Mad Men recap: After the best episode of the season, Don Draper and Peggy Olson get emotionally naked
After the best Mad Men episode of this season, we now know this: Student/protege Peggy Olson is nearly the equal of her mentor/master Don Draper.
And there is no one in the world who knows Draper better than Peggy. Which may be the biggest tragedy of all.
We know this courtesy of Sunday night's episode "The Suitcase," an amazing showcase for Jon Hamm's Draper and Elisabeth Moss' Peggy that traps the two characters together in a boozy, unguarded evening where their defenses come down and they both see how similar -- and devastating -- their lives really are.
The setup was classic. With the entire firm headed to watch a theater broadcast of the Sonny Liston/Cassius Clay fight (the bout which would make a phenom of soon-to-be boxing legend Muhammad Ali), Draper avoids the discomfort of sitting in the seats alone among the firm's married couples by working on a campaign for Samsonite. (It was a delicious moment to see Draper instinctively pick the eventual loser Liston as his favorite fighter, standing behind the faded champion as a younger, more modern model rose to replace him)
Peggy, who still needs Draper's approval even as she's disgusted by his decline, avoids an uncomfortable evening with her boyfriend of convenience and the family she can't stand by staying with him in the office -- assuring herself in tones she couldn't have believed even in the moment, that this work session would be over soon.
What followed was the kind of soul-baring fights we haven't seen since The Sopranos, where Peggy points out Draper's usurpation of credit for their award-winning work together and Draper points out that's how the advertising business works -- especially for women trailblazing in a place where they have never worked before.
Creator Matt Weiner finally gives us fans something important and fulfilling; a clearing of the air between these two kindred characters who have been suffering in their own silos through the entire season. He reveals his boyhood past on a farm, watching his father die from a horse's hoof and fighting in Korea; she tells of watching her father die of heart attack and weathering the bruising office rumors perverting her connection to Draper.
A confrontation with a drunk Duck Phillips forces Peggy to admit her affair with the fired former Sterling Cooper executive (will Draper assume he is her baby's father?). And the phone call Draper has been avoiding for days is finally made, culminating with an admission to Peggy that the only woman who really knew -- and accepted him -- is dead.
In that moment, a torch passes and Peggy becomes that woman -- trusted with the secrets behind his Superman facade and fortified with a shared past just troubled enough that she can't judge. Watching Hamm play the final, shocking moment when Draper broke down in tears left you wondering if the wrong man didn't walk away with Emmy gold a week ago.
What is really interesting here: mastermind Weiner holds something back for each character. Draper doesn't tell Peggy that woman who died was his first wife, or that she knew he took the identity of a dead officer in the war to leave his humble past behind. And Peggy, of course, doesn't mention that the father of her baby was firm partner Pete Campbell, now having his own child with his own wife.
Like the best plot twists, Sunday's episode kicks off as many questions as it answered. Will the death of Anna Draper, which Don draper has been dreading for most of this season, finally push him into righting his life? Will Peggy pay a price for her connection to Phillips, now so desperate he's willing to sneak into Sterling Cooper and take a dump in an old office?
Whatever happens, these characters have acknowledged a bond viewers knew they had since the first season. And Draper knows his worst fear may not be true -- that any woman who knows everything about him couldn't possibly love him.