Sunday's episode of Mad Men offers audiences a chance to return, once again, to Don Draper playing "Don Draper" — but not immediately. Don begins the episode alone in his apartment, which gives us the chance to see what his life is like without work and Megan to occupy his time: Sleeping until 12:30 in the afternoon, throwing on a bathrobe, eating some Ritz Crackers, and watching The Little Rascals. It's only at the end of the day, when Dawn stops by his apartment, that Don even bothers to put on his customary suit and tie. Appearances, no matter how flimsy, must be maintained at all costs — even if it's only for a brief meeting with the secretary who is already keeping Don's secrets.
Mad Men has always been interested in the difference between how its characters act and how they feel, but it's rarely been as explicit as "A Day's Work," which embeds that theme into every scene. Nothing can be trusted. Even the episode's title is a lie; Don's definition of "a day's work" seems to peak when he halfheartedly pages through a few magazines. We've seen Don get low before, but we've never seen his bones stripped so clean.
But if Don had the same bird's-eye view that the audience gets, he would see that he isn't alone; the same fundamental levels of dishonesty and misunderstanding seem to have spread throughout the entire cast. Do Sally and her friends really care that their roommate's mother has died? No — they're just thrilled to have an excuse to do some shopping in New York City. Does Bert Cooper care that Dawn is obviously much more qualified to run the front desk than the blonde airhead Joan asks her to replace? No — he's just afraid that visitors to Sterling Cooper & Partners will balk if they're greeted by a black woman. Does it matter that Peggy's bouquet was actually meant for Shirley all along? No — she can't tell the truth for fear of enraging her boss. "Just pretend," advises Dawn. "It's your job."
Of course, we've spent the past six seasons seeing exactly what a lifetime of pretending has done for Don Draper, and the results haven't exactly been pretty: A string of botched relationships, including one failed marriage and another that's barely holding on.
There are now two significant women in Don Draper's life: His quasi-estranged wife, Megan, and his daughter, Sally. Don's feelings about the two women have been intertwined from the very beginning; his decision to propose to Megan seemed based, in no small part, on how well she treated his children. Similarly, it's no coincidence that Don's decision to cheat on Megan last season also marked the breakdown of his relationship with Sally.
Last week's premiere episode got viewers up to speed on Don and Megan at the expense of Sally, who didn't appear at all (and somewhat surprisingly, given the wordless exchange between Don and Sally that ended season six). But despite the fact that "A Day's Work" takes place on Valentine's Day, Don barely gives Megan a second thought (and despite claiming that he talks to Megan "all the time," he doesn't bother to call her or send her a Valentine's Day gift).
Instead, "A Day's Work" is all about Sally, who uncovers her father's latest dark secret when she attempts to track him down at his office. When she fails to find him there, she heads to his apartment and seeks an explanation. And despite the unprecedented moment of raw honesty that the duo recently shared, Don instantly slips back into his phony routine, despite Sally's none-too-subtle plea for him to "just tell the truth."
The truth does eventually come out, though only when Sally begins by confessing her fear of entering Don's apartment building. "I could run into that woman," she rants, referring to Don's affair with Sylvia. "Stand there, smiling, wanting to vomit while I smell her hair spray."
It's a moment of emotional maturity that inspires Don to make a similar confession. "I said the wrong things to the wrong people at the wrong time," confesses Don, referring to the brutally honest story he told that sent Hershey to a rival ad firm. "I told the truth about myself, but it wasn't the right time. And so they made me take some time off, and I was ashamed." It's an honest fear, but it's a misguided one; as Sally correctly intuits, Don's dishonesty is far more shameful than the truth could ever be.
Which raises the question: Will anyone other than Sally ever get to see this side of him? Last year's finale implied that Don's ultimate path to redemption might lie not in his work or his marriage, but in his children. (Well, Sally and whatever young actors happen to be playing Bobby and Gene.) "A Day's Work" makes it obvious that Don is still trying to protect his daughter from the truth, and still naïve enough not to realize that she's too old and too smart to fall for that anymore. In the end, his decision to tell her the truth about his sad, strange working situation is rewarded. "Happy Valentine's Day. I love you," says Sally as she exits the car.
It's a surprisingly tender ending for a show that tends to trap its characters in the kind of "heaven or hell or some kind of limbo" described by Pete Campbell. Despite all the lies and confusion that characterize "A Day's Work," the episode moves several people, including Dawn and Joan, into the positions they deserve, while painting characters like Lou Avery or Bert Cooper as the obsolete dinosaurs they are. Is a similar redemption around the corner for Don? He still has a lot of rebuilding to do — but when it comes to the people he truly cares about, "just tell the truth" is as promising a start as any.
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