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.

Fetters: Oh, wow. “The most moral character on the show” makes me want to immediately re-watch all six existing seasons with a tally chart in my lap. But in this episode, Dawn did show a remarkable commitment to the trifurcated cliches of “doing the right thing,” "standing up for what you believe in," and “going the extra mile.” Remind you of another former secretary of Don’s who had an incorruptible moral compass and bailed Don out of jail in the middle of the night once? Maybe Dawn is the new Peggy.

Meanwhile, speaking of characters who are underratedly sane, we saw no Megan this week—but she was an integral part of a very necessary conversation that finally happened between Sally and Don. Don admitted to Sally that the only reason he’s not moving out to California is because he’s foolishly waiting for Megan to come back to New York to fix everything for him. That’s a new, sad twist on the Drapers’ failing bicoastal marriage, right?

Heller: It's a new twist of an old flavor. Last week, we wondered what Don meant when he said he needed to “get back to work.” Well, he’s back in Manhattan now—and I have to say, his life looks an awful lot like what I did when I skipped class in college. The mandatory snooze button, mornings that start at noon, a bag of potato chips for breakfast, marathons of The Little Rascals, and no reason to put on clothes until 8 p.m. I remember it being a lot more fun than it looked in this episode.

Is this what rock bottom looks like for Don? If not, the heartbreaking moment when Sally wished him a happy Valentine’s Day must be a reassuring sign for what’s to come. Don was finally honest with someone, and that honesty was reciprocated with love. (Okay, it was the monotone-voiced “I love you” of a teenager—but still!) What do you think, Ashley? Will Sally help pull her father out of his pitiful spiral?

Fetters: It’s starting to look as though if anybody can, it’s Sally. He told Sally, before his wife or anyone else in his family, that he’d been forced to take a break from work because he’d “told the truth about himself” to the wrong people and at the wrong time. “I was ashamed,” he says, and that feels significant. How many times on this show has Don Draper admitted that he was wrong? Answering that, too, might require a tally chart, but I think it’s safe to say "rarely."

This episode was all about how the tiniest, seemingly innocuous disturbances can throw off the orbit of a person’s life, sending him or her careening off and colliding into other people’s paths: a misplaced purse, a malfunctioning conference-call box, a love note removed from a vase of flowers. (And that’s what Mad Men is so, so good at: the inevitable yet somehow still surprising consequences of actions we don’t think matter at the time.) It seems Sally came crashing into Don’s ever-more-depressing little universe at just the right moment, offering him what might be the most unconditional love he’s ever known.