Welcome to the beginning of the end, Mad Men fans! Come back every Tuesday for a breakdown of the latest episode comprising the first half of this seminal show’s seventh and final season. Want more Mad Men discussion? Be sure to subscribe to the Not Great, Pod! podcast featuring me and Messrs. Corey Atad and Kevin Ketchum. Feel free to give us a rating, like us or follow us, and please shoot us an email with your questions, comments and crackpot theories at [email protected]
That the second episode of Mad Men’s seventh and final season, “A Day’s Work,” ended on a note of hope is a tantalizing prospect. We want these characters to find what they’re looking for, from contentment to atonement. We hope that The Zombies’ “This Will Be Our Year” closing out the excellent episode truly is a sign of things to come — that this will be the year Don and crew will achieve what has been a major theme of the series and be honest with themselves and others about who they are and what they want. “A Day’s Work” found several characters headed in that direction, but perhaps even more surprising is the characters who still seem stuck in place.
Peggy should be cut a little slack for her ridiculous behavior. Her self-centeredness may have gotten the best of her, but she’s hardly the first character to fall so far down the delusional rabbit hole they’ve dug they can barely find their way out again. We left her at a heartbreakingly low point at the end of this season’s premiere, crumpled on the floor in tears. Jumping ahead in 1969 from Jan. 20 to Feb. 14 and with no change in her circumstances, it isn’t surprising her neuroses came out to play. That she assumed the bouquet of roses on her assistant Shirley’s desk was for her certainly demonstrated a disregard for Shirley but it also pointed not so much to her vanity but to her, well, desperation. After all, her finding the roses came immediately after an elevator ride in which Stan teased her for revealing she didn’t have Valentine’s plans and Ginsberg correcting him, crassly: “She has plans — look at her calendar. ‘February 14, masturbate gloomily.’ ” She wanted those roses to be for her — that’s not surprising. Nor is her fooling herself into believing they’d be from Ted. She truly spiraled, however, when she lashed out at Shirley and essentially blamed her for her own embarrassment. Wanting Shirley removed as her assistant was just a move to distance herself from the reminder of her behavior, but it won’t work.
Of course, it would have helped if Shirley had been more forthright in setting Peggy straight no matter how awkward that conversation would have been. But considering Shirley’s environment and what little we know of her personality, her behavior is equally understandable. Her and Dawn slyly greeting each other with the other’s name is a perfect way to encapsulate not only their isolation but a situation we could have guessed was happening at SC&P — the two black women are often mistaken for each other. That’s not the same as finding them interchangeable — that doesn’t seem a fair accusation for most of the employees — but it does represent that many aren’t taking the time to know them, much less be able to tell them apart. Lou and Cooper, however, took things further. Cooper’s line to Joan about not wanting Dawn sitting at reception — “I’m all for the national advancement of colored people, but I do not believe they should advance all the way to the front of this office” — feels era-appropriate yet still disappointing. Likewise, Lou is probably right about Dawn, that as one of two black employees she likely won’t be fired no matter what, but glibly saying such a hurtful thing in front of her as he blamed her for a situation she couldn’t control continues to demonstrate his lack of caring about anyone other than himself. Thankfully, his idiocy led to a moment where Dawn was able to shine and refuse to be quiet, and here’s hoping we see much more of Dawn and Shirley this final season.
Dawn has Cutler to thank as much as Joan for her essentially winning the assistants’ shuffle and landing in Joan’s office and job overseeing personnel. It took Cutler pushing Joan, reminding her of the empty office upstairs that should be hers now that she has her own accounts. He’s right that it is past time Joan starts complaining about her dual roles and steps up to take what she’s earned, and watching her succeed has to be one of the more gratifying experiences of the series. Roger and Pete weren’t as appreciative of Cutler’s pushes to get the Chevy bigwigs involved in Pete’s deal with the Southern California Chevrolet Dealers Association, and Pete certainly isn’t happy at the notion that Benson will be heading from Detroit to L.A. to help wrap up the account. Ted doesn’t share Pete’s sense of persecution, or a sense of anything other than building model airplanes at his desk and encouraging Pete to stay out of the office politics at play during the partners’ humorous and low-tech conference call. He has shut down, moping and retreating in much the same way Peggy is across the country. “Sometimes I think maybe I died, and I’m in some kind of — I don’t know if it’s Heaven or Hell or Limbo, but I don’t seem to exist,” Pete tells him. “No one feels my existence.” “Just cash the checks; you’re gonna die one day,” is Ted’s reply. Bonnie’s advice to Pete is more worthwhile, as is her it-isn’t-the-end-of-the-world outlook on their business. In Bonnie (Jessy Schram), Pete appears to have met his match, and he doesn’t appear threatened by it. “I’m in sales, too,” she says. “Not some housewife complaining about getting oatmeal out of the carpet. An act of God, Pete. That’s how you know when things are really against you. … That’s the thrill. Our fortunes are in other people’s hands, and we have to take them.”
Don in many ways has been kidding himself during his forced leave from SC&P, having Dawn still report to him about accounts and meeting with other agencies to get a sense of the field and his options. But it takes Sally to get him to stop the lies he’s telling not just to others, but to himself. After inadvertently learning he’s no longer at the agency, she lets Don keep up his charade for a bit. A phone call from Dawn fills him in on the fact Sally was at the office (having lost her purse while in the city for the funeral of a schoolmate’s mother), but his attempt to shame her as he drives her back to school is a clear underestimation of her maturity.
Don: “Why would you just let me lie to you like that?”
Sally: “Because it’s more embarrassing for me to catch you in a lie than it is for you to be lying.
Don: “So you just lay and wait, like your mother.”
Sally: “Do you know hard it was for me to go to your apartment? I could run into that woman. I could be in the elevator, she could get in, and I’d have to stand there, smiling, wanting to vomit while I smell her hairspray.
Don: “I’m sorry.”
Sally: “Please stop.”
Don: “I’m not stopping the car.”
Sally: “Stop talking.”
It wasn’t that long ago that Sally caught Don in bed with his neighbor, Sylvia, and it shouldn’t be a surprise to him how scarred she is from that experience. She isn’t confused about it, either, no matter how much Don had hoped she’d be after it happened. Likening Sally to Betty is even more misguided. Sure, she has her mannerisms, with Kiernan Shipka giving an amazing January Jones-like performance complete with deadpan delivery and a delightfully blithe way of smoking a cigarette. But Sally is far more interested in restoring normalcy to her life than scoring points. She doesn’t “lay in wait” — she’d rather avoid the uncomfortableness altogether. More importantly, she’d rather Don just be honest, even in small things such as what to write in an excuse note for her school. “Just tell the truth,” she says. At a diner, Don opens up to Sally, admitting his mistakes during the Hershey’s pitch that November. “I was ashamed,” he says.
Sally’s questions of course make everything seem easier than it is — Does he still love Megan? How exactly does he expect her to “fix” things? If he doesn’t want to move to L.A., why doesn’t he just tell her? Sally may be the wisest of the lot, already seeming to grasp the complexities of human behavior. “I’m so many people,” she tells him as she considers the funeral she attended and her not-entirely-true tale that she only attended so she could go shopping in Greenwich Village. Self-deception won’t make anything easier. Don’s honesty is what is needed to begin to heal their relationship, heal the wounds he has caused and deepened. She sees that he’s many people, too. One of them is her father, who loves her. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” she says as he drops her at her dorm. “I love you.” That’s the kind of love that can turn one’s life around, and the multiple emotions that flash across Don’s face shows he knows that. Perhaps this will be their year after all.
Sarah Carlson is Television Editor for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.