TV & Film

'Mad Men' Review: All In 'A Day's Work' For Don

Do not read on unless you have seen "A Day's Work," Sunday's Season 7 episode of "Mad Men."

Some wounds are so deep that they never go away, and you have to re-learn to how to accept them and maneuver around them again and again.

The look on Don's face in the last scene was the highlight of "A Day's Work," which otherwise had some issues that I'll get to in a minute. That short phrase that Sally uttered as she exited the car -- "I love you" -- transformed Don completely. All his defenses and masks were gone; he was just struck dumb. Floored.

Don Draper (and/or Dick Whitman) continually waits for the other shoe to drop. He's always waiting for people to find out who and what he really is and then drop him, dismiss him, hate him. We've seen the cycle again and again: People find out his real identity, or facts from his past, and he waits for that relationship to crumble. Personally and professionally, he puts up a confident front because he's so very sure no one would ever love him or need him for who he really is. (That pretending will probably never end for him -- witness how he dressed up for Dawn in order to lie to her about how he spends his days.)

So for Sally, of all people, to say casually she loves him -- well, that was the last thing he expected. Few people have more reason to hate him, after all the crap Don's pulled over the years. Sally finding him with his married mistress was just the last straw. The Don-Sally story line -- the only "date" on this rather grim Valentine's Day -- wasn't about the affirmation of a father-daughter bond, it was about Don paying his respects to his dead relationship with his daughter. He thought the one bond that meant the most to him was unfixable. He was wrong.

And please understand, I don't think Don assumes people will reject him because he was the dirt-poor son of a prostitute, or a guy who stole another man's identity during a war. Don waits for people to reject him because he feels he is innately disgusting, contemptible, unlovable. He feels that something is sick and wrong in his soul, and he simply waits for others to discover that part of him and then kick him to the curb. Sometimes he speeds the destruction along, because waiting for the inevitable rejection can be torturous.

When confronted with Sally's willingness to let him back into her life and her love for him, he has to process the idea that maybe he's not an intrinsically disgusting, unlovable human being. The seven-season arc of "Mad Men" may well be the story of Don's journey from thinking he's fundamentally incapable of and unworthy of love to his realization that he's just another screwup, just another flawed mortal like the rest of us, just an average schmuck who makes mistakes and tries to fix them. He's not necessarily exceptional in the height of his attainments or the depth of his mistakes. He's just a guy who has at least one person in his life who loves him despite -- and quite possibly because of -- who he is.

The look on Don's face is the realization that he may be worthy of Sally's love. But Don has to keep re-learning that it's possible for him to be loved despite his lies, despite his past, despite his self-hatred. I don't expect this to be the last time he lies, or drives his life into a ditch. But maybe he's getting incrementally better at digging himself out of various holes.

Of course, however she feels about her dad, Sally is on to his bullsh*t like a laser beam. She knows he's lying to himself and to Megan about the state of their marriage. She knows the bicoastal thing will never work. She doesn't quite see how he can fix the work situation. (Sidebar: Given that Don has a non-compete clause in his contract, how can that situation be repaired? If the firm doesn't bring Don back, what can he do? Some have suggested he and Peggy start their own firm, but I don't know if that would work, given the non-compete. Still, as Pete noted, breaking away to create an upstart is a favored strategy among Don's peers.)

Bravado-filled lunches and afternoons in front of the TV aside, Don isn't quite sure how to fix his life or move forward. And it's a sign of progress that he doesn't try to spin Sally or make things sound better than they are. The show might move at a glacial pace in some ways -- it's not unusual to see Don and other characters go around in circles over the course of multiple seasons -- but it's a sign of progress that Don told Sally that his actions and deceptions made him feel "ashamed." The Don of Season 1 never would have admitted that to anyone, perhaps not even himself.

If Don's progressed a bit, Peggy appears to have regressed, and not in ways that make a whole lot of sense to me. A lot of the contrived story line about the roses just did not work for me, and to depict Peggy as nearly unhinged over the floral misunderstanding left a bad taste in my mouth. Not great, Bob.

First of all, I know in the "Mad Men" timeline that Peggy's affair with Ted ended about three months ago, but for viewers, all of that occurred nearly a year ago. However deep the bond between them was during their relatively brief affair, to viewers, that relationship is kind of old news, and it's just poor calibration on the part of the show to depict Peggy as still being this upset at this juncture. Yes, he promised to leave his wife for her, and yes, she was deeply hurt, but to seem plausible, this kind of behavior needed more setup.

Peggy is someone who generally handles the tough things that are thrown at her in a considered way, and for her to flip out on Shirley in front of a big portion of the office just didn't feel right. Her faintly hysterical messages for Ted, her quivering sulks, her rage at Dawn even after she found out the truth -- they were all just too much. None of it quite tracked with the Peggy I've known for six seasons, and though I can think of logical reasons that Shirley would avoid confronting Peggy with the truth, it was a little annoying that she never just told her where the flowers came from. It was one of those aggravating situations that would not have existed had one character uttered one sentence to another (what is this, "Lost"?).

Then there's the whiff of something unpleasant around the fact that the more successful Peggy is, the more "Mad Men" appears determined to depict her personal life as a disaster. It's almost as if the show feels it has to show her as successful but lovelorn, but that's something of a cliche. For the longest time on TV, the most high-powered professional women were depicted as unhappy in love or incapable of sustaining relationships, because, Lord knows, it's not possible for a woman to be successful in both arenas. Yeesh.

Yes, professional women in the '60s faced many different kinds of roadblocks, but Peggy is a dynamic, thoughtful, attractive and intelligent woman. I find it hard to believe her entire social life would be sad, disappointing or constricted, but it always is on this show. The circles in which Peggy's love life is going are starting to feel quite stale.

That said, it's understandable that Dawn and Shirley would tread lightly around their bosses. There's no doubt that they are under extra scrutiny and extra pressure due to their race ("Keep pretending. That's your job."). Bert Cooper is at least partially upfront in his racism, but it percolates through almost every other interaction, as well. It was certainly part of the reason the detestable Lou demanded a new secretary. No wonder Joan, dressed in appropriate fire-engine red, exploded at Peggy and Jim Cutler: having to put up with all the staffing whims of the senior staff, as well as their prejudices and immaturity, is just too much for one person. As Cutler pointed out, it's more than time that the firm split her job into two positions.

Jim is one of the few people who seems to be acting fairly reasonably a good amount of the time, but at SC&P these days, ill will, sniping and pettiness are the order of the day. Truth be told, I found this episode a bit of chore at times, given that it could have been titled, "Sour People Being Mean to Each Other." Secrets were rustled up, bonds were broken, and certain pairings didn't quite match up; it was very "Mad Men"-esque, but much of it felt almost too familiar. Perhaps, like Pete, we were meant to feel a bit out of sorts and disjointed. In so many instances people were talking past each other or not quite connecting.

Roger tried to banter with Lou, but it didn't work because Lou's not a bantering guy. Pete tried to commiserate with Ted, but Ted wasn't having it. The Los Angeles and New York offices tried to hash things out on the phone, but the connection kept failing and everyone ended up irritable and sore. Lou may have embodied that dislocated feeling with his cry of "It's not my problem!" That is the whole problem, in a sense: The firm isn't pulling together as a team, and the enterprise is starting to feel unsustainable.

Yet for all the obstacles in their path, Don connected with his daughter, so perhaps hope still lingers in this swirling morass of neurosis.

A few bullet points:

  • This week in Lou is the Absolute Worst: "I know you can't fire her." I love that Dawn dropped so many truth bombs in Lou's direction after he was so awful to her -- and how terrific is it that she she still works at the firm? She even got a promotion. That said, I do not think Shirley is going to have much time for Lou's patronizing nonsense.

  • Sally smoking and talking smack about Betty is the scene we didn't know we truly needed, right?
  • I'm not quite sure why Roger caved to Jim Cutler regarding the situation with Pete and the car dealers' association. Given that Roger's fairly checked out of the office these days and is pursuing various extracurricular naked activities most of the time, perhaps he can't really mount an adequate campaign for power.
  • One of the episode's few funny moments was Ted calling out, "Goodnight, Bonnie!" during Pete and Bonnie's late-night office tryst.
  • By inviting his daughter to do a dine-and-dash with him, Don was asking Sally to be literally his partner in crime. He was joking about skipping out on the check, but no doubt Sally has picked up on many of Don's quietly devious ways.
  • Don's joke about the check worked better than comparing his daughter to Betty, which was certainly not the way to go. Good for Sally that she gave as good as she got, registering a direct hit with her poignant comment about Sylvia.
  • "Hard to believe your cat has the money." Oh snap. Bearded Stan for all the win.
  • I cannot get over my love for Sally's embroidered coat.
  • "It looks like you have a lot of work to do." Nice zinger, Sally.
  • Another funny moment: Roger repeatedly apologizing to the secretary for his risque comments in the partners' meeting. He's evolved enough to know that his comments aren't acceptable, but he'll never really change.
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