'Mad Men' Recap: All in a Day's Work

Office politics, gender issues and musical chairs dominate a dense, slow-cooking episode

John Slattery as Roger Sterling​ on 'Mad Men'
Jordin Althaus/AMC
John Slattery as Roger Sterling​ on 'Mad Men'
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The path to the Iron Throne is a treacherous one, but at least on Sunday night TV, the late, unlamented Joffrey Baratheon already has a villainous successor. Mad Men's Lou Avery (played by Allan Havey) may be taking up space in Don Draper's corner office, but he's come nowhere near filling his shoes. In the Season Seven premiere, "Time Zones," Lou revealed himself to be a smug, complacent hack whose dismissive treatment of Peggy and Dawn reeked of casual sexism and racism. (Anyone who thought Dawn was happier with her new, more predictable boss must have missed the look in her eyes when she filed into his office with a gaggle of white creatives and he quipped, "Gladys Knight and the Pips.") In the latest episode — "A Day's Work"— we see that Don's old secretary is loyal to her former boss, slipping him intelligence about the goings-on at SC&P and refusing, though not too emphatically, payment for her services.

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That loyalty comes at a price, although getting moved off Lou's desk isn't much of a sacrifice. When Don's daughter Sally unexpectedly drops by her father's former office, Lou is understandably flustered, and palpably relieved when Sally remembers she also knows Joan; clearly, you can see the new boss is thinking this is a matter best settled among women. But when Dawn comes back, after spending her lunch hour buying perfume for Lou's wife, he unloads his discomfort on her and feels betrayed when her first impulse is to call Don. He calls Joan into his office and orders Joan to get him a new secretary. He doesn't care where Dawn goes, as long as he doesn't have to look at her.

There's a lot of personnel shuffling in "A Day's Work": Peggy, in an ironic echo of Lou's high-handedness, tells Joan to move her secretary, Shirley, off her desk, and acts offended when Joan asks for an explanation. Joan herself finally gets moved up to Accounts after Jim Cutler notices she's been doing two jobs. Dawn gets moved to reception and then away, after Bert Cooper tells Joan he's "all for the advancement of colored people" — but not so far that they're the first thing clients see when they get off the elevator. When the song stops for this game of musical chairs, she winds up at Joan's desk, relaxing at last with a hint of a well-earned smile. (To cite the show we see playing on Don's TV, she's That Girl.)

In between, there's a lot of bustling about with banker boxes, people being moved around like disposable figures on a chessboard. In a delightful break-room exchange that goes at least a little ways toward addressing the complaint that Mad Men has been slow to address race in the era of the Civil Rights movement, Dawn and Shirley play out what's obviously a long-running gag by addressing one another with the other's first name: "Hello, Dawn," says Dawn to Shirley, and vice-versa. In fact, it's worse than Dawn and Shirley's little game lets on: It's not just that the white employees have trouble telling their two black co-workers apart; it's that, as far as at least some of their superiors are concerned, they are interchangeable, just cogs that can be swapped in and out on a whim.

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Don's career, and his professional bearing, was based on the idea that he was irreplaceable: He believed, and was told often enough, that no one could do what he did. But SC&P is humming along without him, and if there's some creative spark missing, maybe that just makes things run more smoothly. They've certainly got plenty of prima donnas to take his place: On the East Coast, Peggy works herself into lather over a bouquet of roses she takes to be a peace offering, or a romantic overture, from Ted Chaough. She ended "Time Zones" weeping alone in her empty apartment; with Valentine's Day looming, her loneliness has blossomed into manic desperation, leaving her only a few frizzled hair strands away from a Cathy cartoon. (As Time's James Poniewozik, observed, she's never seemed more like Hannah Horvath.) On the West Coast, Pete's hot-to-trot affair with realtor Bonnie Whiteside hasn't cooled his ardor for landing big clients, or his distaste for following directions. In a scene straight out of a Billy Wilder comedy, Pete and Ted tried to navigate the intra-agency politics of a new account via a trans-continental conference call that malfunctioned in just the right way to allow Pete to eavesdrop on the partners as the bemoaned his impertinence. He's as ambitious as ever, but he hasn't grasped that the way the world works is changing, lamenting that the there's nowhere for him to go in a two-room office. Ted, who is clearly beyond caring about such things, blithely offers to swap offices with Pete, and advises: "Just cash the checks, you're going to die one day."

Although no one was gruesomely poisoned or ended up purple-faced, "A Day's Work" was laced with allusions to mortality and fate: Bonnie recalling the "act of God" that burned down what would have been a big-ticket commission; Sally sneaking away from boarding school under the pretense of attending a ceremony for a friend's dead mother; Peggy declaring that the roses in her office made it smell like "an Italian funeral." But for a woman like Bonnie, who seems free of the encumbrances of Old World custom, fate is merely the playing field and not the ballgame. "Our fortunes are in other people’s hands," she tells Pete, "and we have to take them." Or, put in the words of the Zombies song that ran into the closing credits, "'This will be our year' took a long time to come."

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Eight paragraphs into a Mad Men review and we've barely mentioned Don Draper, who, metaphorically speaking, spent most of the episode sleeping in and eating crackers on the couch. As a functionally unemployed character in an hour built around workplace dynamics, he's still out in the cold; Don has lunch with a colleague, but not that kind of a lunch. If last week's episode was about Don acting out his many selves, this one's about who he is when he's offstage, and if he exists at all. It's less a mid-life crisis than a much-delayed adolescence: Last week, the moving-walkway sequence likened him to The Graduate's Benjamin Braddock. This week, he talks to Sally less like a father to his daughter and more as one peer to another. It's as if his infamous Hershey-pitch meltdown not only revealed his childhood but brought him back to it, and he's been working his way forward ever since.

Much of what took place in "A Day's Work" was mundane, but like the episode's nondescript title, the apparent mundanity was deceptive. Only as the pieces finally fell into place did we realize how much had shifted. Like Don, sitting in his car with Sally's unprompted "I love you" still washing over him, it may take us a while to sort through it all.

Previously: Nowhere to Hide

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