As we approach the 10th anniversary of Mad Men’s “The Suitcase” on Saturday, join us in celebrating the highs and lows of one of television’s greatest exercises/flexes/budget-saving tricks: the bottle episode.
Those who find themselves revisiting Mad Men may be surprised by how sparing the show is with its most iconic pairing. Advertising genius Don Draper and his secretary-turned-protégé Peggy Olson share screen time, of course—but not nearly as much as Don and his neglected, unhappy wife Betty; or Don and his de facto work wife Roger Sterling; or even Don and some of his many mistresses, one of whom goes on to be his second wife.
Why, then, does Don and Peggy endure as the show’s most important relationship? One factor is novelty; almost every show has a central romance while far fewer have a mentor-mentee bond, let alone a platonic one between an older man and a younger woman. Another is efficiency. With Don and Peggy, Mad Men makes a symphony from a handful of grace notes: Don visiting Peggy in the psych ward after she’s delivered a baby she never realized she had; Don kissing Peggy’s hand when she leaves for a competing agency; Don and Peggy dancing to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” while they work on a pitch.
The main reason Don and Peggy are synonymous with Mad Men, however, is simple enough. It’s “The Suitcase,” the series’ exact halfway point—and also its height.
“The Suitcase” is not a bottle episode in the strictest sense of the term. There are several other locations besides the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce office where the duo spend an all-nighter working on Samsonite, the account that gives the hour its name: a restaurant where Peggy’s boyfriend and family wait to surprise her on her birthday, only to get stood up for her boss; a Greek diner where the two exhausted creatives stop to eat; a bar where they have a heart-to-heart while listening to Sonny Liston’s quick, historic defeat at the hands of Muhammad Ali. Nor is “The Suitcase” quite the radical break in structure the bottle episode typically represents—with its sprawling ensemble cast, Mad Men often focused on just a handful of characters per episode. Nor does a single, claustrophobic setting like SCDP stand out as much on a show shot almost exclusively indoors, the better to pass off late-aughts Los Angeles for midcentury New York.
Yet “The Suitcase” is the textbook definition of the bottle episode in its more contemporary sense: stripping a show down to its most essential parts, less to save on a budget than to emphasize a theme. “The Suitcase” is the ultimate Mad Men episode because it’s the story of the show in miniature: flawed, difficult, and damaged people finding salvation in their work, though perhaps not enough to save them from themselves.
The plot of “The Suitcase” isn’t set into motion by any external forces or deadlines. There’s no imminent presentation for Don or Peggy to practice; Samsonite isn’t even a major client, paling in comparison to Lucky Strike, Jaguar, or Vick Chemical. The crux of “The Suitcase” is that its torment is entirely self-imposed. Don is avoiding the inevitable acknowledgement that Anna Draper—widow of the real Don, who embraced and supported the former Dick Whitman assuming her husband’s identity after his death in the Korean War—has died of cancer. Peggy, meanwhile, initially uses Don as a convenient excuse, before admitting she’s avoiding hard facts of her own: that conventional relationships and family life may not be in the cards for her, and worse yet, that she may not want them in the first place.
But one of the many traits Don and Peggy share is how closed-off and intensely private they are. “We have personal conversations,” a drunken Don says. (Much of Season 4 sees Don in a depressive, post-divorce spiral, typically aided by booze.) “No we don’t—and I think you like it that way,” Peggy replies, ever perceptive. “I know I do.”
A truth Mad Men captures by virtue of its length, the defining mark of television, is how moments of real honesty are balanced out by, and buried beneath, the veneer of civility that builds up over years of small talk and menial tasks. When those moments finally occur, we feel the full weight of their rarity because we’ve seen so much of the status quo. “The Suitcase” is about the perfect storm it takes for Don and Peggy to be really, truly honest, both with each other and with themselves.
The most famous exchange in “The Suitcase” is Don and Peggy’s argument over credit for an award-winning commercial, a shouting match that crescendos with Don barking out Mad Men’s most oft-quoted (and GIFed) line: “That’s what the money is for!” But that exchange takes place just halfway through the episode’s 47-minute running time. Anger is just one of the stages of grief Don passes on his way to acceptance. After a recording of Roger’s unfinished memoirs breaks the tension, the two move on to a disarming kind of candor: Don’s military service and traumatic childhood; Peggy witnessing her father’s death from a heart attack, new information to both Don and the viewer; the baby Peggy gave up and Don told her “never happened,” who she admits she still thinks about sometimes. What follows is Elisabeth Moss’s personal favorite line reading of the entire show: “playgrounds.”
One by one, “The Suitcase” peels back the many layers of Don and Peggy’s relationship until its core is fully exposed. Technically, the relationship is that of a boss and his employee, but Peggy is also Don’s punching bag in a way that marks her as more than his subordinate, or even his protégé. The rest of the creative department gets to sneak away and watch the Liston-Ali fight; she’s the only one who has to, and then chooses to, stay. But “The Suitcase” highlights the closeness that underlines Don’s casual cruelty—the way it always does in families, both given and chosen. Don and Peggy aren’t simply coworkers, nor are they just codependent. They’re kindred spirits.
Both Don and Peggy have survived things their more genteel coworkers will never understand—things that give them special insight into the human condition that in turn makes them great at their jobs. Peggy’s had to overcome widespread sexism, Catholic guilt, and the betrayal of her own body to get to where she is. Don’s past is better hidden by the suave good looks he wears like armor, but when the dam does finally break, his emotional floods are more violent. After falling asleep on Peggy’s lap, Don sees a vision of a ghostly Anna carrying a suitcase. A few hours later, he calls Anna’s niece, confirms her passing, and breaks into full-body, shuddering sobs, all in front of Peggy. “She was the only person in the world who really knew me,” he admits. “That’s not true,” Peggy responds. The implication is clear, but it’s only confirming what’s already gone down. Don Draper never, ever cries. To see him break down is to see Dick Whitman, the scared kid whose first and deepest instinct will always be to run.
For all its masterly writing, Mad Men’s dirty secret is that it’s often a wildly obvious show. The final scene of “The Suitcase” has a disheveled Peggy ask a Brylcreemed, freshly changed Don if he wants his door open or closed. (He’s ditched a vomit-stained shirt and put his Draper suit back on.) “Open,” Don says, after having opened himself up to a woman who can take Anna’s place as his one true confidante, unsullied by sex. Get it? Still, the line lands because it’s preceded by a wordless moment of total understanding: Don and Peggy clasping hands over Don’s sketch of a Samsonite ad, modeled after the already-famous photo of Ali taunting Liston. They won’t speak of this moment again; even at their most vulnerable, these two don’t like talking much, and respect that about each other. (Don never asks Peggy outright who the father of her baby was; he only asks if she knows.) Things are already getting back to normal. That doesn’t diminish how special the events of “The Suitcase” are.
As the 46th chapter of a 92-part show, “The Suitcase” marks a baton-passing, but also a reflective pause at a crucial turning point. There’s so much history contained within the episode, and so many hints of what’s to come. Peggy’s old flame Duck getting in a drunken fistfight with Don recalls the infamous lawnmower incident while foreshadowing the anarchy of an entire office on speed. Don and Peggy’s bar talk builds on Don’s hospital visit and is expanded on in the series finale, when a distraught Don calls Peggy from California to talk him off the ledge. In “The Suitcase,” Don demands that Peggy stay, because her entire career started as one of his whims; he also craves her approval of the final product, a hint at how she’ll soon surpass him (and at one point, be his actual boss). Like a great ad, “The Suitcase” contains the nostalgia of the past and the excitement of the future. It’s the best episode of Mad Men because it is the entirety of Mad Men, all squeezed into a bottle.