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The decade's best episode of television, Mad Men's 'The Suitcase,' aired on September 5, 2010

It’s rare for a single series to define two decades of television, particularly for one set in a different era altogether, but Mad Men was an extraordinary show for many reasons. Glossy and stylish, the series (2007 to 2015) had a lot to say about the surface (the 1960s, advertising, New York City) and so much more about what lurked underneath (identity, sexuality, addiction, gender, existentialism).

There’s a long list of episodes that are representative of all of this, but in this decade , there is no better marker than Season 4’s “The Suitcase,” which centres around the series’ most compelling relationship.

It opens with Don not in one of his better moods. There’s a call from California he’s been avoiding; he already knows what it’s about. In the meantime, he takes his anxiety out on those around him, rejecting Peggy and crew’s pitches for Samsonite luggage.

While half the office heads out to see the night’s long-awaited boxing match, Peggy gets ready to meet her boyfriend Mark for her birthday dinner. Before she can leave, however, Don pulls her aside and says they’re going to need to work on the pitch a little longer. Although she feigns protest, it’s clear Peggy would rather work with Don than spend time with her family and a man she doesn’t love.

Nevertheless, a volatile argument eventually erupts between the two over an issue that had been percolating for a while: Don used Peggy’s idea for the award-winning Glo-Coat commercial, without giving her any credit. Don yells, bleary-eyed, “That’s what the money is for! You should be thanking me every morning when you wake up, along with Jesus, for giving you another day!”

As harsh as it is, it’s not a shocking statement from a man who spent his life — and the series — indulging in a whole lot of excess (money, alcohol, sex) in hopes that it might fulfil him. While Don lashes out due to his lack of fulfilment, Peggy is calmly aware of what he has yet to realize. “I know what I’m supposed to want, but it never feels right,” she says. For both of them, family and luxury have never been big enough motives. Professional soulmates, all that has ever driven them and given them value is their work; “everything else is sentimental.”

This is the exact midpoint of the series, and the first time the pair has had this kind of honest exchange. It works as a reflection of Peggy’s development. She’s no longer a punching bag, absorbing abuse from others; she doesn’t take Don’s words lying down. Throughout the episode, all of her pitches are better than Don’s final idea, even if he won’t admit it. Earlier, when Duck suggests she’s good enough to go out on her own in business, it’s true; she doesn’t need Don anymore, he’s taught her well.

The boxing match that the rest of the office goes to watch that night is the second between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston. After a shocking defeat in the first fight, the former champion Liston was favoured to regain the title. However, in a shocking result, Clay knocked him out in the first round. The rising star beats the longtime champion. As the results are announced, the camera hovers over the faces of Don, the grizzled vet, and Peggy, the plucky young star. He is very evidently falling apart, while she’s growing up and moving forward.

Still, there is something that keeps Peggy and Don intertwined. The pair makes up and laughs together like old friends when Don finds tapes of Roger dictating his memoir, Sterling’s Gold. Then, he takes her to dinner and they talk. He tells her he was in the war, that he saw his father die. She, too, saw her father die, she tells him. At the bar after, he asks her if she still thinks about her baby. She asks him why he never tried to sleep with her. It’s all so casually intimate; there isn’t another soul in their lives they might speak so openly with.

Back at the office, it gets more personal: she watches him vomit in the men’s bathroom (the urinals alone commanding her wide-eyed shock); Don learns Peggy had been sleeping with Duck when the former exec runs in and calls her a “whore”; Don attempts to punch him but pulls a Liston and gets taken down.

Later, he asks Peggy to make him a drink, and she asks, “How long are you going to go on like this?” Her voice holds no condescension or admonishment, just concern. When she asks if he wants to be alone, he doesn’t say yes or no, but rests his head in her lap, his body going slack in a way that suggests he hasn’t let down his guard in a long time. He worries he’s embarrassed her and she shushes him like a mother soothing a child.

In the morning, after he dreams of Anna Draper carrying a suitcase, Don finally places his call to California and learns that Anna died in the night. Peggy is awake and listening, her eyes as wide as his. He crumples in a way it seemed Don Draper never could. His body trembles, he sobs, and explains that “the only person who ever knew me” has died. Peggy rubs his back, and tells him tenderly, “That’s not true.”

And it isn’t. Both Anna and Peggy came to know the real Don as if by accident; they were able to make him feel so comfortable and disarmed that he didn’t have a chance to hide because he didn’t realize he was exposed.

Moments later, he shows Peggy his new idea: Samsonite in the ring, like Clay, taking all the other suitcases down. She says it’s great; Don needs this one right now. He takes her hand and holds it for a long beat, echoing the moment she overstepped and did the same in the series pilot. This time, though, they exchange a tearful, meaningful glance.

The intimacy that reverberates here and through much of the episode is moving in a way both of their romantic dalliances never were. Not a lot is said, but so much is felt.

This is a pair who cares for each other deeply, and it is never more clear than in these 47 minutes. Though Season 7’s “The Strategy,” which offered several callbacks to “The Suitcase,” comes close. In it, the pair, once again, work long and drunkenly into the night just after Peggy’s birthday, lamenting where their lives stand. They dance to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” as Don places a tender kiss on her head and closes his eyes tight. Theirs was a comfortable, real chemistry; a platonic bond that’s never granted a spotlight. These isolated moments together were their destination — the safe place where they were seen and understood.

As a bottle episode (like so many of the greatest television episodes), “The Suitcase” succeeds because it never leaves our central duo, from the office to the restaurant to the bar back to the office. Their connection doesn’t break once and only evolves. Through it all, they serve as each other’s mirror, projecting back their own insecurities, wants and needs. Never have characters been laid so bare.

As a rarely told love story, “The Suitcase” says so much with so little, nary a visual nor narrative trick in sight. And by doing so, it defines a series and sets a high bar for the next decade of television, and probably the one after that.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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