Is it me, or does the summer movie season get less lustrous every year? Sure, there are standouts — this summer, The Avengers, Prometheus, and The Dark Knight Rises have all been high on my to-see list — but the majority of what’s out isn’t all that attractive. There’s an ever-widening gap between art and commerce on the big screen — which makes this the perfect time to catch up with small one. With the rise of original programming on cable, TV has taken the opposite trajectory of cinema — lately, it’s only gotten better.
So this spring, while quality was on vacation at the multiplex, I turned to Netflix to catch up on a medium I’ve neglected over the past couple of years. That means I got to check out Game Of Thrones, Hung, and Happy Endings, to name a few, but primarily it meant that I finally got around to watching Mad Men.
And guess what, you guys? Mad Men is a really good show!
Okay, so that’s not exactly a revelation. It’s hard to discuss Mad Men and say something that hasn’t been said better elsewhere, but I found, as I did with The Sopranos, the more time I spent with these characters, the more I was riveted by absolutely anything they did. Which, at times, isn’t much. Half the fun of Mad Men is just soaking up the atmosphere, glimpsing what everyday life was like for ordinary people in the 60’s. The episodes aren’t so much distinguished by big character-defining moments and propulsive storylines; for me, the smaller moments left a more lasting impression.
Plenty of hefty drama has unfolded on Mad Men — like Don dismissing his brother with a big lump of cold hard cash in “5G,” or the long-awaited confrontation between Betty and Don once she finally learns his big secret in “The Gypsy & The Hobo.” You’ll find some of those moments here, but also much smaller character beats that highlight one of Mad Men‘s many strong suits — the attention to detail in day-to-day life.
The 15 Most Memorable Mad Men Moments (So Far)
(from “The Jet Set” — Season Two, Episode 11)
It’s no secret — one of the most fascinating aspects of Mad Men is our relationship with the era it’s set in. In every episode, we identify with so much of what these characters go through; some stuff may have changed over fifty years, but housewives are still dissatisfied, gay men are still under pressure to act straight, women still have a hard time meeting Mr. Right, and a lot of husbands are lying, cheating bastards. And yet, just when we think we’re starting to gel with these people, one of them says something racist or sexist or homophobic and we’re pulled out of our reverie and reminded that this is the 60’s, and it’s not all day-drinking and mod fashion — there’s real, ugly prejudice there, too.
Mad Men has taken many opportunities to comment on Civil Rights and, especially, the very low glass ceiling for women of the 1960’s; through Sal, it also portrayed the tragedy of a closeted gay man of this time. It’s all been pretty dour and suitably heavy-handed, which is why this moment is such a stunner. Kurt asks Peggy to a Bob Dylan concert, and the office is abuzz about the romantic implications. Kurt shuts them down with: “I’m homosexual.” Ken argues: “I don’t think that means what you think it means.” But yep! Kurt’s gay. And since he’s European, it’s not a big deal to him. The reactions on everyone’s faces — Ken, Peggy, Harry, Joan, and especially poor closeted Sal — are priceless.
Once Kurt leaves, the guys make typical homophobic wisecracks and we can’t help but be disappointed the way we always are when Mad Men characters act like… well, people from the 60’s. (The worst here is Joan, if only because she’d totally have a gay BFF if she’d been born a few decades later; back in the 60’s, a woman like Joan saw a gay man as a threat, not a potential “girlfriend.”) At least Peggy, sweet Peggy, redeems this bunch by allowing Kurt to give her a makeover. Gay stereotype? Yes. But honestly, it doesn’t take a gay man to know Peggy needs a stylist (an opinion Kurt and Joan have in common), and this finally resolves the “is that flamboyant new guy gay or just European?” debate.
(from “Souvenir” — Season Three, Episode 8)
Betty Draper is the Mad Men character everyone loves to hate, and she’s certainly welcomed it with some of her behavior. I, however, am a Betty Draper apologist, for the most part — except in her very iciest cold-bitch moments. I feel bad for Betty! She got swept off her feet by a swindler, and he’s been lying to her the whole time. No, she doesn’t handle it particularly well, but Betty is beautiful and probably not such a bad person underneath that frosty exterior. I don’t know that she was ever going to be particularly well-suited for motherhood, but if things had gone differently, I can imagine Betty being kind of fun to be around.
That’s why I like “Souvenir,” the episode that shows us Betty Draper at her most radiant, giving us a hint of the person she might be without Don Draper holding her back. When Don is beckoned to Italy by Conrad Hilton, he surprises us and his wife by asking Betty along. (You’d think he’d take the opportunity to get some Italian lovin’, but that Don is full of mystery and surprises.) Betty calls upon her model past in order to dress the part, giving us 60’s glam Italianio and speaking the language fluently. She gets hit on by a couple of scuzzy Italian guys, then rescued by Don, whom she pretends not to know. This flirtation naturally leads to the bedroom, in a sex scene that actually sizzles, unlike most between Don and Betty. “Souvenir” gives us a necessary glimpse at the chemistry that must have existed between Don and Betty once, showing us a Betty we can believe Don would have fallen for. (The childish, tantrum-throwing housewife? Not so much.) It fills in their backstory, but with a sad undercurrent — since Betty has already met Henry Francis and the Drapers’ marriage is on the rocks, it’s not long before they go their separate ways.
Oh well — at least they’ll always have Rome.
(from “The Mountain King” — Season Two, Episode 12)
It seems cruel to list this as one of the “best” Mad Men moments, since it’s actually one of the worst. Who wants to see a savvy, sexy, confident woman like Joan get raped by her own fiance? Of all Mad Men characters, Joan seems a universal favorite, mostly due to her sassiness, but also because she’s got the smarts to back up her attitude. We like to think she could do much better than Greg (or even the ever-philandering Roger, for that matter), but for whatever reason, she hasn’t. And now she thinks she’s stuck with this guy.
“The Mountain King” is the fantastic episode in which Don is off gallivanting as Dick Whitman in California, which I love because, in the same way “Souvenir” shows us a new Betty, we get to see who Don/Dick is when he’s at his best with Anna. But what it also depicts is that when Don’s away, things go awry — Sterling Cooper gets sold to the Brits and Joan gets raped in her absent boss’ office.
This being Mad Men and not an after school special, Joan doesn’t call off the engagement or report him to the police. That’s how many women of this time (and many women in ours) would handle it. And if we didn’t witness this little violation, Greg wouldn’t seem like a half bad guy.
But since we do see it, even if Joan herself won’t ever acknowledge it, we experience the full tragedy of Joan’s pride winning out over her happiness. She wants to be the sexy girl who got the handsome doctor husband — she wants to be Betty Draper, essentially. To be envied by all, she’ll even let the guy she’s going to marry rape her and say nothing about it. How many nightmarish experiences like this are underneath Joan’s feisty surface?
12. Betty shoots birds
(from “Shoot” — Season One, Episode 9)
As much as Joan wants to play Betty Draper, being the trophy wife is not all it’s cracked up to be. Many Mad Men episodes explore this, but none visualizes quite so acutely as “Shoot,” in which Betts briefly gets her modeling career back (but only because the guys behind it are trying to woo Don to jump ship at Sterling Cooper and work for them instead). Okay, so maybe it’s hard to feel too bad for a beautiful woman with a dashing husband, two beautiful kids, boundless luxuries, and more free time than she knows what to do with. But this episode brings us close, at least.
I actually do pity poor Season One Betty, who desperately needs some kind of validation for her thankless existence — though I doubt the savage world of modeling would be much kinder than her lout of a husband. Still, it’s nice to see a little fire lit up in ol’ Betts, who more often than not is icy and miserable. Here, we get to see a touch of the warmth and ambition (as much as modeling can be ambitious) that caused Don to be smitten with her in the first place.
And then it all goes to hell, thanks to Don. Betty pretends it was her choice to give up on her career, and seems perfectly fine with that. But at episode’s end, she takes a shotgun to the neighbor’s pigeons — in her nightgown, cigarette dangling from her lips. It’s one of Mad Men‘s most sublime visuals, and the very best of Betty’s childish Season One behavior (which also includes slapping Helen Bishop in the supermarket). If that image doesn’t make it clear that all is not well in the pristine world of Betty Draper, I don’t know what does.
(from “The Arrangements” — Season Three, Episode 4)
From Betty’s “bye, bye, birdies!” to “Bye Bye Birdie,” here is a moment that, out of context, would seem light and carefree, but actually depicts one of the series’ great tragedies — all with a little song and dance. We’ve previously seen Sal pining for Ken Cosgrove while his wife was blissfully unaware in “The Gold Violin,” which was heartbreaking enough. But Sal’s little “Bye Bye Birdie” number takes the cake — the cake of sadness, that is — just for the look on his poor wife’s face during his reenactment.
Diet Pepsi (AKA Patio — terrible name, but true) wants an exact replica of the opening of Bye Bye Birdie to sell their soft drink, for some reason. Sal gets awfully excited about directing the gig, his first chance at such a thing. In fact, he’s so riled up that he explains the entire concept to his wife by acting out Ann-Margret’s part, getting lost in the role and letting his most effeminate side come out. Poor Kitty can only watch helplessly, increasingly bewildered by this distinctly unmanly behavior. We watch the truth flood in, then the denial take over. Ultimately, Kitty remains unaware (or at least, unacknowledging) of her husband’s true sexual orientation — back in the 60’s, it wasn’t so obvious that when it’s bedtime and your husband is acting out “Bye Bye Birdie” instead of putting the moves on you, you’ve got a serious problem.
(from “The Beautiful Girls” — Season Four, Episode 9)
Ida Blankenship took over Don’s desk as a solution to the “Allison problem” — it was Joan’s passive-aggressive way of keeping him from seducing another secretary. (Not that it ultimately helped.) Slow on the uptake and painfully unhip, Blankenship provided a wealth of comic relief in Season Four — and finally, a very poignant moment, too.
In “The Beautiful Girls,” Sally picks a bad day to run away and “surprise” Daddy at work, because no sooner does she arrive than Peggy discovers Blankenship “asleep” at her desk. Shaking her, the ensuing face plant soon confirms that she’s dead. Naturally, it’s Joan who swoops in and knows exactly how to handle the situation, but it’s Bert who finds the right words to sum up what’s happened: “She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the thirty-seventh floor of a skyscraper. She’s an astronaut.” “The Beautiful Girls” contains a passing of the torch, in a way — women like Blankenship are a thing of the past, while girls like Sally are the future.
In the end, Sally throws a tantrum about having to leave the office, makes a run for it, and trips. While Don’s current girlfriend, Faye Miller, is unable to help (stupidly asking Sally, “Do you remember me from yesterday?”), it’s secretary Megan who saves the day and comforts Sally. It’s probably the key reason Don eventually chooses Megan over Faye, and as Megan eventually reveals, she’s not looking to be another career secretary like Ida Blankenship. The women on this show are going places — most of them, anyway.
9. Peggy, Paul, and Smitty get high
(from “My Old Kentucky Home” — Season Three, Episode 3)
This is the episode in which Joan plays the accordion to entertain at a dinner party, Pete and Trudy do the Charleston, and Roger performs in black face, but those aren’t even the comic highlights. Typically, marijuana is a cheap gag for screenwriters to pull out of their bag of tricks. It’s often a crutch to let otherwise-serious characters act goofy, throwing random stupid humor into the mix. And usually, it isn’t actually as funny as the writers would like to think it is. But this being the 60’s, it only makes sense to sprinkle a little dope in at some point in the show’s run, and it feeds into Peggy’s slow but steady transformation into a confident, independent woman who can hang with the boys.
Yes, lines like “I am so high” and “I’m Peggy Olson, and I want to smoke some marijuana” are, on the one hand, obviously written to make us laugh, but we also buy it as what the ordinarily straight-laced Peggy would say to these guys so they let her take a hit. It all leads to a pitch session for Bacardi with such gems as “Rum. Have some. Some rum?” and “Bacar D. Eisenhower,” then culminates in a strange moment of clarity between Peggy and her (very own!) secretary: “I’m going to get to do everything you want for me. I’m going to be fine, Olive.” Like Blankenship’s death, it’s another iteration of the distinct line between the younger, more ambitious women on this show and their older secretaries. And in that moment, as Peggy verbalizes it, we the audience also know it’s true.
8. Lois rides a lawnmower
(from “Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency” — Season Three, Episode 6)
Some shows attempt to shock viewers every week, constantly ending on cliffhangers. (True Blood, for one.) Others are more judicious in their mayhem, but still pack a wallop. (Breaking Bad, for example.) “Shocking” isn’t a word you’d often hear associated with Mad Men, though; in fact, I’d say the show has only one true “WTF” moment, and this is it. It’s Joan’s goodbye party, and during a rare, tender moment between her and Peggy, some of Sterling Cooper’s less valuable employees are messing around on a John Deere lawnmower. Secretary Lois takes a turn, and yes, red flags go up. We feel like this is a bad idea, and on The Office or The Sopranos, we’d know this wouldn’t end well. But this is Mad Men, the kind of show that doesn’t shock you like that — which makes this all the more shocking.
The scene is surprisingly gruesome, even for a lawnmower accident. The victim is Guy, not someone we care much about, but the event is still unsettling — spraying blood across this office we’ve become so familiar with. It’s like our workplace by now. And what brings it all together is that this is Joan’s (supposedly) final moment to shine; she once again remains cool under pressure and knows exactly what must be done. She’s pretty indispensable around these parts, yet she’s leaving anyway — off to be the bored housewife of a guy who raped her, who certainly doesn’t value her or understand her the way her coworkers do. It’s an insightful commentary on the way women at this time were torn between being homemakers or career gals, but more than that, it’s just a poignant moment for Joan, who’s too proud to admit that married life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and she’d rather be where she’s needed. Her tender farewell to Don, with a friendly peck on the check (in her blood-spattered green dress) is a heartbreaker. Luckily for us, her exit from the series was short-lived.
7. Peggy tells Pete
(from “Meditations In An Emergency” — Season Two, Episode 13)
Here’s an episode that’s all about a woman’s right to choose, as Betty learns she’s having Don’s third baby just when their marriage is on the rocks. She’d like an abortion, but in her shoes, it’s even more unthinkable then than it is now. So Betty’s coping strategy is a brief affair with a stranger in the back room at a bar before returning to her husband, pretending all is forgiven.
In contrast, we get the long-awaited confrontation between Peggy and Pete — he tells her he wishes he’d married her instead of Trudy, and she finally reveals that she had (and gave away) his baby. This is made even more potent thanks to the difficulties Pete and Trudy have had conceiving a child of their own, as well as Pete’s staunch refusal to adopt someone else’s child.
The very first episode of Mad Men had Pete and Peggy getting “involved” just before his wedding to Trudy. After that, their relationship was rarely in the foreground, always lingering. We’ve been more or less sure of what Peggy means to Pete, but less sure how she feels about him. Does she want him? If he went after her, would she say yes? As the Cuban Missile Crisis comes to a head, so does this relationship, at last giving us closure between the two. She says: “One day you’re there and then all of a sudden there’s less of you. And you wonder where that part went — if it’s living somewhere outside of you — and you keep thinking maybe you’ll get it back. And then you realize, it’s just gone.”
The meaning is open to interpretation, but it does tell us that Peggy’s wasting no time pining for Pete, wishing they’d been able to start their happy little family together. She made her choice — to advance at Sterling Cooper — and she’s happy with it. But is Pete? Or will he ever seek out the child he never knew he had? The look on his face as she walks off at least confirms that whatever happens, this news will haunt him until his dying days.
6. Duck ditches Chauncey
(from “Maidenform” — Season Two, Episode 6)
The constant drinking and smoking around Sterling Cooper was all fun and games until Roger had a heart attack, a reminder that the carefree substance abuse of the 60’s did eventually catch up with people, even if the participants were, at the time, blissfully unaware. Still, most Mad Men men chose to remain in denial, until the arrival of Duck — who came with the baggage of being an alcoholic. The real, recovering kind. A sober guy around Sterling Cooper? Inconceivable!
I never much cared for Duck, which is why I was glad to see him become a villain of sorts (as much of a villain as you’re likely to get on Mad Men, anyway). It all started with this, as Duck’s estranged family returns his beloved dog Chauncey to his care. After a stressful day at the office, Duck longingly eyes a bottle of brown stuff and is about to succumb when he catches good ol’ Chauncey staring up at him with those innocent, loyal brown eyes. So Duck changes his mind and asks Chauncey to follow him, and just when we think this is going to be a heartwarming moment of man’s best friend saving man from making a terrible self-destructive choice, Duck opens the lobby door and leaves Chauncey to fend for himself on the mean streets of Manhattan. Then he heads back upstairs to have a drink in peace.
There’s really no better way than cruelty to an animal to let us know a character has turned to the dark side. But will we ever learn what became of Chauncey…?
(from “Waldorf Stories” — Season Four, Episode 7)
I wasn’t sure how I felt about Peggy Olson in Season One. Though in many ways she’s ahead of her time, she was also naive and slow to pick up on certain nuances around the office. (Which at least led to a lot of scenes in which Joan told her what’s what.) And when Peggy gave birth to Pete’s baby, I thought we were in for a lot of hemming and hawing and hand-wringing about her decision to give it up. But that didn’t happen.
By Season Four, she’s come a long way, baby, and “Waldorf Stories” shows us a Peggy that Season One Peggy would never have dreamed she’d become. Peggy and Stan are shut in a hotel room together, racing to meet a deadline, and he’s being his usual chauvinist self. So Peggy calls his bluff — she will get naked, per his suggestion. They can work like that. So Stan and Peggy strip, he gets an erection, she mocks him, and he folds, humbled. Peggy smiles triumphantly as she puts her bra back on. It’s not the most subtle of Mad Men moments, but does it need to be? Peggy has earned this victory, and doesn’t need to be coy anymore. She’s asserted her power and proved, yet again, that she’s going to do just fine in this man’s world.
And now I’m going to cheat and include another moment from “Waldorf Stories” that happens earlier, because this is my list and I can do that. This is the episode in which Don wins a Clio for his Glo-Coat campaign — a career high — then immediately follows it with a career low when he returns to the office drunk. In Season Four, Don’s drinking finally catches up in the way it already did with a few other characters (like Freddy Rumsen). After mocking a prospective employee (played by Buffy‘s Danny Strong, the go-to TV nerd) whose banal “The Cure For The Common _________” slogans are all he’s got, Don then steals that terrible idea during an ill-advised pitch under the influence. Unfortunately, the client loves it — and Don doesn’t even remember that he stole the slogan.
For a smooth, suave guy like Don Draper, who always pulls out the right words at the right moment, this was an especially stunning moment — a big chink in his armor. No matter how sloshed Don got before, he always managed to pull it together and be professional at work. But no longer. If it wasn’t clear before that Don’s got a drinking problem, now it is. This season finally took the Don Draper we were so used to and turned him on his head, let him flail a little. But everyone’s still so in awe of him, it’s really only Peggy that takes notice, which is what makes this episode so satisfying — just when Peggy hits a high note, Don sinks lower than ever.
(from “The Wheel” — Season One, Episode 13)
From Don’s worst pitch to his best. One of the best things about Mad Men, obviously, is how savvy about marketing it is. Many of the show’s fictional campaigns are so good, it’s surprising they weren’t real; they stand up with the actual slogans we all have stuck in our heads. Nearly any Mad Men fan would point to this particular pitch as a quintessential Mad Men moment, one that expertly blends the character-driven drama with advertising savvy (as this show often does at its best).
In “The Wheel,” Don has recently learned of his brother’s suicide, which he knows he’s in many ways responsible for. Things aren’t so good on the domestic front, either — Betty has discovered that Don’s been “listening in” on her therapy sessions, and a friend’s affair has her (quite correctly) suspecting that Don is philandering, too. All of this informs Don’s pitch to Kodak for “the wheel,” a slide projector that he loads with his own family stills from happier times. Like “Souvenir,” this is a rare snapshot of who Don and Betty used to be — these photos tell a story of a healthy, smiling family that Mad Men itself does not. The message? Photos lie. (In reality, Don has just skipped out on Thanksgiving with his wife and kids; think of all the Kodak moments he’s missing!)
“It’s a time machine,” Don tells Kodak of the wheel, summing up not just the appeal of the product but the appeal of Mad Men as well. We tend to look back on the grinning faces of our pasts as more pleasant as they were, probably the same way we looked back at the 60’s (at least before Mad Men came along). And now, given what we see here, would we really want to go back?3. Joan gets a promotion
(from “A Night To Remember” — Season Two, Episode 8)
Of all Mad Men characters, in many ways I find Joan the most tragic. Some stew in self-made traps, others succumb to societal pressures at the expense of personal happiness, but it’s Joan who finds the biggest gap between what she could be and what she is. “A Night To Remember” is the episode that proves it.
When Harry needs an extra hand reading scripts, he selects Joan for the task simply because she’s available. At first she’s merely willing to help out, but soon she finds that she digs the gig — and she’s fantastic at it (as she is at everything). Joan delves into the scripts, finding clever advertising strategies and charming the pants off her associates (literally, they wish). She even neglects her wifely duties to yucky rapist Greg because she’s so caught up in her work. For once, Joan isn’t merely the office sexpot, the woman with all the answers — she’s one of the boys, playing on their level.
Alas, Joan’s newfound talent is short-lived. Harry soon finds a replacement (a man, naturally) and though Joan is privately crushed, she of course doesn’t show it. (See that whole “my husband raped me and I’m not going to tell anyone” episode.) Joan is too proud to ever ask for anything, which is why “A Night To Remember” is so sad. If Joan spoke up the way Peggy does, she might find herself in a more satisfying position at Sterling Cooper. So strong in so many ways, Joan is also very weak in others, letting the boys have their way while she makes do being the perfect secretary. Joan, you could be so much more! But back in the 60’s, women didn’t have anyone to tell them that, and more often than not, their talents were squandered. So it’s back to secretarial duties for Joan.
(from “The Inheritance” — Season Two, Episode 10)
Betty’s relationship with young Glenn is one of the weirdest storylines ever on TV, considering the undercurrent of pedophilia we can’t help but read into it. That’s not what’s going on, exactly, but Glenn certainly has some sexual stirrings for Mrs. Draper — and just what, exactly, does she feel for him?
Kinship, most likely. And you just don’t see borderline-creepy but reasonably harmless friendships between adults and children on TV in this way. You just don’t.
I had a hard time picking my favorite Betty and Glenn moment. Their first interaction was striking, as Betty babysat Glenn and he intentionally walked in on her in the bathroom. Betty was upset, but not for long — Glenn patched things up by complimenting her looks, and Betty was pleased someone noticed her, since she’s so taken for granted by her husband. Then there’s the truly heartbreaking confrontation in a parking lot when Betty cries, holds Glenn’s hand, and confesses how lonely she is, how she has no one to talk to. The directness with which she expresses herself is almost child-like. A young bride, Betty never really grew up, and that’s why, though she can’t connect to her own children, she does find a sympathetic confidante in weird little Glenn, the product of a broken home.
But I went with this scene, in which the Betty-Glenn friendship must come to its inevitable end (or go someplace even creepier, which it thankfully does not). Glenn has run away from home, so Betty takes him in and makes him a sandwich. They spend the afternoon watching TV and drinking Cokes, even holding hands. But when Betty’s children return, it’s an awkward reminder that Betty should be acting as a mother, not a pal (or a girlfriend). Betty knows she needs to send Glenn back to his own mother, so she betrays him, pretending she was in the right all along — but we (and she, and Glenn) know better.
This is also the episode in which poor Betty is groped by her own father, suffering from dementia, so maybe we can cut her a little slack. Here Betty crumbles under pressure to behave as a normal housewife, but in truth, she needs someone like Glenn who appreciates her and can level with her. It’s not long after this that Betty takes a true turn for the worse, having sex with a stranger to get even with Don. Giving up Glenn might be the moment she truly hardens.1. Peggy and Don work late
(from “The Suitcase” — Season Four, Episode 7)
Don Draper is unquestionably the center of the Mad Men universe, but would it work without Peggy at the other end of the spectrum? There’s something kind of bleak about the fates of so many characters — Pete, Betty, Roger, Joan, and, of course, Don — but Peggy is the beacon of hope at the show’s center. Of course, we hope all these characters find their way out of the darkness of their personal demons, as well as the limits set by the era. But Peggy’s different. We wish the best for her because she deserves it, and believe she might actually get it. Mad Men could survive without Betty, or Pete, or Joan (as much as we’d miss them). But Peggy’s forward momentum gives us something to root for — progress — the way the American dream is built on upward mobility, getting bigger and better. Peggy fulfills that. Without her, the show might just be… sad.
The Don-Peggy relationship is Mad Men‘s secret weapon, so it’s surprising to note that it hasn’t been trotted out as often as you’d think. Up until “The Suitcase,” Don and Peggy haven’t had that many significant interactions outside of the workplace. The two major ones, of course, are Don visiting Peggy post-baby, inspiring her to give it up and come back to Sterling Cooper (“It will shock you how much it never happened”) and Peggy busting Don out of jail after a drunk driving accident. Still, these two have a mutual understanding that pretty much no one else has of them, and of course it’s to Mad Men‘s credit that it’s never been teased as a “will they or won’t they?” romance. “The Suitcase” is maybe the closest Mad Men will ever get to bringing this relationship to a boiling point, and of course it crosses our minds that things could potentially get steamy. But it wisely goes elsewhere instead.
In “The Suitcase,” Don asks Peggy to work late, not knowing her bland fiance Mark is waiting at a restaurant to celebrate her birthday. In Season Four, the Don-Peggy relationship was far from ideal, with Don’s boozy personal strife causing him to snap at his protege (and everyone else). Things start that way in this episode, but as usual, Peggy chooses her work over her personal life and lets her whole family sit it out, thus ruining her relationship with Mark. (Thankfully — she’s way too good for him.)
Big, bad things happen for Don, too — he gets a call confirming that the real Mrs. Draper has finally succumbed to her cancer. That’s the one person who knew Don (or Dick) better than anyone, now gone. So it’s fitting that he spends the night with the person who knows him second best. Peggy may not be aware of all the intimate details of Don’s checkered past, but she doesn’t need to be. They’re kindred spirits, for whom advertising is more than just a career, just something they’re good at. For them, it’s a way of life. There’s nothing more important. Don and Peggy flounder and flail in their personal lives, but when they’re in this office, they’re rock stars. “The Suitcase” lets them yell at each other, drink with each other, and ultimately sleep with each other — platonically. It doesn’t so much alter their friendship as confirm it, cement it, and make it unbreakable from here on out.
“The Suitcase” of the title has multiple meanings — from the supposedly-indestructible Samsonite luggage they’re trying to pitch to the bag ghostly Anna carries in the vision Don sees after she’s passed. But if there’s one element of this show more durable than anything else, it’s that bond between Peggy and Don. An elephant could step on it, and they’d still be going strong.