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'Mad Men' Deconstruction: Ep. 2, 'A Day's Work'

Don, Sally, deceit and the difficulty of trading a love life for a career.

Peggy Mad Men Main Image - H 2014
AMC
Peggy takes a step back on "Mad Men."

The consequences of deceit have always been a hallmark of Mad Men episodes, but “A Day’s Work” decided to carry the water on that theme quite impressively Sunday night. Hanging over the conclusion of season six was the aspect of Sally catching Don sleeping with Sylvia. Don showing Sally who he really was and where he came from was essential – the look they shared in that finale said a lot. But some things need to come out verbally, and they did in this episode.

The Don-Sally connection was really the through line in an episode that highlighted the selfishness of people in power and how truth is transactional. But if we’re to believe that the one woman in his life Don loves and respects the most – Sally – is influential to his decision (in season six) to be a better man, it had to play out further. And it did in “A Day’s Work” when Sally found out that Don doesn’t work at SC&P anymore and Don, in turn, was able to show her that deception comes in many forms (like going to a funeral not because you want to mourn a roommate’s mother but because you want to go to the city and shop).

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After slyly mocking her father about not feeling well and how he must have so much work to do, Sally responds to Don’s question about what to write on the note to Sally’s school with what amounts almost to a plea: “Just tell the truth.”

I loved how Sally’s face was outraged at Don for the most part and how, after Don compared her to Betty (yikes!) by saying, “So, you just laid in wait, like your mother,” she was able to bring up the Sylvia incident in a way that highlighted how much it hurt her, not just to slice her father up: It was hard to go to Don’s apartment, Sally said, because she could have run into “that woman” in the elevator. “I could stand there wanting to vomit while I smell her hairspray.”

And let’s not forget that this episode once again let it be known that Sally is more like Don than Betty and prefers him as a parent. When girls at Sally’s school are jealous that her roommate gets to miss class because the roommate will be mourning her mother, Sally says, “I’d stay here until 1975 if I could get Betty in the ground.”

That, by the way, is a fantastic line.

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In the early going of season seven, we can at least say that Don is continuing his attempts to be a better man, which were started in the last episodes of season six. I think that Neve Campbell (!) will certainly be back, but right now Don is not distracted by the usual catnip. He is, however, still pretending to be something he’s not – a grand motif of the series, obviously – this time by pretending to be employed. Now he’s actively looking for work, which is interesting, especially since Mad Men creator and writer Matt Weiner is smart enough to know that in the world of ad agencies, the truth behind Don’s departure will certainly get out.

If Weiner and his writers are trying to scare us into thinking Don won’t be able to get back into the business (I’m not saying that’s what they’re trying), it’s not working. We know from the Freddie Rumsen pitches that Don is on his game and we know that Lou, over at SC&P, is a selfish jerk who is just mailing it in. Maybe Don never returns to the firm, but Lou has in no way replaced him.

I do like how Mad Men is accurately depicting how the day slips away from a person with no reason to be anywhere – whether it’s Don setting his alarm for 7:30 a.m. and then sleeping past noon, or Don watching all kinds of pointless and boring television. His bringing former secretary Dawn into his scam is nice, as is her ability to keep some level of understanding where the line is that shouldn’t be crossed.

This episode gave us a glimpse at how two powerful people – Lou and Peggy – abuse their underlings out of selfishness. Dawn tells Shirley not to tell Peggy the truth about the confusion with the roses (from her fiance, not Ted) and how sometimes it’s better to be discreet. Dawn being discreet leads, ultimately, to a promotion (taking over for Joan, which was another welcome and well-crafted solution to Joan not being taken seriously as either a partner or a contributor). Shirley, for her part, gets dumped for telling Peggy the truth about the roses and ends up working for Lou, which we know will be bad.

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(And yes, Dawn and Shirley were calling each other by the opposite names to illustrate how the white workers at SC&P can’t tell them apart. That was Weiner’s way of getting at the racism of the times – hitting it harder with Bert Cooper telling Joan that she can’t put Dawn at the front reception desk because people can see her from the elevator – one of the few overt bits of racism from Cooper.)

The series also keeps toying with sexism, which it handles with a more deft touch than the racism. You’ve got Jim Cutler elevating Joan to the upper floor, which is long overdue. And out in California, real estate agent Bonnie, who is not afraid to stroke Pete’s ego (“You’re such a big deal”), bristles when Pete – shocker – whines about his fate at SC&P and landing the Southern California Chevy dealers. Not only does Bonnie remind Pete that life can be unfair and you have to take what you want, she doesn’t allow him to upset her work life (pulling up her "for sale" sign in hopes of cutting the day short) in search of a quick bit of hotel sex. “I will chew you up and spit you out,” Pete says to her with his best sexy voice. And she replies, coldly: “Put the sign back.” That scene, which completely emasculates Pete, is reminiscent of when Trudy made him take the gun back to the store.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a good episode if we got too much empowerment without a little real-life regression. Because that, too, is the untidy nature of people. And so Peggy, this series’ poster girl for female empowerment, has her job vs. boyfriend moment come up yet again, and this time she’s all too human. Thinking the flowers are from Ted (and yes, he is in California moping, clearly unhappy about the rash decision he made in regard to Peggy and leaving his wife), she’s at first flattered to get them (even though they’re Shirley’s) and her delight leads Stan to say, “Look at you – every inch a girl.” (A wonderfully timed moment and line.)

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Peggy has spent six seasons not being the “typical” girl of the times, but it would be a false representation of someone like her not to indicate how being lonely and desiring to be wanted are important elements in any person. Peggy lashes out at Shirley for telling her the truth: “You have a ring on! We all know you’re engaged. You did not need to embarrass me. Grow up!”

But it’s Peggy who needs to grow up. And yet we get the second scene in two episodes where she’s viscerally gutted behind closed doors – her loneliness eating at her, stealing a bit of what her success has given her.

There were plenty of other great and/or telling moments in this episode, including another possible Sharon Tate hint if you’re keeping track at home: As Don watches his morning television, there’s a line that comes from it saying, “That’s not the worst thing that can happen to an actor.”

Yes, starting to believe this theme …

This episode employed two more songs, both with more clues/hints about meaning (as I said last week, the use of music is often a way for writers to be more literal than they might otherwise want to be with characters). So the first, “Elenore” by the Turtles, plays in the car while Don is hoping to get Sally to say what she's really thinking. The lyrics you’re probably looking for are here: “Elenore can I take the time / To ask you to speak your mind / Tell me that you love me better.” And of course, by the episode’s end, Sally has done just that.

The second song, which comes after Sally tells Don she loves him, is “This Will Be Our Year” from The Zombies, complete with the scene framing these lines: “And I won't forget 
the way you held me up when I was down / And I won't forget the way you said, 
"Darling I love you" / You gave me faith to go on / Now we're there and we've only just begun / This will be our year / Took a long time to come.”

If you’re hoping for another Don Draper spiral into the bottle, I wouldn’t bet on it (besides, he’s marking how much he drinks!).

Ultimately, what made this episode work was the closure Don and Sally had on his character – how revealing the dark side to her (by accident) last season woke him to be a better person. Took a long time to come, indeed. She wants to know why he’s no longer at SC&P and Don, exhaling, tells the truth (which, as we know, is all she wants from him). “I didn’t behave well. I said the wrong things to the wrong people at the wrong time.”

Sally asks what he said. Don: “I told the truth about myself.”

That’s the line we needed, the scene we needed (and it should be noted that the entire diner scene with the two of them was wonderfully observed – especially because a decision was made to slow time down, to let both characters think for a bit before responding; the dead air standing as an exclamation point about not only how hard this was for them but how cathartic as well).

This was a moment when, truth being transactional, Don had to be transparent to Sally. She caught him in a lie – being out of work – and he had to tell her the truth about why he was lying. It's all she wanted. And it's what she needed to restore shaky faith in her father. 

I like how Sally reacted after Don tried to explain separately why, being out of work, he doesn’t just go live with Megan. He says, without conviction, that he needs to fix things here with his work. But Sally knows that's not entirely true. She knows he's not happy. And, best yet, she knows what he should do about it. After a pause, Sally says, “Why don’t you just tell her that you don’t want to move to California?” Telling the truth would be easier. It would free Don in some way. But also the truth is that Don wants to stay in New York. He's not going to run from his kids, from Sally. It’s in those moments at the diner, when Don is being honest to her, that Sally gets the one thing that she really needs and wants to know – that her father loves her more than anything or anyone else. It’s why she says, to close the episode, the one thing that Don needed to hear from her: “Happy Valentine’s Day, Dad. I love you.”

Just tell the truth, indeed.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine