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'Mad Men' recap: 'You're an attractive girl, Peggy'

September 6, 2010 |  7:32 am

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“Mad Men” can be a lot of things, but one thing it’s usually not is a tearjerker. The show always packs an emotional wallop — you'll laugh, you’ll cringe, you’ll want to throw paperweights at Don — but good, old-fashioned lumps in your throat are hard to come by. Sunday night, however, there wasn’t a dry eye at my house. Granted, I watched the episode by myself, but still: If the image of Don, drunk, heartbroken and  curled up in Peggy’s lap, won’t get you a little misty-eyed, then your name must be Betty Draper.

For some time now, Peggy and Don have had a certain understanding. But the terms of their “special relationship” were unspoken and, therefore, easy to ignore. For Don, it meant being a bully; for Peggy, it meant giving in to Don's unreasonable demands. Sunday night, Peggy challenged the unspoken terms of their friendship, and as a result, their kinship became something real. One of my favorite things about “Mad Men” is the way that the most incremental developments can pack such a dramatic punch, and the fact that the very best episodes are often the ones in which very little actually happens.  I’ve heard "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner say the stakes on the series are low because, in the real world, most of our problems are not that melodramatic.  This episode was a perfect example of that; it was also my favorite of the season and maybe even my favorite of the series so far.

As the episode begins, both Peggy and Don are in emotionally fragile states.  There’s no question as to what’s on Peggy’s mind after she runs into a very pregnant (and ever so slightly patronizing) Trudy in the ladies' room.  Don’s in an even gloomier state after getting an “urgent” message from Anna’s niece, Stephanie; an “urgent” phone call can only mean one thing, and he knows it.  Rather than call California, Don starts to drink, and he calls Peggy in to see where she is on the Samsonite pitch.  There are two ways to interpret this move: 1) Don’s in pain, and he needs Peggy, his punching bag, or 2) Don uses his work to escape from his anguish, and Peggy’s his favorite person to work with.  Of course, it’s a bit of both, isn’t it?

Faithful “Mad Men” viewers will know that things tend to get freaky after-hours at the agency. (I’m thinking of “The Lost Weekend” and “Nixon vs. Kennedy” and, of course, the more recent "The Good News”), and the late-night drama is only more pronounced now that Don’s a full-fledged alcoholic with an empty apartment he doesn’t want to go home to.  I’ve always been a sucker for movies and TV shows centered on the “one-night-that-changed-it-all” device. (It’s a weakness that probably dates back to movies like “Adventures in Babysitting” and “Sixteen Candles.”) When the night begins, Peggy is Don’s malcontent underling; by its end, she has replaced Anna as the only person who really knows Don.  In return, Peggy has a friend to whom she will never have to explain anything.  Don might be a harsh boss, but as a friend, he’s not the judging type.  What remains unclear is the answer to Peggy’s question, “How long are you going to go on like this?”  Though if anyone’s going to rescue Don from his rye-soaked decline, it will be Peggy. No doubt she will always be glad she ditched dinner at the Forum of the Twelve Caesars.

A lot of the credit for this change goes to booze, of course, which helps to lubricate Don's and Peggy’s soul-baring.  But a lot of it also goes to Peggy, who doesn’t shy away from asking questions, as she once would have done — and doesn’t hold back her own secrets, either.  The pivotal scene, I think, is the one at the bar during the Liston-Clay fight.  Peggy tells Don she hates dating;  she is, it must be said, fishing for compliments.  But who cares?  It works.  Don tells her she’s attractive, which opens up a conversation about Allison, and then — credit to Don for this one — Peggy’s baby. It bears mentioning that even though we all know Don is a sad and occasionally evil drunk, a rotten father and an unreliable employee, there are two moments in this episode when I still want to be Peggy.  First, when Don tells her, “You’re an attractive girl, Peggy.”  Second, when Don takes a swing at Duck for calling Peggy a whore.  I consider myself a feminist, but that doesn’t mean I would mind having a handsome man punch some jerk's lights out  on my behalf.  So sue me. 

Another reason I loved this episode?  It appealed to the film-studies nerd in me in a major way.  This episode was called “The Suitcase,” which is, of course, a reference to Samsonite.  But, if you’ll indulge me for a second, I also think there’s something else going on here. Hitchcock was famous for using MacGuffins — objects that initially drive the plot but decline in importance in favor of the "real" story.  The suitcase, often stuffed with money or jewels or secret papers, is a favorite MacGuffin.  Now, there aren’t any visits to the Bates Motel or chases across Mt. Rushmore in this episode, only a late-night dinner at a Greek diner and the forging of a real friendship between Don and Peggy, but the suitcase functions in the same way.  If it weren’t for the Samsonite account, Peggy wouldn't have gone to dinner with Don.  Initially, it’s the reason she stays.  As the episode progresses, it becomes clear that Peggy isn’t staying because of “the suitcase,” but because of her relationship with Don: She can feel the tectonic plates shifting beneath her feet, and wisely, she decides to ride out the changes. Peggy and Don continue to brainstorm halfheartedly at the diner, and when Don comes up with a solid idea for Samsonite at the end of the episode, who really cares? I sure didn’t.

What matters is that hand.  I was worried that, after their long night together, Don would put the wall right back up where it used to be — that he’d pull another “Thank you for bringing my keys.”  When Peggy knocks on his door, I'm convinced he’ll be mean and impassive once again.  He sure manages to put on a clean shirt and whip out the pomade pretty quickly; why not the emotional armor too?  So when Don rested his hand on Peggy’s — a nice nod to the very first episode of the show — and asked her to keep the door open, well, people, I cried. 

It’s true: Even bloggers have hearts. 

A few things I’d feel remiss not mentioning:

--  If the recordings for “Sterling’s Gold” are to be believed, Lyle Evans was not a Matthew Weiner-generated meme intended to confuse “Mad Men” viewers but a physician who performed an unnecessary orchiectomy on Bert Cooper.  (Translation: he cut Bert’s testicles off.)   Well, that certainly solves everything, doesn’t it?

-- All hail Ida Blankenship, Queen of Perversions.

-- Recovering alcoholics are “self so-righteous,” according to Roger Sterling. 

I have but one question for you, Show Trackers, but it sure is a loaded one. What’s in store for Peggy and Don, after their special night together? 

-- Meredith Blake
twitter.com/MeredithBlake

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Photo: Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) lives it up on her birthday. Credit: Mike Yarish / AMC

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