The title of this week’s “Mad Men” is “A Day’s Work” and the day in question is February 14, 1969, Valentine’s Day. The title is a bit ironic because two of the lead characters – Peggy and Don – basically do no work, and the other two – Joan and Pete – are subjected to numerous work-related frustrations and indignities.
The episode opens with Don in bed, alone, being woken up at 7:30 a.m. and then again at 12:34 p.m.. Anyone who’s read a “How to Combat Depression” self-help column knows that sleeping too much is a symptom of depression, and if we needed another reminder, there’s a bathrobed Don, sitting in front of the TV and eating Ritz crackers straight out of the box while watching “The Little Rascals,” a series of Depression-era movie shorts about a group of cute kids (none of whom grew up in a whore-house like our hero, although you have to wonder where Spanky got his name.) I can’t tell you how many hours I spent watching “The Little Rascals” as a child, by the way.
As lousy as his life is, appearances are still important to Don, so he finally cleans up and puts on a suit at 8:00 p.m., just in time for Dawn to arrive with his mail and the office gossip. In addition to providing SC&P news, Dawn is also in charge of keeping Don’s marriage on life support by making sure a Valentine’s Day gift was sent to Megan in California.
So Don’s not doing too good. And neither is Peggy. There’s a certain kind of person who takes Valentine’s Day hard when he or she doesn’t have a relationship on Valentine’s Day and Peggy is one of them. Already sullen when she gets on the office elevator, her mood doesn’t improve when Stan and Michael tease her about her lack of romantic prospects. (Michael tells Stan that he saw Peggy’s calendar entry for Feb. 14 and it says, “masturbate gloomily.” Heh.) She starts to go completely over the edge when she sees roses on her secretary’s desk and, since there was no note, assumes they were sent by Ted Chaough (proving yet again that Peggy, as much as we love her, is as self-absorbed as anyone else on the show.) But no, her secretary Shirley received them from her fiance and is too embarrassed by Peggy’s behavior to tell her so.
From there the mood of the show continues the bad vibe so evident in last week’s episode. Everyone is still miserable. We have a funeral – Sally’s roommate’s mother died and Sally and her other friends at Miss Porter’s School callously discuss how they will use the trip to the service as an excuse to get some shopping done in Greenwich Village. We have outright racism, with kindly Bert Cooper saying he doesn’t want a black receptionist out front because people can see her from the elevator. We have the previously happy Pete losing a battle of office politics when his partners are not so impressed that he brought in the Southern California Chevy Dealers as a client and insist that the account be brought under the auspices of Bob Benson at Chevy HQ in Detroit.
And of course we have the problem with the two bad bosses – Lou and Peggy. Lou graduates from mere douche bag to the personification of evil in this episode when he demands a new secretary so that he won’t have to share a “girl” with the specter of Don Draper. Poor Dawn, who was out buying Lou’s wife a Valentine’s Day gift at lunch, wasn’t around when Sally Draper came by the office and discovered Lou sitting in her father’s chair. (Sally had lost her purse during the shopping spree and when she couldn’t find it went to Don’s office to get train fare back – but presumably her real motivation was to see her father.) Lou is enraged by Dawn’s first reaction to Sally’s visit, which is not to comfort him for the emotional bruising he experienced talking to someone else’s daughter, but to rush to warn Don. He doesn’t even know Dawn’s been feeding Don dirt from the office; all he knows is that he wants his own girl, who will be loyal to him and he insists that Dawn be moved off his desk.
Meanwhile, Peggy’s just as bad. If not worse, because at least Lou was right that Dawn is more loyal to Don than she is to him. Peggy starts acting a bit crazy about the flowers, first calling Ted and leaving a cryptic message that his alleged peace offering won’t work and then refusing to take his return call. But she really flips out when she learns that Ted didn’t send the flowers after all. “You have a ring on,” she snaps. “We all know you’re engaged. You did NOT have to embarrass me.” And in the way the people do when they demand that other people change the very behavior they’re exhibiting, Peggy tells her to “grow up”! So the caucasian, successful, property-owning career gal Peggy Olsen is jealous of her black-but-affianced secretary. Huh. In her embarrassment she demands that Shirley be taken off HER desk. Not very nice for someone who used to be a secretary herself.
But that’s not the low point in the show. Not knowing that Sally had been to the office, he lies to her when he finds her in his apartment, claiming he came home from work early because he was sick. Sally absorbs this blow without flinching but she must be devastated that her father, who’d opened up to her at Thanksgiving, is back to his lying ways. When Don asks what he should write in the note she’ll need to explain her absence, she says “Just tell the truth.” Oh, burn!
Their day of quality time deteriorates further when he’s driving her back to school and she in turn lies about how she came to be in Manhattan and not at the cemetery in Queens. They get into a “you lied/no you lied” fight, with Don accusing her of lying in wait to catch him in a lie, “just like your mother.” That’s a very low blow. Don’t talk to me, she says, and gives him the silent treatment, which every parent knows only too well.
But all of a sudden, things start to get better. Back at the office, Joan, who’s been driven to distraction by the unreasonableness of Peggy, Lou and Bert, is offered a promotion by Jim Cutler. Realizing that she’s managing two jobs (office manager and account executive, thanks to Avon and Butler Shoe), Jim gives her the chance to “move upstairs” with the important people and start managing accounts. And in a hugely satisfying (but dialogue-free scene), we see Dawn moving into Joan’s old office, having gone from secretary to receptionist to personnel director in one day. Joan has some sweet revenge on Lou. She has put his former secretary in a position of power at the firm. Meanwhile, she has finally moved out of the administrative ghetto where she has resided these last 15 years to a position of actual influence and responsibility.
But this blissful moment is nothing compared to Sally and Don. Stopping for dinner on the drive back, Don demonstrates one of his great strengths – his emotional resilience. Rather than petulantly hold a grudge, Don is able to let storm quickly blow over, and he does it here, trying to make up with Sally. Finally he hits upon the right strategy – the truth. In a scene that calls back that great moment in “The Suitcase” episode, when Don finally opened up with Peggy about feeling alone and unloved in the world, he confesses it all to Sally. That he’s been suspended from his job because he “said the wrong things to the wrong people at the wrong time. I told the truth about myself, but it wasn’t the right time.” He admits that he was ashamed to tell her and has a pretty frank discussion about the state of his marriage to Megan. For her part, Sally says she “only went to the funeral so I could go shopping” (and Don, like the good father who believes in his daughter’s inherent goodness, responds “I doubt that,” which is true – she had conceded to her cold-hearted friends earlier that she actually was upset about the death of her roommate’s mother.) Sally also confides that “I’m so many people,” a really smart insight for a teenager, who has to play a part in front of her school friends, another part in front of her teachers, and yet another part for her family. Being more than one person is something that Don can really relate to.
The payoff comes in the last scene, when Don drops Sally at her school. As she gets out of the car she turns and says “Happy Valentine’s Day, I love you.” What a great actor John Hamm is – his face betrays a variety of complex emotions, including (we can only hope) the realization that there is at least one person in the world that loves him even though she knows his faults better than anyone else. This is something he can build on.
And as the Zombies song, “This is Our Year” plays out over the credits, it’s hard to keep those tears in the eyes.
Some other thoughts about this episode:
— There are a lot of dualities on the show. Lou and Peggy both acting unreasonably is obvious, but we also see Dawn and Shirley calling each other by their own names, presumably because the people at work can’t tell the black secretaries apart. Then there are Shirley and Sally both being too embarrassed to tell Peggy and Don the full truth about what they know.
— It’s Valentine’s Day but no one (except probably Shirley) is actually getting gifts from the lovers they think they are. Dawn buys the presents for Lou and Don’s wives. Roger sent flowers to Joan in her son’s name. And of course Ted didn’t actually send flowers to Peggy.
— After a weeks’ absence, the elevator is back. Long-time readers will know I believe there is a PhD thesis to be written about scenes that take place in “Mad Men” elevators. Nothing last week but there are two scenes in this episode. First, when Michael and Stan razz Peggy about Valentine’s Day and second, when Roger and Jim Cutler leave for the day and Jim says he hopes they can be friends and “I’d hate to think of you as an adversary. I’d really hate that.”
— Speaking of Jim Cutler, he seems to be emerging as the dominant figure at SC&P, fulfilling the slow-motion takeover of the firm that he outlined to Ted last season when he concocted the strategy to let the Sterling Cooper partners think they were winning by letting them keep their name on the door, while grabbing all the important clients for themselves. Already he’s got his flunky Bob Benson running the firm’s biggest account; now he’s got Joan’s loyalty. And it looks like he was the force behind the decision to put Don on leave, referring to him as “our collective ex-wife who receives alimony.” Bert Cooper is too doddering to notice what’s happening and Roger is too supercilious to fight back, or even understand that this coup is underway.
— It’s surprising how little it means to be a “partner” at this firm. Joan gets bossed around by non-partners Ken and Peggy. Don is forced out. And Pete is soon to be taking orders from Bob Benson.
— It’s great to see the banter and solidarity between Dawn and Shirley, but Shirley is not quite as knowing as she thinks. “Who the Hell is sending her flowers?” she says dismissively of Peggy. She doesn’t seem to realize that Peggy has cut a pretty wide swath through the office, sleeping with Pete in episode one, having sex with Duck Philips on the day JFK was assassinated, literally driving Ted Chaough to flee to California to escape her charms, getting naked with Stan, and generally attracting the attentions of numerous other beatniks and revolutionaries. In another season she definitely could have received flowers on V-Day.
— Still no sighting of Betty or Harry Crane. And I’m not sure we’ll ever see Bob Benson again, since he’s hanging out with Mork from Ork and Buffy the Vampire Slayer on CBS (see below).
— Ha ha on the botched conference call. Things haven’t progressed that much in 45 years, have they? In any event, it’s always great to see Pete get his comeuppance. He insists on giving his partners the blow-by-blow on how he landed the Chevy dealers, which bores them to tears, especially when it’s delivered over speakerphone. Pete continues to be the guy who’s never satisfied, who always wants more ego-stroking than his partners are willing to deliver. He’s also denied a Valentine’s Day treat of afternoon delight at the Beverly Hilton because his realtor mistress doesn’t want to miss the chance of a commission. Our beautiful Bonnie is quite the philosopher, though. Instead of complaining about life’s randomness she remarks, “That’s the thrill. Our fortunes are in other people’s hands and we have to take them.” Bonnie is probably in deeper than he realizes.
— There are a lot of death references. The funeral that Sally attends. The flowers that smell like an Italian funeral. The “act of God” that ruins Bonnie’s commission. Ted’s advice to Pete to “Just cash the checks. You’re going to die someday.”
— It’s not clear whether Don is not seeking work at another agency because he actually wants to work it out at SC&P, as he tells Sally, or whether he’s prevented from doing so by a non-compete clause in his contract, as he tells his lunch partner. He probably could get out of his contract if he tried, but he probably doesn’t want to cut the cord with the only thing in his life that gives him any satisfaction and identity.
— Don says that he almost went to work twice for the big Madison Ave firm McCann Erickson. I remembered that the guy who dropped by at lunch tried to recruit Don by hiring Betty as a model (bad move) but I had to look up the other reference, which is to when the British owners tried to sell the original Sterling Cooper to McCann Erickson.
— Don’s lunch partner works at Welles Rich Green, the creators of the well-known Alka-Selzter “Pop Pop Fizz Fizz” commercial. Mary Welles, the founding partner, used to work at McCann Erickson, which is why there was such snarky banter between those other two executives. In any event, for all the moaning on the show about how hard it is for women to advance, the truth is that the real-life Mary Welles and others were doing quite well at a time when we see the fictional Peggy Olsen getting dissed. Mary Welles is still alive, btw.
— Some interesting anti-rural snottiness by our characters. Bonnie the real estate agent scornfully refers to her clients as “Okies,” like they stepped out of a John Steinbeck novel, and Don jokes that his lunch partner looks like he’s from “Hotterville.” This is a reference to the TV shows “Petticoat Junction,” and “Green Acres,” two other TV shows I used to watch, which are set someplace where the hayseeds are not as dumb as they seem. Here’s the Petticoat Junction theme.
— Miss Porter’s School is in Farmington, CT,which is about a two-hour drive from the East side of Manhattan. That should provide plenty of time for a uncomfortable ride for a father and daughter who aren’t really talking. Here are the directions in case you’re interested.
Keep pretending. That’s your job.