Welcome back! It's week two of the new season of Mad Men, and between faulty conference-call equpiment and mistaken flower identity, the halls of SC&P are already getting a wee bit thick with power struggles. As you'll recall, our recaps aren't strictly linear, but rather focus in on key themes, plot points, and character developments. So grab a drink—after marking your bottle on the waterline, of course—and tune in for our thoughts on "A Day's Work."
Well, this is awkward.
The Great Pretenders
"A Day's Work" was a great title for this episode, in which pretending and playacting are just part of the regular routine for our friends in the SC&P universe. First and foremost, there's Don, who spends the better part of a day moping and shuffling around his apartment with the TV as constant companion. He's a portrait of depressive melancholy, marking lines on his booze bottles and blankly staring at the screen in his undershirt and boxers—until, that is, it's past 5pm and he shaves and puts on a suit in preparation for a visit from his office fixer, Dawn. The transformation is remarkable, and overdone—after all, Dawn knows that he's out of a job, and wouldn't have been surprised to see him in a more casual outfit. But Don's not exactly known for doing things halfway. His tour de force performance of Man Who's Not at All Out of Work, No Siree continues when he meets with Dave Wooster, a guy from a rival agency and is confronted with the many (correct) rumors of what happened to him. He gives nothing away, even when another in-the-know adman joins them—his damage control is to do no direct damage control at all.
That is, until he realizes that Sally, his estranged daughter, has his number. In fact, she may have more than that—everything about Sally this episode, from her ennui at the thought of her roommate's funeral to her unruffled response to a lost purse to her poker face at SC&P—suggests that she's inherited her father's ability to quietly figure out all the angles (and decide which can be used to her advantage) before making a move. By now, she's a pro at pretending, and Don's a little bit outraged that she's bested him: "Why would you let me lie to you like that?" Her answer—"Because it's more embarrassing for me to catch you in a lie than it is for you to be lying"—reveals to her father just how wrong he's been to assume that everyone buys what he's selling. The ending of their scene in the diner, when Don briefly gets Sally believing he wants them to skip out on the check, is a canny gesture of opening trust between them as adult confidantes, not simply father and daughter—indeed, of all the women in Don's life, Sally is the one he's been most honest with, and that's not nothing.
Out in the land of professional-style pretenders, we discover that Pete is hardly the chilled-out, sun-kissed L.A. convert Don met last week at Canter's Deli. (Maybe he went straight there from an EST workshop?) No, our faithful Pete—outraged, constipated with pride, and determined to wring respect from his colleagues by any means necessary—is back in force in "A Day's Work," and the stress of his striving is palpable. The partners' meeting, which Pete's calls into, is a hilarious mess of technical difficulties that underscores how alpha-male posturing simply doesn't translate over long-distance conference "contraptions." Bert interrupts Pete's story with a fantastic, "I'm sorry, is this a partners' meeting or the world's most tedious wireless program?" and Jim Cutler short-circuits Pete's plans to land a new Chevy-related client by demanding that all Chevy business be handled via Bob Benson, their man in short shorts Detroit. Even Pete's secondary delusion—that his new gal pal Bonnie will put aside her work to soothe his bruised ego with sex—is shut down, gently but firmly. As ever, it seems that no matter how much Pete pretends to be a big shot, real life is there to remind him otherwise.
Meanwhile, Peggy and Shirley's fortunes are entwined in ways that leave them both pretending and dissatisfied. I'm definitely disappointed in how Peggy handled everything about those doomed long-stem roses, from assuming they were hers to making Shirley deliver her ridiculous jumbled "secret" message to Ted, to her peevish reposnse to the truth that they were, in fact, a gift from Shirley's fiancé. ("We see your ring. We know you're engaged!") In this season's first two episodes, Peggy's sudden change from competent, self-assured boss to petty, butt-of-jokes spinster has been discomfiting, and it's worth wondering how much Don's departure has to do with it. It's not just that his replacement, Lou Avery, is a hack with no appreciation for the process of struggle and lightning-bolt inspiration (although that's a huge part of it—you're the worst, Lou!) it's also that with Don as her mentor, Peggy had the license to reinvent herself just as he'd done, getting both permission and confidence from his masterful elasticity. Without him around, she's snapping back to the uptight, frustrated Peggy of yore, and it's not a good look.
Finally, in that brief office-kitchen scene, we get a much-welcomed glimpse into the pretending that must be all in a day's work for Shirley and Dawn (who playfully swap names when talking, probably in imitation of the white folks who regularly get them confused). And I loved the look of can-this-be-happening disbelief that spread across Dawn's face in her final scene, when she sat at Joan's recently vacated desk and brushed her hands over it. Sure, Bert Cooper's not going to be happy with her new role, but Dawn's retort to Lou Avery proved she's more than wiling to step up to the wrongheaded and trifling bosses and SC&P in the name of what's right. Hopefully Joanie passed along one of those powerful pen necklaces along with her office.
I was feeling for Don in that opening scene until it was revealed that he'd tasked Dawn with sending Valentine's Day flowers to Megan. Really, Don? You couldn't take time out of your busy schedule of drinking and scratching your junk in front of the TV to order a few roses?
Pete and Bonnie are giving me the ewwws right now ("You're such a big deal"; "I want to chew you up and spit you out"), but this episode definitely gave us a sense that Bonnie's just letting Pete think he has something resembling the upper hand, and I'm curious to see where this goes.
Get your butt out of the way and listen to Ted, Pete.
No one feels my existence.
Now, that's the Mad Men we've been missing! "A Day's Work" featured everything we love about watching the SC&P crew. Intrigue! Hilarity! Tension! Office shuffling! Peggy quotables ("I should have bought YOU flowers! Out of respect!")! When our Mad friends weren't smacking the intercom or running perfume errands, they were fixating on their work identity and value. Pete is back to being SC&P's resident whinester, getting off on being told what a big deal he is and pouting when no one does it. Bonnie Whiteside is reiterating to Pete that, unlike his perception of most of the women previously in his life, she's not one of those housewives stuck cleaning oatmeal off the floors. And Shirley and Dawn are subtly commiserating over the fact that no one in the office can tell them apart. But, as is the case with most episodes, it all comes back to Peggy and Don.
Don's fortune has improved slightly from where we last left him, since he's no longer sitting out in the cold, looking like hell. It would almost be hilarious to watch Don try to while his time away, if it wasn't so depressing. Don is still awful and deserves some hard luck, but I can't help but fall into Weiner & Co.'s traps of rooting for him anyway. The man was born to wear a gray flannel suit, after all. Don is lacking in purpose, to put it gently, and is trying to piece together a routine any way he can. SC&P, on the other hand, feels burdened by hanging on to him—Jim Cutler described him as "our collective ex-wife who still receives alimony." Don furthers this work/life blending of terms by justifying his lunch with the competition as his "looking for love" (on Valentine's Day, no less). He is struggling and trying to bring any shred of career productivity back into his home—largely via Dawn, who wins for most roller coaster–like plotline this week—as his apartment otherwise might as well be a dungeon with liquor and television. His value is based on him not falling behind both the going-ons of SC&P and the gossip surrounding his departure.
Contrary to Don, Peggy's flaws are entirely based on her lack of a home life. As much as I liked Stan's rib about the true sender of “her” flowers, is our heroine really now the subject of cat-lady jokes? Folks are acting like we're dealing with Season One Peggy, who still had the promise of awesomeness hidden behind that awful hairdo. Where Don is hustling to find out what’s being said about him, Peggy could stand to know a little less of everyone’s opinions about her. Ands much as I dislike her coworkers poking fun at her singleness, Pegs was not doing herself any favors this week. In a reverse mirroring moment with her mentor, Peggy's let entirely too much of her personal life into her work, fixating on the idea that Ted would send her flowers and trying to think of the perfect comeback (a task that must be nearly impossible for an ad writer). Of course, none of her coworkers can know what's truly going on, so they don't pick up on the fact that it's not that Peggy's romantic life doesn't exist, it just doesn't exist outside of work.
Whereas Don loses out on macho points for being stuck at home all day, Peggy's perceived estrogen is dropping with every second she spends working. It requires little brilliance to say that there's a double standard in play, but last night's episode also reminded us how much Peggy and Don compliment and truly need each other. In Peggy, Don finds a relationship that goes beyond the office walls. And Pegs, in turn, finds a much-needed champion of her work during these dark days of the Lou Avery Era.
Appropriately enough, since she was kicking butt and taking names, Joan was sartorially ON POINT this episode! That red outfit! That leather coat! That white purse! I wanted it all (including the upstairs office).
I must applaud Matthew Weiner on having cast Kiernan Shipka so many years ago, because while Sally grated on me in the early seasons, both the character and the actress are basically national treasures at this point.
Quit teasing us with Bob Benson already! When is he showing up, and what is his deal?
"Our fortunes are in other people's hands"
Pete's new flame Bonnie Whiteside likes to leave things up to chance. Sure, one day you earn commission on a $108K house and the next you're in Altadena with sweat stains on your breasts, but like Bonnie says, "that's the thrill." When she relates this life philosophy to Pete (who was hilarious in this episode—the guy really can do outraged), however, he doesn’t share her lusty enthusiasm. Instead, having his fate determined by the suits in the SC&P New York office makes Pete feel as though he doesn’t exist.
Pete and Bonnie aren’t the only ones whose lives were in others’ hands this week. Just about everyone with a front desk job was jerked around at the whims of their bosses: Dawn had to bring coffee to Don at home, had to get perfume for Lou (who’s still THE WORST), and through a bigoted twist of fate ended up taking over Joan’s office; Shirley got taken off of Peggy’s desk after the highly entertaining flower mixup; and Joan’s moving on up to the top floor. While some of those changes—especially for Joan and Dawn—are steps forward, all were the result of choices made by people in positions of power. When Bert Cooper tells Joan he doesn’t want a black secretary at the front desk, he has no idea his racism will result in Dawn's promotion, but that’s exactly how hierarchies like SC&P work: A white man at the top makes decisions based on his own worldview and then
the women and people of color who work below him suffer—or, in some cases, reap—the consequences. Pete’s frustrated because he wants to be the Bert Cooper in this scenario, whereas Bonnie, Joan, and Dawn know they have to make
the system work for them in subtler ways.
Speaking of working, how psyched are you for Dawn to be the new head of personnel? I absolutely loved her interactions with Shirley this week and hope there are more to come. I’m equally stoked for Joan in her new
accounts role, but someone help me out here: As a partner in the firm, isn’t she higher up than most of the accounts people? She continues to be treated like a secretary and I’m not sure why she doesn’t pull rank
every once in a while. Still, I’m really glad she’s getting a better office and more screen time with Roger. Yes he’s a blowhard, but I still love it when he and Joanie work together.
I know we gave up on Pete Campbell Suicide Watch 2013, but is it time to start it up again for a new year? Not only did Pete say he felt like he’d died and gone to hell this week, Ted also told him to “cash the checks—you’re going to die.” Is Pete the real Sharon Tate here?
Don and Sally just kill me. Their relationship is so fraught, in part because the stakes are so high and in part because they’re so alike. Kiernan Shipka and Jon Hamm knocked it out of the park in this episode.
The darkest episodes of Mad Men are often the funniest. I laughed out loud at several lines in “A Day’s Work,” especially Ginsberg and Stan making fun of Peggy. “February 14: Masturbate gloomily.” Happy Valentine’s Day, Pegs!
That Girl, The Little Rascals/Our Gang, the Knicks' Bill Bradley, The Turtles' classic "Elenore"
Inappropriate Office Behavior award:
Once again, it's a draw between Lou and Peggy. Lou's obviously a hypocrite—he doesn't want any personal business in his office, yet he's happy to send Dawn to do his personal business—and a jerk, but Peggy was pretty out of line with that whole flower business. And it's harder to witness bad behavior with Peggy because we're rooting so hard for her. We get that she's only human, Weiner & Co., but we got that she was human before you turned her into a proto-Cathy single-lady cartoon, so knock it off.