conduct that he told himself he could never break. As this was a drunken night out, as this was a night of going places they’d never gone together before, Peggy reminded him of Allison. He told her a little about Korea and that he never knew his mother. She told him her mother assumed he was the father of her child. She did not implicate Pete.
NEXT: If it walks like a Duck…
At the end of the night the two returned to the only place that felt like home to either of them. They ended up back at the office. Enter Duck, hollering for Peggy and trying to take a crap on what he wrongly assumed was Don’s office chair. I won’t soon forget the sound of that man’s fart. When Don saw Duck trying to lead Peggy down the hallway, his face assumed an exquisite expression of bleary-eyed shock. When Duck called Peggy a whore, Don swung wide in an attempt to defend not just his friend but his mother too. The fight was as brief, short and ugly as that night’s match, with Duck bragging that he’d killed 17 men. Poor Peggy, having to break up these two idiots fighting over her.
Of course Peggy returned once again to Don’s side after showing Duck to the door. Don sat ruined on the sofa, a bruise of vomit stain above his heart. He didn’t lean into Peggy’s ear and tell her that she smelled good. He curled up like a child, his head in her lap. Peggy was so beautiful as she tried to arrange her arm over him. Their friendship is so rich and passionate. I know it’s tacky to even fantasize about the possibility of a blossoming romance between them. And yet I was stunned how lovely and right they looked there on the sofa. Don woke briefly to see a vision of Anna float into the room, gaze beneficently down on the pair, and drift off with her suitcase in hand. Normally I don’t go for a ghostly vision, but something about her approving gaze and the fact that work seeps into his entire existence moved me.
Don got news that Anna died on Peggy’s birthday. ”She’s in a better place,” Stephanie said in a stab at comfort. ”That’s what they say,” Don said. Jon Hamm, you are so good. You are so good! When he hung up the phone, the kindest of morning light streaking into the office, he looked up and met Peggy sitting up straight on the sofa with her all-seeing eyes. He gasped out a sob. The whole point of the episode to me was Don finding a way to have someone, the only someone, really, there in the room with him when his heart broke. He told Peggy he had lost the only person in the world who really knew him. ”That’s not true,” she said with such grown-up love and tenderness.
Oh, that ending. Don told Peggy once again to go home. She tried, but of course stayed. She curled up like a child on her sofa, only to be woken up by the three stooges at 10:30. When she walked into Don’s office I wondered at his emotional barometer. Would he be safely back behind his wall of steel? Would he repay her kindness with coldness, if only to reestablish their professional boundaries? He looked pulled together, sipping from coffee instead of booze. He was clean, his hair combed, his posture straightened. He stood over his desk, expectantly looking down on his work. He wanted Peggy’s opinion. ”THE CHAMP,” his mock-up for the Samsonite ad read, with a cute play on the front page photo of the fight’s outcome. Peggy stood by his side, behind the desk with him, as they decided that yes, this was one of those great ideas. Then Don took hold of Peggy’s hand with his, and held it tight, looking deep into her eyes with a breathtaking expression of surprise and gratitude. ”You never say thank you!” she’d cried out to him earlier. He said thank you. It’ll be a while before I’m not moved to tears whenever I think of this gloriously long, wordless exchange.
NEXT: Open or closed?
He dismissed her, kindly snapping that he wanted her to bring him back 10 taglines stat. She practically bounced out of the door, eager to dive into her own swirling head of creativity. ”Open or closed?” she wondered as she left her friend’s office. ”Open,” Don said, with a relieved exhale. I wondered if this last bit was too pat. Eh, and what if it is? It was beautiful. Don is beautiful. Peggy is beautiful. The noodling guitar of Simon & Garfunkel is beautiful. It’s rare to leave an episode of Mad Men so full of hard-won hope. The only two times I can remember feeling as blessed and buoyed is at the end of ”The Mountain King” in Season 2 when Don plunged himself into the Pacific Ocean, as his suitcase found its way back to the Draper door. And then again in the finale of last season, when he stood on a New York street, suitcase in hand, bracing himself for a new beginning.
”There’s a way out of this office that we don’t know about,” Don had told Peggy about the mouse scrabbling for cover around his office floor. Don has long been looking for a way to beat back his demons, to knock them out if we stick with tonight’s metaphor. It took Peggy to throw his heavy arm over her neck and shoulder him though the night. Anna once told him that the only thing stopping him from being happy was his belief that he was alone in the world. Don and Peggy greeted that golden dawn together — shout-out to the lighting guys for that heavenly glow that beamed off her cheeks and Don’s dusty bottles of booze.
Hot damn, I think he’s up.
I’ve gone on so long, but I have to bring up a few other moments that I just loved. Joey daydreaming about stabbing a pen into Danny’s fat neck. Don’s grimace when he realized he was drinking water at the diner, and the way he reached for Peggy’s fries. Peggy’s dress, and her hair. How well Jon Hamm plays drunk, a terrific blend of funny and cruel, and how this man can cry. I loved that some jackass wrote ”For a good time call Caroline,” Roger’s secretary, on the bathroom wall. I love that Roger’s memoir has the ridiculous working title of Sterling’s Gold. I love that we finally learned that Dr. Lyle Evans is the man who swiped Mr. Cooper of his balls.
My vote for best lines of the night: ”Why is there a dog in the Parthenon?” ”That’s a roach. Let’s go somewhere darker.” And of course, ”Ida was a hellcat. Bert lost his balls. Roger’s writing a book!”
What did you guys think? I dare say that was my favorite Mad Men episode of all time. How is it sitting with you this bright morning? Who else will be listening to Simon & Garfunkel all day? Do you think Trudy has a hint of a clue that there was once a little something-something between Pete and Peggy? Does a part of you yearn for Don and Peggy to fall in love and live happily ever after, even if you feel ashamed for such longings?