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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Review: Mad Men "A Day's Work"

Season 7, Episode 2
Grade: A-
Verdict: An episode that focuses on both micro and macro conflicts, the former of which allows Jon Hamm and Kiernan Shipka some wonderfully acted moments and for the latter the series reminds us that it still has its pulse on the culturally relevant issues of the day, and presents them in a subtle enough manner that it doesn't feel shoe-horned in.

This second episode of the final season of Mad Men raises its curtain on Don in basically the exact position in which we left him in the premiere: somewhat grubby, bath-robed, and staring at his bottles of liquor (though Ritz Crackers have been added to the equation). Don no longer is the ad man who creates a need for the product, he instead spends his days consuming the product, particularly in his television viewing habits. Thus far, we have seen Don watch television programming more than we've ever seen him do so before. It's as if television has become his companion in his loneliest moments. 

When Dawn, his former but sometimes still secretary, comes to visit, Don pulls himself together and puts on the veneer of the person the outside world once saw him as; he even puts on a tie before Dawn arrives where she clues him into the goings-on at SCP. Once she leaves, her duty finished, Don loosens up the tie has a look of exhaustion on his face, and turns the television right back on. Don is just pretending to be "Don Draper" at this point. He's not really Dick Whitman either, but more something in between the two. Don attempts to reclaim who he is by taking a lunch with one of his friends at another firm, and when one of the heads of McCann-Erikson interrupts this discussion between colleagues and asks "Don, are you taking lunches now?", Don responds that "he's just looking for love".

Don is seeking validation for what he once was. He has no real intention of leaving SCP, though he could easily do so given the adoration that both these potential suitors seem to have for his skills. But this version of Don is a changed man, and its reflected in what Don tells he tells his lunch partner Dave after the McCann-Erickson stooge leaves: "I could have worked for them twice." In earlier seasons, Don was constantly looking for an excuse to run away, be it through potential other career opportunities or other emotional connections that belonged to anyone but his family. The most notable of these are his flings with Rachel Menken and Sally's teacher (with whom he literally almost ran away with for good). Those earlier traits can likely be drawn back to his previous life experience as Dick and trying to run away from that experience (living in the brothel, being dirt poor) as quickly as possible. 

All Don has known is how to bolt at the first opportunity, but here, he's making active choices to stay and that's an important sign of character growth in a man whose sense of style remains unchanged since the series began. It's funny to note that particular quirk given that every other character has made some kind of change with the times and the fashions of the day, yet the character we know the most intimately still basically appears as "idol-like" as he did when the show began, yet he's also probably also undergone the most radical changes philosophically. Peggy, Roger, Joan etc...have undergone some changes with the shifts of time, but they are basically still the same people they were when the series debuted in terms of their wants and needs. Don has seemingly undergone a complete 180, and perhaps this is most underlined in his interactions with Sally in the episode.

It's funny to watch Sally Draper interact with her friends at the boarding school. They refer to her as "Draper", smoke cigarettes, and have conversations in an attempt to appear older than they really are. There's some truth to the idea that as teens we begin to fully form into the adults that we'll eventually become. At the same time, they're still immature enough to skip out on a friend's mother's funeral to go shopping in the city. But despite this weird middle period of growth that Sally finds herself in, she has had to mature a good deal faster than her friends, having learned some ugly truths about her parents. Sally openly wishes to her friends that Betty was dead (though that's clearly a gross exaggeration), and she's caught her father in the act of an extra-marital affair. Neither parent particularly is seen in a positive light in her eyes, but this episode does show that she still has some need for paternal support from her father as when she's stuck in New York after losing her purse, the first thing she does is go to SCP to find him. This of course produces little on her end, so she meets him at the apartment instead, a point of consternation with her. 

Watching Don and Sally interact in a tight space, such as his car in this episode, provides a unique look at just how difficult their relationship is right now. By last season's finale, we the audience are led to think that perhaps Sally had come to some kind of truce with her father regarding some of his sins. But we also know that life isn't really that simple, and it's not easy to forgive when emotional scars run so deep. So this week we get a chance to see some of the issues related to what Sally saw come to bear and Kiernan Shipka and Jon Hamm just so utterly nail what might be one of my favorite Don-Sally interactions. When Don says "you lie in wait, just like your mother", we get another glimpse at the awful Don before he instantly realizes just how in the wrong he's been all along. From that point begins our real look at just what a changed man Don is becoming. When they sit at the diner together, Don finally tells Sally what she's wanted to hear all along, the truth. In this case, it's about his job, but it also is a symbolic victory for the salvaging of their relationship.

Don opens up to Sally in a way that he hasn't been able to for anyone, including his wife, since taking his leave of absence, perhaps since even his divorce from Betty. When Don tells Sally that he wants to stay and fix things for his misbehavior, it isn't just a desire to return to his previous position at SCP, but also the desire to repair his family life (though Megan may be expendable given Don's airplane confessional last week) because he knows that is the one chance for real stability that he has. This scene speaks to the flawed nature of adults and the growing maturity of the teenage years and shows just how much common ground there is between the two. "I'm so many people" Sally says before she and her father leave, again another characteristic that she and her father share. In all, their relationship probably is forever altered, but perhaps in so ways for the better given the trial they went through. Sally last words before closing the door are "I love you" and it's hard not to feel pretty good about where they may end up going forward.

While the Don/Sally plot was incredibly personal and micro, we also have the over-arching issues that are occurring at SCP, most notably the power struggle between Roger and Jim. The former has a very loose working style that is basically an extension of his personality, and it's no surprise that during a partner's meeting when tensions begin to arise regarding a potential new client that Pete has roped in, Roger evokes the name of Don and how things used to be. Roger is losing control of the firm that was once his fiefdom. The person to blame for this shifting of power is Jim, whose working style is much more tightly controlled and perhaps more overall aware. In reality, Jim is probably the person you'd rather have as your supervisor in that he's actually aware of problems as they arise, such as when he notices that Joan is doing the work of two people (and is the first person to do so seemingly). But in TV land, he's cast as a much more Machiavellian type, attempting to seize power away from the last vestiges of the firm they merged with, even to the point that he makes a move to earn the favor of the person that Roger holds closest emotionally.

While Roger and Jim knock heads in New York and have an incredibly awkward elevator ride by episode's end, Pete and Ted are having their own issues on the West Coast. Or rather I should say, Pete is having issues and Ted is simply a sounding board for them. Last week, when we weren't focused on Pete's perspective, he looked content on the outset; having found himself in California, tanner, and with a gorgeous new real estate agent girlfriend. But this time around, we get a chance to spend more time with Mr. Campbell and things are not as pleasant as they seem. Pete is particularly unhappy with his lack of upward mobility and the inability to get his way; particularly in regard to the looming shadow of Bob Benson hanging over him, with Pete attempting to make up for the embarrassment he suffered at Bob's hands in front of the Chevy leadership last year. 

Unfortunately, as there are only two other people in the office, Ted catches the brunt of Pete's ire. Pete's only escape into the fantasy land he's created for himself in California is when he's with Bonnie, who is basically the exactly opposite of everything Trudy ever was. Bonnie is chaos to Trudy's overly conscious outward self-image, which is surprising given the line of work that Bonnie engages in being all about appearances. Pete, much like Don, desires change, but Pete hasn't been faced with the abyss that Don has had to stare into and either he'll have to make a change for his own sake or be stuck in middle-management forever. Again, Pete's own worst enemy is himself, which is a shame given that he's by far the most forward thinking member of the SCP partnership.

That latter point is where an undercurrent of the episode makes itself most apparent. Throughout, we find throwaway bits of prejudicial dialogue from SCP staff members, such as Roger telling a story about how a lady called him a "kike", or Peggy referring to a bouquet of flowers making her office "smell like an Italian funeral". The exchange between Dawn and Shirey, "Hello Dawn", "Hello Shirley" tells you everything you need to know about how the African-American staff members of the firm are seen as interchangeable or a quota that needs to be filled. It's also a bit of wonderful character interaction that tells you so much about both characters without a ton of needless exposition. Dawn, for her part, has long been someone who has felt unease in her work environment due to the color of her skin, but has done great work as Don's loyal assistant regardless. Yet, when she catches a bit of bad luck due to Don having not yet opened up to Sally about his work situation, she engenders the irascible Lou's ire and finds herself "off his desk" and answering phones in reception.

Burt Cooper is not a character that we've gotten a chance to spend anywhere near as much time with as I'd like, but the moments we have with the senior partner of SCP are illuminating when we get them and this week, we learn just how "socially backward-leaning" Burt still is. Despite his interests in alternate viewpoints such as Eastern thought, experimental art, and Ayn Rand; having an African-American at the front-desk and within view of clients coming off the elevator is just a step too far it seems. It's an unfortunate character trait, but it shouldn't be surprising, given how little we really know about Burt beyond surface details and occasional hearsay and that we're still at a point where white male privilege is the predominating factor of office politics. Though by episode's end, the less then stellar circumstances that struck Dawn end up in her favor as she is tagged to replace Joan as Head of Personnel (who in turn will be taking over an Account Manager position). Both Dawn and Joan have had to deal with much inner-office scrutiny, so the idea that Joan would take Dawn under her wing makes some manner of sense.

Peggy, on the other hand, is mad that she doesn't Valentine's Day plans, and then is mad that she thought Ted sent her flowers, and then is incredulous about a misunderstanding between Shirley and herself. It's a pretty unsatisfactory plot device for Peggy, our main female perspective throughout the series, but it does highlight just how much the conflict has changed Peggy compared to Joan and Dawn. The heart of the matter is that Peggy is clearly angry that she was passed up for an accounts position that she felt groomed for by Don. Whether or not that was the reason she was passed over for that position, or if it was because of her gender, is difficult to say until its delved into further. Its fascinating to see Peggy playing two sides of the coin though: as the person who feels slighted by the glass ceiling that's above her and still a representation of "authority" with joking-threats to fire Stan and her indignant attitude towards Shirley. Much like her seemingly always correlated other half Pete, Peggy is also at a cross-roads. Will she continue into a course of mediocrity or will she too be willing to make a change for changes sake? Whether that means a new firm or not, it's no coincidence that she and Pete have similar dis-satisfactions at the same time.

Thoughts to ponder:
- Dawn is fabulous, and one of my favorite newer additions to the cast, though I said that very thing last season as well.

- Lou Avery might be the most despicable character Mad Men has had since Lee Garner Jr, but in a much different, more realistic way. Again, he's pretty representative of the common "bad boss", and I think Weiner is playing right into audience bias there.

- Again, no Bob Benson this episode, but his name was said more than once! He's coming folks! Hopefully soon.

- There was a wonderful touch where Dave, Don's lunch partner, was played by David James Elliott of JAG fame. When Mad Men first aired, I have to admit I used to get Jon Hamm and Elliott confused on a regular basis, so to have these two actors across the table from one another representing what Don could eventually be is remarkably meta, at least personally.

- I laughed out loud when I saw the flowers on the "Next Week on Mad Men" segment. No one trolls an audience like Matt Weiner.
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