Friday, 17 September 2010

Mad Men - 'The Suitcase' - Fog's Rollin' In Off The East River Bank

So here's how Mad Men works for me. It's an elegant, frighteningly consistent very good show with one of the greatest leading performances in the history of television. But I find myself throwing around a lot of 7/10's, and feel it only really exceeds itself say once or twice or season. When it does it's kind of the best thing ever, but perhaps as a consequence of its unanimous and everlasting critical acclaim, I think it coasts. I don't feel like it has the vitality, the drive to always be outperforming itself , subvert expectation or do anything and everything else to be better that has characterized my favorite shows of the past.

- Like I said, this pattern breaks once or twice a season, and we see what it can be. But most of the time I always seem to catch myself thinking, yes Mad Men this is very good, but I've seen you do better, I know you can do better, so why aren't you doing better? Its not entirely the show's fault I guess, but with the entire world telling me its the best thing since the ape hit the other ape in the face with a bone, and also because my standards have been raised by the past excellence of the show itself, my expectations are just higher. Its a complacent genius of a show, that coasting is still better then 90% of the other fuckers out there but still, I wish episodes like 'The Suitcase' came around more often, you know?

- Because this was a fucking brilliant episode, one of the best the show has ever produced and pulled me back in to this season, that was beginning to have that still very good but slightly disappointing feel of season 3. I think this is a better year, and this episode, despite being mostly standalone, is a high point to make me forgive any other problems I may be having now. Like the whole Betty Draper thing. But thankfully she's barely in this one so its cool.

- It's interesting to note that this episode reached the heights that it did, by for all intents and purposes just telling a story about two people, and what they mean or do not mean to each other. While their relationship has always been on the fringes of the show's subject matter, I can't remember any episode in the past giving Peggy so much time with Don. They're so dynamic together precisely because their is no romance, because their passion for the work is where the connection lies, and each is broken or will be ultimately broken by doing what they love. She is basically Don ten years ago, blowing of family and a promising relationship with Karl from Lost because he perhaps misguidedly, tried to do something nice for here. They have the same drives but differ in their flaws. I can't think of a more impressively written rendition of two individuals finding each other, not in the physical sense, but in the forming of something more then that, a bond, in my entire TV memory bank.

- The episode featured series best work from both Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss. Moss in particular has never been this good, and to see her come to this from being arguably the weakest aspect if the show in season one is invigorating. Peggy has had the best arc perhaps, a quest of self-actualization, of finding herself and her voice. Peggy now is the most interesting and complex character on the show outside of its lead, and that is in large part to the strength of Moss' performance.

- It had an up all night quality to it, as Peggy and Don spend time long after everyone else has fucked off to watch Mohammed Ali, trying to find the idea that sticks, the spark, or the kernel as Don would say. Even in something as shallow as advertising, there's real art and grind to the process. It matters to them more then we could know. And it's for a suitcase poster.

- I would be hard pressed to talk any further without mentioning the stellar ending, a passage with enough poignancy and emotional power to put any movie to shame. The spectre of bad news hangs over Don throughout the night, as his comically elderly secretary Ms. Blankenship ( The cheapest joke ever made on Mad men?) informs him of an urgent call he's missed. Of course we all know what that means, that Anna Draper, the only person who knows and accepts him is dead, and with her Dick Whitman, leaving Don all alone without the person he loves or the person he used to be. He can now only be himself, and right now, that sucks to say much.

- The ominousness of this news hangs over everything, even the episodes lighter moments. So when Don finally returns the phone-call. Its a scene of of simultaneous heartbreak and a deeper sadness, as Don keeps up the polite post-death facade of keeping his shit together with Stephanie, all the while knowing what this means. The Don Draper cried. That shit was raw, particularly because Draper is nothing but a man who believes in the bottling up things, almost to a philosophical scale. Its a moment more complex then I can give it credit for, and just a flat-out beautiful moment of TV and Hamm surely has an Emmy all wrapped up, particularly with no Bryan Cranston in the mix. The fact that he lets Peggy in at this point, even just as comfort, was something the whole episode built toward, and perhaps the most earned emotionally earned pay-off conceivable.

- And that moment where Don sees Anna fade into the distance? Perfection on TV.

- I loved the smaller scenes with Moss and Hamm too, such as her giving him shit for taking the credit for her idea, or the cafe scene where they traded memories and family histories. Good things come to those who wait, and it was precisely because the whole episode strengthening and building their connection. Its an episode that had plot sure, but everything served to tell the stories of these two people, a pure character episode, and one of the best I've ever seen.

- We may move on next week, but that night was something special, both to the show and these characters. A truly stellar episode of television as rich as it was rewarding. Unpredictable yet satisfying, featuring abominably strong writing and two performances that stand up against the best of them. A landmark in every sense, yet wonderfully low-key, basically about two people talking and beginning to understand each other. A masterpiece that feels effortless, and I don't use that word lightly. Plus that was a pretty mean Simon and Garfunkel finish too.

- But watch how next week is a 7/10 episode. Bet a small but respectable amount of money on it.

Rating: 10/10

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