When people remember Mad Men, the most vivid scene is probably when a secretary takes a John Deere mower for a ride inside the office and accidentally cuts off half of the foot of the new industry up-and-comer. Gonna need more than a few drinks to deal with that kind of injury. That same guy, whose name is “Guy” because f*ck subtlety, is then written off by all of the executives because they believe that he won’t be able to charm clients without his toes. The scene embodies the soulless nature of the advertising industry, a recurring theme in the series, and is absolutely not in this episode. But that was an awesome episode too.
This one was actually written down on my list as “Nixon v. Kennedy,” but that was a very different episode. I can only assume that I had been high on painkillers and mixed it up because this episode involves the Ali v. Liston fight in the background, the way that the election is on in the background in that episode.
I’ll remind you: Dilaudid is a hell of a drug.
Fortunately, I re-watched the episode before writing the review and realized that I had the wrong episode. Unfortunately, re-scoring it during the watch-through also kept it out of the top 10.
Okay, so, the premise of Mad Men is that it takes place at a Madison Avenue advertising agency, Sterling Cooper, now Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (SCDP for short). The main characters are: Don Draper (Jon “I’m tastier than my last name” Hamm), a former soldier turned advertising superstar whose backstory was literally stolen from a dead man; Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), a secretary turned copywriter who has had to fight against the clear double-standards of the 1960s to get to where she is; and a bunch of other great characters who aren’t really in this episode, sorry. Watch the show.
The opening shows that the entire office is fairly anticipating the fight between Ali and Liston, while Peggy is anticipating an intimate dinner with her boyfriend for her birthday. Don places a heavy wager on Liston to win, believing that Ali is just a gimmick.
There’s a brief discussion by the various ad men hanging around the office about who is going to win this fight, before Don calls in Peggy and the Samsonite Suitcase ad team. They pitch an ad to Don set to feature Joe Namath, which Don rejects, because Namath hadn’t even played a Pro Game yet, endorsements are lazy, and women don’t buy suitcases. Peggy responds that much of that isn’t true, but Don kicks her out of the office.
Peggy then gets a job offer from “Duck” Phillips (Mark Moses), a former Co-worker Don had removed from the firm who Peggy had once dated. Duck makes an offer to put her in charge of women’s products at a new firm. Peggy doesn’t give him an answer. On her way to her birthday dinner, Don grabs her to work on the Samsonite pitch, saying that all of the work she put in so far was essentially worthless.
Peggy tells her boyfriend she needs to stay a bit later, but eventually he reveals that he brought her family, whom she hates because they oppose her working, leading them to break up over the phone. She reveals this to Don, who didn’t remember it was her birthday. The two argue briefly over Don’s treatment of her, before Peggy points out that Don just won an advertising award for an Ad that she had proposed. What follows is one of the best exchanges in the show:
Don: “It’s your job! I give you money, you give me ideas!”
Peggy: “And you never say thank you!”
After this, the pair make up over listening to one of the other partners’ dictation about the Senior Partner losing his testicles due to an unnecessary medical procedure. They then spend the evening at a bar confessing secrets to each other. Peggy says that everyone in the office assumes that she slept with Don to get her job, though Don declined her advances when they first met. Peggy’s family even assumes Don was the father of Peggy’s bastard child, though he wasn’t, just because Don was the only person who visited her in the hospital after she gave birth.
Don gets drunk and has to be carried back to the office by Peggy, where they encounter Duck Phillips, who is there to take a crap on Don’s chair for firing him. Don and Duck fight over Peggy, with Duck winning, standing over a beaten and humiliated Don. Peggy kicks Duck out and she and Don pass out in the office together.
Later, Don makes a phone call to the niece of the real Don Draper to confirm what he already suspected, that the real Don’s wife, Anna, is dead. Anna was pretty much the only one who knew Don as both his original self, Dick Whitman, and his current persona of Don Draper. Don breaks down crying because the person who knew him best is dead, but Peggy reminds him that someone else still knows him. Don shows her his new Samsonite ad idea, based on the famous photo of Ali standing over Liston.
This episode, as I said before, takes place during the 1965 Ali v. Liston fight. Boxing fans will remember that the first fight, Clay v. Liston, was controversial, to say the least. Liston gave up in the 7th Round, claiming a busted shoulder, but apparently didn’t believe that Clay was actually the better boxer. Rumors abounded: Claims that Liston threw the fight because he had a guaranteed re-match in the contract that would be worth more, accusations that Liston’s cornermen had blinded Clay in the fifth round, allegations that Clay had the Nation of Islam pre-injure Liston’s shoulder, etc. All the crazy stuff that follows an unusual public event. So, much of the public disregarded the first fight, placing all the pressure on the one in this episode.
This was the real fight. This was going to be the big money match between the scrappy newcomer with unbelievable talent, and the experienced veteran champion who had never been knocked out. It’s a not-so-subtle metaphor for the rest of the episode’s exchanges between Peggy and Don, even if the fight itself is represented by Duck vs. Don in the Fight of the Office Drunks.
This episode starts to shift between Don being the up-and-comer he seemed to be at the beginning of the series and his new role as part of the old guard, now being challenged by the new world that Peggy represents. During the episode, Don picks Liston to win the fight believing that Ali is all hype, and shoots down Peggy’s idea to have Joe Namath endorse a product. Both of those were mistakes, in retrospect, and, since the show is set in the 60s, the audience already has the benefit of that very hindsight. Don’s dismissal of both Ali and Namath is based on the idea that they’re too young, too new, and trying to have it all too fast, the same things that he sees in Peggy.
Don and Peggy are both right about the award-winning ad. Peggy came up with the image of a child being kept in the closet while his mom waxes the floor, Don wrote a commercial story about it to promote Glo-Coat floor wax. Peggy thinks that, since it was so amazing, she deserves a thank you, whereas Don points out that she was just doing her job. It’s an impressive sequence that really shows how the two view each other at that time. However, by the end of the episode, some of that has shifted. Don has fought for Peggy (though he lost), and Peggy has opened up more to Don as a person, not a subordinate.
The thing is, as much as the two may represent different generations and the classic struggle of succession, the episode also points out that Don and Peggy are extremely similar. Both watched their fathers die. Don faked his death to get away from his family, and Peggy essentially dumps her boyfriend to get away from hers. Don had to overcome being born a poor farmer, Peggy had to overcome being a Catholic woman in the 1960s. Much like Ali and Liston only could fight all out because they were both world-class boxers, Don and Peggy can only really bring out each other’s best and worst because they’re so similar. And they’re both the people that each one trusts the most, even if they argue.
This episode is about one of the most unique relationships in any television show, and it really managed to explore it, deepen it, and reframe it all at once. Plus, it has some of the best random humor moments in the show to break up the tension.
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