Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "A Day's Work" (season 7, episode 2)

Mad Men - "A Day's Work" (season 7, episode 2)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode until the series finale. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on April 20, 2014/written by Jonathan Igla and Matthew Weiner; directed by Michael Uppendahl): Don's hunt to get back into SC&P takes a turn...away from SC&P. He meets with Dave Wooster (David James Elliot), the slick Wells Rich Greene man who is eager to bring Don on board, if he's interested, although he also has some concerns about the rumors he's heard. Jim Hobart - the McCann Erickson bigwig who put Betty on a Coke campaign to woo Don back in season one - doesn't seem to have any such concerns, picking up the check for the luncheon in an effort to scoop Don in the middle of a meeting with his rival. ("I almost worked there...twice," Don notes, to which Dave jealously responds, "But you didn't.") The biggest surprise, however, comes when Don returns home. Sally is waiting for him in his apartment; she came to the city for the funeral of a roommate's mother, lost her purse, and went to her dad's office only to discover a complete stranger in his place. Don quickly finds out what happened but holds his tongue, as does Sally - both know the other is lying, but only Don knows that she knows that he knows. As he drives her back to school, he ends the standoff and it all comes out. She reminds him of what she saw last year and he admits that he screwed up at work and doesn't know how to get back to it. Between this honest confession and Don's joke (?) about running out on a restaurant bill when they go out to eat, the tension between father and daughter finally begins to thaw. Back at their destination, Sally casually tells him, "Happy Valentine's Day. I love you." And, as he once told Megan it would, Don heart quietly breaks.

Aside from this personal redemption and his professional prospects elsewhere (which he'd probably rather not pursue), things are not going well for Don. Most of the episode takes place on the holiday Sally references, but the opening sequence, set the day before, depicts Don staggering through an aimless day at home: sleeping in, wandering around the apartment unshaven and unable to get anything done, before finally suiting up in the evening to cut a dapper figure when Dawn pays a visit to convey information on the day. She's working for two bosses now, keeping Don in the loop while still trying to man Lou's desk. In fact she's out buying a gift for Lou's wife when Sally shows up and pisses Lou off, leading to a reshuffling as Meredith (Stephanie Drake), the endearingly daffy central receptionist who's been around for several seasons, switches places with her at Lou's request. In the process, Lou comments that he knows Joan can't fire Dawn - implicitly because of her race - and then Bert adds insult to insult by requesting that Joan move her away from the front desk ("I'm all for the advancement of colored people," he coos, "but not all the way to the front of the office.") Meanwhile, Shirley (Sola Bamis) has to walk on eggshells around her boss Peggy, who mistakenly believes that Ted sent her the flowers actually sent by Shirley's fiance. The humiliating fallout results in Peggy begging Joan to move Shirley as well (this secretary ends up, it seems, working for Lou; I'm not sure where that leaves Meredith in this roundelay).

Jim Cutler, of all people, comes to Joan's rescue. Noticing how stressed out she has become, he asks, "What skills are required down here? Organization? Fortitude? Lack of concern for being unliked?" Positioned as the archvillain by the end of season six (even in this episode, he ominously states to Roger, "I'd hate to think of you as an adversary"), Jim in this moment at least swoops in to the rescue. Joan moves upstairs to be, as Jim puts it, "an account man, not head of personnel," and this opens up a spot for Dawn who is grinning ear to ear as she assumes Joan's position at the end of a hectic, unnerving day. It's no less stressful in California for Pete, who is excited to land the West Coast Chevy dealer's association but dismayed by Jim's insistence that they run the new client by Detroit and Pete's nemesis Bob. When Roger brings up Don in the chaotic bicoastal discussion, Jim snaps, "Don who? Our collective ex-wife who still receives alimony?" Roger ultimately sides with Jim and hangs up on Pete when he pushes back. Furious that he's being disrespected, Pete seeks solace in Bonnie's arms but she too pushes him to put business first; after all, it's what she finds most attractive about him. All over this episode, characters are placed in positions they don't want to be in but by persevering they find themselves redeemed, or at the very least, surviving.

My Response: The best episodes of Mad Men usually have some sort of high concept hook, an element or several elements that set them off from the rest. Aside from its not-unprecedented title gimmick, the closest "A Day's Work" has to this is "Don and Sally bond over an afternoon together" which is definitely a large part of its charm, but only takes up a little of the episode and doesn't explain the overall achievement. This is a relatively quiet collection of character studies in revealing situations, flawlessly executed from start to finish and with some major developments hidden up its sleeve. Above all, the episode triumphs in sharpening each individual's edges by having them interact with one another, usually in unprecedented ways. The teleplay is loaded with two-handers but the scene partners are constantly shifting, rotating elegantly to trade places with one another and draw out new qualities or insights based on who they're talking to (the only real attempt to go broader than two or occasionally three is a comically disastrous conference call). All participants benefit from this approach, but particular beneficiaries are Pete, Joan, and especially Dawn and Shirley, who hilariously mock-mix up their own names during a personal chat in the coffee room. The only black secretaries at SC&P are forced to play musical chairs throughout the day yet both manage to end up on top - as does Joan.

The show really struggled with Dawn last season, attempting on rare occasions to craft a black character who could exist independently of the white characters' perspectives but mostly falling short. This time the material for her and Shirley is far more effective, to the point that Peggy in particular has never looked so embarrassingly unbearable, the sort of personality you can't wait to gossip about with a fellow drudge just to relieve the tension and make sense of the nonsensical. Bert, meanwhile, cheerfully bigoted in his grandfatherly way, has never looked so much like an evil Santa Claus. This shift in point of view also says something about not just race but employer/employee relations more generally. Mad Men seldom has trouble recognizing bad bosses, but there's a worthy distinction to be made between contention at a certain tier among relative peers and the sort of miserable power differential on display between Peggy and Shirley, for example. That said, this is a show about successful people written by successful people. So even in this case, promotion is the way out for those bearing their burdens at the bottom of the pyramid. The good news is this means we'll probably be seeing more of Dawn.

Igla, Weiner's collaborator for the fourth time, has written some bangers before, including both the season four and five finales. Uppendahl, whose work stretches back to the second season, displayed a similar talent for rhythm and rotation in last season's amphetamine-fueled "The Crash". The two worked in relay form before writing and directing "The Codfish Ball", Igla's only solo script for the series, which cultivates a similar sense of setting characters into fruitful tension with one another (that episode depicts the gala event where almost everyone seated at the Draper table enters in high spirits and ends the night wilted; a similar sense of symphonic arrangement prevails here, with separate movements coalescing into a delicately balanced whole). Perhaps most notably, Uppendahl has directed many of Sally's highlights, from her breakthrough episode with Grandpa Gene to another memorable visit to daddy's workplace (the time she clashed with Faye and embraced Megan) as well as "Christmas Comes But Once a Year" (in which Glen trashes her house), "The Crash" (she's visited by the burglar posing as her father's nanny), and the aforementioned "Codfish Ball" (where she is scarred by witnessing an encounter between Roger and her stepgrandmother).

Almost all of Sally's character growth has occurred in an independent fashion, as she struggles to navigate her world without much guidance from her uptight, estranged parents. "A Day's Work" breaks new ground by placing Don and Sally in a situation they can't bullshit their way out of, forcing them to cautiously let down their guards. The two begin to finally reconcile, really getting to know each other for the first time. The way these stories work on Mad Men (as they often do in real life) is "some steps forward and some steps back" - in this process characters can come out ahead and also end up back where they began, or worse. But this is a high water mark, leaving father and daughter something to work with no matter how bad things get in the future. Already by the end of "A Day's Work" things are changing (between Don and Sally, for Dawn and Shirley at work, and especially for Joan, with Jim as the surprising coach in her corner). And much of what hasn't changed can't keep going this way for long - Don and Pete in particular won't survive under these conditions. It's an exciting time to be in, knowing that something's coming but unable to discern what exactly it will be.

Next (active on December 20, 8am): "Field Trip"Previous: (season 7 premiere) "Time Zones"

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