‘Mad Men’ recap: “A Day’s Work”

Last week’s episode of Mad Men was so dreary and depressing, I was worried about this episode, but despite some issues with Peggy’s plot, I thought this was a great episode, with some really funny moments as well as touching scenes. “A Day’s Work” does some interesting critique of race, and an examination of white male privilege (as well as just plain old white privilege). Also, the cast’s strongest performer, Kiernan Shipka returns as Sally Draper, who has some great interactions with Don.

Last week I complained about the show’s treatment of Joan and Peggy. I get that despite the changes in gender politics, things haven’t turned completely around, and so the women still have to put up with a lot of crap. Unfortunately, the writers are starting to fall into that dangerous territory of making successful businesswomen into desperate, isolated shrews who cannot have successful relationships outside of work. And with Peggy, we see a character who continuously feels personal pangs, despite her progress in her career (and even her work life isn’t peachy). In this episode, Peggy has morphed into season 2 Pete Campbell. She’s petulant woman-child who throws tantrums because she’s unhappy, and like Pete, she drags her coworkers down with her.

In “A Day’s Work” it’s Shirley, Peggy’s secretary who unfortunately becomes collateral damage. It’s Valentine’s Day, and Peggy’s depressed because she’s still smarting from her breakup with Ted. I get that she’s upset about Ted – it was an awful breakup, where Ted, the man, gets to call all the shots, while Peggy just has to grin and bear it. But she doesn’t. Instead she lashes out childishly. When Peggy strides into the office she spies a bouquet of beautiful red roses in a crystal vase on Shirley’s desk. Peeved that Ted sent her roses, she grabs the flowers and marches into her office, despite Shirley’s subtle protests. We later find out in a tete-a-tete between Shirley and Dawn that the flowers were from Shirley’s fiancé.

So why doesn’t Shirley set Peggy straight? A lot of folks asked that – but I get why Shirley was reticent. Not only is Peggy’s current mental state rather fragile and mercurial, but despite the Civil Rights Act, race still plays out in a stratified way, creating an us versus them environment. In a funny scene, Dawn and Shirley share an in-joke at the coffee machine, where they bitch about their bosses, and jokingly refer to each other by the other’s name – so Dawn’s Shirley, and Shirley’s Dawn – in a neat “all black people look the same” kind of way – except the racial politics get very serious, and Joan, of all people, is caught in the mess.

But more on the race issues later. Back to Peggy. Thinking that Ted sent her the flowers, she goes through the day not working (an ironic take on the episode’s title), going back and forth, coming up with scathing comebacks to bruise Ted’s heart. In a fit of pique, she dumps the flowers back on Shirley’s desk, but quickly changes her mind and orders the flowers to be trashed. It’s then that Shirley finally tells Peggy the truth: the flowers are from her fiancé. Peggy has a meltdown worthy of Pete’s “Not great, Bob!” or when he skidded down the stairs in a hissy fit. Peggy accuses Shirley of “embarrassing” her and all of her ugly, jealous resentment spills over – and yeah, it looks all very ugly.

But here’s the thing: the whole time Peggy was acting like an appallingly spoiled child, I thought to myself “What the hell happened to our Miss Olsen?” More than any other character – with the exception of Don – Peggy had to work her ass off to prove herself. And her personal life was pretty dark and disturbing – and often very sad. But Peggy was never pathetic (even when she was pregnant and gaining weight at an alarming rate, and being chastised by a boyishly judgmental parish priest). But Peggy’s pathetic now. And Matthew Weiner and company need to figure out how to pull Peggy out of the unappealing corner they’ve backed her into; I’m not arguing for a superhero moment where Peggy rips open her dress shirt to reveal a red “S” – but this being stuck in the metaphorical tar. While Elisabeth Moss plays the hell out of her scenes, she represents the lowest points of the episode.

And speaking of Pete – last week Pete looked like an Angelino, right at home. I was shocked. Was our Pete Campbell finally a happy, fulfilled individual? Nope. This week, Pete feels that being flung away in Los Angeles was akin to purgatory. He’s continuously undercut by the partners in the New York office. In scenes that are almost comfortably familiar, Pete charges through the L.A. offices lashing out a nonplussed Ted (and by the way, the L.A. office is really ugly).

But it’s not just Pete that’s feeling pushed around by the partners: it’s obvious that Roger’s also being marginalized. His opinion meant nothing during a terrible conference call, and he was continuously shot down by Jim Cutler, who in the elevator vaguely threatened him by saying he hoped they wouldn’t be adversaries. And unlike Don, Lou doesn’t “get” Roger and they can’t share a joke.

In the midst of all this office turmoil, both Joan and Dawn manage to make some important strides. Even though she has some accounts and she’s a partner, she’s also acting as head of personnel and has to deal with Peggy’s and Lou’s tantrums as they both want to move their secretaries around. Joan is pissed and understandably so – she has to treat these women like chess pawns and she feels put out, especially since these changes are namely due to Peggy’s bad attitude and Lou’s unveiled racism. And if that wasn’t bad enough when she dropped Dawn at the receptionist desk in front, Bert “suggested” that having a black receptionist in the front would look bad.

Jim comes to the rescue, though – seeing how abused Joan feels, he suggests that she move upstairs with the other account execs and concentrate on just one job – and Dawn gets her own office, Joan’s old space. It’s a great moment because Dawn proves herself to be both a great secretary and a wily crafty lady. Like Peggy and Joan, she deserves the office and I’m hoping that the writers plump up Dawn’s role.

But the central story of this episode is Don and Sally. Don’s out of work and he’s starting to become a sad couch potato, slamming Ritz crackers and watching Little Rascals and That Girl. It’s interesting that the latter is shown because the sitcom was all about a young woman’s asserting herself in her world. In Mad Men, the women were often punished for striking out, yet Don was watching a TV show about an adorable, nonthreatening feminist icon.  Don’s life in New York without Megan is terrible – not only does his balcony door not shut, but he’s also got roaches. He’s meeting with other ad agencies for fruitless lunches because he’s contractually obligated to stay away from other agencies.

But worst of all, he doesn’t tell Megan or Sally of his forced suspension. So when Sally appears at the office after ditching her friends when playing hooky from school, she’s shocked by a condescending Lou who dismisses her curtly. Don finds his daughter and it’s clear that she hasn’t forgiven him for sleeping with his neighbor. He offers to take her back to school, and learns from a surreptitious call from Dawn that Sally stopped by. So Don knows that Sally knows that he’s no longer at the office. But they go through the motions until he  finally accuses her of being just like Betty, letting him lie to her – and who but Don can find fault with someone else because he lied to them. Sally’s every bit Don’s equal and she shoots back that it’s more embarrassing for her to catch him in a lie than to be lied to. This fight is some pretty heavy stuff – Don’s rarely challenged as an equal, especially by one of the women in his life, so it’s interesting that it’s Sally that does so.

Their tense ride leads to a thawing lunch at a diner, where Don finally does something novel and new: he tells the truth. Even though Don’s BS detector is always functioning, he’s been known to shovel the bull manure liberally himself – and he probably forgets that Sally’s smart. Really smart. She’s a combination of both the best and worst parts of Betty and Don – she can be petty and mean (check out her droll line to her friends, “I’d stay [in school] until 1975 if it put Betty in the ground”), but she’s also inherited an innate and uncanny ability to suss out when someone is lying to her or when she’s being made a patsy – which is why it makes total sense that she and Grandpa Gene got along so well, because unlike her parents, he treated her like a human being, not simply a child.

When Mad Men ended last year Sally and Don faced a lot of truths – most of them ugly. She knew that her dad was a philanderer, and she also knew that he kept deep, dark secrets. Don also understood that his daughter wasn’t naive or wide-eyed, and that living with him (and Betty) had matured her much too quickly. As a result, Don had to learn that he would have to be upfront with his daughter and not try to play the role of “Father Knows Best” because obviously he’d be miscast. And it’s too late. Sally knows dad doesn’t know best. In fact, she knows that dad doesn’t know a whole lot right now.

But the takeaway from this episode is that Sally also knows that Don’s struggling and he’s treading, hoping not to drown. It isn’t as bad as the third season’s bachelor pad Lost Weekend sort of deal, but it’s close. And because he was honest (for once), she responded with warmth. When he drops Sally off at school, she leaves with a casual, “Happy Valentine’s Day. I love you.” And Don was shocked. His face sort of slid down in a gap-mouthed wonder as he processed those three words that he never thought his daughter would ever say to him. As cynical as this show can be, this quick exchange was the best Valentine’s Day gift Don could’ve received. Validation. And the work that Jon Hamm and Kirenan Shipka do in this episode is nothing short of tremendous. Weiner was very lucky when he lucked upon those two actors because they’ve really figured out who their characters are: it’s also great to see Shipka dominate in scenes she’s sharing with a pro like Hamm. While not as great as his “The Suitcase” performance, this episode should guarantee the guy another Emmy nod (and if there was any justice, Shipka will be rewarded with an Emmy nomination herself for her fantastic work).

I liked this episode much more than I did last week’s because it shook some of the gloominess off. I do think that the expansion of Dawn’s role and Shirley’s role is good for the show, and I hope that like Sally, Dawn will graduate from minor/recurring role to supporting cast member. With Dawn we have another potential story arc, akin to Peggy’s, except of course, with the racial dimension which adds another interesting layer. The two black characters of note on the show are still treated a bit like characters from The Help, in that we know little of their personal lives, and they are pretty much defined by their relationships with white people.

It’s two episodes in and we still haven’t seen Betty. I don’t know how she’ll fit into this world anymore, and I’m not sure if there’s any room for her, as we’ve already had the cast members spread out so thin, across the country. In the sixth season, Betty went through a transformation – not only physical but emotional, and she ended the season on a high – I actually liked her again. Now, I’m not sure if the mature, likable Betty Francis is here to stay, but she was a fascinating antagonist for Don. Unlike Megan, Betty’s life was ruled by frustrated fury, and it was really cool to watch her lash out (though it was disturbing when she directed her outrage at her kids). It’ll be neat to see where the “new and improved” Betty fits into this fractured version of Mad Men.

 

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