Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The thrilling conclusion to "My 25 Favourite Episodes of TV"

Look, regardless of how rough some of these posts have been (and some of them are rough), I'm not gonna pretend I'm not at least happy with myself that this project I started six months ago has actually reached its completion. It took longer than expected, as evidenced by this post's publication on New Year's Eve, but it's finished. 30,000+ words on 25 shows across all six major networks, a few more cable channels, and even spanning two continents. And at least in terms of the show I picked for this final entry, I think I've saved the best for last.

After the break: We will all learn the reason for compensation.

Mad Men, "The Suitcase"
First aired on AMC Sunday, September 5, 2010

"I always assumed that, but it turns out it's true." - Trudy Campbell

So what do you say of the episode about which all the words have already been written?

Well I'll start by saying that this "25 Favourite Episodes" project was only ever intended to declare my 25 favourite episodes of TV, not count them down or rank them from 25 to 1. Survivor's "Girls Gone Wilder" is not my least favourite episode on this list simply because it was the first one I wrote about, nor would last week's "Dee Reynolds: Shaping America's Youth" likely rank among my top 5.

I also don't think I'm necessarily saying that "The Suitcase," the seventh episode of the fourth season of "Mad Men," is my all time favourite episode of television. But I can tell you that I did intentionally leave it for last. I mentioned last week my assumption that this would be the hardest entry I had to write on the entire list simply because "Mad Men" contains a lot of layers and symbolism that deserve a proper essay, so perhaps I left it last not out of any preference but just to set myself up in a United States vs. Soviet Union type situation. I'm just not exactly sure in this case whether this writeup is the gold medal winning Soviet Union team at the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, or whether I'm the underdog United States at the 1980 Lake Placid games ("Do you believe in miracles? YES! Brendan Noel has written a semi-competent piece about 'Mad Men'!").

But here's what I think I am ready to declare: I feel weird saying this as someone who loves and has loved a lot of TV in my life, but I'm pretty sure "Mad Men" is my all-time favourite show (perhaps rivalled seriously only by "Enlightened"). And what makes it so great is that it goes so far beyond "layers" or "deeper meanings" - it's that freaking everything has a second, third, and fourth meaning, and you can watch episodes countless times over and still interpret things entirely differently than you had before. Maybe, if they're crazy enough, there are still words to be spent on even its most exhaustively analyzed hour.

Case in point: would you like to read about how this episode is basically "The Sixth Sense"?

If you knew what it was like to die, or be dead, would you fear it more or less? I found it hard not to watch "The Suitcase" and feel like the moment at which Peggy walked back into her office, with Don working in his while everyone else runs out of the building before getting roped into pitching more Samsonite commercials, a jet engine crashed into the 37th floor of the Time and Life Building, killing Don and Peggy. As soon as Peggy walks back out into the hallway, everyone has vanished except for Don. Some of the lights have shut off in the office, giving a place she knows so well just the slightest dark haze. She keeps "talking" to other people, but it's never real - Mark is over the phone, Duck is in an inebriated state, etc. The only way she can ever truly get out of the building is if Don escorts her - and when they are out among real people, no one really acknowledges their existence. Now at this point I'm taking the "they were dead the whole time" cliche a little too far by trying to get into the rules of the paranormal, but it does feel remarkable how really alone Don and Peggy are, at least for the night, in this bottle show.

For the entire episode, Don dreads a piece of news he already knows - Anna Draper is dead, having succumbed to her cancer. After he and Peggy fall asleep together late into the night, he is awoken by a transparent, ghostly image of Anna holding a suitcase. She smiles at him before walking out of his office, and out of his life forever. When he finally calls Anna's niece Stephanie in California, he apologizes for not getting back to her sooner and asks if Anna had wanted to talk to him. Stephanie tells him, "You know, she wasn't really there." The version of "the afterlife" Don seems to believe in is the traditional view of Heaven - a separated, communal holding room that everyone joins when it's their time to go. But the night he got to spend as a ghost seems to have taught him that not all death is equal, and in some senses is a limited experience. Maybe we don't all go together, or at least not with everyone we want to - but we go with those in closest physical proximity, and if we're lucky, one of them will be someone who knows us.

Peggy Olson knows Don Draper, and "The Suitcase" is almost a series of vignettes about their relationship. Every time she comes back in to his office, Don's changed his tune - he's disappointed, then annoyed, then apologetic, then in hysterics, then heartbroken. And from working as his secretary (which she reminds him of when he asks if she knows when his birthday is), Peggy has learned how to handle all sides now. He can tear her down and make her cry, but it's not gonna put her in the fetal position or stop her from going back to Don's office later to listen to a recording of Roger Sterling dictating his ridiculous memoirs. Even if she knows him as "Don Draper," she still knows who this guy is and what makes him tick just as much as Anna did.

And with her passing, and Don's feeling that he's lost the only person who really knows him, "Dick Whitman" has passed with her. There's so much talk of and allusion to death in this episode even beyond Anna, with Don and Peggy sharing stories of watching their parents die in front of them and Don talking about the yokel kid in Korea, terrified of the idea of air travel, screaming "Man wasn't meant to fly!" It's a suggestion that perhaps there's a higher purpose to staying where we are - that wherever we are, it's where we're meant to be. Anna is, after all, in California, the promised land for just about every character on "Mad Men". Everything there is always better, but it's not a place for permanent stay. It's an escape, a last resort - a final resting place, literally and metaphorically.

But with death comes the idea of rebirth. Even if Don doesn't realize that Peggy has come to know him so well in their five years working together, he knows it's time to start filling a void that has spent years occupied by Anna. If everything you had in your life was invested in one person, and suddenly they were gone, you too would be torn apart. And so Don has decided to leave the door open, ready to let someone in uninvited and unannounced. For the time being, anyway. He likely closed it again the next day, or maybe even later that afternoon. Don Draper does not rebirth: he resets or regenerates, "freshening up" like he does before all of his co-workers come in for the day to cover up the rot. His is a dying species, an entity who we saw this past season is doomed to repeat the history he never learns. It makes it all the more likely that while the ghostly image of Anna has walked away from Don for good, it's far from the last time she will haunt him.