Mad Men: “A Day’s Work”
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Mad Men: “A Day’s Work”

“Just tell the truth.”

Sonia: Mad Men, I love you.

There’s so much to say about this episode, Todd, that I’m not even sure where to start. “A Day’s Work” takes up a day with a sudden forward thrust of change—a change that was sorely missing from last week’s “Time Zones,” where the characters felt stuck in a kind of lethargy. From morning to evening, change is in the air, and everyone is feeling it.

“A Day’s Work” upends the power structure of the show that came before it—it puts Joan on the second floor, Dawn in her own office, and Lou in the position of having a “girl” that reports just to him. Roger and Pete are getting shoved out of the policies and deals that they first introduced; Don isn’t even in the picture anymore. The titular workday belongs to the women of this episode—even Sally, who doesn’t have a job, is playing hooky from school, where she would theoretically be expected to do some work. The office politics here belong to Joan, Dawn, Shirley, Peggy, and even Dee, Ted’s assistant over in Los Angeles.

Don, meanwhile, is not working at all—his day of work is a day of both pretending to work and working at not losing his mind. It’s fascinating to me how much Don Draper watches television so far in this season. He watches it in a familiar and recognizable way, too. Don’s watching TV for some company. He flips on the TV as soon as he gets up in the morning; he picks up the remote as soon as Dawn leaves. Don is lonely. He’s also primarily consuming things that he used to sell, for maybe the first time in his life: In addition to a few TV shows and magazines, he’s eating Ritz crackers for breakfast, straight from the box. He’s consuming so much whiskey that he’s rationing it out for himself with a wax pencil on the side of a bottle of Canadian Club. Even later, when he’s with Sally at the gas station, he keeps urging her to eat, as if consumption will make any of their problems better. (Sally, naturally, refuses: She’s too smart for that shit.)

Todd, I’m going to turn this over to you before I start weeping real tears at everything that happened with Sally and Don in this episode. How did you feel, seeing Sally pop back onto the screen and into our lives?

Todd: Sally Draper has become such an important character to this series that she carries with her an electric charge every time she appears, and I loved how the episode contrived to get her in the same space as Don, to see if they had built at all on the connection tentatively struck in last season’s finale. (They really haven’t.) But goddamn, am I a sucker for stories about adolescents realizing their parents are frustrated, flawed human beings and their parents realizing that their teenagers are almost as adult as they are, just maybe without the life experience. So that scene between Don and Sally in the gas station diner was a knockout and felt almost like a statement of purpose for this final season. “I’m so many people,” Sally tells her father, as way of explanation, but she doesn’t need to tell him, of all people, that. He understands what it is to feel boxed in by who you are and long to become someone else. And yet the Don Draper who might have seen this as a key to escape in the early seasons has been replaced by the Don Draper who stays, hoping to make things right. A lot of people read this show as being about how Don doesn’t change, how he’s fundamentally the same guy, while the world changes around him. But at least this one thing has changed: He no longer bolts. The Don Draper we see here is even wary of taking a new job. He stays. He hopes that he can repair what went wrong.

And so very much is wrong in his absence.

I love the shot above (screencapped by the ever wonderful Myles McNutt) for many reasons. First and foremost is how director Michael Uppendahl has foregrounded the way that the former Cutler-Gleeson-Chaough guys are starting to get the upper hand on our Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce team by making Roger and Cutler literal mirror images of each other. (There are even some shots where Roger seems to be wreathed in smoke, increasing the sense that we can’t see him as clearly as we can Cutler.) But look there in the background at that empty chair. It’s not just a neat way to keep the scene balanced in both foreground and background. It’s very consciously at the center of the screen, with the two men flanking it. We’re meant to notice it, and we’re meant to think about who might fill that chair. And there’s really only one answer to that question. He comes up later in the scene as the ex-wife that the firm still has to pay alimony to, and he’s the guy who’s been sitting alone at home watching TV.

What I’m most intrigued by is the way that this episode is willing to almost casually make Peggy Olson—usually the character who seems to win the most fan sympathy (give or take a Joan)—into a horrible person. It’s tempting to read this all as Peggy feeling alone on Valentine’s Day and thereby giving in to some pretty terrible stories about women who try to have it all and end up with nothing. But all we have to do is look down the hall to see the self-evidently awful Lou (who is, no joke, one of my favorite characters in Mad Men history at this point) to see why she’s so beaten up inside at the turns her life has taken. Mad Men is so good at using tiny little totems and exchanges of dialogue to suggest oceans of character development, and it does that here both with Shirley’s roses (which Peggy assumes to be her own, sent by Ted, until Shirley refuses to throw them out because they’re from her fiancée) and with that devastatingly perfect exchange between the office’s two African-American women: Dawn, to Shirley: “Hello, Dawn.” Shirley, to Dawn: “Hello, Shirley.” Instantly, we know so much more about these women. Mad Men is so good at that.

So tell me, Sonia: What did you think of all of the musical chairs in the Sterling Cooper & Partners offices? And why do you think Dawn continues to be so loyal to Don? That’s a development I find really encouraging.

Sonia: I think Dawn is loyal to Don the same reason she is about to be loyal to Joan: They both gave her a chance, and they didn’t really need to. It might have been expedient for Joan to promote Dawn to her former role—but given who Joan is in the company at this point, she has her pick of employees. Joan doesn’t have to be “progressive” or “liberal” or “feminist” if she doesn’t want to—she has a good job and a roof over her head. But that she does promote Dawn anyway speaks volumes about how much Joan Harris’ world has changed over the last 10 years. Her indignant fury at both Peggy and Lou requiring “rearrangement” for their current secretaries is a fury at thinly veiled discrimination. Both Dawn and Shirley are more vulnerable in their workplace because they’re socially disconnected from the rest of the workers there and still learning the subtleties of (white) corporate life. Lou and Peggy asking for “rearrangement” is a petulant request to mommy to make things more comfortable, or as they were before.

It is astonishing, Todd, how badly Peggy comes off in this episode—but now that I think about it, it’s about damn time. I love Peggy, but she has been less and less sympathetic since the first season, when she was at her lowest point. She’s brilliant and vulnerable and temperamental, but she’s also grown to embody privilege in surprising ways. And though she has had a fantastic struggle, she sometimes doesn’t realize that the struggle she experiences is not the only one that exists. Unlike Don, for example, Peggy hasn’t really taken a younger copywriter under her wing—her relationship with Michael Ginsberg is antagonistic at best. And considering she was a secretary, she’s rather dismissive of her own. No women work under her, that I can tell; she seems too nervous of her position to let in more talent. And that weird self-aggrandizing passive-aggressiveness is totally relatable and totally unappealing. Peggy’s got some learning to do about how big her problems are. Much of her ambition comes from a sense of being wronged. But girl, you’re a landlady with an office: You are the establishment. Grow up. And stop getting weird about roses.

Todd, you would like Lou, because he is the worst. I can’t stand Lou, but I grant that his odiousness is the point of his character. Somehow in the entire shakeup that occurred on Valentine’s Day, he managed to get what he wanted by being as blunt and intractable as possible. There’s no way any of the women in that story could have played the conflicts of the day that way and gotten out on top. Even Bert Cooper, ranking partner of the firm, commands Joan to remove “the colored girl” from the front lobby in the most respectful way possible. (It’s racist, but it’s polite.)

The split between the world of Sterling Cooper & Partners and the personal struggle of Don and Sally Draper is a very wide gulf tonight: In the former, there’s racial politics and personnel matters; in the latter, there’s quiet, uncomfortable bonding. But it’s interesting, too, seeing the overlaps between the two worlds. Dawn and Don are almost explicitly doppelgangers—their names are so similar, as everyone comments. They could not be more different, in terms of their identity modifiers. But they’re also meeting somewhat as equals, when she provides him some information and takes his calls.

Todd, I know you have more to say about that meeting. Also, while you’re thinking: What about Pete and Ted in L.A.? I found this casual aside from Ted to Pete rather revealing: “Just cash the checks, you’re going to die one day.”

Todd: Man, this episode was full of places where people tried to use cash transactions to subtly assert their power, wasn’t it? (And I know this doesn’t directly have bearing on Pete and Ted, but I’ll get to that, I swear.) From Don insisting that his daughter eat something—and giving her a couple of quarters for a phone call and a Coke—to insisting that Dawn take a little money for car fare when she comes to give him the scoop on what’s happening in the office, he’s taking his time to wield what power he once had where he still feels as if he can. He needs something from both women: information from Dawn and affection from Sally. But he also wants to be able to have the relationship proceed on his own terms, and the best way he can think of to do that is to reaffirm the fact that he is somehow their superior. This is such a polite way of asserting that power, too, and such a typically parental one. (I’m in my 30s, and my parents still insist on paying for every meal when we get together. I’m sure many people have similar experiences.) So on the one hand, we have the Don who’s genuinely appreciative of what Sally and Dawn can bring to his life. But on the other hand, we have a Don who wants to stay cock of the walk and is doing so through the only means he still has at hand. Hell, he even did the same with Megan last week, buying her that giant TV. (Granted, that was as much for him, so his friends could drop by while he was in an unfamiliar city.)

Yet when Don goes out for lunch with an advertising colleague, one of the muckity mucks from McCann-Erickson drops by just to shoot the shit, then caps the conversation by saying he’s picking up the whole tab for both men. Here’s a guy who still has his power and wields it with ease and authority, tossing around money like it’s no big deal and teasing Don with thoughts of going back to work. How long can Don resist these brightly colored lures, even if he’s still trying to patch things over with the firm he helped build? And how long can Sterling Cooper & Partners deal with the fact that Don, mercurial and unstable as he was last season, was somewhat of a center for an office that increasingly seems to be spinning off its axis, even when things are going gangbusters?

Mad Men is only glancingly a series about white male privilege (and, increasingly, just plain old white privilege), but that’s something deeply embedded in its DNA nonetheless. The series has long invited us to consider the battle lines between past and future, between the world we know is coming and the one that the characters continue to inhabit, often stubbornly. I think you tease out something so smart about how Peggy has yet to realize how thoroughly she’s become the establishment. (She increasingly struggles to give Stan the time of day, and we all know Stan and Peggy would be so happy raising their several bearded children.) But how long has it been since Peggy Olson had to work for anything? Somewhere in the second or third season, she became Don’s heir apparent, and a part of me wonders if the promotion of Lou to creative director instead of her is as much about wanting to backhandedly punish Don as it is not wanting to promote a woman to that job. (Don’t get me wrong; it’s almost certainly the latter by far. But I think there’s an element of the former in there as well.) Contrast that with Joan, who’s been scraping and scrabbling for every little mote she’s gotten over the run of the show, or Dawn, who doesn’t expect something that all but lands in her lap and says so much with one smile as her phone rings. A lot of life is being ready to walk through a door when it opens, yet the point Mad Men makes subtly here is how rarely those doors open for the Dawns and even Joans of the world.

That’s why, for me, Lou is such a great character. He’s a creature of the old school in a way that even Don just isn’t. (Don, for all his faults, is always trying to look for the new and unexpected. He’s a true creative genius, where Lou mostly just likes what’s comfortable because he’s comfortable in his role and unexamined privilege.) Yes, he’s odious, but he’s odious in a way that characters are rarely allowed to be on television. He’s not just a bad boss and a bad guy; he’s bland and boring. He’s the voice of an establishment that doesn’t want to be rattled, not even by a woman down the hall who’s just as much a part of it as he is. To return to those thoughts on stepping through open doors, how many times on this show have doors been opened, only for characters to step through? (Cutler and Don do so for Joan and Dawn in this episode, even.) Yet Lou, after telling everybody it’s not his problem, slams his door in frustration.

All of which brings me back to Pete and Ted, who make for some of the most enjoyably mismatched officemates in the run of the show. The thing I love about Ted is that he’s probably the best person on the show, but that never seems to get him anywhere with anybody. Meanwhile, Pete is one of the show’s most forward-thinking voices, yet also an often awful human being (and, it must be said, one who still has his doubts about the ability of women to do much of anything beyond look good, as we see in his scene with Bonnie tonight). In short, Ted and Pete could accomplish so much together—as could Roger and Cutler—if they didn’t keep getting in the way of each other. How much of this episode (and the series in general) is people squabbling over territory they desperately want to expand, when they might do better to work together toward that end? And is this how the show chooses to re-center Don? By making him the man with no territory to defend anymore?

So, to sum up, Sonia, is Sally leaning over and telling Don “I love you” the most genuinely hopeful moment on the show? I kind of think it is. (In fact, it’s making me mist up a little just thinking about it.)

Sonia: Uh, I cried. So yeah, it’s in the running. It’s the perfect capper to an episode about Valentine’s Day—rather than contrived, romantic love, it’s unprompted, filial love. But let me offer another moment: Don telling Sally exactly why he wasn’t at the office that day. How weird is it to watch a scene where Don Draper tells the truth? My heart leapt.

Sonia’s grade: A
Todd’s grade: A

Stray observations:

  • Valentine’s Day was actually on a Friday in 1969! This show does not miss anything. [SS]
  • Pete complains that he thinks he’s been sent to a kind of Purgatory in California, and it’s worth pointing out that the last show that Matt Weiner wrote on for its final season also sent one of its characters to a California-based (literal) purgatory in the second episode of its split final season. I guess what I’m saying is, if you don’t like it here, Weiner, just move already, God! [TV]
  • It’s worth pointing out again, as always, that Matt Weiner made the luckiest casting choice in the history of television when he settled on Kiernan Shipka back in season one. She’s just tremendous, particularly as you slowly realize that this probably is the first funeral Sally has been to—or at least the first one where she truly understood the gravity of what was happening. Every episode Shipka is in, she shows new colors. I love how even Sally’s teenage rebellion is so Sally-esque. (I read an interview with Weiner where he said that children of divorce like Sally don’t grow up to be burnouts; they grow up to be senators. And now I desperately want to see a spinoff called Senator Draper. You can make it in 15 years, Weiner. I’ll watch!) [TV]
  • She’s astonishing. After refusing food all night in dark teenage rebellion, her sudden ask: “Can I have a Coke?” struck me as a perfect line reading. [SS]
  • And a general shoutout to Teyonah Parris as Dawn, who has been with the show for two years but just made herself indelible. [SS]
  • Todd’s wife’s fashion corner, in which Todd reprints things his wife says about the fashion on the show: (In re: Shirley.) *shocked gasp* “Look at how short that dress is!” [TV]
  • You have to wonder what office dress code policies were at the time. Bonnie’s dress, as well as Megan’s last week, were similarly short. Trends! [SS]
  • “February 14: Masturbate gloomily.” [SS]
  • Next week on Mad Men: Flowers! [TV]

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