Casual racism, when used appropriately, can be very funny and of course when creating the world of the 60′s is entirely justified in the context of Mad Men. Set in one evening against the backdrop of the now infamous Muhammed Ali/Sonny Liston ‘phantom punch’ fight, the guys of the office are psyched, sprucing themselves up and escorting their better halves to the boxing arena, and in an offhand comment Don’s elder secretary claims: “I don’t see the point of it, if I wanted to see two negros fight I’d just throw a dollar bill out of my window.” It is that kind of razor sharp wit and dark satire that people really love about Mad Men and makes it ever watchable.
Before we get into the bowels of the review, I will lay my cards on the table now. If there is a better episode of Mad Men in this season or in the following seasons I will be greatly surprised. This is the best episode the team have produced, it is as with all great Mad Men episodes, beautifully written, spectacularly acted and deeply poignant and profound. I would also not bet against writing, directing and acting awards for this at the Emmys next year even though we’re a year away from that.
The episode opens with Peggy and the rest of the art team pitching their idea for the Samsonite luggage commercial. Don appears greatly irritated and tells them to go back to the drawing board, but also being particularly scolding towards Peggy. After working at it for the day, nothing truly successful comes of it apart from a few sketches. Peggy intends to skip the fight as it is her birthday, planning to spend a romantic meal with her boyfriend but on her way out of the office she is met by two roadblocks. The first being Pete Campbell’s pregnant wife Trudy, there is a very nice uncomfortable conversation between them, although the humble Peggy manages to keep her cool despite managing to get a dig in at Pete. She then gets confronted by Don, who has been drinking since the morning.
Don also has had a bad day, there has been a call from Los Angeles which he has yet to take, hinting at the audience that Anna Draper has finally succumbed to cancer. Subsequently, he like Duck Philips (more of which later), has crawled into a drink bottle. He is reluctant to attend any social event, he is a solitary man but before Peggy leaves he invites her into his office to pour over accher day’s work. From this point the episode is completely stellar, essentially it’s a two hander between those two characters and the scenes between them are some of the most riveting put on TV.
Oblivious to the fact it is her birthday, Don sits Peggy down and verbally destroys all her work and saying they are going to start again and tonight. This crushes Peggy’s dinner plans and she attacks Don for being a soulless human being, who then retaliates with a long rant about her status within the company. It is a soul crushing scene and demonstrates how much of an asshole Don has turned into. However the dynamics within these scenes are fascinating, why is Don drawn to Peggy? He treats her harshly, we may attribute this to just the sexism of the period but there is something more than that there. Don perhaps sees Peggy as the female version of him and wants her to reach her true potential thus pushing her hard. And equally why is Peggy drawn to Don? She turns down a dinner with her better half to spend time with a drunkard who does nothing but endlessly berates her. I think Peggy is the access point for the audience and we, like her character, find Don oddly fascinating and are attracted to him. But there is a stalemate on both their parts, neither can live without the other. As the previous episode showed had it not been for Peggy, Don would not have won that award and Peggy owes her career to him.
However after the fireworks of arguing between them, there is a time where they sit to reflect and for the next 15 minutes they talk personally to open up to each other. Both arguably do experience something which allows their character to grow in this episode. Don is now vulnerable without Anna to support him and for someone to confide in, does Peggy ideally replace her. The morning after the fight he calls Los Angeles and confirms for us that Anna has died, we then see something that we’ve never seen Don do before. Cry. Watching the character breakdown is crippling and although still low key emotion is really allowed to be let go. Peggy also finally grows into a woman, in her realisation about the state of the world which is spewed at her by Don in his moment of anger, she has to step up to the plate.
But perhaps the most fascinating element of the episode is a brief fight between Duck Philips and Don after they Peggy and Don return from a bar. Both drunk they attack each other, Duck overall winning and in a submissive moment Don pleads to him “uncle”, just audible for him to hear, that he backs off and retreats. Having seen episodes post this, it doesn’t come up again up to episode 9, so who knows where they can take this shocking, out of the blue revelation. It isn’t however out of place, due it being impeccably timed and dealt in fact you could also be forgiven for not hearing it.
It is a masterpiece of writing and direction, Hamm and Moss are absolutely golden together and the scenes are magic. If there is better TV this year, I will bow down to the superior power of television over cinema, which if anything is a shocking indictment as to how bad mainstream cinema is at the moment. Mad Men has proven why to us we are in ‘a golden age of television’ and may it continue.