“I’m so many people,” Sally Draper tells her father in “A Day’s Work,” the kind of deeply uncomfortable Valentine’s Day episode you’d expect from Mad Men. She’s inadvertently summing up the show’s viewpoint on the human personality — few characters on Mad Men could be said to be one thing only. But she might also be coming to grips with her own deceptions. Like most teenagers, she’s not entirely honest, and she wouldn’t be sitting with her dad in this coffee shop if she hadn’t snuck away from a friend’s mother’s funeral to go shopping in the Village, losing her purse along the way.
Sally’s deceptions are nothing compared to Don’s. You could say the apple never falls far from the tree, but you’d be wrong. I’ve always found that the children of deeply dysfunctional parents grow up to either reenact their own trauma (in some way) or reject it and try to build a life that’s the opposite of whatever they experienced. Sally is an ethical person, despite lapses that seem fairly typical of boundary-testing teenagers, and she projects immense confidence here. Sally’s catching Don with his mistress Sylvia a few months earlier scarred her and might account for her poise in “A Day’s Work.” While Sally’s lies are misdemeanors, Don’s are crimes. They seem not just to have damaged their relationship but transformed it, in ways that allow the daughter to see through her father.
When Sally goes to Don’s office for money to get home and finds that he hasn’t worked there in months and Lou Avery has replaced him, she’s appalled but not shocked. When she arrives at Don’s apartment later, she seems to have already thought through how she’ll deal with the inevitable lies about what happened to Don’s job and why she and her mom haven’t heard about it yet. She was always a smart kid, but she’s gotten tougher in recent seasons, to the point where she now feels emboldened to talk to her father the way a cynical grown-up sister might talk to her screw-up brother. Don’s “Tremble before me!” voice doesn’t faze her anymore. “I don’t have to tell you anything,” she tells Don during that uncomfortable car ride. “Why would you let me lie to you like that?” he practically whines. “Because it’s more embarrassing for me to catch you in a lie than it is for you to be lying,” she says. She finally cuts him off with, “Stop talking.” There are hints of reconciliation afterwards — Don’s check skip fake-out makes light of their shared skill at deception while reassuring Sally that he’s not a monster — but their final moment in the car cements the fact that something pure that once existed between them has gone. “I love you,” she says, then shuts the door and goes inside, not giving Don a chance to respond.
[UPDATE: Since this recap went up, I’ve gotten a number of comments to the effect that I think Sally doesn’t love her father anymore, or that something has been irretrievably broken (see Don’s “Have I broken the vessel?” from last week) or that the end of the episode is somehow decisively negative for Don. I don’t think that, honest I don’t. But I do think Sally demonstrates a brand of tough love here, and that she is never going to give Don the trust and sometimes obedience she once showed him even when he was screwing up terribly, and that it would be a huge mistake to soften the ending into sentimentality just because we love the characters and want them to be happy. The ending is by no means sweet or reassuring. It’s bittersweet and real and quite tough. There’s hope in it, but as certain online documents warn us, terms and conditions may apply. That’s why I mention Raymond Carver in the end notes.]
Loss of traditional patriarchal authority is one of this episode’s threads. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what all the talk of death in “A Day’s Work” might be about, more so than foreshadowing of another tragic demise, à la Lane Pryce: Sally attending a funeral; her friend asking if it’s her first; Don telling her, “I don’t like you going to funerals”; Pete in L.A. complaining that he doesn’t know if he’s in hell, heaven, or limbo and that “no one feels my existence.” Maybe we’re being set up for Don’s actual physical death at the end of Mad Men, but if we are, I’ll be slightly disappointed, only because Mad Men has already dipped into the death-foretold well (spectacularly). For now, I prefer to think it’s about an old way of life dying out and being replaced with something else. It’s a glacially slow process, but the signs of change are all around. Sally’s unnerving confidence as she puts dad in his place is but one manifestation.
In this episode, there’s more focus on the office’s two African-American secretaries, Dawn and Shirley (who playfully swap names in conversation, probably an inside joke on white folks getting them confused). By the end of the episode, Dawn — who briefly seemed to be at risk of getting fired over the Sally incident, then got moved to the front desk at Lou Avery’s behest, then moved yet again because the firm’s eldest partner, Bert Cooper, didn’t like the idea of hers being the first face that visitors saw — has taken over for Joan as office manager. This is a promotion. She’s not just in charge of time cards now; she has figuratively and literally inherited the job that Joan was doing when we first met her. At the end of “A Day’s Work,” we have to conclude that Joan has been “promoted,” too (even though in theory she’s a partner already, just like all those guys in the office, and can’t rise any higher). She no longer has to do two jobs. She can just handle accounts now.
Joan moves into a vacant office upstairs at the suggestion of fellow partner Jim Cutler. On the way there, box in hand, she runs into Roger, her on-and-off lover and the father of her son, and thanks him for the flowers he sent to her in her son’s name. But Joan’s no more than cordial to Roger, because at this point that’s all he really deserves. Nobody in this episode is anything more than cordial to Roger. Least cordial: Jim Cutler. In a meeting with the L.A. office, he countermands Roger’s advice to Pete that he sign the Chevy dealers, and instead tells him to wait until Detroit signs off, as a courtesy. The final exchange between Jim and Roger in the elevator — Cutler asking Roger if he’s going to be an “adversary” — has already been interpreted as a harbinger of “civil war” at the firm, and probably it is.
But it’s also a harbinger of something deeper: a transformation of corporate culture. Hard-drinking, impulsive, imperious men like Roger and Don are emblems of another time; the future of the workplace belongs to people like Joan, Cutler, and even Lou Avery, who’s an arrogant jerk but isn’t wrong to insist on a modicum of professionalism. He doesn’t respond to Roger’s colorful anecdote (which repeats the word kike twice), which would’ve been the spark for a hilarious but politically incorrect conversation in earlier seasons, and when he does reply, it’s with talk of a promotion at another firm (he’s reading the New York Times business section). Last week Lou brushed off Peggy’s attempt to undo a bad decision by telling her that he was “immune to [her] charms,” and in this episode, he proves he’s immune to Dawn’s and Joan’s as well. He doesn’t want other people’s drama to intrude on his life, and he doesn’t want Dawn’s attentions and sympathies divided by working for both him and for Don. That’s not an unreasonable thing to wish for.
And even though Dawn pushes back hard against Lou — “I’m sorry if I said the wrong thing,” he says, and sounds as though he means it — they seem to be on the same page when it comes to professionalism. That’s why Dawn initially refuses to take Don’s reimbursement for travel expenses (“There’s something about the money that makes it feel wrong”) and says she’ll keep him in the loop but won’t go into anyone’s office to fish for documents. Dawn has standards, just like Lou, and Joan, and Jim. None of these people fit the description of Don that Pete offered in season six after Don unilaterally fired the sleazy Jaguar dealer: “like Tarzan, swinging from vine to vine.”
I don’t think it’s an accident that in this episode, the two most arrogant partners, Don and Roger, get decisively overruled and have to accept it, and that Don’s most vulnerable and intriguingly self-aware moment with Sally comes when he admits that he got fired because he told the truth, but at an inappropriate moment (a mistake that many characters make in this episode). Nor do I think it’s accidental that the melodrama of the reshuffled secretaries and the ultimate recognition of Joan’s true worth were sparked after Don’s daughter (the next generation of Draper; the next generation of American) visited the male-dominated workplace and learned that her dad didn’t have a place there anymore.
The scenes between Pete and his new girlfriend Bonnie in Los Angeles feel like corollaries of the New York women’s stories. The key moment is when Pete storms over to one of Bonnie’s apartment showings, looking for sex to take his mind off his disappointment (“The system is rigged against me, I might as well enjoy myself”), and she warmly but decisively shoots him down, telling him she’s not free till early evening, period. Pete enters the scene carrying one of Bonnie’s yard signs, as if to negate the idea that her job is real. At the end, Bonnie exits to return to work and leaves him standing by himself.
The scene’s last line is Bonnie’s: “Put the sign back.”
Odds and Ends
• This is the second episode in a row that’s not at all flattering to Peggy. Mortifying as it is, I like watching her be petty (“lifting her leg” on Don/Freddy’s pitch last week, then freaking out over the flower mistake with Shirley and pushing for her reassignment). It means the writers aren’t pandering to Peggy fans by trying to turn the character into a saint. We can project our aspirations or issues onto her all we want, but in the end she’s not a symbol, she’s Peggy.
• More so than a lot of episodes, this one (written by Jonathan Igla and Matthew Weiner, and directed by Michael Uppendahl) really delves into the experience of the secretaries. You get the sense that they’re paid serfs, subject to the whims and mood swings of their volatile bosses. Both Peggy and Lou treat their secretaries badly in this episode (Dawn gets yelled at for not being in the office when Sally showed up, even though she’d gone out to buy Lou’s wife a gift). Don, who at this point doesn’t even work at the firm, has apparently been pushing Dawn to spy for him, and she’s going along to the extent that she’s comfortable, because she expects Don to return when his suspension is through. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” could be the motto of the secretarial pool. Dawn and Shirley are especially vulnerable because they’re both women and minorities. The pained outraged in Dawn’s voice as she pushes back against Lou reminds us of this.
• I like the break room scene between Shirley and Dawn. It’s the best written scene between two black characters in the show’s life span to date, though admittedly there aren’t many such scenes to compare it with, and the fact that it arrives in the first half of Mad Men’s final season blunts its impact a bit. Still, I like how they pause their conversation until a white co-worker has left.
• A nifty (maybe unintended) byproduct of Dawn’s new assignment is that, because she’s a black woman in a position of some authority now, there’s less likelihood that she’ll be hassled to do a race-based game of musical chairs, as her white predecessor was.
• Don and Abe Wooster are talking about starting another agency. Here we go again. Maybe this is where the story ends, with Don reinventing himself again professionally? Throw a third marriage on top of it and you’ve got a hilariously appropriate sign-off
• So many characters in this episode seem to be driven by disappointment with their current circumstances and an unarticulated desire to return to the way things were before, whatever that means to them. Peggy’s meltdown is all about lingering feelings for Ted. Roger seems flummoxed by the realization that he can’t just tell everyone else how things will be and expect them to go along with him. Pete wishes people still listened to what he had to say, or otherwise acknowledged his existence. Don’s outside of pretty much everything now, and though I think it would be a mistake to assign just one meaning to the look on his face in that final scene in the car, it seems safe to say that nostalgia (the ache from an old wound) probably plays into it. We like to say that kids grow up so fast, but we don’t like to think about why that is.
• This was a great episode. Like last week’s, it reminded me of season four, which was stripped down and rather slow paced but full of acute character insights and bits of thematic connective tissue that didn’t immediately announce themselves as such. The last scene has the punch of a Raymond Carver ending. I love that Sally doesn’t look back.