Mad Men might be at its best when it drives bleak, but there’s something to be said for the cheeky side of the series too — the side willing, just a week after showcasing the visceral breakdown of its two main characters, to treat them both to the traditions of Three’s Company. The second episode of Season 7 forces Don and Peggy deeper into the marshlands of misery, with one succumbing to the weight of the swamp after a decade of casual treading, the other flailing in panic and grabbing for any semblance of a stable root… like that of a rose, for example.
The first Jack-and-Crissyan wacky misunderstanding of that Mad Men borrows from sitcom lore this week is Peggy’s identification of an unmarked bouquet of roses to be a gift to her from Ted. Although she responds with a delivery of hot bile to her undoubtedly confused colleague, Peggy is grasping desperately for the possibility that on this Valentine’s Day in 1969 she has been considered. Unlucky Shirley, Peggy’s secretary, is the secondary victim of this mixup, as the flowers were hers, sent from a loving fiancé — the primary victim, of course, is Peggy.
As confidently as Mad Men seems to be handling Peggy’s ascension toward a Draper-level isolation, her sudden bout of insolence (notably when she explodes at Shirley for revealing the true origin of the roses) comes off a few leagues less interesting than the fashion in which we’ve seen the series handle emotional self-sabotage before. Granted we’re expected to follow Peggy to, toward, or (hopefully) around a platform in just one season that took the show six to reach for Don… and, admittedly, maybe it’s just the additional unpleasantness that comes with watching a favorite character like Ms. Olson decay. But we can hope that Peggy’s turn this week is just a glimmer of a rock bottom that we can watch her work to avoid in the episodes to come. And if she must hit, then at least let the trigger not be a bouquet of roses.
Wacky mixup number 2 is of the “overheard phone call” variety, with Roger dismissing L.A.-based Pete over a wonky cross-country conference call as the troops led by Harry Hamlin (I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to learn his character’s name) determine that Campbell’s latest account would be best laid in the hands of Bob Benson. Pete is up in arms, and the Roger/Hamlin dichotomy is fissuring violently as the latter takes the advantage of a Donless, Peteless office to seize control and rally all available parties (for instance, the long unappreciated Joan, who gets bumped up a league this week) to climb aboard his silver-tongued ship.
And the final trope ripped straight from the Regal Beagle: the Draper family’s pyramid of secrecy. Sally, on a trip into the city to A) attend the funeral of her prep school roommate’s mother, and B) ditch said sob-fest with her far out pals to go shopping in Manhattan, stops into her dad’s office to get money for bus fare after misplacing her purse. Naturally, the sights of lovable ol’ Lou Avery sitting pretty at the Draper desk rattles Sally, who (along with everyone else in his personal life) has no idea that Don has been saddled with a leave of absence from the company. Sally meets up with her father at his apartment, keeping it a secret that she knows of his unemployment status, while he keeps that very unemployment status a secret… until, after receiving a phone call from Dawn, he learns that she stopped by SC&P earlier in the day. Naturally, he keeps this new information a secret… until Sally gets a call from Joan alerting her to the call from Dawn but keeps it a secret from Don who gets a call from Roger telling him about the call from Joan which he too keeps a secret not knowing that Sally knows that he knows that she knows that he knows until it all erupts in a scene where Phoebe kisses Chandler. Sorry, now I’m mixing up my sitcom references. In truth, the mountain of secrets stops at Dawn’s phone call.
Quick diversion — Shirley and Dawn are tossed into chaos this week when their bosses (a lunatic Peggy and an asshat Lou Avery) take issue with the ladies’ inability to predict Peggy/Lou’s own incompetence. As such, they are jostled around the office in a subplot that plays both like a screwball comedy of errors that warrants Benny Hill music, but also like an tearfully unfuriating window into the “everyday racism,” as well as class and gender bigotry, of 1969… and on. Only Mad Men can do a tertiary story this good and dense.
After the unprecedently humane ending to Season 6, which saw Don connecting with Sally in a new way over the revelation of his life story (at least pieces of it), it’s a little disconcerting to see father and daughter having reverted back to the status quo, instilling the fear that, even after all of the strides taken in this episode, the same might amount at the head of the next week that we see Don and Sally together. But this concern aside, Don and Sally’s road trip back up to prep school is some of the show’s most favorable material in years. Don can soften at the behest of his daughter in a way that he can’t for anyone else — even his sullen admission of pride for Bobby in last season’s “The Flood” arrived solely thanks to a few too many drinks and the assassination of Martin Luther King. Having craved a genuine all throughout his younger years, adhered his securities to his beloved Anna Draper (whose memory was evoked this week by a scene of Pete and his real estate agent ladyfriend canoodling in an unfurnished, mid-paint job L.A. house) as some kind of a maternal figure, and “cared over” every woman he has since dated more than actually caring for them, Don has only known how to love from a safe, manufactured distance. But his bond with Sally, which we see more vividly than ever in this episode, is something he can no longer divide from.
Truths surface, from all directions, as Don drives Sally back up to school. She learns that her dad has been given the boot, he learns that she skipped out after the funeral to go shopping with her callous friends, we learn that Sally already knows the colorful tale of Richard Whitman, she learns (thanks to Don) that she might not be as cold and cut-off as she might have thought — those Drapers, always priding themselves on unclaimed emotional distance! — and he learns, in the final seconds of the episode, that Sally loves him.
With all the work done between Don and Sally in the past few seasons, this episode marking a masterful climax to the arc, I’d be satisfied if Don’s final chapter is based entirely in his relationship with his daughter. Hell, her evolution past the point of his grasp and into something that is far more frightening but potentially far more rewarding mirrors the Don/Peggy rapport, although promises (now) to branch off in a more positive direction, so we wouldn’t even have to sacrifice the series’ favorite relationship were we to devote the majority of Season 7 to the Drapers. Whatever we see of the pair from hereon out, “A Day’s Work” does very well to access the brimming pains in each party through its unique counterpart. Nobody can possibly understand how Sally Draper feels all the time but her likewise rotting dad. And — as he now learns over a patty melt and a plate of cold fries, cracking dine-and-ditch jokes , out of the job to which he pinned himself at the expense of a series of bad marriages and meaningless affairs… all, in their own right, distractions from the family he never really learned how to love — he has this same unmatched opportunity in his daughter. Funny. But not Three’s Company funny.
Episode grade: A-, with bonus points for Dawn and Shirley’s lyrical lambasting of their blockhead superiors.