Tuned In

Mad Men Watch: The Boxer

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, buy a ticket to the closed-circuit screening at your local theater and watch last night’s Mad Men.

It was structured around one historic fight, and featured a few others—some verbal, one drunken—but all around “The Suitcase” was, fittingly, a knockout.

At the center of all these battles was a conflict, and a connection, between Don and Peggy, two characters who began the series seemingly very different—younger vs. older, male vs. female, boss vs. employee—yet have both bonded and clashed precisely because of the ways in which they are so similar.

This, and not the sexual attachment that Peggy’s mother once suspected (and the rest of the office laughed at), is why he came to visit her in the hospital after she had her baby and advised her to give it up and move on. Don may not be anybody’s idea of a feminist, but he sees Peggy’s ability, he has a sense of what lies ahead of her at each end of this forking path, and the former Dick Whitman knows all about the need to put erase one’s past and create a future. Peggy may be unlike Don in many surface ways, but he knows that her experience is more like his than that of any other person he knows.

As we’ve seen numerous times before, though, this doesn’t make Don a dream boss. He’s helped Peggy to advance farther than most of his male colleagues might, but he’s also tough on her to the point of mockery. Consciously or not, when he’s hard on Peggy, he’s being hard on himself, and at times his treatment of her gets worse in proprtion to his own self-loathing. In “The Suitcase,” their conflict comes to a climax and their bond deepens at the same time, just as Don loses Anna—his last major connection to his old, whole self—and does so in the company of the one person who can understand his experience (even if he’s still hiding much of it from her).

Peggy and Don’s fight, and cathartic all-nighter, begin with a fight over Samsonite that’s really a fight over Glo-Coat, as Peggy accuses Don of taking her idea without giving credit. The beauty of the scene is that in a way each of them is right. Peggy’s idea was in fact a “kernel”—a kid locked in a closet by his mother would have made for a pretty disturbing floor-product commercial—but Don did run with it and allow the world to think the idea sprang full-formed from his head. His first reaction to her complaint sums up how emotionally crippled he can be in dealing with people, as in the fallout with Allison: when Peggy faults him for not thanking her, he snaps, “That’s what the money’s for!” He’s so absorbed in his own drama that he can’t see other people’s problems as being too complicated to solve by cutting a check.

Peggy, on the other hand, is being driven by her own personal conflict, which informs her anger at Don. On the surface, the problem is his making her miss her birthday dinner. On a deeper level, the problem is the birthday itself, and how it brings to the fore other people’s expectations for her as a single woman. (“You know 26 is still very young!” Trudy tells her, in a wonderfully, obliviously hurtful moment.) Peggy’s not interested in giving up her career to be with someone, though she doesn’t want to be alone either.

But beyond her disappointment at losing her romantic dinner with Mark is her greater disappointment at what he’s done with the dinner, having turned it into a surprise party with the very family who has undermined her career ambitions, and whose influence she’s been trying to escape. The incident shows her that, while she may have hoped that Mark is someone she could make a new future with, he’s turned out to be someone trying to drag her back to her past.

Don and Peggy’s resulting night was a spectacular showcase for both Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss, and the way their dialogue moved from sniping to full-throated fighting to bonding brilliantly illuminated the special—and not in that way—relationship they have. Don and Peggy don’t fight like a boss and underling, exactly, yet not like lovers, either—as much as he disparages her, you can tell (as when he tries to patch things up over Roger’s memoir tape) that he really wants her approval and good wishes. Peggy, meanwhile, knows she’s still Don’s employee and wants to be his peer, yet already knows that in a way she’s something more—a kind of caretaker, and a kindred spirit in a way she’s never been able to directly acknowledge.

They do directly acknowledge their connection (in their way) in “The Suitcase,” and the script pulls off a difficult job. The two of them end up saying explicitly things that have always been unspoken about their relationship—the office rumors about them, for instance, and the fact that Peggy knows Don better than anyone at the office (and now maybe anywhere). This kind of thing could be forced, but the context—an everything-on-the-table argument followed by a night of drunken talk and brainstorming—makes it natural.

And in a turn that’s elegant and hilarious at once, the night comes to a climax with a figure from both of their pasts, a drunken Duck Phillips. In a way, Duck represents disappointment for both of them. Peggy finds that he’s become a joke, making her a job offer that turns out to be desperate dreaming and writing her off as a whore when she won’t pull him out of his mire; Don ends up the loser in a battle of pathetic drunks—a farcical version of the Clay-Liston fight—saying “Uncle” in his puke-spattered shirt to the man he once so elegantly defeated at business.

Yet in the end, it’s Duck who gets ushered off the stage, and Peggy and Don—rested and freshly changed—who move on the next morning to salvage the Samsonite account, she after ending her relationship with Mark, he after saying goodbye (in a way) to Anna. They may be able to put aside their conflict and handle their suitcase problem at last. But they had to unload some of their baggage first.

Now the hail of bullets:

* Peggy’s breaking up with Mark is in a way as much as anything about breaking away from her family, yet they still have enough hold on her to infuriate her, and I love how Elisabeth Moss makes Peggy’s voice shift back into her old Brooklyn accent—”Hello, Ma”—the second she gets on the phone with her.

* Speaking of ending up on the wrong side of the fight, it’s notable that Don makes a point of trashing both Joe Namath and Cassius Clay / Muhammad Ali in the space of the episode. What we know watching is that both men will become not just legends of their sport but advertising icons as well:


As much as Don is praised as an up-and-comer, we’ve also seen that in many ways he’s a man of the past. Peggy’s Samsonite pitch for Namath, corny as it may have been, would have been ahead of its time. And while Don may have been wrong about Muhammad Ali—both as a boxer and a public figure—he’s not so blinded by his opinions that he can’t see that value of hitching his Samsonite campaign to an image inspired by The Greatest.

* Don’s dismissal of Namath, who hasn’t yet played in the pros, suggests another tension behind his treatment of Peggy: a middle-aged man’s discomfort with youth culture—which his own business, obviously, helps promote—and the notion of younger people getting (what seems like to him) too much too soon. Another idea this Guy Over 30 is goin to have to get used to.

* Dr. Lyle Evans mystery solved! Roger’s reference to Bert Cooper’s unfortunate loss not only clears up one of Google’s greatest conundra, it set out a bit of history between Roger and Bert (Roger believed Bert hated him for his “joie de vivre” and sexual prowess) that I would not be surprised to see come up again.

* And, of course, it also gave us an eye-opening revelation about the secret life of Mrs. Blankenship, who showed up again to deliver a racist zinger about the Clay-Liston fight (“If I wanted to watch two Negroes fight, I’d throw a dollar out my window”). It was good to see the episode, at least, acknowledge her function beyond comic relief: i.e., that Don knows that Joan knows Mrs. Blankenship was “what [he] needed” after his indiscretion with Allison.

* The episode paired Mrs. Blankenship’s casually racist comment with the casually anti-Semitic comments of Harry and his colleagues (“You’re such a Jew”). I wonder whether Harry’s business dealings, and his growing Mr. Hollywood pretensions, will get a closer look sometime this season or whether they’ll remain mainly comic relief.

* Peggy’s conversations with Don turned up another parallel between the two: they both watched their fathers die. And Peggy seemed to get a brief reminder of the horrific scene when Don, after searching on the floor for the mouse, turned his head up red-faced and ill-looking. We know from the beginning of season 2 that Don had blood-pressure issues; you have to wonder what Don’s getting himself into if he keeps drinking away his problems the way he has been.

* The song over the episode’s closing credits was Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bleecker Street.” (“The Boxer” would not only have been too hamhanded but came out years later.) Mad Men has often shied away from using the more obvious big names of the period, but this lesser-played song nicely captured the episode’s themes of sadness and regrets in a fog-shrouded Manhattan.  It’s a long road to Canaan.