Mad Men : 'The Suitcase' Is Tougher Than Sonny Liston

09/06/2010 01:39 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How nice of AMC to run one of the better episodes of Mad Men on Labor Day weekend. (That's a little joke.) Fortunately, it's not one of the more mysterious ones. As always, there be spoilers ahead.

The episode is about people taking potential knock-out blows, and how they react. Not all of them bounce back up. And so it's not hard to figure out, it's organized around a famous fight, the May 25, 1965 re-match of Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight boxing championship.

Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston, their 1965 re-match for the world heavyweight boxing championship. Was that a "phantom punch?" Maybe not. But the aftermath sure looks strange.

The young Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, won the title by surprise in 1964 from the bruising Liston, the fearsome Mike Tyson of his day. Now it's time for the rematch, and most of the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce crew, which persists in calling the now Muslim Ali "Clay," picks Liston to regain the crown. That includes big Don Draper, who lays down a big $100 bet on Liston. (That's about $800 today, or the same size as his now former secretary Allison's infamous Christmas bonus.)

Notably, Pete Campbell, once again a harbinger of the future, goes with Ali.

After his lost weekend following his big Clio win, Don is functional again. He doesn't particularly like what his crew has recommended for a new client, Samsonite, the subsequently famous tough luggage company. For one thing, he doesn't like the idea of using rookie New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath as a celebrity endorser. (This will prove to be a bad call on Don's part, but not yet, as the future "Broadway Joe" hasn't played a down of pro football yet.)

Don's Ghost of Christmas Future, Duck Philips, is in a bad way following his impromptu speech from the floor at the boozy Clios. He sends Peggy Olsen a "gift" of business cards for their ad agency that will never be; in reality, he's been let go for his heavy drinking.

Meanwhile, Don has an urgent phone message from California. Anna Draper's foxy Berkeley coed niece Stephanie is calling. Fearing the worst, Don avoids her and starts drinking. He chooses his true escape. Not simply alcoholism, but workaholism. (Let's see some moralizing about that.)

With the memoir-writing Roger Sterling lamenting how they'll be stuck for the fight with the reformed alcoholic Freddy Rumsen and his Alcoholics Anonymous client charge from Pond's Cold Cream, Don decides to scrap his team's disappointing Samsonite material and start over. Maybe a boxing theme. Anything but call California for the likely bad news about cancer victim Anna, the soul mate who knows all about his double identity.

Don, unhappy with her work, insists that fellow workaholic Peggy stick around for a while and work on Samsonite with him. She agrees. Hey, it's only her 26th birthday, and she's having a celebratory dinner with her sort of fiancee at a ritzy restaurant. None of which she mentions.

After working for awhile, and making ready to leave, Peggy is interrupted by a call from her sorta fiancee. Long story short, he's waiting with her appalling family members, who are there for a surprise birthday party. Don says she can go, but she decides she doesn't want to, and breaks up with her poor fellow over the phone. Nice.

Now we get to the heart of the matter.

Though not going was her choice, as was breaking up over the phone, Peggy blames Don for making her stay because he hired Jane Siegel Sterling's little cousin after unconsciously ripping off his idea to satisfy the breakfast cereal company -- "Life, the cure for the common breakfast!" -- and because he is supposedly responsible for Peggy not having come up with anything good on Samsonite.

Broadway Joe Namath, seen here with Farrah Fawcett in an early '70s ad for Noxzema shaving cream, proved to be a great pitch man in commercials. But Don Draper doesn't like the idea in 1965.

This very shaky logic is a cover for her feeling unappreciated by Don, ostensibly for not sharing in his Clio Award. Because she came up with an idea for the ad.

Actually, the idea she came up with, about which she feels so aggrieved, turns out not to be a commercial at all, only part of an idea for one, as Don points out.

Holding up his end of an unreasonable argument, Don tells her that he needn't give her credit or even thanks, only money. Whereupon Peggy bursts into tears and runs to the ladies room.

Realizing he's been inhuman, Don asks her back into his office and entertains her with a tape from Roger's memoirs. Yes, Roger is writing one of those books that is not actually being written. In addition to being quite inane, it has some amusingly bizarre nuggets.

Don wants to hang out with Peggy. He also wants to procrastinate some more before making that phone call to California.

Over dinner in a diner, Peggy has a confession. She knows what she's supposed to want in her life, but nothing feels as important as what happens in the office. This resonates with Don, who as we saw in the series premiere is nearly always working, except when he's drinking or chasing women. And even then, work frequently intrudes. Imagine working with Don in this era of hyper-connectivity.

Peggy tells Don that "everyone" thinks she got her job by having sex with him, and that her mother thinks Don is the father of her abandoned baby which, as we know, he is not. We learn that Don doesn't know who the father is. He tells her he's always found her attractive, but hasn't wanted to cross a professional line.

It really is getting to be about time to call California, but Don suggests they stop in a bar to check out the heavyweight title fight. And gather some liquid courage. The fight lasts less than a round (many thought Liston, who supposedly died from a mysterious 1970 drug overdose in Las Vegas, stayed down on orders from the Mafia in the thoroughly chaotic conclusion of the fight), but the drinks last much longer.

Back at the office, where it really is time to call California, all the liquid avoidance has finally added up. Stumbling, Don is helped into the men's room by Peggy, who's obviously never been in one before as she tries to help him find a place to throw up. Which Don proceeds to do, copiously, at great length, near Monty Python territory.

As Don carries on being sick, Peggy, now outside his previously sacrosanct masculine preserve, spies her old lover Duck Philips. Horrendously drunk again, Duck has arrived at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to make a deposit.

The essential milieu of Mad Men is not all that admirable.

As he squats over some ultra-white Mod furniture, Duck announces that he is there to "leave Draper a little present."

Sadly, Duck has again made an enormous miscalculation in the agency offices. He's not in Don's office, he's in Roger Sterling's Jane-decorated office. And he is about to defecate before the altar of a huge white painting of black dots.

I don't have time on Labor Day to research it, but the painting could be an Op art work by Bridget Riley. Or it could be a Pop parody by Roy Lichtenstein. The dots look like the Ben-day dots that were a staple of Lichtenstein's work, taken from the comics tradition and used in virtually all of Lichtenstein's famed works of the period, which centered on ironic, abstracted depictions of comic book panels and consumer products advertisements. Which makes me think it's supposed to be a Lichtenstein, perhaps a prop created for Mad Men.

His mission having been interrupted by Peggy, Duck spies Don when he at last emerges from the men's room, shirt dirtied by his epic bout of retching. Putting two and two together and coming up, as he often does, with five, Duck deduces that Peggy has "gone back" to Draper, which makes her a "whore."

Defending her honor, the off-balance Don throws an overhand right, which Duck, unlike Sonny Liston, slips. He wrestles Don to the floor then, announcing that he "killed 17 men on Okinawa" -- Duck was a Marine hero in World War II -- threatens Don with a martial arts blow to the face. Which he has the remaining good sense not to deliver.

Later, in his office, Don knows he has to, at last, call Stephanie in California. He asks Peggy for some more liquid courage, which she dutifully if disapprovingly delivers. "I know it's going to be bad," Don says of the impending conversation.

But in his exhausted state, the booze conks Don right out, and he falls asleep with his head in Peggy's lap.

In the middle of the night, he awakes to see a shiningly spectral Anna Draper smiling at him, carrying a small case for her journey ahead. She smiles at Don, turns, and fades at last out of his life.

As morning breaks, Don finally calls California and learns what he's known since the day before. Anna has passed away from cancer.

Is this still the TV programming most frequently featured in the Don Draper household?

Crying now, Don tells Peggy that Anna was "the only person in the world who really knew me." As she rubs his back, Peggy tells him: "That's not true."

That's right, Peggy. Pete Campbell knows Don.

After napping on her office sofa, Peggy awakes to a whistle blast from the obnoxious art director. (Must. Bring. Back. Sal.) The team assembles in Don's office to see what he's come up with on Samsonite.

It's a take-off on the victorious Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston. Don is in tune with what will become one of the most iconic sports images of the 20th century.

Peggy says she likes it. Does she really? It's out of her experience zone. Briefly yet tellingly placing his hand over hers, Don tells her to go home, take a nap, shower, and come back with 10 tag lines for the ad.

He's such a romantic.

Will Don and Peggy hook up? Or is the prospect of two characters between whom there has been zero sexual tension getting together every bit as much of a MacGuffin as the titular suitcase of the episode?

Mostly what we have in this episode is characters rising off the mat after taking big blows. Unlike Sonny Liston.

Don is knocked down by the news of Anna's death. Which he keeps re-experiencing because he keeps putting off getting the word from her niece. He's also knocked down by Duck.

But he finally gets up, both emotionally and physically. He opens up, some, to Peggy. Who only imagines that she really knows Don. But for him, that's a potential breakthrough. By the end of the episode, he's quite functional, as he's been most of the season.

Peggy is knocked down by her rejection by Don, then by her break-up with her kinda fiancee. But she doesn't care all that much, not really, about the latter, which also has the virtue of being a break with her family back in Brooklyn.

And she stands up to Don, giving as good as she gets, in the process gaining if not a lover or future mate, at least a real friend and a greater and much deserved measure of respect.

Even poor Duck, who with his evident talent and expertise really is the poster child for the dangers of alcoholism that many imagine Don to be, gets up off the canvass. He decides not to beat Don into a bloody pulp when he has the opportunity to do just that. He's not that far gone.

The only one who doesn't get up is Sonny Liston. His life goes decidedly downhill after his second loss to Ali. In the end, he lies dead in Vegas for nearly a week over New Year's 1971 before his body is discovered.

While other characters have their mostly brief moments, this episode really centers on Don and Peggy.

Once again, Jon Hamm is fantastic, playing Don Draper in multiple modes, from commanding presence to absolute wreck, and is thoroughly convincing at every turn.

It's time for him to win the Emmy as best actor.

Elisabeth Moss is even more of a revelation. Always good, here she shines as a young woman coming of age in an age that still discourages that very thing. Her natural reticence combines with her reluctance to definitively challenge this man whom she both fears and loves.

Yet she does so, becoming luminous in the process, achieving a breakthrough with her revered boss and freeing herself from constraining expectations and family ties in the process.

It's a great set of moments for her, and for the series.