This review contains spoilers.
7.2 A Day’s Work
Season 6 of Mad Men ended with a rare moment of catharsis between father and daughter, as emotionally cleansing as it was bruising. Sally looking at Don, finally seeing him for who he is, as Judy Collins’ recording of Both Sides, Now faded in over the scene. It promised to be a watershed moment in their failing relationship. Like a smoker making the same new year’s resolution to quit, it promised that from now on, things would be different.
Of course, in true Mad Men fashion episode 1 left us with no idea whether that was the case, with Don’s kids barely warranting a mention. It’s with some surprise, then, that episode 2 brings that plot to the fore. Don’t we normally have to wait longer for answers to the big questions? (Not that I’m complaining!)
We could probably have guessed how it’d go. Relationships don’t change overnight on Mad Men, and when Don and Sally finally meet, they’re almost immediately thrown back into old patterns: Don lying to Sally, Sally lying to Don, both of them catching the other out but staying quiet about it. But it isn’t long until we get to see that things have changed. Don, the poster child for evasion and blocking, confesses all about his situation to Sally. She, in return, entrusts him with the truth about their visit to the city. It’s a special moment whenever Don Draper tells the truth about anything, and one bolstered by Sally’s reciprocation of the act. A recurring theme of the series has been the concern that Sally is becoming her mother. Did anyone guess she’d end up being a miniature Don instead? “I’m so many people,” she says. He understands that so much better than anyone else.
But that parental diversion takes a while to come around. After last episode’s rock-bottom ending for both Don and Peggy, this episode sees both characters channelling their negative feelings into other outlets. Peggy obsesses over imagined gestures from Ted, who barely gives her a second thought, remaining more interested in being gloriously apathetic towards Pete’s rants (“You can have my office.”). Don tries to distract himself with work, whether it’s checking up on SCP or courting rival firms. But neither is doing what they wish they were doing.
If the episode has an underlying theme, it’s about power. Those with power happily exercise it: Cutler promotes Joan; Cooper gets Dawn moved off reception with a carefully-placed “suggestions”; Lou gets himself a new secretary. Meanwhile, those losing power struggle to retain it: Don’s under-the-table deal with Dawn; Pete’s ultimately impotent fury that Bob Benson (Bob Benson!) will be looking after his new account; even Roger’s jousting with Cutler. It’s all politics this week, and in a good way. Last week’s opener was languid, this week it’s all go, and as good as Mad Men is at a slow burn, in a shortened penultimate season we need more like the latter than the former.
It’s odd, then, that so much time is spent on the issue of Peggy’s roses, which gets close to farcical in her repeated attempts to find a solution to imagined slights. It’s tough to watch her treatment of Shirley in light of her own secretarial past, and while there are hints that she knows it’s her fault their relationship has become untenable, that doesn’t stop her asking for a personnel reshuffle as an alternative to fixing it like a grown up. It’s amusing that she wastes so much energy on Ted when he’s just letting the California heat bake his brain stupid, but did this story really move her forward? Or was that the point they were making? That between Lou and Ted, she’s being stopped from moving forward?
Still, as episodes go, this is the kind that the series does its best work on. The small changes reward long-time viewers while covertly teeing up the seismic changes that make your stomach lurch maybe once a season. It’s often masterful, but never showy. We won’t even know which of the changes we saw today mattered the most until later on. Whether Dawn’s promotion will have a knock-on effect on her work for/with Don, whether the wedge between Cutler and Sterling will split the company in two, or whether Don aligning himself with Sally will affect his other personal relationships. But it’s fun to guess, and it’ll be even more fun to learn. Whatever happens in the next few episodes, it’s likely what we’ve seen in this one will matter a lot.
Read Frances’s review of the previous episode, Time Zones, here.
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