Mad Men: Is This the Woman Who Can Save Don Draper?

Dissecting "A Day's Work," the second episode of the seventh season

Ashley Fetters and Chris Heller discuss the latest episode of Mad Men.

Heller: If Mad Men ever summed itself up in a single line, it’d be this one: “Keep pretending. That’s your job.” It’s fitting that the quote didn’t come from any of the power-playing stalwarts at Sterling Cooper and Partners, too. No, it’s the lowly secretary who drops some series-defining knowledge on us all, precisely at the moment when Don and Peggy are doubting the lies they’ve told for years. All hail Dawn!

Ashley, I’m interested to see what you thought of “A Day’s Work.” I can’t recall another Mad Men episode that so clearly illustrated the uneasy tensions that smolder between characters along race and gender lines. It’s not just Bert Cooper’s ridiculous bigotry. It’s the way Shirley code-switches when she’s talking to Peggy, the pause in Dawn’s conversation with Shirley when a white secretary walks into the break room, and the way Joan handles Lou’s command to get him his “own girl.” I saw a lot of remarkably complex ideas about race and gender in these scenes. How’d you react?

Fetters: Early in Season Six, our roundtable discussed whether Mad Men could ever be as good at addressing race as it had always been at addressing gender. Our general consensus was that it addressed race in a much shallower way than gender, but was starting to make some decent strides toward portraying race relations in a thought-provoking way.

I’d say that assessment still stands, overall. In this episode, for example, Bert Cooper’s discomfort with having a black receptionist seemed predictable (old people were unprogressive in 1969, too!? shocking). But Pete Campbell realizing at the same time as the audience that his Betty Draper-lookalike cupcake of a girlfriend isn’t just a pretty plaything but a real person with a real job she takes seriously? That was electric.

You’re right, though, about that scene between Dawn and Shirley in the break room. It was fabulous, and it had a strong whiff of some early-season break-room scenes in which secretaries confer with one another about how to best manage their relations with their male bosses. Only this time, it’s the black secretaries advising each other on how to handle their white bosses (of both genders) rather than the female secretaries advising each other on their male bosses. That’s an interesting shift on the show’s part, trading one uncomfortable power dynamic for another.

And I thought Dawn calling Shirley “Dawn” while Shirley calls Dawn “Shirley”—presumably their way of playfully commiserating over the fact that they’re frequently mistaken for each other—was a great touch.

Heller: I hope we see a lot more Dawn this season. She’s arguably the most moral character on the show: She helps Don during his exile, she refuses to take any money for the extra work, and she recognizes when she has the freedom to criticize Lou. (She was totally right, too. Who forgets to buy a gift on Valentine’s Day?) My guess is that she’ll play a big role in the coming episodes. She appears to be sitting right next to the conference room, and now, she’s got a reason to spy for Don.

Presented by

Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

Chris Heller is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic. He has also written for NPR, Washington City Paper, and Metro Weekly.

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