This is the new column in TNR’s weekly series of "Mad Men" episode recaps. Caution: It contains spoilers. Click here for last week's review.
Like all good TV dramas, “Mad Men” has the memory of an elephant, quoting a remembered line or gesture from a previous episode in a way that subtly reminds you of what has changed. Last night's episode, called "The Suitcase," contained a moment like that—one of the most moving I've seen. The morning after a long night of brainstorming, arguing, drinking, and melodrama—and some of the most complex moments of platonic intimacy between a man and woman yet seen on this series—Don casually reaches out and squeezes Peggy's hand. It's not a pass. It's a gesture of deep love and respect. It's also a callback to the very first episode of Mad Men, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"—specifically, a moment where Peggy thanks Don for standing up for her against Pete Campbell by squeezing his hand. "I'm your boss, not your boyfriend," Don tells her.
A lot has changed since then. Last night, it was Don voluntarily touching Peggy's hand, not the other way around. And the meaning was clearer, more moving, and more pure in intent. Although the touching of hands in the pilot episode was complicated, I got the sense that it was at least partly motivated by Peggy being new in the office and in the work world generally—that she was being inappropriately physically intimate with Don because she was trying to thank him for being good to her, claim his special affection, and awaken his protective feelings. I surmised she was just worldly wise enough to realize that she needed an ally in management. Also, in the late 1950s, that was how women and men interacted in offices, doing and saying things we'd frown upon today. And Don responded coldly, not just because Peggy's bid for special status was too crudely obvious, but perhaps also because her emotions were so genuine and innocent that they caught Don off-guard. Don is an imposter, an artificial construct whose uniform consists of dark suits, Lucky Strikes, and Brylcreemed hair. The phrase "the real Don Draper" is a joke, and Don knows this better than anyone. That's one reason (but not the only reason) why he's constantly rejecting sincere expressions of affection, especially when they come from women (he has betrayal/abandonment issues with his own mother, and I'm sure that plays into his womanizing).
When, at the end of "The Suitcase," Don voluntarily touched Peggy's hand it was clear from the writing (by Matthew Weiner) and staging that there was absolutely no ulterior motive besides the expression of love and gratitude. Peggy, once Don's secretary, has become not just a fine copywriter but the highest-ranking woman on the creative staff of Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce—a woman respected for her ideas and her no-nonsense demeanor. Just as importantly, she's proven herself as someone who really knows Don—knows him so well, in fact, that she habitually speaks to him without any deference at all.
This is startling in itself. “Mad Men” takes place in a world defined by gender roles and hierarchical corporate structures, a world in which everyone knows his or her place and rarely steps out of it. Peggy is a woman and officially the employee of Don, one of the most acclaimed creative executives on Madison Avenue. She is also ten to 15 years younger than Don. The very idea of Peggy dressing Don down (as she has done quite regularly this season, in response to Don's increasingly out-of-control drinking) seems absurd on its face. But it doesn't play that way, not at all, because there's something unique, authentic, deep, and ultimately unclassifiable about Don and Peggy's relationship. I've been trying to hang a label on it for a couple of seasons now, thinking of it in terms of mentor-pupil, father-daughter, and marriage (a lot of people have what they call a "workplace marriage" with a colleague and regular collaborator). Something about the dynamic this season has increasingly reminded me of a sister and a brother—not older brother/younger sister, or even the reverse, but something more along the lines of fraternal twins, siblings born so close to together that any assertion of privilege as a result of age becomes a shared joke. Think about how Peggy talks to Don when she's trying to cut through his self-justifying bullshit. There's no acknowledgment whatsoever of a power imbalance, not even the one that would exist if Don and Peggy were related and one of them were substantially older. On top of that, there's no hint—none! —of sexual chemistry, of a burgeoning "Will they or won't they?" dynamic. I can't think of a male-female relationship in TV history to which Don-Peggy can be compared (though Scully and Mulder on "The X-Files" seems close). As of last night, I've decided to just stop looking for precedents, because labeling what these two characters have would diminish it.
In those clasped hands there was also—dare I even type this?—hope for Don, the brilliant souse. Bear in mind I don't believe for a second that Peggy can "save" Don. I've seen alcoholism and substance abuse up close on enough occasions to know that kind of thing doesn't happen in life, only in bad and dishonest fiction. What does occasionally happen, though, is that a drunk might be pushed or cajoled into a moment of clarity with help from someone who truly cares about him enough to call him out on his lies and rationalizations and demand that he hold himself to a higher standard. I can see this happening for Don. His life would have to get much, much worse first. He hasn't hit rock-bottom yet. For an example of where Don is headed, look at Duck, who was at his neediest and most pathetic last night. He called to offer Peggy a job as creative director at a thus-far-nonexistent new agency mainly as bait to entice Peggy to be his lover/savior; later in the episode, he intruded on Peggy and Don's long night and nearly left a deposit intended for Don in Roger Sterling's office by mistake. (Peggy averted this disaster; that's arguably her unofficial second job, averting disasters.)
Don might be able to stop himself before he plunges into the abyss, or he might not. Who knows? It would be foolish to predict what the writers of “Mad Men” have in store because here—as on “The Sopranos,” ”Deadwood,” “The Wire,” and other great dramas—a big part of the appeal is the show's genuine sense of unpredictability, the tingle you get from sitting down in front of the televison each week knowing there's a chance you'll be blindsided—by an out-of-nowhere plot twist that violates and then paradoxically exceeds expectations, for instance; or a drastic departure from established narrative patterns. "The Suitcase," which was directed by Jennifer Getzinger, was that sort of episode. In fact it reminded me of "Pine Barrens," the Season Three episode of “The Sopranos” built around Paulie Walnuts and Christopher's pursuing a Russian through snowy woods. In terms of setting and physical action, that episode and "The Suitcase" couldn't be more different. But they have a basic, important quality in common: they demonstrate the elasticity of time on series television—that storytelling format's ability to almost halt a show's ongoing master narrative, the better to zero in on one or two characters as they concentrate on a specific task and get to know each other.
By the end of "The Suitcase," Peggy and Don had gone through an amazing array of experiences, including the acknowledgement of catastrophic personal mistakes and dark secrets (Don's drinking and his seduction of his previous secretary; Peggy's secret pregnancy and Don/Dick's experiences in Korea; the death of Don's father and Peggy's father and the evident effect it had on their lives). It was all building toward that moment when Don finally mustered up the nerve to call California and learned that the original Don Draper's wife had died. Don wept. I've never seen him so distraught, so bereft, so utterly unconcerned with seeming to be in control. And then, he looked up and saw Peggy watching him, with empathy, and without a trace of judgmental superiority. She was looking at him the way everyone dreams of being looked at: as if she knew him as well as he knew himself; as if the sight of his suffering hurt her, too. There aren't many people in our lives around whom we feel comfortable being helpless. Peggy is that person for Don. Don is that person for Peggy.
"Somebody very important to me died," Don told her.
"Who?" Peggy asked.
"The only person in the world who really knew me."
"That's not true," Peggy said.
Matt Zoller Seitz is a contributor to Salon and the founder of Slant's “The House Next Door,” where he has written extensively about “The Sopranos” and other series.