Monday, April 21, 2014

Mad Men Season 7, Episode 2, “A Day’s Work”

This week’s excellent episode takes place on Valentine’s Day, 1969, and the episode title, “A Day’s Work” is a rather ironic one when taken to refer to Don, Peggy, Pete, or Joan, all of whom have odd or frustrating work days: Don performs some much needed work on his personal life, namely his relationship with his daughter; Peggy is so distracted by her love life (or lack thereof) that she can’t concentrate on anything productive; Pete has a major accomplishment taken away from him by the other partners, and Joan spends the day thanklessly mopping up the messes created by the petty and selfish decisions of the creative personnel, particularly Peggy and Lou.

Initially, the title appears to be very ironic, as the episode begins by showing how directionless Don has become. He has no reason to get up in the morning, no reason to dress, and no reason to clean his apartment (as evidenced by the roach skittering from the dining room into the kitchen). He spends his morning (i.e., the early afternoon) eating Ritz crackers and watching The Little Rascals on television, and coming up with ways to regulate his alcohol intake. The most exciting part of his routine is when Dawn visits at night to brief him on SC&P’s activities.

However, Valentine’s Day will bring a change to Don’s "work" day, as Sally makes a surprise visit to his apartment, initiating a string of wonderful scenes between the two.* She is in the city both to attend the funeral of her roommate’s mother, and to engage in some clandestine shopping, but she loses her purse, and her efforts to find it force her to miss the train back to boarding school, which in turn thrusts her into Don’s orbit. She first seeks him out at work, then at his apartment.

* Although Don initiates some change himself, as he is now taking meetings with other ad companies, putting out feelers about working elsewhere. It seems as though he’s taking to heart Freddie’s advice from the premiere. 

The scene where Sally looks for Don at work is fairly disturbing. She has a confusing shock when she encounters Lou in Don’s former office, and then Lou is cagey about what’s happened to Don (he doesn’t want to interfere in Don’s personal life), and none of the familiar faces Sally knows (like Joan) are around because everyone is at lunch. The whole scene is like a dream where everything is a little off, and what used to be familiar now seems cold and foreign. Don seems to have disappeared, and knowing what we know of his past, this scene provides us with a disturbing glimpse of what could happen to the people in his life were he to do something similar again (as he’s been on the verge of doing several times over the course of the series). While Sally is mildly disturbed by the change at SC&P, the scene is spookier for viewers than it is for her, since it’s unlikely that Don revealed to her the full extent of his story when he showed her where he grew up at the end of last season (i.e., stealing the real Don’s identity and disappearing from the lives of everyone who used to know him as Dick Whitman).

Sally finally finds Don by waiting for him in his apartment, but when she asks him where he’s been, she catches him in a lie about being at the office. At first she’s confused, but when she realizes he’s lying, she becomes disappointed, and then distant. Whatever Don’s deal is, she doesn’t really care because he’s not being honest with her – it’s easier for her to try to distance herself from him than it is for her to feel hurt by how easily Don lies to her. However, when Don asks Sally what he should write in the note of excuse Sally will need for breaking curfew when she returns to boarding school, her disappointment with him shines through once again when she replies, “Just tell the truth.”

The silence is so sharp you could cut it with a knife.
But then, in an interesting wrinkle, Dawn finds out about Sally's visit to the office, and calls to warn Don to expect Sally, and suddenly Don has greater knowledge: he knows that Sally has caught him in a lie. What follows between Don and Sally is a wonderful emotional rollercoaster where the two grow as distant as they have ever been from one another, and then later come crashing back together again. Feeling insecure about Sally’s knowledge of his lie, Don’s first impulse is to try to catch Sally in a lie herself (rather than coming clean to her), and thus he interrogates her about why she was really in the city. It’s a mistake, as he has no moral ground to stand on, which Sally quickly points out to him. Don tries to make the conversation about Sally, and in a particularly insidious moment, he plays off of Sally’s hatred of Betty by trying to equate Sally’s initial refusal to call out Don’s lie with Betty’s tendency to set traps rather than confront people directly. However, their argument is really about Don’s behavior, a point Sally forcefully drives home when she describes how hard it was for her to go to Don’s apartment and run the risk of bumping into Sylvia on the elevator. Sally gets through to Don, and he apologizes, but the damage is done, and Sally just wants Don to shut the hell up. It’s an amazing and painful scene, one that seems to plant an insurmountable barrier between the two.

Don buys time to fix the rift between them by stopping for gas, and then having dinner. It seems to be a lost cause, however, as Sally is determined to shut him out: she refuses to eat with him, and responds to his inquiries with one word answers. However, Sally beings to open up when Don finally levels with her, telling her the truth about his work situation, his reasons for lying, his desire to fix the problems he created, and how he feels about Megan. It’s a wonderful exchange, not just because it thaws Sally’s chilly attitude toward him, but also because it seems like Don is admitting the truth about what happened at the end of last season to himself just as much as to Sally. Perhaps he’s learned some lessons about the consequences of how he handled Hershey's.

Sally takes a moment to call her school friend Carol to tell her where she is, and has a sobering conversation. Carol is wrapped up with giggly teenaged concerns, which now seem especially petty to Sally in the wake of the conflicting emotions Don has caused her to feel over the course of the day. We all want our parents to be dependable sources of stability in our lives, but this is a quality that neither of Sally’s parents seem to possess. She hates that Don’s first reaction is always to lie, but she appreciates that he was eventually willing to open up to her and treat her like an adult in discussing his problems, which he puts in terms that let her to feel bad for him – he’s shared his past with her, and she can sympathize with his shame. The juxtaposition of Carol’s prattle with Don's openness makes Sally realize how her own behavior can change depending on who she’s with, and when she returns to the table, she reflects, “I’m so many people.” Don recognizes that there can be no clearer sign that Sally is his daughter, and his eyes narrow at the discovery of Sally’s kindred spirit. Immediately after Sally’s reflection, Don reinforces the connection between them by playfully suggesting that they sneak out of the restaurant without paying the bill, effectively introducing her to a part of the vagabond lifestyle Don knows so well. It’s a healing gesture, as Don is inviting her into his confidences, conspiring with her rather than excluding her.

Earlier in the episode, Don jokes with the ad executives with whom he has lunch with that he’s “just looking for love” on Valentine’s Day. However, he actually ends up finding it by reconnecting with Sally and restoring some of the affection she has for him. As he drops off Sally at school, she wishes him a happy Valentine’s Day and tells him she loves him. Don is both surprised, relieved, and moved. Hopefully he’ll learn something from this Valentine’s Day gift: a little honesty has won back his daughter’s love. Perhaps it’s a lesson he can take with him into his other relationships.

If Don spends the episode reconnecting with his daughter, Peggy spends the episode moving in the opposite direction, lost in a miasma of misery over Ted. Peggy misconstrues the appearance of a flower bouquet on her secretary Shirley’s desk as a Valentine’s Day overture from Ted, and spends the episode consumed by her feelings toward him (which now consist of a mixture of heartbreak, anger, and resentment). Later, Peggy (over)reacts incredibly selfishly to the revelation that the flowers are for Shirley, throwing a temper tantrum and claiming to be embarrassed. She immediately regrets her (embarrassing) behavior, judging by the wince on her face after she returns to her office, however, rather than apologizing to Shirley and trying to repair the relationship, instead she insists that Joan reassign Shirley to someone else’s desk.

Joan’s work day consists of shuffling up the secretary assignments because of the petty and selfish behavior of Peggy and Lou. Lou throws a tantrum when Dawn’s first impulse is to call Don to warn him about Sally rather than to apologize to Lou for not being at her desk to intercept Sally.* More interesting, however, is what happens later in the episode: Joan resigns from her position as head of personnel and moves into an accounts office upstairs. This development is interesting not only because of the new creative opportunities it presents for the series, but also because of how it came about: it is only at Cutler’s suggestion that Joan takes the opportunity to move upstairs, just as last week it was only at Ken’s insistence that she took on a new client in Butler Footwear. Joan doesn’t seem to realize that being a partner means she has the power to make changes at SC&P; instead, she still thinks of herself as an employee (note also that Bert has to tell her not to go after Roger when he storms out the partner’s meeting earlier in the episode). I hope that she will soon recalibrate the way in which she envisions herself at work, and demonstrate some initiative in taking advantage of the power her partnership affords.

*Boy was I wrong about Lou. Rather than decent and normal, he’s another selfish jerk, just of a different caliber than Don. Not only is he a pedestrian ad man willing to settle for mediocre work, but he’s also an ass, last week to Peggy, this week to Dawn. Blech. 

Finally, Pete’s work day is somewhat similar to Peggy’s in terms of its frustration: he signs a massive client, the southern California Chevy dealer’s association, yet has his hard work siphoned off to Bob by the rest of the partners, who insist on first running it by their Chevy clients in Detroit, and then letting Bob handle the account. Ever the petulant child, Pete behaves as though his shiny new toy has been appropriated by the more popular kid on the playground. As Pete sarcastically asks a hilariously disinterested Ted, “Why even bring in an account? They’re just going to take it away.” All Pete wants is for the other partners to praise his accomplishments and let him savor his accounts.

Other thoughts:

- I like that Joan’s solution to Lou’s demand that Dawn be replaced is to assign idiot-child Meredith to him. Comedy almost always results whenever Joan teaches punitive lessons through her assignment of steno pool personnel (as with her assigning Ida Blankenship to Don’s desk after his behavior caused Allison to quit a few seasons ago). Sadly, we won’t be able to look forward to Meredith screwing up Lou’s life, as Joan’s move upstairs shuffles up the secretary pool yet again: Dawn becomes the new head of personnel (paying off seeds sewn last season), and Shirley is moved to Lou's office (and presumably, Meredith has moved back out to the front desk).

- One of the reasons I’m so amused by Meredith, aside from her oblivious idiocy, is how she speaks every word as though she’s reading aloud from a book filled only with words she’s never read before.

- Cutler to Roger: “I’d hate to think of you as an adversary. I’d really hate that.” Cut to Don and Sally driving in a similarly staged shot (facing the camera). The same sentiment applies here as well, even though by this point in the episode, Don and Sally have grown closer. Cutler’s a bit of snake, no?

- Don’s dig at Sally about her being like her mother is set up nicely in an earlier scene, where Sally talks about a hypothetical bargain she would happily make: she’d stay in boarding school until 1975 if it meant Betty would die.

- I keep accidentally mistaking Bonnie for Betty. Excellent casting.

- Interesting to note how cold Ginsburg is toward Peggy at the start of the episode. He doesn’t hold open the elevator for Peggy, and is rather hostile toward her in the ride up. Perhaps he’s rather fed up with all of the problems she’s had with SC&P’s creative directors over the years.

- Quite a contrast between SC&P's black employees, Dawn and Shirley: both in their dress and attitude, Shirley is all sex and sass (short skirt!), while Dawn is demure and deferential. Despite their opposing attitudes toward their bosses and work ethics, they both end up promoted by the end of the day. Hooray!

- Lots of great comedy in the Ted and Pete scenes this week, like Ted's deadpan advice to Pete when Pete gets worked up over having the dealership association taken away from him: “Just cash the checks, you’re going to die one day.” See also: Ted nonchalantly saying goodnight to Bonnie. Ted’s clearly suffering from Peggy withdrawal, and I look forward to a more Ted-centric episode.

- This episode featured a bit more of Peggy's awkwardness in handling interracial relations: she says should have gotten Shirely flowers, "Out of respect."

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