Mad Men: When Pretending Is Your Job
by Jen Doll
Watching Mad Men feels a bit like refinishing a wooden chair, sometimes. You’re methodically working away with sandpaper at the arms and legs of this thing, which has been this way for as long as you can remember, and you’re up close and it seems like work, but it’s also strangely soothing, and suddenly you step back after an hour and the whole chair has a different appearance.
At least, that’s how I felt about it last night. Not all that much seemed to happen, because after all, it’s Mad Men; with some surprises the pacing tends to be slow and steady. Yet, by the end of the episode everyone looked a bit different from how they started. We also got a return of Sally Draper (can I please have Kiernan Shipka’s eyebrows?), who’s at boarding school and grown up enough to attend the funerals of her friend’s mothers. And there was plenty of juicy intraoffice politics at Sterling Cooper Draper.
The first scenes of the episode, which is called “A Day’s Work” — yep, that’s a clue, or more of a hammer hitting a nail on its obvious head — involve Don. He’s in work limbo, waking at 7:30 a.m. only to fall back asleep until noon, hanging in his apartment in his pajamas watching TV, reading magazines, monitoring his liquor intake, watching bugs crawl along the floor. He is a mess. Until, suddenly, it’s time to start playing “work,” to put on a suit and tidy up and look like he’s got it together, because his secretary Dawn is coming over to give him the latest intel about the agency.
Dawn and Don clearly have an affinity for one another — he respects her, he needs her, now more than ever, for her connection to work and because she is human (I imagine days go by when he interacts with very few people; he’s lonely, he’s a bit lost, he is the ’50s success story now heading into the vastly changed landscape of the ‘70s). Dawn likes Don because for all his flaws he’s never really been a shithead to her the way her new boss, Lou Avery, is. Don and Dawn have more than a very similar name, they have a connection, they have ambitions and they have secrets. So when he asks her to cover up for him with Megan, who still doesn’t know he’s on involuntary leave, Dawn does it; when he asks her to visit and give him agency dirt, she does. But she doesn’t want to take his money, even though she eventually does that, too, him pressing it into her palm like a dad giving his daughter cab fare. And she won’t get files from Peggy’s office for him. It’s funny: Don Draper can be so very shady, so sexually conniving, and yet with certain women, he is kind and gentle and openly needy. Or maybe that’s the new Don. Here, we see Dawn working for her boss, yes, but in a certain position of power, too — there are things she will and will not do.
At boarding school, someone’s mom has died, and Sally and her friends are planning a trip to the city for the funeral. No one seems all that distraught: “Jesus, Draper, is this your first funeral?” asks one of Sally’s friends, but Sally, the girl who grew up too fast, is upset. Her world has shifted yet again, and now people’s parents are dying?
In the office, we learn it’s Valentine’s Day, and Peggy does not have a date, having recently bayoneted her last boyfriend. Ginsberg tells her her plans are “to masturbate gloomily”; Peggy is not amused. Then she notices she has roses waiting for her on her secretary Shirley’s desk. Of course they’re not Peggy’s flowers, they’re Shirley’s, but Peggy — so stuck she is in her narcissistic post-Ted-dumping-her stupor — thinks they’re from Ted, scoops them up, and carries them into her office, leaving Shirley to complain to her office pal Dawn and plot to get her roses back. It’s of note that Dawn tells Shirley, “Keep pretending, that’s your job.” It’s also of note that they are both black, and within the established power structure at the agency and beyond, with white men at the top, they have to pretend more than anyone else. Which is perhaps why they jokingly call each other by the other one’s name.
The over-the-topness of the rose theft — and their return, and what happens next — left me laughing/ cringing because it was so over the top, unusual in a Mad Men world. Peggy calls Ted’s secretary to pass along the coded message that “There’s nothing he can do. The business is gone.” This element of miscommunication, like a bad game of Telephone, carries through the rest of the episode and is especially evident when New York and L.A. try to have a conference call and it goes off the rails. But it’s true even when people are speaking face to face. “All in a Day’s Work” is not just about working. It’s about what we refuse to communicate and how we communicate wrong, and how this plays into the strange, taut ecosystems in which we spend quite a lot of time, even if maybe we don’t really like all those people we work with, or even our jobs, necessarily. At SCP, no one seems to like anyone else all that much — not Roger and Jim, not Ginsberg and Stan and Peggy, not even Pete, who seemed so happy in L.A. in the last episode, and Ted. Don may be lost without them, but they are lost in his absence, too.
When Sally, on the train in New York, realizes she’s missing her purse, she goes straight to her dad’s office, seeking comfort, perhaps, missing him. But he’s not there. In fact, he’s having a meeting with another ad man, again play-working, sort of interviewing and sort of not — as he says, “I’m just looking for love.” His office is now occupied by the soulless Lou Avery, who is not thrilled to see Don Draper’s daughter walk into his life. He eventually takes this out on Dawn, demanding his “own girl” whom he doesn’t have to share with the man whose job he now has. Dawn — who was out of the office buying perfume for Lou’s wife — stands up for herself; Joan is brought in to “fix things,” meaning she has to reorganize the entire secretary pool, something she’s less and less interested in, now that she has her own clients.
Sally makes her way to her dad’s house, and when he returns, they both lie to each other. He’s been lying this whole time, not telling her about his job; she lies and pretends she hasn’t been to his office. She knows he’s lying, and he eventually knows she’s lying, too, because Dawn calls to report that she’s been at SCP. “Sally, what should I say?” Don asks. “Just tell the truth,” she says. Just tell the truth. It should be so easy, but it’s not; we are all pretending in some way or another. He ends up driving her back to school, and in the car, things are tense. Sally doesn’t trust her dad; Don compares her behavior to Betty’s (“so you just laid in wait like your mother,” he says, when he finds out she didn’t tell him everything). But when Sally confesses how afraid she was that in coming back to the apartment she’d run into Sylvia, the upstairs neighbor she walked in on him with months before, he apologizes.
The Peggy saga continues when after she returns the flowers to Shirley, she sees them again, a thorn in her side (ha), and demands that Shirley throw them away. Shirley finally admits they’re from her fiancé. And Peggy turns mean. “You have a ring on, we all know that you’re engaged, you did not have to embarrass me, grow up!” she says, stirring up further office secretary drama. She barges into Joan’s office demanding Shirley no longer work for her; meanwhile, Bert Cooper is concerned that Dawn has been moved from her position as Lou’s secretary and is now the receptionist. “People can see her from the elevator,” he says, and Joan must rearrange again, because what Bert says is what goes in this power structure in which they work.
I haven’t spent much time on L.A. in this recap, but I must mention Bonnie, Pete’s new girlfriend. Pete comes to her mid-day whining about his office issues, trying to get her to leave for a hotel tryst. She’s not having it, she’s going to sell a house — and sleep with him later. “I’m in sales, too. I’m not some housewife complaining about getting oatmeal stains out of the carpet,” she says. “Our fortunes are in other people’s hands, and we have to take them.” She represents a new kind of woman, and he thinks it’s the hottest thing he’s ever heard.
At the restaurant where Don and Sally stop to eat, they have a stilted conversation in which he finally admits what happened at work. That game of Telephone, the danger of miscommunication, is referenced: “I told the wrong things to the wrong people at the wrong time,” he says. Tragically, “I told the truth about myself but it wasn’t the right time. They made me take some time off. I was ashamed.” When Sally asks what the truth is, he says it’s nothing she doesn’t know. And all of a sudden the two of them are having a conversation, almost a little bit like real people, with jokes and everything. When he drops her off at school, she surprises him with a, “Happy Valentine’s Day. I love you.” Sally, in contrast to Peggy, is growing up. Maybe Don is, too?
In the last scene of the episode, the office is in flux again. Everyone is moving, their file boxes full of their small possessions, their flowers in their arms, their office homes uprooted. Joan is heading upstairs, a spot offered by Jim Cutler, who may or may not be taking this moment not to be progressive but to undermine Roger (but if it makes Joan “an account man” as he puts it, and lets her stop working two jobs, so be it?). And Dawn is now in Joan’s old office, in charge of personnel. She smiles a little bit as she sinks into her new digs, because the power structure has shifted ever so slightly again. And this is when you step back and look at the chair (yes, this metaphor again) and see that everything looks a little bit different, and maybe some of that hard work has paid off.
Previously: Is This Where the Fire Starts?