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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

a few thoughts on ‘Mad Men’: “The Suitcase”

This might be one of the best episodes of any show I’ve ever seen. It works on so many levels: as an exploration and deepening of characters we’ve come to know across years’ worth of story, as a look into an era long gone, and — almost paradoxically — as metaphor that’s only just barely metaphorical for situations we’re still dealing with today.

Peggy’s life here, all around — her work, her love life — feels hardly dated at all. Peggy may be something of an anomaly in the 1960s, but she feels like today’s everywoman — and maybe even today’s everyperson, male or female — who feels a discrepancy between what she really wants and what she’s pressured by society to think she wants. (That all of this is occurring within the context of an ad agency is deeply, wonderfully ironic, since advertising has been such a powerful force in creating the sense of what we’re “supposed” to want.) She’s letting Mark squire her around because it’s what she’s “supposed” to be doing, as a young single woman who’s supposed to be on the road to marriage and motherhood, but it’s clear she’s not thrilled with him (we’ve seen that previous to this episode). He appears to be a decent person and probably would thrill some other woman, but Peggy finds him bland and dull and unromantic (and so do we!), and he doesn’t understand her or what she wants. Another woman might well be delighted that he invited her family to what was intended to be their intimate birthday dinner… but not Peggy. If Mark knew her better, he’d know how she feels about her family. What appears to be a generous gesture on his part actually reveals his cluelessness about who she is as a person. And he thinks it’s an insult to her that he breaks up with her. She’s upset by that, but only because she hasn’t quite left behind those expectations everyone else has for her.
Like this: Peggy’s mother thinks she’s delivering a zinger when she tells her daughter, “I dunno how many nice boys you think are lining up for you…” But isn’t that always how women have been forced to conform to narrow expectations: If you do what you want, boys won’t like you and you’ll end up old and alone. I’ve never understood people who imagine that doing what everyone else wants you to do (if it isn’t also what you want to do) will make you happy…

I loved Peggy’s line: “I know what I’m supposed to want, but it just never feels right, or as important as anything in that office.” Her work gives her satisfaction that nothing else gives her. That’s okay. She just needs to realize that, and she hasn’t yet.

And then there’s Peggy’s relationship with Don. Watching her trying to cope with his criticism hit home for me, because I’ve been there, too: It’s tough to be a woman in what is “supposed” to be a man’s job, because there’s just no way for a woman to win in that situation. You don’t want to be treated differently, but when the boss is hard on you, it’s easy to feel like you’re being singled out because you’re a woman, especially when you’ve seen the guys, time and time again, get away with whatever it is you’re being scolded for. It’s still true today.

Peggy would be awesome as creative director at an agency with her name on it. Too bad it’s the drunkard Duck who suggests such a thing to her. Because it cannot possibly happen with Duck.

With Don, maybe, someday. That Don lets down his hair with Peggy as he does here is extraordinary, given what we know about Don and his tendency to keep everything close to the vest. He’s so vulnerable with Peggy here that it becomes a startling example of how wrong Don has gone in his personal life. He’s shattered to lose Anna, the one person whom he says knew the real him, but Peggy points out that she knows him too (although not quite as fully as she could, we know). He keeps hooking up with women on the shallowest of bases — including Betty, his wife — when he really needs to be with a woman he sees as an equal… and one who sees him, and doesn’t just see him as a gravy train. It’s so subtle, and hence even that much more effective, as an illustration of what feminists have been saying since, well, just about the time in which Mad Men is set (as with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique), that romance is much better when it’s truly between people who can approach each other as equals and as fully realized people.

I made a joke a while back about how Peggy and Don might end up running off to Haight-Asbury in a few years, but maybe I wasn’t so far wrong about that. Don’s comment about the mouse in his office — “There’s a way out of this room we don’t know about” — seems to apply to him and Peggy, too.

Oh, and another thing about Don. Yes, he’s deeply fucked up. Yes, he’s so far from perfect that it’s ridiculous. But it seems to me what women viewers today find appealing about him is that he is a grownup. So much of our pop culture today seems intent on treating men as overgrown adolescents. Here is a man who is, for all his many, many faults, an adult. It’s almost impossible to describe, in the current zeitgeist, how appealing that is.

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