Mad Men: Season 7, Episode 2–A Day’s Work

“Sometimes I think maybe I died, and I’m in, I don’t know if it’s Heaven or Hell or Limbo, but I don’t seem to exist. No one feels my existence.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

This week, Mad Men took one of its occasional turns towards ironic humour, in an episode full of people telling each other transparently unconvincing lies which crumbled to the touch. Jonathan Igla and Matthew Weiner’s script was so full of comical misunderstandings that, had it been made in Britain in the 70s, it would have made a pretty good Whitehall farce. But this is Mad Men, and the humour on display was black in tone and undercut by the show’s usual bleak nihilism.

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That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of times that the dialogue made me laugh. The script established fairly early on that it was Valentine’s Day (so, February 14 1969), and Peggy was seemingly turning into a frustrated spinster. Her misery wasn’t helped any by the inimitable style of Michael Ginsberg confiding to Stan, “of course she has plans for Valentine’s Day, look at her calendar: ‘masturbate gloomily’.”

Ginsberg, of course, was probably talking as much about himself. But it didn’t put Peggy in any better mood. In fact, she spent most of this episode fuming, for one reason or another; and most of the reasons were due to the ‘comical’ misunderstandings that ran through every plotline we saw. It started with her thawing a little at the sight of flowers on secretary Shirley’s desk; but it was clear to the viewer from Shirley’s awkward expression that the flowers were not for Peggy at all, but were Shirley’s own. Awkward! It was humorous all right, but the sort of humour that makes you wince.

And it only got worse, as Peggy, still furious with Ted, compounded her initial mistake by assuming that he had sent the flowers, since Shirley had already removed the card from her fiancé. Thus began a game of telephone tag with the mystified Ted in California, as Peggy angrily told him the “client” (ie her) was no longer interested, which of course Ted took literally.

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I get that Peggy is frustrated by her life at the moment, and this episode clearly spelled it out. But never has she been quite so unsympathetic, and I wasn’t sure it was quite in character for her to so viciously take it out on those around her. It was Shirley who bore the brunt of it, particularly when Peggy (inevitably) found out her initial assumption about the flowers was wrong and proceeded to angrily take out her singleton frustrations on her secretary, all too conscious that Shirley had a fiancé to actually send flowers. Elisabeth Moss played it well, and Peggy’s increasing frustration is believable; but not her lack of empathy to those around her. I’d buy it from Roger, Ginsberg, or even Stan, but Peggy’s been on the receiving end too often to be so thoughtless.

All too frequently, it was Don Draper responsible for that, but perhaps karma is paying him back, as this week we got a glimpse into his empty, empty life. As a partner, he’s still being paid despite not actually working at SC&P; as Jim Cutler contemptuously described him, “Don who? Oh, our collective ex-wife to whom we’re still paying alimony.”

Don now seems to spend all day sitting around his formerly swanky Manhattan apartment with the lights off, munching Ritz crackers:

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Watching The Little Rascals on TV:

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Staring mournfully at bottles of scotch:

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All while cockroaches scurry around his once-immaculate floor.

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The set was deliberately lit and decorated to look as miserable as possible during these scenes by frequent director Michael Uppendahl. No wonder Don ended last week’s ep moping on the freezing balcony; his empty home seems no more inviting than a New York winter.

He’s still trying to claw his way back in to advertising though, taking lunch with old contacts, and using the uncomfortable Dawn to spy on current events in the SC&P offices. Dawn appeared a little too good-hearted to be true, her loyalty to her former boss so strong that she refused payment for what must be some kind of breach of commercial confidentiality. Then again, maybe she just hates Don’s unpleasant replacement Lou Avery.

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And she’d have every reason to, as Lou played a part in the tangled web being weaved, coincidentally, not just by Don but by his daughter too. The increasingly screwed up Sally popped up for the first time this year, smoking and bitching about her mother while on the way to a classmate’s mother’s funeral: “I’d stay here till 1975 if I could find a way to put Betty in the ground.”

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Heading into NYC for some clandestine shopping, Sally ended up losing her purse, turning up in desperation at the SC&P office, looking for her dad – who obviously hasn’t told her he no longer works there. They eventually met at Don’s apartment, Don lying about his work, Sally lying about why she was in the city. Their little narrative ended up being surprisingly touching though, as each was almost instantly caught out. Dawn phoned to let Don know Sally had been in, and Don didn’t believe Sally’s tale for a minute.

But their trip back to the boarding school gave some quality father-daughter time, and the chance to iron out some of the enmity between them. So, Sally dealt head on with her father’s infidelities, while Don confessed that he was no longer welcome in the office because he “told the truth. But it wasn’t the right time”. The scene at the diner was beautifully scripted and played by Jon Hamm and Kiernan Shipka; I know a lot of viewers find Sally intensely dislikeable, and I can see why, but this underlined that she is, at heart, her father’s daughter. Especially when she started asking some very perceptive questions to which Don didn’t readily have an answer – “why don’t you just tell Megan you don’t want to move to California?”

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Their plot thread managed to be both comic and insightful, but the depiction of the business’s new ‘bi-coastal’ operations had rather less depth, with a broadly comic scene centring on the misadventures relating to primitive teleconferencing facilities. Pete had secured a deal to advertise the Southern California Chevy dealerships, so he and Ted were at one end of a speakerphone in LA, while Roger, Joan, Bert and Jim were at the other end in NYC. And hilarity ensued when the NY speaker cut out halfway through an argument, which carried on with the Eastern partners unaware that Ted and Pete could hear every word.

Poor old Pete (as ever). As I predicted last week, his happiness hasn’t lasted long, as he’s starting to realise that the California operation is still just a backwater. Seething on the phone to Roger, he revealed that he’d heard how he’d been cut out of the deal he’d brokered – to which Roger, never Pete’s biggest fan, hung up on him. In a genuinely funny moment, Pete didn’t even notice, and carried on ranting until the secretary pointed out that Roger had gone.

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“Just cash the checks,” commented the more sanguine Ted, but that’s not enough for Pete. He still wants to be, and beat, Don Draper; just look at the way he fawned over/showed off to the object of his love/hate idolatry last week. It hadn’t crossed my mind last week, but it occurred to me this week that his new girlfriend Bonnie bears a more than passing resemblance to Betty Draper – surely not a coincidence.

This was all rather light and frothy stuff, but in amongst it was a rather more serious plot thread, dealing more directly than usual with the firm’s relationships with its African-American employees. Of which there are now (count ‘em!) two, Shirley having come over with Peggy from CG&C to join Dawn.

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Initially, it seemed that neither was faring well this week, regardless of the fact that both seem extremely capable at their jobs. Dawn in particular was going the extra mile, not only functioning as secretary/PA/dogsbody to the odious Lou Avery, but also running intelligence operations for Don. Don’s gratitude (and his insisted-upon payment) came across, as ever, well-meaning but patronising; but he was practically JFK next to Lou, who took such umbrage at having had to deal with Sally Draper’s intrusion personally that he had Dawn removed as his secretary. Regardless of the fact that she’d been running errands for him at the time.

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Joan, who plainly does respect Dawn’s abilities, got her own back on Lou by assigning ditzy receptionist Meredith to him; she’ll clearly be utterly hopeless. But that meant Dawn had to take Meredith’s place at reception, whereupon Bert Cooper revealed once again that, however genial he may appear, he’s very much an unreconstructed racist. “I’m all for the national advancement of coloured people,” he commented, genially. “But I do not believe they should advance all the way to the front of this office.”

Joan had to deal with more such nonsense as Peggy, taking her spite out on her underling, similarly asked for Shirley to be ‘reshuffled’ rather than deal with the embarrassment of her mistake with the flowers. The point was subtly made here that while Dawn and Shirley are treated badly, Joan’s barely treated better herself. She’s a full partner, but has to deal with the copy chief yelling at her and the peremptory demands of Don’s temporary replacement that she also continues to run the office secretarial pool – despite the fact that she recently landed the prestigious Avon account.

No wonder she leapt at Jim Cutler’s offer of an ‘account man’ office on the upper floor, with the chance to appoint another Head of Personnel while she got on with real business. And marvellously, it was Dawn she appointed. Mind you, she’d previously been shown to be at a loss for what to do with Dawn, with Lou unwilling to work with her and Bert unprepared to have her front of house. I’d like to think she gave Dawn the position out of respect for her abilities, but if you’re cynical, you might wonder whether it was simply the most convenient option. Whichever, Dawn certainly has a challenge ahead, and hopefully we’ll see some of that in forthcoming episodes. It wouldn’t have been easy for a non-white, recent arrival to the office to deal with subordinates she’d been promoted over.

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It could be said that Dawn, and to a lesser extent Shirley, as the show’s only regular African-Americans, are being painted as just a bit too pure and perfect, lacking the flaws that characterise so many of the other characters. But then, it’s tricky when you’re trying to show the Civil Rights struggle so tangentially; if you’re going to make the point that everyone, regardless of skin colour (or gender) deserves an equal chance in business, then the ones you show have to be demonstrably good at it. And let’s face it, with the odds so strongly against them, women like Dawn and Shirley would have to have been good to get, and stay, where they are.

I wonder about Jim Cutler’s motives though. Ever since the merger, he’s been painted very much as Cutler Gleason & Chaough’s equivalent of Roger Sterling; but he’s more like the previous, sharklike Roger, before Mr Sterling’s recent counterculture enlightenments. He rode roughshod over Roger in the conference call scene, and now he seems to be doling out favours to Joan, Roger’s old flame (and of course mother of his son, not that Jim could really know that).

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Harry Hamlin certainly looks the part as Jim; he could almost have stepped out of the late 60s, with his Brylcreemed hair, thick-framed glasses, and occasional pipe-smoking. But he’s sharper than Roger is now, and seems to be setting himself up in almost-open opposition to him. In a revealing scene as the two took the elevator together, Jim turned to Roger and commented, “I’d hate it to think of you as an… adversary. I’d really hate that”. The implication being that, far from hating it, he’s looking forward to it. Roger said nothing. But I have a feeling that Jim Cutler may be underestimating him here…

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Where’s Bob Benson?

Still no visible appearance of SC&P’s shady mystery man this week, but he’s plainly pulling a lot of strings at the firm with his control of the Chevy account. Pete practically bit the roof at the mention of Bob’s name, so plainly he’s still holding a grudge after their traumatic relationship last season. Not to mention that he probably still thinks Bob was complicit in the murder of his mother. And now Bob will be taking charge of the SoCal Chevy deal Pete himself brokered. No wonder Pete’s so upset, Bob’s so much better at being Don Draper MkII than he is.

Historical Events

Actually none this week, at least none that I spotted. Which makes sense; having looked it up, I gather that February 1969 was pretty quiet from a historical perspective. Still, we’ve got the Stonewall Riots and the Moon landing to look forward to later in the year.

Classic Wheels

Only one this week, and we’ve seen it before – Don’s silver Cadillac Coupe de Ville. Only one exterior shot, but some nice glimpses into that oh-so-tasteful red interior while Don chatted with Sally.

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Dedicated Followers of Fashion

With so much focus on the office this week, the men were mostly in regulation suits (though stylish as ever). It was mostly left to the women to fly the flag for 60s fashions. Peggy was clad sensibly but smartly, with a nice new cravat to replace last week’s British Airways-style one:

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In the secretarial pool, that was an interestingly little nothing Shirley was almost wearing:

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Skirts are clearly getting shorter. In LA, Pete’s new squeeze Bonnie was rocking an impressive white and yellow dress that managed to look glamorous, professional and scandalous all at once. No wonder Pete wanted to “chew you up and spit you out”.

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As for the men, Roger got mistaken for a “kike” by a less than friendly New Yorker – as he commented, “maybe it’s the hat”. And at that point, I realised that only he, Jim and Don actually wear them any more, which is a shame. Nice coat too, Roger:

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As ever with Mad Men, there was plenty of substance here; but by this show’s standards, this felt like a fairly lightweight episode, its focus on farcical misunderstandings more broadly comic than usual. That mostly worked, but Peggy’s cavalier barbarity to her secretary (and Joan, for that matter) never quite rang true for me. Yes, she’s increasingly embittered – but she started out as a secretary, and she knows how hard it is. She never struck me as this unfeeling before.

Still, the ep was co-scripted by Matthew Weiner, and if anyone knows where the characters are going, he should be the one. So Peggy’s unexpected veer into outright bitchiness may be part of a plan. However, while I hate to get too attached to fictional characters, I’ve always liked Peggy and hope that Weiner isn’t going to turn her into a hardbitten, twisted spinster. In this show, though, it wouldn’t entirely surprise me.