Review: ‘Mad Men’ – ‘A Day’s Work’

A review of tonight's “Mad Men” coming up just as soon as I'm interrogated by the Hooterville telephone operator…

“Our fortunes are in other people's hands.” -Bonnie

We open “A Day's Work” on a scene representing anything but: Don Draper, his alarm clock set to buzz at 7:30 as if he still had an office to go to and responsibilities to fulfill, snoozing all the way until 12:34 in the afternoon, then idly watching TV, browsing through magazine ads, even marking his liquor bottle to keep track of his drinking. He's trying to keep up appearances even within the sad confines of that apartment, but he can't even stand being suited up as master of the universe Don Draper for more than a few minutes with Dawn before he has to undo his tie and start shedding the costume.

The characters who still have active jobs do no better when we visit them the next day. For the partners, secretaries and everyone in between at SC&P, Valentine's Day 1969 isn't a day where anything of value is accomplished, save for shuttling assignments from one desk to another (or from one office to another). Some characters wind up in a better position by the end of the day than where they began it – Joan moving upstairs to be with the other account men, Dawn in turn becoming the new head of personnel(*) – but both those who fall and those who rise do so largely at the whims of more powerful, inscrutable people.

(*) And among the saddest things about the show's usual monthly leap between episodes is that we will likely never see Bert Cooper's initial reaction to a woman of color being placed in such a powerful – if not as prominent – position within the agency.  

Despite – or perhaps because of – how little gets accomplished professionally, this is a marvelous episode of “Mad Men,” so loaded with fine emotional moments both big and small, with intrigue at work and at home that resonates besides having almost nothing to do with who anyone is sleeping with (other than the problem that starts because Shirley has a fiancé), and with a sense of hope mixed in with all the existential despair being suffered by Don, Pete and others.

Don begins this Valentine's Day looking for love from other agencies, even though, as he admits to his lunch date, he's in no position to go elsewhere. (Earlier, Jim Cutler bitterly calls Don “our collective ex-wife who still receives alimony.”) He's still getting paid, but every week that passes without him working, and with rumors of his Hershey implosion spreading around town, renders him damaged goods to other agencies. He explains to Sally that he's stayed in New York to try to fix things – though Sally, who understands her father better than he sometimes understands himself, can also tell that he doesn't especially want to move to California, Megan or no Megan – but admits he has no idea how to get out of this mess of his own creation. And the irony is that he screwed himself by being honest in the exact way that Sally wants him to be for much of the episode – he just picked the absolute wrong time, place and people for that level of honesty(**). Yet candor does the trick with Sally, ending the silent treatment and even inspiring a sweet, casual “I love you” at the end of their trip that winds up flooring Don. (Again, I've made peace with the thought that Jon Hamm will probably never win an Emmy for this role, but watch the number of emotions and intensity of them that he conveys with just a slight furrowing of the eyebrows in that scene. Lord, that's great acting.) He joked about wanting love, but in part because Don Draper at this point isn't sure that he's someone that anyone – let alone the one woman in his life he doesn't want to ever lose – could actually love. He's blown up everything in his life, but in the process he may have made this one relationship stronger.

(**) When Sally asks him exactly what he was honest about, he replies, “Nothing you don't know.” Does this mean he told her more about the old whorehouse beyond the fact that he grew up there?  

In their conversation at the diner, Sally notes, “I'm so many people,” a sentiment that sounds about right coming from the daughter of Dick Whitman, and that fits in with an episode where so many characters are juggling multiple responsibilities and identities. Joan has two jobs, and Jim Cutler suggests she focus on the new one in accounts. Dawn has to play secretary to both Lou (who remains the worst) and Don, even as she and Shirley privately call each other by the opposite names, acknowledging how often they are confused for each other simply by being SC&P's only black employees. Lou is now in Don's office, to the confusion of Sally, and Joan loses her cool as she's forced by Lou, then Bert, then Peggy, to shuffle various secretaries from one desk to the next to the next.

There are a few moments early on where the matter of Peggy mistaking Shirley's flowers for ones that Ted must have sent her threaten to turn this into (to paraphrase Chandler Bing watching “Three's Company”) the episode of “Mad Men” where there's some kind of misunderstanding, and this is certainly not Peggy's proudest hour. (Though, again, so long as Lou Avery works there, Peggy cannot be the worst.) But then Sally walks into the office looking for her father, and things get more complicated and emotionally resonant. It isn't just that we have a history of Sally experiencing bad things when she's visiting Don's work world, but that we know by now that he's keeping his pathetic new standing to himself, and that Sally has major trust issues with her dad ever since she walked in on him and Sylvia. There's enormous tension between father and daughter for much of the episode, but also ripples at the office.

We've already seen Pete feel marginalized and powerless over in the West Coast office (and also, Pete-like, conceited enough to not recognize the similarities between Bonnie's story and his own), just as Roger keeps being outmaneuvered by Cutler in New York. And then Joan gets dragged into the Dawn mess, and the secretarial shuffle that follows, as Christina Hendricks does a wonderful slow burn, because why does Joan still have to suffer these fools after all this time?

The episode's final moves are happier ones, but also suggest more chaos to come. Shirley didn't seem to much like Peggy, so maybe she'll love Lou and all his horribleness, but Joan still has a lot to learn in accounts, there will be a learning curve for Dawn, on top of whatever racial tensions may now surface among both the secretarial pool and some of the partners.

And for all the relief and happiness and guilt that Don feels at realizing his little girl still loves him, he is still, like Pete, in limbo. People feel his existence in the way they don't seem to feel Pete's – his absence wreaks havoc on the agency, even as other shops are trying to figure out if he can work for them – but after another day where no work gets done, he may as well go back to chomping on Ritz crackers in his robe and enjoying the adventures of Darla, Spanky and Alfalfa.

Though if he gets to do that next time with Sally, maybe that's not such a bad thing.

Some other thoughts:

* I'm sure Tom & Lorenzo will go into much deeper detail on this in their weekly Mad Style analysis of the episode, but note how the color red (or, on a few occasions, pink) is prominent in every scene. Spirit of the season. 

* Also, just as Peggy thinks she's being taunted all day by a reminder of a lover who ran away, we get glimpses of accounts the agency failed to land, whether Lou telling Roger that Ogilvy signed Hershey after Don blew the meeting or Sally pouring a healthy supply of Heinz ketchup onto her diner fries.

* When Don finally rousts himself from bed, he puts on a “Little Rascals” episode, repackaging an “Our Gang” short from Don's childhood in the Depression. Later, before Dawn arrives, he's watching Marlo Thomas in “That Girl” (a hugely progressive show for the period about a woman trying to make it on her own in the big city), and the snippet of conversation between Ann and her father definitely seems to fit the description for the episode that actually aired the night before Valentine's Day, 1969: “There Was a Time Ann Met a Pie Man,” in which Ann becomes temporarily famous for appearing in a TV skit where she gets a pie in the face.

* When Don and Sally are driving back to school, the car radio is playing “Elenore” by The Turtles; after she tells her daddy she loves him, we hear “This Will Be Our Year” by The Zombies. (Not to be confused with the stars of another popular AMC drama.)

* Though Cutler does Joan a solid by getting her out of personnel hell, it could be read as just the latest move in his Machiavellian campaign to nudge Roger (and Bert) out of power, which first came up shortly after the merger last year. Allies are very useful, especially when you are bracing for others to become adversaries.

* Two episodes into the season and still no Betty or Harry, though the latter has been mentioned in both weeks so far. Ken and Megan are absent this week, while Bob Benson remains a bogeyman off in Detroit, causing agita for both Ken and Pete even while he can't appear because he's busy acting on a CBS sitcom.

* Meanwhile, Ginsberg appears only briefly, but he makes it count with his crack about Peggy's Valentine's Day plans.

* That was “JAG” star David James Elliott as Don's lunch date Ed. Which face of '90s TV will we be getting next week?

* At that lunch, Don references almost having worked for McCann Erickson twice. The first was in season 1's “Shoot,” where Jim Hobart (the guy who tries to crash the lunch with Ed) offered Betty a modeling job to try to entice Don (it backfired); the second was at the end of season 3, when the Brits are on the verge of selling Sterling Cooper to McCann.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at