Every decade marks a changing of the guard. The previous generation finally reaches the peak and holds on for dear life as the upstarts claw and climb their way up and over, usually ignoring how their predecessors carved a path. It’s a maddening exercise for all parties as the old guys aren’t ready to pack it in, which infuriates the youngsters. And yet this ritual is as unavoidable as that in which the sun and moon partake every day.
When a young Cassius Clay won a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics he was nothing more than a talented fighter with a flair for dramatics. Nobody knew then that he would revolutionize boxing and stand as a figure for a new kind of politics, a new kind of pride, a new kind of attitude … nobody knew he would be The Greatest and use that stature to change the way people thought about race, the war, and justice. No, in 1965 the newly renamed Muhammad Ali was an upstart who taunted and teased his way into a fight against “the unbeatable” Sonny Liston.
Ali was BORN to be on TV, so it comes as no surprise that Harry has used his growing leverage and clout as Sterling, Cooper, Pryce and Draper’s TV ad man to secure tickets to what would be but one of countless events claiming to be the Fight of the Century. It should also come as no surprise that Don Draper, a man who literally built his life from nothing, would put a Benjamin on Liston to put the mouthy Ali in his place. If this bet foreshadows bigger issues related to Don’s otherwise otherwordly instinct and insight into personality dynamics then our Don has clearly just peered over the edge of the summit.
In the meantime, there’s work to be done. The gang is pitching Samsonite luggage and Draper is less than impressed by a football spoof his creative team has drafted with another upstart at its center: Joe Namath.
“Endorsements are lazy,” Don criticizes. He accepts the young Danny’s “toughness” angle, but rejects the execution as cheap, lazy and uninspired. That means someone’s working late, and you can probably guess who.
It’s Peggy Olsen’s 26th birthday, and she’s ready to wrap for the day and meet her beau Mark for a romantic birthday dinner for two. Of course, Mark isn’t the only one with Peggy’s birthday in mind. She also receives a little gift from old Duck Phillips by way of business cards with her name emblazoned on the masthead and a title of Creative Director. She’s clearly flattered and maybe even considers it for a moment until she teases out from a sloshy Duck that this “agency” is as yet a scotch-soaked pipe dream with no office, no clients, and no money. It appears as though poor Duck got the boot after his performance at the CLIO Awards dinner. Flattered though she may be, Peggy has to make a decision and it’s clear that this empty offer is not going to draw her away despite Duck’s lame attempt to appeal to her sympathies since her vanity was more fortified than he’d expected.
The core of the show has been about Don Draper’s ability to juggle an increasingly higher profile (due to increasing attention to his creative work) with the fact that he’s living under an assumed identity. It’s a burden that grows heavier with every episode and every accolade, and there was only one person in the world who understood that: Anna Draper. Don’s informed that an urgent call from Anna’s niece in California requires his attention, but we all know what that means … and so does Don. When someone you love is dying of cancer an urgent call is rarely good news. Draper can’t bring himself to confront it yet and so fills his time with the best distraction he has: work.
Roger begs Don to accompany him to the fight where the irreconcilably pickled Silver Fox is stuck with teetotaling Freddy Rumsen and Cal Rutledge of Pond’s. As sympathetic as I am to addiction recovery, what is a man like Roger Sterling to do??? For heaven’s sake, he was too drunk to recall if he’d even offered Draper a job all those years ago (apologies for no review of last week’s show)! Don declines in order to firm up a concept for the Samsonite pitch, which was in Peggy’s hands after the initial football idea was shot down.
“I gave you more responsibility, and you didn’t do anything,” he says, unsatisfied with her revisions. “We’re gonna do this right now,” which means her birthday plans are on hold. Poor Peggy calls Mark at the restaurant to tell him she’ll be delayed no more than 15 minutes, which seems ludicrous given Draper’s perfectionism and leads me to believe she may have been sabotaging the night from the outset. Of course, poor Mark has the haircut of a monk so who can blame her, but still …
Peggy and Don trade some ideas with Draper settling into the role of the Old Man by ruminating on the differences between “Clay” and Liston, with the latter’s steady and methodical boxing machinations gaining more praise than Ali’s poetry of motion. It’s funny how the cloud of generational bias can even block a creative mind like Draper’s, who should appreciate the rule breaking, beauty and grace of a fighter like Muhammad Ali. But Ali was a threat to the status quo, a status Don Draper had finally attained.
We all know how 15 minutes turns into an hour when work calls, but Mark is less than sympathetic to Peggy’s predicament. Unfortunately, Draper is unsympathetic to Peggy’s predicament with Mark and tells her to “get over birthdays.” It’s hard to tell what hurts Peggy more: the fact that her plans have once again been dashed by an inconsiderate Don Draper or that he doesn’t even recognize that she volunteers to dash these plans for love of the work. Ultimately Mark tells Peggy that he’s at the restaurant with her family as a birthday surprise, which probably does more to sink his chances with her than anything else. Before the call ends they’ve broken up. Happy birthday, Peggy Olson.
That leaves Peggy with one man in her life: Don Draper.
“You win,” she tells him and she’s more than a little bit saucy about it. There’s always a point in a relationship on the brink where you have to cut to the quick in order to bleed the wound and begin to heal. Peggy’s stuck at the office, she says, “because of some stupid idea from Danny, who you had to hire because you stole his other stupid idea because you were drunk.” And so begins the argument they’ve needed to have since Don first pulled Peggy along for the ride. Like any good couple, they complement each other but sometimes take that for granted. Peggy is the long-suffering and under-appreciated creative upstart who feeds Draper the kernels that become the brilliance for which he is being recognized. On one level it’s a simple transaction where Peggy is paid to generate ideas. On another level it’s anything but simple since most of us expect more from our work than a paycheck.
“You never say thank you,” says Peggy.
“That’s what the money is for!” he shouts.
But that’s not it at all. She’s there for Don’s approval and she’s said as much. Draper finally gets that and this episode represents the peak of their story arc. When Peggy is forced to choose between her life and her work, she chooses the latter. She’s there by choice and so is Don Draper. When Peggy explains that she knows what she should care about but that it’s not as important as what goes on in that office, Don can relate. They both live with a deep and devastating secret and work is what keeps them centered. It is true and reliable and it is real. Their “lives” are not; they are lies.
Speaking of lies and lives, Don stumbles across one of Roger’s recordings for his pending book and while it may not reach the heights of David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man for pure advertising wisdom, it’s bound to be ripe for inter-office gossip. In the tape we learn that the Dr. Lyle Evans Roger referred to in a previous episode was responsible for an unnecessary procedure that left Burt Cooper without nuts and that a young Ida Blankenship was the “queen of perversions” who showed Roger Sterling the ins and outs (ahem) of amorous adventures when he was but a kid in his daddy’s world. Yowza!
Draper, evermore red-eyed and slurring, tells Peggy he at least owes her a birthday dinner. They grab some grub in a cheap diner and drinks in a dark bar where they both relax in the comfort of their shared secrets. Don tells Peggy a bit about his past (but not THAT much) while Peggy admits that she sometimes thinks about the child she gave up and how she kind of resents the fact that people assume that she slept her way to her position and that Don thinks that’s preposterous.
“You’re an attractive girl, Peggy.”
“I guess not as attractive as some of your other secretaries.”
Zing! But Don reminds her that she’s not really in a position to pass morality judgments. When he asks here if she knows who the father of her abandoned son is, she says she does with a mix of humility and defiance. Of course she knows.
Back at the office she has to maneuver a puking Draper into the restroom. Her confronting the choice of going to the mens room or the ladies room is almost symbolic if not a bit cheesy. Her foray into the mens room is enlightening though as she sees urinals for the first time and confirmation of how too many men think by way of bathroom wall graffiti.
What’s better is what she sees upon leaving the restroom: Duck Phillips stumbling down the darkened halls of SCPD! He’s looking for her but makes a pit stop in what he thinks is Draper’s office to leave him a stinky little present. Peggy catches him and tells him to pull up his pants. He’s not even in Don’s office! Duck and Draper finally meet in the lounge where Duck implies Peggy is there working late for less-than-professional reasons. Draper tries to punch Duck but misses and the two end up sloppily wrestling to the ground where Duck gets the upper hand (literally) and informs Draper that he’s killed 17 men in Guadalcanal. Just like an earlier spat with Roger it’s the WWII vet once again putting the younger Korean War vet in his place. Draper cries Uncle and slouches off to his office to add to his stupor.
Peggy returns to Don’s office and starts to explain her history with Duck, but Don waves her off.
“You don’t have to explain,” he tells her and asks for a drink.
“How long are you going to go on like this?” she asks.
“I have to make a phone call, and I know it’s gonna be bad,” he says. Don rests his head in Peggy’s lap and they fall asleep. Draper has a vision of Anna while he’s sleeping. She has a suitcase in her hand and looks around the office with pride. She knows what Don has done with this assumed life of his and she approves. If Anna was the only person in the world who knew who Don Draper really was, then Peggy Olson is the only person who knows who he really is. They share a similar, platonic intimacy and it may be what brings Don back to a center in his life.
Peggy sleeps on her office sofa until Stan blows a whistle mid-morning. She walks over to Don’s office where he appears freshly showered, well-rested and crisp. It leads you to wonder how many nights he spends in turmoil. He shows her a Samsonite concept based on the soon-to-be iconic photo of Ali’s stunning victory. “It’s very good,” Peggy says.
Don holds Peggy’s hand for a moment. “Go home, take a shower, and come back with ten tag lines,” he says. It’s said with love and Peggy recognizes it. If this season is about choosing paths then Peggy has chosen hers and it’s with Don Draper—for better or worse. Peggy’s ascent to professional highs are beginning and Don Draper seems content to help pull her up.