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There is near unanimous consensus that 4.07: “The Suitcase” is the standout episode of Season Four of Mad Men, so we knew that our video essay on a singular moment from that season had to come from that episode. But there are so many great moments in “The Suitcase:” Peggy’s telephone breakup with her boyfriend (and her family), the scenes between Don and Peggy in the diner and the bar (where they express their mutual attraction as far as they allow themselves to); the confrontation with Duck Phillips back in the office; the early morning phone call; and of course the hand-holding. But for this video, we decided on the fight that erupts between Don and Peggy after she decides to devote her evening in the office with him on the Samsonite ad campaign. There is just so much to unpack in this swift, three minute scene, four seasons’ worth of narrative and character subtext that has built up and finally explodes between them. What’s also remarkable is how much of this is conveyed through subtle but effective choices in staging and direction, as we hope this video illustrates.
The script for this video essay is written by Serena Bramble, Deborah Lipp and Kevin B. Lee, based on “a kernel” of an idea by Serena Bramble. The video is edited by Kevin B. Lee and narrated by Roberta Lipp and Kevin B. Lee.
Don has received an ominous phone message about his dying friend Anna.
Telephone at his side, he is trying to bring himself to call.
Don is staged front and center, conveying a sense of isolation and confrontation with himself.
The framing of this wide shot emphasizes the distance between Don and Peggy.
The rest of scene goes back and forth between these two shots of Don seated on the couch and Peggy standing as if above him.
The staging highlights Peggy’s newfound aggressiveness towards Don in this scene. She is emboldened by her breakup. He is weakened by Anna’s imminent death.
The following dialogue plays like an exchange of blows that resonates with the episode’s boxing subplot. It even lasts about the 3 minute length of a boxing round.
Don’s response doesn’t invite further conversation or empathy. It is action-based, in line with his past advice to Peggy.
Don’s smile betrays relief that he won’t be alone. He can put aside the call. But he conceals this by acting as if Peggy could easily have left.
The framing of Don on the couch has shifted left. A space has opened.
Peggy wants to finish the fight she started with Mark by taking on the man at the opposite end of what’s expected of her. Her insult of Don’s personal life is as much towards herself as to him. The remark doesn’t faze Don in the least.
Peggy’s body now occupies the space to Don’s left, further establishing her imposing presence.
Now it is Don who insults Peggy’s personal life, patronizing her for being girlish. But Peggy, too, is unfazed. She jabs directly at what really bothers her.
Unlike with Peggy’s insult of his personal life, Don takes this insult of his professional life as “personal” Don is ready to fight, if only to drown out the more painful feelings of grief. He can do it best where he feels most at home: the office.
The scene moves into tighter closeups of Don and Peggy as they exchange jabs with increased intensity
Like Cassius Clay in the prize fight going on that night, Peggy fights with sharp, rapid flurries. Like Clay’s opponent, Sonny Liston, Don is slower, methodical, and forceful.
Don’s face is intensely red. He needs the emotional release of this fight as much as Peggy.
Peggy again seeks recognition, but now it’s not professional. It’s emotional. But showing emotions is unprofessional. She’s been caught with her gloves down. Don finally unleashes.
The knockout blow: one last insult encapsulating the conflicts running through the scene.
Serena Bramble is a film editor currently pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Teledramatic Arts and Technology from Cal State Monterey Bay. In addition to editing, she also writes on her blog Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind.
Roberta Lipp is the co-owner of Basket of Kisses and is or has been a voiceover artist, improvisor, actor, singer/songwriter, blogger and Mad Men aficionado. She plans to produce a one-woman show.
Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog and contributor to Roger Ebert.com. Follow him on Twitter.