With the AMC show Mad Men scheduled to begin its 6th season this Sunday (4/7), we thought this would be a perfect time to stop and look back at one of our all-time favorite episodes of the show: “The Suitcase”, the 7th episode of the 4th season.
Sometimes a specific episode of a television show comes along and causes us to sit back in satisfied awe at the wonder we have witnessed. These are the episodes we refer to as classic without any trace of hyperbole. Mad Men’s The Suitcase” is one such episode.
THE SERIES: Mad Men
THE EPISODE: “The Suitcase”
THE PLOT: Before Mad Men premiered, AMC (American Movie Classics!) was the network that once showed classic films but then decided to broadcast Halloween and Friday the 13th sequels with no trace of irony. Mad Men, from creator Matt Meiner (Andy Richter Controls the Universe, The Sopranos), was the first sign that AMC could become a network which interspersed fantastically compelling television series (and The Killing) with regular airings of less-than-classic films. The Walking Dead may be the AMC series that scores the most viewers, but Mad Men introduced the idea that AMC was even capable of producing smart, compelling television, and that should never be de-emphasized.
Centering around an advertising agency, Sterling Cooper (now Sterling Cooper Draper Price) in the 1960s, the series presents the disconnect of individuals working to present the idealized, perfect life (made perfect by a specific product, of course) and the political, social, and familial instability going around them. They may sell perfect, euphoric existences, but their realities are anything but.
At the series core is Jon Hamm’s Sterling Cooper Draper Price’s creative director Don Draper. As the series has progressed, it presents the ways in which Draper seems more and more like a relic of a bygone era.
He fights for stability and the preservation of the traditional male role while social structures crumble and change around them. He is frequently unlikable, but the viewer wants to like him, and so spends most of the time rooting for him to make the right decision and be the decent, sympathetic guy of whom we only see traces. Around him, we see his frigid wife (now ex-wife), Betty Francis (January Jones), sharp, ambitious, copy writer Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss), witty, hard-drinking, driven, company head Roger Sterling (John Slattery), opportunistic, account executive Peter Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), and assertive, bold secretary Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks).
All of the characters are well-drawn, multi-dimensional, flawed individuals that beautifully populate a world of cigarette smoke, excessive alcohol consumption, and the unattainable illusion of the perfect life.
(From this point on, SPOILERS are present. Read at your own risk. You’ve been warned.)
From the series fourth season, “The Suitcase” centers around a relationship that has been at the series’ heart from the early second season: the bond between Don Draper and Peggy Olson. Both want a perfect life, with a perfect balance between work and private life. Both have secrets, i.e., Peggy put up an illegitimate child up for adoption and Don’s entire identity is stolen from a man who died next to him in the Korean War. Both have risen above their expected stations, as Peggy rose from the secretarial pool to her current copy editor position, while Don was able to escape his rural roots and ascend up the corporate ladder. In “The Suitcase,” the viewer sees that the perfect couple on the series (in an entirely platonic sense) is the friendship between Don and Peggy.
This episode opens with an advertising pitch for an indestructible suitcase. Don is critical of Peggy’s sales pitch, and demands she stay late at work to redo it, unaware that it is her birthday, and she has plans to celebrate with her boyfriend. Meanwhile, everyone else prepares to watch the boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston.
Meanwhile, Don has received news that the real Don Draper’s widow (aka the widow of the man whose identity he is currently occupying), Anna, will soon die of cancer. Throughout their brief interactions, she seems to be the one character with whom he feels truly comfortable and known. Some of Don’s most sympathetic moments stem from their interactions. He keeps continually delays calling her throughout the episode.
Peggy discovers her boyfriend has planned a surprise dinner with her entire family. Don gives her permission to leave, but she becomes annoyed at her boyfriend’s presumption (as she’s not very close with her family), says she is staying to work, and is promptly dumped over the phone.
As the episode continues, Don and Peggy engage in a series of revealing conversations, about his poor upbringing, the illegitimate child that put up for adoption, and the knowledge that many at the office think a physical relationship between the two of them was the real reason behind her current job.
Other plot points unfold during the episode, but the main thrust of the episode occurs after Don falls asleep with his head in Peggy’s lap and awakens the next morning.
Don finally calls Anna’s house, learns she has died, and breaks down in his office. Peggy is there to comfort him, and remains his support system when he later presents her with his new campaign for the indestructible suitcase. Check out some clips of some of the episode’s best scenes:
Why I Love this Episode:
Mad Men is a series that thrives on metaphor and symbolism, and in this case we have two separate symbols for Don Draper: the suitcase and the fight between Ali and Liston. The episode opens with the hard suitcase that is invulnerable to cracks or damage. It is perceived as indestructible. Then, you have the boxing match, in which everyone believes Liston is the guaranteed victor, but he is defeated by Ali at the end of the sixth round. Don, to the outside world, appears much like the suitcase in question. He is charming, confident, and appears unfazed by everything. There never exists a crack in his hard, impenetrable exterior. However, in reality, he is the executive equivalent of Sonny Liston. He is perceived to be unbeatable, but a few strategic strikes against his armor, and he is revealed as a breakable, fragile human being. It’s a fantastic representation of everything viewers have always known about the character, as we have been able to see him in his private moments, but other characters on the show have never known.
Meanwhile, we have Peggy struggling to be the reliable girlfriend and the dutiful employee, but finally deciding her real love and passion rests in her work, where her greatest partner may be Don Draper. As the episode closes, the two appear equal peers and no longer pupil and mentor. She has seen Don’s vulnerability, and she has allowed herself to function as a source of comfort. After Don learns of Anna’s death, he tells Peggy he has lost the only person who really knew him. She responds, “that’s not true.” While it may not initially seem that way to him, as she doesn’t know everything about his past, she understands she has spent the last evening seeing Don at his lowest, most vulnerable, and most truthful state. She can now claim that she is the only living person who really knows him and be completely correct.
As an extra bonus, I leave you with a behind the scenes interview with Jon Hamm and Elizabeth Moss in which they discuss this episode:
Mad Men is available to stream on Netflix and to purchase on DVD and Blu-ray.
Did you approve of our choice? Is there another episode of Mad Men you think is better? Do you hate Mad Men all together, and think we should have featured a different series entirely? Let us know in the comments!