“A Day’s Work” is a Mad Men episode title that works on multiple levels. It’s an episode that involves little work for neither the men nor women of SC&P. But, with that being said, a lot happens and a lot gets done.
Contrary to last week, we begin with a rather useless Don, but a determined one nonetheless. Last week, or last month in the Mad Men calendar, we saw how Don failed to fit in while visiting his estranged wife in California, a land that was once filled with the bright promises of the future, but now was closer to a Utopia – a place that cannot be. All episode he talked about the importance of “getting back to work,” only to return to his ultra-lonely apartment to give use a glimpse of how grim things truly were in his life. This day – which just so happens to be Valentine’s Day – we get to see what Don is really doing on a “work day,” and the truth is…not a whole lot. He sets his alarm for 7:30, intending to rise early. He doesn’t really have anything in particular to get up for, though, so he sleeps until after noon.
When he gets up, he dawdles around, watching Little Rascals and commercials, snacking on Ritz crackers. In a sense, it reminds me of a lyric in the recent The Hold Steady song, “On With the Business,” when lead singer Craig Finn drawls “waking up with that American Sadness”. It’s a term borrowed from David Foster Wallace, used to describe the natural, insatiable, and ultimately, sad hunger Americans have for ingesting consumer products. Sadness is nothing new for Don Draper, but as long as we’ve known him, he’s never been on this end of the consumer product equation. As the underprivileged Dick Whitman, he never had the opportunity to experience consumer products. As Donald Draper the suave ad man, he was always consuming products as a means of finding ways to manipulate the public. Until recently, he’s never been in the position to consume products in the way that everyone else does: to fill a need, or a hole deep inside. That’s not all Don is up to during his leave, but it is an interesting byproduct.
In real life, in Mad Men, and especially, in the mind of Don Draper, appearances matter. He might not have much to do, but that’s not going to stop him from looking spiffy as usual when his somewhat-secret secretary, Dawn, shows up to give him the latest news from the agency. Don is isolated from real work, and in a sense, the outside world, so he wants to know everything Dawn knows. What’s up with Chevy? What about the other accounts? With whom did new rival Lou Avery meet? Where did he sit at the meeting? What creative team is on it? Don has so little in the way of traction towards getting his job back that he wants to glean any parcel of information that can give him an edge. There are two other important things to note of this interaction. Though Don is practically chomping at the bit for the info that Dawn can provide, he’s just as eager (and desperate) for her company. And, before she leaves, Don insists that he give her a financial reward for her duties. It’s important, because it shows Don – stripped of the power structure he enjoyed in his office, as well as the commanding presence and stature he flaunted in front of his clients and sexual conquests – using the only leverage he has left in his life to get what he wants: his affluence.
Thankfully, that’s not the last we see of Dawn, who was only in the season premiere for a few quick glimpses. In “A Day’s Work,” we get our first window of how Dawn and her friend and fellow African-American secretary, Shirley, are managing at the predominantly white – and elitist, if not racist – Stanley, Cooper & Partners. Shirley finds herself in a silly, though not necessarily unjustified, tiff with Peggy over flowers. The scene goes as follows: Peggy, disgruntled and unaware what day it is, has a squabble with Stan and Michael Ginsberg (both of whom continue to just be the best) in the elevator, in which she learns that it’s Valentine’s Day and, in which Ginsberg fires off a sick burn regarding her plans for the night. “February 14: Masturbate gloomily,” he says, completely deadpan. As Peggy heads to her office, she notices a large vase of flowers, and they momentarily brighten her dim mood. That is, until she realizes that they must be from Ted, the heartless bastard that broke her heart and cowardly ran off to California. What nerve! Except, of course, the flowers aren’t from Ted and they aren’t for her; they’re from Shirley’s fiancé.
Thus far, this hasn’t been Peggy’s season. Last week, absolutely nothing went right for her, and when she crumbled at episode’s end, she was a pretty sympathetic character. This week, though, she was outrageously petty and more or less despicable. I was also struck by how much the show made her a punch line in this episode. Whereas all of her travails were portrayed as tragedy in the premiere, it’s all played up for laughs this week. When she thinks Ted sent her flowers, she leaves a confusing, passive-aggressive message for his secretary and, unbeknownst to her, it actually disrupts business. When Shirley, rightfully pissed off that her grouchy boss took her flowers, finally admits that the flowers are hers (after Peggy childishly demands that she throws them away, no less), Peggy flips out and demands that Joan give her a new girl to be her secretary. It’s ridiculous, and quite frankly, Joan has more important things to worry about than Peggy’s insignificant crap.
It’s fun and interesting to see how Matthew Weiner and the underappreciated Mad Men writers toggle with the fortunes and misfortunes of their characters. It’s realistic because that’s the way it is in real life, sometimes. One of the things that make Mad Men so unique is how it spaces out episodes of these characters’ lives. Episode one took place around mid-January 1969. Episode two happens on Valentine’s Day. In real life, a lot is bound to occur and change in that period of time, and Mad Men typically does a good job of reflecting this idea. In the premiere, Don, Peggy and Roger all seemed to be in pretty low ebbs, while Joan and Pete seemed to be on the up and up. In “A Day’s Work,” Joan, the CGC guys and, ever so slightly, Don, get the upper hand, while Peggy and Roger stay at the bottom (but in much different ways than they previously were), and Pete falls off his Californian cloud of serenity at the velocity that one would fall off a cliff. Sometimes a person is in a self-evident slump (as is the case with Peggy and Roger); other times a window into someone’s life just isn’t revealing enough to truly determine what’s what (as might have been the case with Pete). That’s just the way it goes.
This episode managed to balance a lot of things at once –Pete Campbell sniveling about his Pacific weightlessness beginning to feel like irrelevance, the office politics between Peggy/Dawn/Shirley/Joan/Burt, Don “at work”, the continued misadventures of Sally Draper in the city and the continued excruciating behavior of one Lou Avery. The best episodes of Mad Men – and the best episodes of television, for that matter – connect all of the threads, even if you don’t immediately realize it. “A Day’s Work” is one of those episodes in that it sneaks up on you in its creative connectivity, and there are several catalysts, such as young Sally Draper.
Sally is away at boarding school when her roommate’s mother dies. She has to go to the funeral, something she’s never done before and is not looking forward to, but, hey, she gets to go shopping with her horrible little friends, so it’s no big deal. However, she takes a detour to her dad’s work after she realizes she lost her purse. To her shock and horror, however, Don is nowhere to be found in SC&P. There’s a strange poser in her dad’s office. Joan seems to be out of the office, too (for an unrelated reason). Nothing is as she expected, and it’s very unsettling. Lou Avery, for his part, is also very unsettled by the encounter. It’s not his job to deal with the kid of the guy whose job he took. It’s not his job to explain to Sally what actually happened to her dad. And when you put it that way, it’s understandable that he would be frustrated. Don Draper has been physically absent for a couple of months, but his presence hangs heavily over his head every day. But Lou doesn’t get off the hook that easily. He completely bungles the situation and then turns around and blames Dawn for not being there to deal with it. She’s probably off doing the bidding of her other boss, Don. Oh, wait; she was out doing his bidding, buying his wife a Valentine’s Day present, even though Dawn told him to do that 10 days ago! You tell him, Dawn! But that’s not his job either, he says. He demands that Dawn be moved to a different desk. His only jobs are to approve subpar copy and be a tremendous dick to everyone else, apparently.
After Sally’s disorienting trip to SC&P, her last resort is to return to her dad’s apartment, a place she never wanted to step foot in again; not after walking in on her dad with a woman who was not his wife in that building. But her dad’s not in the apartment and, as we already know, he’s not at work. Where is Don? Well, after lounging around all day and then trying to maintain a persona of importance around Dawn, he heads off to meet with an ad man from another agency. They wine and dine, as Don tries to avoid telling the truth about his leave from SP& C, and get a little closer to a new position. He’s pretty convincing, even though we know he’s full of shit. At one point, Jim Hobart, a grease ball from McCann Erickson, the company whose – if you recall – acquisition of the original Sterling Cooper prompted Don, Roger, Lane, Burt and Pete to start a new agency in the fantastic season three finale, “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” shows up and asks Don what he’s doing meeting with a competitor. “I’m just looking for love,” Don says with a bit of a sarcastic smirk – it is Valentine’s Day, remember? – but it’s the most honest thing he says in the whole conversation. Before Hobart leaves, he mentions that he footed the bill for their meal, to assert his dominance and show off his influence.
At last, Don and Sally are reunited on screen for the first time since that meaningful look they shared in the season six finale. It suggested that there was room for progress in their relationship. But it didn’t erase everything else that Don has put her through with his impulsive nature, selfish behavior, and lies, all of the lies. At first, it seemed like their unexpected encounter was going to be more of the same. Don doesn’t want his daughter to know that he screwed up and doesn’t have a job anymore, so he lies some more. Sally, though, sees right through him. He’s all too willing to fabricate an excuse for her in her absence for school? “What do you want me to say?” he asks; the question, a familiar Don-ism throughout the show’s run. “The truth,” she replies, and she means it. It says a lot that Sally’s so sick of the lies that she doesn’t even want to hear one even for her behalf. In the car, she calls him out on his affair with Sylvia, and for once, he simply apologizes. But he doesn’t like being on the defensive, so in turn, he yells at Sally about not being forthcoming with him. For whatever good intentions he might have, Don can’t be straight up and respectful with his daughter at the same time. It would be yet another sad way to leave things, but Don decides to take a detour of his own.
In the meantime, in the office, Joan has her hands full trying to make a petulant Peggy and a sulky Lou content with their secretary positions. (Quick side note: It’s funny that Lou Avery has been so lamentable in his short tenure with SC&P, yet in the reality of the show, he probably hasn’t done anything near as depraved as guys like Don and Roger and Pete.) However, her options are limited, because Bert Cooper, who rarely deals with day-to-day operations of the agency, pokes his head in just to let Joan know that, regardless of his supposed value of equality, they can’t let any of “the colored girls” sit at the front desk. Now, Joan is and always has been a fighter. She’s worked her way up, and as is often alluded to, compromised her morals and her self-respect to get ahead. But even she has her limits, and she’s at her wits end. She had to deal with the cranky pirate that Ken Cosgrove has (unfortunately!) become last episode, and here, she’s dealing with complainers that don’t deserve her time of day. And that’s not to mention that she’s been trying to become a respectable “accounts man” in addition to everything else. Luckily for her, though, Jim Cutler recognizes this and offers her a new office– in accounts. This switcheroo not only allows Joan to quite literally move on up, but it also lets Shirley work for Lou Avery in the stead of Dawn, and it gives Dawn an of office of her own and a promotion. And it all worked out because Sally Draper just happened to walk into the agency that day.
But if it is not all connected literally, then it’s connected thematically. The best scene of the episode happens when along the way Don decides to stop at a gas station diner. Although Don chows down on French fries, Sally refuses to eat out of rebellion. She’s starving, if not for food, or attention – as she once did – then for something intangible, and seemingly out of reach, like honesty or connection. And as they sit uncomfortably, Sally turns the tables on her father, demanding answers for his shady behavior. Don Draper has been a liar for so long that it’s legitimately astonishing when he tells the truth. When he tells her that he “said the wrong thing, at the wrong time, in front of the wrong people,” and that it may have temporarily cost him his job, Kiernan Shipka’s expression immediately becomes a puzzle. When he admits that he doesn’t know what he’s going to do, it considerably softens. She even asks for some food. We know he has the coin for it, of course.
Don’s newfound truthfulness – with himself and his daughter – doesn’t change everything. Last season, Don learned that telling the truth can not only be painful, it can also be destructive. It didn’t fill that hole inside of him when he poured his guts out in the Hershey’s meeting, just as that little look he shared with Sally didn’t fully cure their relationship. But progress, however incremental, however long it takes, counts for something. It may have taken Joan 16 years to get remotely where she wants to be, and it may have taken until 1969 before a person of color was given a chance that she deserved, but progress is progress. And, as Don learns at the episode’s end, sometimes a baby step of it can result in leaps and bounds of faith.
It’s so satisfying for a show that so often portrays how life can be anything but. Don drops Sally off, and right before she shuts the door, she nervously says the most magical words. “Happy Valentine’s Day, Dad. I love you”. She looks as if she can’t believe she said them herself, and the camera pans to Jon Hamm’s face. He doesn’t smile; he just looks completely overwhelmed. It’s all he’s ever wanted.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently writes about sports and culture for Yahoo Sports and Yahoo Voices, and previously covered the Carolina Panthers for Football.com during the 2013 season, as well as college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future.