"The Suitcase" may well be the best episode of Mad Men to date. Not that admiration necessarily precludes critique, but as I may gush a little bit about Jennifer Getzinger's direction or Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss's acting, I wanted to make it clear that 1) what follows is not an appreciation and 2) I may bear down a little harder on the episode's only flawed moment so everyone knows this isn't an appreciation. "The Suitcase" opens with the distribution of tickets to an "Exclusive Theater Telecast" of the Ali-Liston rematch. That these advertising folk are attending a viewing instead of the fight itself is no doubt significant, but not significant enough to dwell on in light of everything else going on in this episode, the first hint of which happens here:
Getzinger places Danny Strong's "Danny Siegel" in what is clearly a subordinate position, which is ironic because 1) Draper is confidently predicting a Liston victory in the fight, and 2) Draper had coopted Siegel's idea earlier and is therefore his superior in name alone. Peggy will later remind Draper of this fact and precipitate the first of Draper's many breakdowns, but for the moment it is enough to note that the framing of this shot militates against its manifest content and move on to Don receiving the news that the wife of the man whose name he stole is about to die:
Note how severely the camera frames this moment: a) despite being quite a distance from each other, the lamps on the desks in the foreground and background simultaneously occupy the center of the frame; b) the lights on the ceiling and the angles of the wall suggest a classic one-point perspective terminating in an unseen vanishing point; c) Draper and his secretary are not simply balanced, they are equidistant from both each other and their side of the frame; d) as are the secretaries in the background); e) coupled with the suggestion of an unseen vanishing point, the symmetry of Draper and his secretary occupy the same position relative to the architecture of the building and the lines of perspective. Let me show you what I mean as best I can given my limited Photoshop skills:
Now that I've cleared that up, compare the above with the shot that immediately follows:
The severely ordered world of the previous shot is unbalanced by the switch from a medium long to a conversational medium shot, with the overall effect being that a symmetrical abyss seems to have opened up behind Draper. By shifting the camera slightly off-center, however, Getzinger creates the impression that this orderly abyss has opened up to swallow Draper and Draper alone. At the bottom of it?
This is Draper shortly after receiving the news that the wife of the man whose name he stole is about to die. The room is brightly lit and his face is sternly composed, but the hunched posture and slight tilt of the camera undermine that composure. Most shots that feature the blinds are either explicitly square-on (Example 1) or incorporate them into a larger symmetry (Example 2), but here they make Draper seem about to topple over—which in a sense he is. Getzinger alerts viewers that this is but the first (and arguably most significant) of the many blows to land in the episode. Draper is visibly discomfited but not up against the ropes yet.
If I seem to be laying the boxing metaphor on a little thick, that's only because the sweet science is the episode's operative metaphor: Ali-Liston, Draper-Duck, Draper-Whitman and, of course, Draper-Olson. More on those moments when they arrive. For now, let us observe Draper attempting to compose himself by sitting down.
The shift from a medium to a medium close-up suggests intimacy, as does the fact that the camera lingers on Draper with his eyes closed (a theme that recurs later in the episode when he only breaks down after looking up to see Peggy watching him). Note that without the wall and curtains to frame them, the blinds almost fade into a merely decorative structural element, in that they no longer seem to be pitching Draper over; however, the other reason they don't seem to be pitching Draper over is because (as with Example 2 above) the frame contains a larger symmetry. Interestingly, though, it is an implicit one created not, as above, through architecture but in our minds via an eyeline match.
Just before the shot above, Draper had been staring that treasured photograph of himself and Anna Draper in California:
Cut to the next frame of him staring it:
The first eyeline match is between the photograph (which remains in the lower lefthand corner of the frame) and Draper; the second is with the unknown object off-camera on the lower righthand corner frame. When Draper opens his eyes to look at it, we follow his gaze into the unknown, which here happens to be:
The first of many telephones that will play a large symbolic role in this episode. (Short version: none of the phone calls lead to a successful act of communication, as Peggy never goes to dinner; Roger is unable to convince Draper to join him at dinner; Draper only calls California after Anna passes.) Note how the abrupt cut to the phone differs from the gazing at the picture: for one, the audience looks at the picture from Draper's perspective, whereas the phone is shot from across his desk; for another, the lack of a physical connection with the photograph (the fact that he doesn't pick it up) in no way shatters the sense of intimacy, whereas the violence with which Draper grabs the phone (which is, ironically, an actual tool for creating and maintaining intimacy) makes the act seem cold and mechanical. (The clank-clank-clank of the diagetic sound redoubles this impression.)
All of which is only to say that the Venetian blinds are more functional than not in this scene because (as in Example 2) they are superseded by an imaginary triangular structure created by eyeline matches. This scene may not be quite as structurally oppressive in terms of the framing as the ones described above, but when you fuse the imaginary eyeline triangle with the emotional content responsible for it, the effect is equally intense because only differently oppressive.
[As I'm already at 1500 words and am risking bandwidth-thievery with all the images, I will start tying this all together tomorrow via phones, boxing matches (literal and otherwise), and how the camera reveals what the plot only intimates: namely, that by the end of the episode Peggy and Don are equals. You can probably rewatch the episode and see where I'm headed with that one, but it's a subtle-but-amazing way to prepare an audience for, say, a hand-squeeze that might otherwise seem out of place.]