This week’s episode of ‘Mad Men’ – which many are proclaiming to be, in the words of Comic Book Guy, the “Best. Episode. Ever.” – is a delayed gratification hour of television whose brilliance doesn’t openly present itself. Instead, to use a metaphor borrowed from the show, it comes up and deliveres its phantom punch a little into the episode, when the craft of the hour, and the skill required to pull it off, is slowly revealed. By the end of the thing, you’re either crying hysterically, laughing hysterically, or a little bit of both. It’s surely one of the finest episodes of the show this season, and certainly of any show this year. Best episode ever? Maybe not. Remember that one with the riding lawnmower? Yeah. That’s the one.
But this episode is VERY GOOD INDEED. And considering it’s been talked to death all over the internet already (the AV Club post alone got 700 comments), I’ll just say a few words about why it means so much to me. And then we’ll all get on with our lives.
The episode, entitled ‘The Suitcase’ (don’t you love how Peggy pitches the unforgettable Samsonite ad as a throwaway gag?), was written by series mastermind Matthew Weiner. It works so well because of the fine tonal balance it walks, and how technically unparalleled it is. So far, this season has had a lot of ground to cover: it’s a new year, it’s a new firm (Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, don’tcha know), and we’ve been forced to catch up with all of our characters’ deeply dysfunctional lives. Meanwhile, we also have the forward momentum of the central plot (the financial precariousness of the new firm), sprinkled with some bizarre flashbacks where Don smiles a lot. Plus, there’s an emotionally gripping subplot about Dick Whitman’s California life.
In ‘The Suitcase’, everything comes together. The friction between Peggy and Don finally comes to a head in an unexpected and human way (at the same time that Peggy’s weirdo engagement falls away). Workplace tensions cast a pallor over what’s supposed to be a joyous night out (the famous Ali vs. Liston “phantom punch” fight). The season’s more overt commentary on alcoholism comes up in unusual ways, like the splatter of vomit on Don’s shirt, or Roger Sterling’s unhappy inebriation. And Duck is back to cause trouble (again, lump this in to the alcoholism thread).
Then there’s the way that it’s like a Hitchcock piece: suspense simmers underneath the surface. The episode is trapped in a single location, despite an abundance of luggage being thrown around (sometimes quite literally). It’s formal and stuffy in this way, but also wildly invigorating. (It could have been a cost-cutting measure, too; these are typically called “bottle” episodes which are limited in scope to save money. See also: this spring’s great ‘Fly’ episode of ‘Breaking Bad’.) In the ‘Mad Men’ universe, sometimes the most freeing episodes are the ones that are the most contained, like a drunken, busy night that ends up being cathartic and, ultimately, healing.