For all the media flutter about Joan and Roger and Pete and Sal, I'm one of those people who feels she would be perfectly happy to watch a "Mad Men" composed exclusively of scenes between Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss). Hamm and Moss have, for one thing, an acting alchemy that's fairly unique on television right now, the kind of skillful play off each other than leads even underwritten scenes to be fraught with meaning. They are experts at filling in the blanks, for each other and for the script, so to speak. Which explains why it's taken me an entire week to work up the will to write about last Sunday's episode, "The Suitcase," basically a two-hander written specially for Hamm and Moss. It's just taken that long to come down from the high. I had resolved not to flood this space with Mad Men analysis, but it's just my luck that the week I start blogging here Mad Men runs what I suspect will be remembered as one of its greatest episodes.
The party line of the chattering classes on Mad Men this season seems to be that it's been slow-going, with little plot development and a lot of Don facedown: in his drink, in the boardroom, in his secretary. For my part, I find the focus on Don's failings refreshing. Last season, as his marriage disintegrated and he felt stifled by the oversight of the distant British firm that had bought Sterling Cooper, I detected in the writing a certain amount of sympathy for him that I couldn't quite countenance.
Betty, in particular, has been the character driving that sympathy, as she's been written as a screeching harpy for the last two seasons. I've heard a theory (a completely speculative one, as far as I know) that the writers simply don't like January Jones, and it's true that that could explain why you'll have a rough time drawing a straight line between the shotgun-firing, psychiatrist-manipulating Betty of season one and the angry woman on the telephone we all dislike now. Whether or not that's the explanation, the tendency to sympathize with cheating, philandering, and often very sexist Don inflamed my feminist sensibilities when speaking with other people about the show. And that tendency to tread such an empathetic line on Draper's character particularly seemed to me, in the third season, to drive the entire show off the rails. (Let us never speak again of the "Suzanne" character, who as a friend of mine said, "might as well have been handing out oranges and tea from China.") I couldn't help but read the hard reset at the end of last season - which felt like an erasure of what came before it, almost like what the fandom community calls a "retcon"—as a confirmation the writers felt the same way.
Now that the pendulum has swung in the other direction, with Don hangovering his way through life until an acceptable hour to begin drinking again, it's easier for Mad Men to again take up the kind of nuance about gender roles that it does best, and that it does particularly best when it comes to Don's relationship with Peggy. And this week that relationship was brought to a head after two seasons of Don's odd, playing-hard-to-get approach to a mentoring relationship in the workplace. Spurred by a sudden breakup with boring boyfriend Mark, Peggy finally called Don on his bullshit nitpicking and appropriation of her work. And in the fits-and-starts of empathy that rescue him as a character, he seemed, for once, to see what it was he'd been doing wrong.
It's about time. I feel foolishly protective of Peggy, which I've written about here before. I don't claim anything more than personal bias for that, pure and simple. Of Mad Men's three models of lived female experience (Betty/Joan/Peggy), hers is probably closest to my own. Despite being told by Bobbi Barrett that, "Being a woman is a powerful business," she's never quite figured out how to wield it in the workplace, or, frankly, romantically. I admire the Joans of this world, really I do, but they were taught something I wasn't, I think, and now it's too late for me to learn it. And when Peggy said, this week, that nothing in the world was as real to her as her work, despite the pressure she felt from family to find a nice boy and settle down, some part of me cheered. Corporate life did not work out for me, but like anyone who's found something to do in life that she does love, I don't mean when I say that that I look down on people who choose to center family in their existences. Only that it often feels definitionally lonely not to want that, particularly.
This episode was not, of course, perfect—I could have done without both the ghostly presence of the real Donald Draper's ex-wife and the little hand-clutch at the end. On occasion Matthew Weiner, the showrunner who wrote the episode, indulges his penchant for melodrama just a step too far. And though the Internet is clamoring, in some areas, for a Peggy-Don romantic relationship, I hope that will be one front on which he marshals some self-control.
Because, in a way, the Peggy-Don relationship, as it stands, without the rose-colored glasses of romance, more or less mirrors what I think is the best way to relate to this show. An old post of Ta-Nehisi Coates' has always inflected my understanding of the show: "... the irony that animates Mad Men is the fact that, without [his troubled] past, Draper would likely be the sort of pampered hack he despises. He'd be Pete Campbell. His double consciousness, makes him, indeed, doubly conscious, doubly aware. Don Draper sees more." In other words, the thing that rescues Don from the trash heap of every sexist boss you and I have ever known, that keeps him treading water even when caricature threatens to overwhelm him, is that on occasion the light comes through. That, and not the henpecking of his wife or his alleged brilliance or his beautiful, beautiful face, ought to be animating one's empathy for the character.
Even when it's painful for Don, his realizations on that front are compelling drama for people who know what it is to see the crack in the door and who want to wedge their foot in it, but also know the costs of it. And that population comprises just about every person who's been marginalized some way in the world, by class, by gender, by race, by sexual preference—the list goes on and on. That's why Peggy sees Don and understands him, as well as the inverse. And that's why, ultimately, I think Mad Men is a show that's actually hopeful about the chances for social progress—even if it goes very slowly, and we only see each other one person at a time.