Monday, September 6, 2010

"Mad Men" recap: Happy Birthday, Peggy Olson!

Spoilers for this week's episode of "Mad Men" below. Don't click through if you don't want to know.

Don and Peggy. Peggy and Don.
It's taken us more than half the season to get to an episode focusing on what is arguably the most complicated -- and interesting -- relationship on "Mad Men," that between imploding ad man Don Draper and his earnest protegee. We only get a few of these episodes a season, but they do make for some of "Mad Men's" best moments (his struggle to persuade a reluctant, wounded Peggy to come with him to the new firm was one of the most poignant facets of last season's zippy finale). What is it about the Peggy-Don relationship? Why is this platonic bond between two co-workers so compelling? Maybe because it's one of the few truly honest relationships in the show.
No, Don's never told Peggy about Dick Whitman, but he's still more honest with her than he is with anyone else in New York. He's still unafraid to be totally lost in front of her; to seek physical comfort from her without having to couch it in the guise of a sexual advance.
When Don tells Peggy that Anna's death means the loss of the only person who really knew him, Peggy says that's not true. She's actually more right than wrong. She might not know about Dick Whitman, but she's privy to the pain, insecurity and fear that turned Dick Whitman into Don Draper.
As for Don's knowledge of Peggy -- well, he knows more about her than anyone else, too. In case there was any doubt that Don knew exactly why Peggy was in the hospital, last night's episode laid that to rest. Don knew about the baby. He doesn't know Pete is the father, and the pregnancy and birth aren't things that Peggy and Don discuss regularly.  Yet he knows about the baby and, unlike everyone else who knows, he doesn't really judge her for it. He also knows about her ambition and her inner conflict about preferring work to relationships. He's understanding about that as well.
Yet all this intimacy doesn't always make for harmony, as this week's episode, "The Suitcase," proves.
 It's Peggy's birthday and the day is full of surprises both confusing (a drunken phone call from Duck Philips) and unpleasant (Don hates her team's idea for the Samsonite campaign). Peggy is somewhat buoyed by the prospect of a romantic evening with Carl Mark, but that's quickly torn apart when Don makes her stay to do more Samsonite work.
Don, meanwhile, gets a not-so-mysterious call from Anna's niece, Stephanie, and knows the call means Anna has died. Unable to face the loss of one of the few people who loves him despite knowing what a jerk he is, he spends the rest of the night berating and tormenting Peggy (ironically, also one of the few people who loves him despite knowing what a jerk he is).
Why does he choose to work on Samsonite with Peggy instead of joining the guys to watch the Liston-Ali fight? Maybe because even Don can only run away so much. Maybe because, if he's at the office, near a phone, he can convince himself that he'll eventually call Stephanie and face Anna's death. Of course, he does eventually, but not after ruining Peggy's evening. True, Mark had unwisely invited her whole, judgmental family to dinner, so the evening was probably already ruined before Don got his paws on it, but still.
Peggy is pissed, but she can't bring herself to just up and leave Don in the office when there's work to be done. Even in her anger, she values her job more than anything.
Yes, Don berates her and dresses her down for her hurt over having her role in the Glo-Coat campaign ignored. Yes, he's cruel and awful. But, the truth is, the two of them are kindred spirits. And, even after all the nonsense he puts her through, the two actually manage to have a quasi-pleasant evening together.
Their two very raw conversations -- at the diner and at the bar listening to Ali make short work of Liston -- are some of the most honest conversations we've heard the two of them have with anyone. Don talks a little about Korea, and even mentions his family (in a way that doesn't reveal his Dick Whitman origins, but still). Peggy talks about her family and we learn that Don and Peggy have something more in common than professional ambition and creative genius -- they both watched their dads die. Peggy, like Don, was a child when she witnessed her dad's death. It was a heart attack, not assault by horse, but Peggy still categorizes it as violent.
It's all honest and moving and sweet. Of course, there's little room for sweetness on "Mad Men," so we quickly see Don puking his guts out back at the office, while the other drunken maniac in Peggy's life -- Duck Philips -- prowls the halls looking for her.
Yet the sincerity of Don and Peggy's (platonic) night together isn't forgotten, and they end it in each other's arms, with Don passing out with his head in Peggy's lap. I hope the show isn't trying to make a couple of Don and Peggy (ultimately, I think she'll grow beyond him, especially if he keeps going the way he's going), but I do enjoy seeing this complex, thorny relationship up close.
Anyway, here are some more thoughts on "The Suitcase."
* If this episode has a theme, my guess is strength. The Samsonite campaign is meant to focus on the suitcase's strength; Ali's brute strength bests Liston's more methodical fighting; Don (whether he realizes it or not) needs Peggy's strength to get him through Anna's loss. Even Roger is at a loss without Don to lean on during his dinner with the teetotaler duo of Freddy and the Pond's guy (and honestly, Roger, how screwed up are you if you're looking to DON for strength?). Strong vs. weak is a major theme on this show. This whole season, in fact, was set up by a show of strength -- Don and his crew walking out on Sterling Cooper Classic -- and one of its major struggles centers on whether the fledgling firm is strong enough to survive. Clearly, Don has made it through the first round of this fight, but with his inner weaknesses becoming more and more apparent, how long can he hold out?
* OK, I know this is a period show, and Matt Weiner and co. often want to remind us of that, but does Peggy's birthday have to fall on the day of the Ali-Liston fight? I guess, as with Roger's daughter's wedding, the show is making a point about the way the outside world intercedes on the lives of everyday folks but, come on.
* Perhaps foreshadowing the conversation she'll later have with Don, Peggy encounters a very pregnant Trudy Campbell in the ladies' room. Peggy's gracious and congratulatory about the baby, and Trudy seems both stressed out and excited. But there is a kind of tension between them. When Peggy makes a funny comment comparing Pete to a baby, Trudy responds "You're witty! I always suspected that, but it's true!" To which Peggy responds "Did you also suspect that you're husband is a hair-puller you stuck-up little snot?" Well, no. Peggy doesn't say that. But you can totally see her thinking it.
* Also, I loved the quick look of terror on Pete's face when he sees Peggy and his wife walking out of the ladies' room together. Maybe he wonders if his dalliance with Peggy will finally catch up to him?
* By the way, I always wondered if Peggy's family thought Don was the baby daddy. We learned this episode that, yes, Mama Olson does think Don was responsible, and hates him for it. Don takes this information with surprise and amusement.
* Assuming the nerdy redhead at the birthday dinner is Peggy's roommate (isn't that what Mark said? Or did I misunderstand?), what happened to the fun-loving Carla Gallo character? Did she get married? Or did she simply bail upon learning that Peggy isn't the raucous gal her ad made her out to be?
* Wow. Roger's book is the gift that keeps on giving, isn't it? We learn that the moldy Miss Blankenship was once the "queen of perversions," and that Bert is, um, missing a few things. OK -- do we think that last part is really true, or is it something that a soused Roger made up in a fit of naughtiness? Whatever. Don is totally delighted upon discovering Roger's tapes, and Peggy is too (once she gets over the initial guilt over rifling through Roger's history).
* The drunken brawl between Duck and Don gets my vote for "Lamest -- and most hilarious -- TV fight ever." That is all.


Lee Steele said...

I'm surprised you didn't have something to say about Anna's apparition carrying what I suspect is that rugged Samsonite luggage. said...

Still not sure what to make of that, Lee. Was it a spectral vision? A drunken hallucination?
Was it seeing that image that finally gives Don the strength to confront Anna's death? Or was it re-affirming the kind of friend he has in Peggy that made him able to stomach the loss of his only other true friend? Don't know.

Bill Scurry said...

I LOVED this episode. The Peg/Don thing is the basis of this whole series, in my opinion, and it was untended for too long. This served to deal with the simmering tension that's building since episode one this season, and it was done remarkably and economically. The comfort that Don and Peggy have with each other (and by that same token, Hamm and Moss) gives me hope that Draper's tailspin will be short lived.

The "Best Misuse Of a Saarinen Chair" award goes to Herman "Duck" Phillips this year. Do you think that when the production designer built season four's modern set, he realized that his precious white chair was thisclose to a rude desecration?

Dave Marcus said...

The last scene is also little wink to one of the first scenes of the entire series. Peggy and Don are standing at his desk and Don reaches to hold Peggy's hand. Then she leaves and asks if the door should be opened or closed. Rewind back to the pilot episode when Peggy misconstrues her new role as secretary and reaches for Don's hand but is rebuffed. She leaves asking whether the door should be opened or closed. I can't remember if he tells her to close it.

We can now see how far their relationship has evolved.