Apr 20, 2014

Mad Men: “A Day’s Work”

By Josh Oakley

At the end of February 14th, 1969, Peggy is working to self-destruct all of her personal and professional relationships. Roger has begun a feud with Jim that he seems to be on the losing side of. Ted and Pete have their issues, across the country from the rest of the business and the story. Yet, somehow, “A Day’s Work” is an episode that offers glimmers of redemption. This is an hour of television that finds some characters climbing to positions in their jobs or their kid’s heart that seemed impossible. But this is also an hour that sees mountains of hostility between people that should be collaborating instead of waging war. Perhaps the reason that this seems like such an optimistic episode of Mad Men, then, is the fact that those that actively trying to be good, in the most base sense of that word, are rewarded. Maybe all anyone in this show has to do is work hard and be kind. Maybe the world isn’t such an inherently cruel place after all.

“An act of god, Pete. That’s how you know when things are really against you,” he’s told, by a woman that he doesn’t treat as an equal. What’s odd about the placement of this line in this episode is the fact that it doesn’t seem to hold true. Pete is still, in many ways, the Pete of season one. He’s become more bitter in some ways and the California sun has warmed him up a tad, but a lot of his childish impulses have yet to fade alongside his hair. Roger is struggling to maintain his stature in the office, which may have to do with his bacchanalia-based lifestyle. Or, as seen in the phone conversation between the SC&P branches, maybe he too is resorting to an immature mindset, unable to cope with not getting his way all of the time. 

Lou Avery is simultaneously correct and completely off base when he whines, “none of this has anything to do with me.” He is a piece of SC&P who has been jammed into a place where he doesn’t fit, a man unaware of how obtuse he is providing a service the company deems necessary but apparently not all that important. He’s wrong, though. As Dawn points out, the only reason that she was out and unable to intercept Sally was because he had failed to get his wife a gift. Dawn was doing her job and still asked to be shuffled around the office like a prop by a man who has no discernible qualities that could be labeled “positive”. To the point of the episode’s moral center, Lou did this to himself. If he had behaved more responsibly, he wouldn’t have had to speak with Sally at all. He put himself in this position, like Roger and Pete, but doesn’t feel the need to shoulder any of the blame.

The most fascinating aspect of the divide between the good people and the bad (to, of course, put it as simplistically as possible, for the moment) is that Don winds up with hope, whereas Peggy finds herself continuing to spiral downwards. Yes, Peggy has had a lot placed upon her, namely a man who said he loved her then disappeared and an incompetent boss. But she has also handled nearly every situation as poorly as possible. There are people who largely take their struggles with their shoulders held high (see: Joan, who has had it far worse than Peggy does now, but rarely shows any signs of weakness). Peggy, however, yells at her secretary who has done little wrong. She seems to feel a pang of guilt, but then follows this scene up by trying to get Shirley moved around the office, nearly mirroring the actions undertaken by Lou. Peggy and Lou are significantly different people, but here they both scapegoat, adding an uncomfortable layer to their relationships in the office. And last week Peggy botched her assignment, only giving Lou one good slogan. Even that slogan was a botched rephrasing of a much better one provided by Freddy/Don. Perhaps the most important thing Peggy says here is also the last: “all I know is that today was a work day and I didn’t get anything done”. She is tying this fact to the deceit of Shirley, but her secretary never stopped her from working. Life may have placed Peggy in a bad situation, but at this point she’s only exacerbating her own problems. Worse yet, she seems unable to realize who is truly at fault.

Then there are the characters working towards a better future, and achieving steps both large and small. Joan is officially a significant part of the accounts team, even getting an office upstairs. To some degree, this may be Jim Cutler attempting to slap Roger as hard as possible. But she’s also earned the position, even if that’s not the explicit reason she’s receiving it. In this episode alone Joan grapples with the complaints of small-minded people who are more concerned with their pride than the quality of the lives around them. She complies, but begrudgingly, making it clear how infuriating behavior like Bert Cooper’s calm racism is.

While Joan is certainly moving upwards, Dawn may be the one who jumps the furthest in “A Day’s Work”. For a lot of her time on the show, she’s been more of a background player, but this episode proves how vital she is (to Don, and to Lou even if he fails to realize it). And just as importantly, how good of a person she seems to be. Herein lies the reason for the conversation between Shirley and Dawn, beyond great entertainment. Even, in her most candid setting, Dawn shows respect to people that quite possibly don’t deserve it. She brings Don coffee and sweetener when she sees that he’s out, for no reason beyond thinking he’d need it. What character on this show has ever been this kind? Thankfully, her actions get her Joan’s old job, which seems much more significant going forward than it does in the short scene where she takes the office (though her face when the phone rings may be the episode highlight). Whether it remains a story going forward or not, Dawn has proven that both being good at work and being good as a person can pay dividends.

It seems that trying to strengthen relationships can actually work, even for someone like Don. Sally walking through the nearly empty office of SC&P is a haunting image, shot by director Michael Uppendahl like a Kubrickian film. It seems that this story will yet again emphasize the divide between Don and his daughter. When the two meet up at his apartment, that worry grows when Sally speaks volume with the seemingly innocuous “just tell the truth”. This father-daughter bond has been deeply scarred by Don’s affair last season, and it was unclear last week if his burst of honesty about his upbringing made a difference to her. It seems, at first, that it did not do all that much. They’re speaking, and Sally trusts him enough to ask him for money and communicate in full sentences around him, but she also justifiably yells at his being a hypocrite in the car. Then, something clicks. It’s likely a combination of Sally’s phone call to her roommate, Don’s honesty about his job, and his dine-and-ditch proposal that cause the last line of the episode. It’s Don, in ways both large and small attempting to show her more respect. He seems to have stopped treating his daughter’s love as a privilege and recognized it as a right.

Roger, Pete, Lou and Peggy end “A Day’s Work” in varying degrees of outrage. Joan, Dawn and Don end a day’s work with their lot in life at least a little better at night than it was only twelve or so hours ago. And it’s the difference between “A Day’s Work” and a day’s work that shows exactly why this is. When Sally tells Don that she loves him, tears instantly came to my eyes. It wasn’t just because their relationship is on its way to full repair. It was also because for the first time in ages, Don earned something. He modified his behavior and was rewarded with that sublime moment that never could have happened without his effort. Many complain that Mad Men is a show about stagnation, and it is to a large degree. But “A Day’s Work” proves that sometimes trying to get somewhere can actually get you there. Don may still not be working, but no return date from SC&P could ever sound as beautiful as those three words coming from one of the few people he ever truly cared about hearing them from.

Grade: A

  • I do get concerned when great things happen to characters this early in seasons, and I’m sure plenty of heartbreak is ahead, but I hope the music cue of “This Will Be Our Year” by The Zombies isn’t ultimately ironic. 1969 is far from all good, but there is that bit of lunar science fiction coming true in just a handful of months.
  • Funniest moment of the week: Peggy drying to devise a code for Ted and the flowers on the phone with his secretary.
  • Speaking of Peggy, even though the character is headed in a worrisome direction, Elisabeth Moss’ performance remains one of the best on the show. Her grimace after telling off Shirley was both hilarious and poignant.
  • And speaking of poignant looks: I’m assuming Jon Hamm’s Emmy reel will just be the last 30 seconds of this episode. His face when the camera cuts from “I love you” to him is an entire character captured in a moment.
  • The conference call between New York and California messing up was both hilarious and a great illustration of just how divided the branches on the two coasts are at the moment.

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