“This never happened.” That was Don Draper’s advice to Peggy Olson in the hospital when she was recovering from bearing Pete Campbell’s child. She’d gotten her career off to a promising start by having the fortitude not to remember that a lower-middle-class girl from the outer boroughs just out of secretarial school has no business aspiring to write advertising copy at a Madison Avenue firm like Sterling Cooper. But it had taken extreme psychological repression to keep her operating in blissful ignorance of her own career-destroying pregnancy. Now she can’t forget that her child is in the crib beside her hospital bed.
Don was telling Peggy that the involuntary denial that had been propelling her career over the last nine months could be undertaken voluntarily. Will, at least the will of people like them, is powerful enough to defeat memory. That meant that, if she was willing to pay the price, Peggy could live like Don. He never said that the price wouldn’t be steep. Last night’s Mad Men episode was about how steep it is.
This week’s featured historical referent was the second fight between Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston. Recall the circumstances. Clay had taken the Heavyweight Championship away from Liston the year before when, claiming injury, Liston failed to answer the bell. In the interim Clay had reinvented himself as a Black Muslim by the name of Muhammad Ali. A defiant public still insisted on calling him by his given name because that was its way of remembering him as a loud-mouthed upstart who needed to be taught a lesson. It was widely expected that Liston, now recovered from his injury and having trained more seriously, would be the one to teach it. But early in the first round of their rematch, Liston crumbled to the canvas after a punch that practically no one saw. Confronted with Ali’s audacity, the formidable-looking social and psychological forces keeping Cassius Clay in his place were exposed as a mirage.
Last night it wasn’t that easy for either Peggy or Don. They sparred for the first two-thirds of the episode: Peggy trying to get Don’s recognition for her contribution to his Clio award as a token of his acknowledgment of her as a creative peer; Don ministering to his own bruised ego by reminding her that, as her mentor and benefactor, he’s still entitled to put her in her place. Finally, Don takes the measure of Peggy by presenting her with a choice: she could either go to the birthday dinner her boyfriend was throwing for her or stay at the office and work with Don all night on the Samsonite spot.
It soon becomes clear how profound a choice that was. The dinner that Peggy’s being challenged not to attend turns out be a surprise party attended by her entire family. The boyfriend, who aspires to be her fiancé, has turned himself into the conduit of unwelcome memories between Peggy’s past and present. Soon she’s not only breaking up with him, and by implication with her family, but sobbing into a mirror at the memory of the child she abandoned along the way to being a self-made woman.
All the while, Don’s undergoing an identity crisis of his own. During the day, he received an urgent phone message from Anna’s niece Stephanie that can only be about Anna’s actual or imminent death. Anna is the only person alive who still knows Dick Whitman and to whom Dick still has obligations. Her death will close off Don's last avenue of escape into his prior self. Through the course of a long day and a longer night, Don can’t bring himself to return the call because he knows his/Dick's identity hangs in the balance.
The standoff between Peggy and Don ends abruptly when Don calls her back to his office to listen to a tape he’s found of Roger dictating material for his book. Roger is a prisoner of memory who can only make sense of himself by turning his life into a story, a comedy, with a beginning, middle and end. Don and Peggy reconnect savoring their shared contempt for Roger. There’s no turning back for either of them. (Any doubt on that score is erased when Duck makes an appearance and shows them both just how contemptible a prisoner of memory can be.)
For my money, the only dramatic misstep in an extraordinary episode was the tacky appearance in Don’s imagination of Anna (carrying what looks like a piece of Samsonite luggage no less) visibly departing from Dick/Don’s life. But the next scene more than makes up for it. Don summons the will to return Stephanie’s call and confirm Anna’s death. Getting off the phone, he breaks down unself-consciously while Peggy's still in room. Responding to her efforts to console him, Don tells Peggy that the only person who knows him—that is, Dick Whitman—is gone. Her response is pitch-perfect: putting her hand on Don Draper’s shoulder, she assures him “that isn’t true.”
A few hours later Peggy wakes up in the office to see Draper back in his element, sitting at his desk with hair slicked back wearing one of his immaculate white shirts, putting the finishing touches on a Samsonite concept that plays off the image of Muhammad Ali towering menacingly over a fallen Sonny Liston.