Bottle Month: Mad Men's "The Suitcase"
Blog Post by Jeremy Grayson (Jeremy G.)
[Television] Posted on December 15, 2015
Written by Matthew Weiner; Directed by Jennifer Getzinger
Original Airdate: September 5, 2010
No one could have anticipated it, but 2010 would turn out to be something of a "Bottle Year". Within its twelve-month span, numerous shows would offer up episodes that experimented with the bottle format in one way or another – Breaking Bad gave us "Fly" (which I discussed last week), Community served up "Cooperative Calligraphy", Family Guy aired the aptly-named "Brian & Stewie", and even The Good Wife played with the genre's elements in "Nine Hours". For a brief while, it felt as though everyone in the TV business wanted a piece of the bottled-up action.
None of those episodes, however, have gained quite the notoriety as a little 46-minute called "The Suitcase". Airing exactly halfway through Mad Men's episodic run, it's one of the first episodes of the widely-acclaimed show to spring to mind when the greatness of the series is brought up. Indeed, I've heard a few people refer to the episode as the greatest piece of television they've ever seen.
I'll confess: Upon my first viewing of "The Suitcase", I didn't quite get where all the praise was coming from. Sure, it was a well-made episode, but was it really all that distinguishable from the typical Mad Men quality? Since then, however, I've had the good fortune to rewatch the episode a time or two, and I've come to better appreciate it for the terrific hour of television it is.
Even more so than "Fly", "The Suitcase" is an episode designed to show off the talents of the series' two lead actors. Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss gave us three-and-a-half seasons of remarkable work prior to this episode, and they would go on to deliver three-and-a-half more. Yet no episode so perfectly showcases both their incredible ranges as "The Suitcase". You could even make the case that Matthew Weiner constructed this episode to show off the talents of his two leads, perhaps in the hopes of getting the Emmys to break their unspoken "Give Mad Men all the awards except acting ones" rule. But that would be denying how powerful this episode works on a story level within the series.
Don and Peggy are at low points even before this episode begins, and it's their increasingly weighty emotions that carry the story. Most bottle episodes rely on emotional connection this way, but "The Suitcase" does the normal standard one better thanks to the subtle, nuanced buildup afforded to it in earlier episodes. Thanks to those earlier developments, our two leads now find themselves gridlocked over how to advertise a Samsonite suitcase. Peggy surges forward; Don holds back. The friction between their two opposing forces ignites the drama.
Much is made during the early, pre-bottle portion of the episode about Peggy's birthday. The obvious inference is that Peggy is being denied happiness on her own celebratory day. More subtly, however, the episode makes a telling statement about its female lead – Peggy's growing older, but she also needs to grow up.
A common criticism non-fans level at Mad Men is the way its characters often seem to act like children. But while some of those characters do fall victim to this trap at times (Betty oscillates between all-too-human mother and spoiled, overgrown brat for much of the later seasons), Peggy remains as human and identifiable character as any other I can think of. She makes mistakes, to be sure, and can even end up looking foolish and immature as a result. But as "The Suitcase" proves, she has an undying loyalty to her job, even if it means upsetting her family and breaking up with her boyfriend.
As the early scenes of "The Suitcase" remind us, Peggy is very much living in the testosterone-fueled halls of the man's world. But the episode never hits us up with overt feminist themes – Peggy fits right in alongside Danny and Rizzo, having gone from a shy secretary back in the series premiere to "one of the guys". But unlike her coworkers, she's had a rough climb to even get that far, and "The Suitcase" makes sure we don't forget it.
Elisabeth Moss is asked to play a variety of emotions this episode, ranging from joy to solace to hurt to anger. Also channeling the range of the emotional spectrum is Jon Hamm, giving as memorable a performance as any he delivered over the run of the series. Don spends the episode cooped up in his office, and while no vocal explanation is made of his reclusiveness, none is needed: he's trying to avoid the former (and very real Mrs. Don Draper – trying to avoid the truth.
Peggy remains the emotional barometer for much of the episode – from the early scene showing her phone call with Duck Phillips, she has the more pronounced of the mini-arcs – but Don is no slouch when the need arises. In the episode's most memorable (and most oft-quoted) scene, he makes his relationship with Peggy starkly and painfully clear: "I give you money, you give me ideas."
"And you never say 'Thank you'!" she responds, verging on tears.
"That's what the money is for!" he shoots back.
It's the blatancy with which Hamm delivers the line – coupled with the lack of dramatic emphasis that Getzinger grants it (there's barely a pause after the line, much less a cut or musical cue) – which pops the cork right off this bottle episode. The format in general allows for tightly concentrated drama, but this episode puts the typical bottler to shame – even when the scene shifts from the offices of Sterling-Cooper, the camera remains glued to Hamm and Moss, retaining the format in spirit even as it moves to some of the show's lesser-used sets.
"The Suitcase" is among Mad Men's most emotionally rigorous outings. It is also, I would argue, one of its most optimistic and uplifting. The ending – in which Don finally opens up to Peggy, and she reciprocates in an incredibly human way – reminds us that even while the show's male protagonist can sometimes be a total jerk, it is indeed possible to get beneath his seemingly cold and impenetrable exterior.
To think of the ending to this episode as optimistic is to underscore the more cynical side of Mad Men when it comes to characterization. But hey. If accepting the harsher, more damaging side of humanity as it's portrayed on this series means getting an emotional masterpiece like "The Suitcase", fans can simply smile and say, "Yes, please."
Tune in next week when we confess to the greatness of Homicide's "Three Men and Adena".
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