"Mad Men" recap: Just tell the truth

In last night's episode, Don bonds with Sally, and tries to pull himself out of a slump

Published April 21, 2014 12:20PM (EDT)

                  (AMC/Frank Ockenfels 3)
(AMC/Frank Ockenfels 3)

Is "Mad Men" the most inconsistent, unpredictable show on television? Or do some pieces of Matthew Weiner's puzzle feel incomplete simply because the big picture is more important to Weiner than individual episodes are?

While the seventh season premiere last week felt hopelessly stagnant and repetitive (particularly for a season premiere), last night's episode was much more dynamic and satisfying. In fact, "A Day's Work" embodies the best of what Matthew Weiner and the show's other writers have to offer: dramatically compelling scenes that move the story forward, deepen our understanding of several major characters, and adhere to a tight theme. Sometimes, "Mad Men" stalls out, or sacrifices emotion or suspense just to create a thematic echo chamber. Last night, though, "Mad Men" was firing on all pistons.

The episode focused on injustice, demonstrating how different characters react when presented with unjust circumstances. We start with Don, whose dismissal from work at the exact moment when he was finally willing to abandon his act as smooth, arrogant winner, might feel unfair to someone like Lou Avery or Pete Campbell. Don is certainly adrift, eating Ritz crackers out of the box while watching random TV shows. But soon we see evidence that Don is trying to pull himself together and face reality: He marks his bottle of liquor so he won't drink anymore (at home, anyway). He meets with Dawn to hear about the goings-on at the office, and he's extremely considerate of her feelings, which he certainly hasn't been in the past.

At some point, "That Girl" plays in the background in Don's apartment. "Everyone's laughing at you," Ann Marie's dad tells her. "Oh Daddy, that's not the worst thing that can happen to an actor," she replies. And it's true that everyone is laughing at Don. A fellow ad man tells Don he heard that Don "pulled a major boner in a meeting and cried or punched somebody or something, and they cut you loose." When Don's name comes up in a partner meeting at work, Jim asks, "Don who? Our collective ex-wife who still receives alimony?" But despite his ill-timed bout of honesty, Don owes his success to being a good actor at work, a champion fake. Is it so important to be taken seriously, when you're only acting anyway? The well-chosen clip, when paired with Don's coy meetings with other agencies who might want to hire him, suggest that Don may be ready to stop feeling sorry for himself and move forward at last, with or without his old agency.

Pete, on the other hand, reacts to injustice by pouting and stomping his feet. After signing the Southern California Chevy dealership association, Pete is told that he needs to step aside and let Bob Benson in Detroit handle it, since he's the account guy for Chevy.  Once again, no one listens to Pete or respects his opinions, even though he's usually right. Roger has his back at first, then he changes course. "Why even bring in an account?" Pete asks Ted. "They're just going to take it away." Then, in an echo of Don's experiences last season, Pete continues, "Sometimes I think maybe I died, and I'm in some kind of – I don't know if it's heaven or hell or limbo? But I don't seem to exist. No one feels my existence!" Sadly, Ted isn't exactly the most satisfying confidant. Ted is handling the injustice of leaving Peggy behind in New York by drifting around the office, disengaged from everything around him. ("Ted, are you there?" Jim keeps asking on the conference call.)

Feeling invisible, Pete tries to talk to his girlfriend Bonnie about how unfair his situation is, but she won't have any of it. "I'm in sales, too. I'm not some housewife complaining about getting oatmeal out of the carpet," she says, reminding Pete that she's nothing at all like Trudy. Then she describes losing a house sale thanks to someone tossing their cigarette out the window as her buyers looked on. "An act of God, Pete. That's how you know when things are really against you," she says. "You don't seem very upset about it," Pete replies. "Because that's the thrill. Our fortunes are in other people's hands. And we have to take them." This is Bonnie's answer to injustice: She gets more cutthroat. Grab what you want, and screw anyone who doesn't like it. "I want to chew you up and spit you out," Pete tells her, but somehow it's easy to guess that Bonnie's the one who'll end up eating Pete alive.

Back in New York, injustice reigns supreme: Shirley's Valentine's Day flowers are seized by a confused Peggy, and Dawn is aggressively fired by Lou for not running interference when Sally comes to see her dad. Shirley is mad but says nothing over Peggy's injustice, which turns out to be a mistake. Dawn, on the other hand, speaks out against Lou in spite of the fact that Joan tells her not to – and her outspokenness pays off later. Lou, on the other hand, seems to react to every frustration or interruption with the same whiny petulance. "Great," he huffs when Sally shows up, and later he tells Joan, "Do you understand? It's not my problem. None of this has anything to do with me." Even when Lou is the source of problems, he acts like the problems belong to everyone else. And nothing anyone says to him lands. As a character, he presents an interesting contrast to Don: Where Don is a pathological liar who still takes responsibility for the fallout from his lies, Lou is always painfully honest, but he takes responsibility for nothing. He's totally dishonorable and a self-pitying baby to boot. For all of Don's flaws, he does have a conscience when he screws up. Don aims to treat people well, even if he doesn't always manage it. Lou, on the other hand, is worse than Pete Campbell at his worst -- which is saying a lot.

Strangely, Peggy, of all people, mirrors Lou's childishness in this episode. After Shirley admits the flowers are hers and Peggy realizes she's been acting strangely to Ted for no reason, she's so ashamed that she yells at Shirley. "You have a ring on. We all know that you're engaged. You did not have to embarrass me. Grow up." Peggy sounds just like Lou in these moments, but at least she cringes a little afterward. This isn't the first time Peggy is ashamed of being alone; sadly she reacts by kicking the shame down to her underling. This is a classic Bad Don move and may be a sign of more heartless careerist maneuvering by Peggy moving forward.

The injustices hit their all-time peak when Burt Cooper informs Joan that it's unacceptable for a black woman to serve as the firm's front-room receptionist. This not only feels absurdly unfair to Dawn, but also unfair to Joan, who's juggling two jobs and is instructed, repeatedly, to move secretarial staff around for no good reason. In a satisfying and unexpected turn, though, Jim tells Joan to hire someone else as personnel manager and take the office reserved for "an account man" upstairs. Joan needs someone fair and courageous to replace her, so of course she chooses Dawn. And voilà! The two most trampled upon women in the SCP office have just been unexpectedly promoted. Joan tells the truth to Jim and Dawn tells the truth to Lou in front of Joan, and both moves pay off. And sadly, Roger reveals his true nature as a dinosaur when Joan tells him that she's moving upstairs.

This move toward honesty continues with Sally and Don, who share some truly great scenes in this episode. Who better to discover that Don isn't working than Sally, who has a long history of uncovering Don's deceptions? After showing up at Don's office and discovering Lou in it, she waits for Don at his apartment, but doesn't want to confront him about his lies. Instead, she asks him for a note from school. "What's the note supposed to say?" Don asks. "Just tell the truth," Sally replies, which is all she's ever wanted from her dad. And on the drive back to her school, she gives Don a direct lesson in honesty. "How old was your friend's mother?" Don asks. "She's not my friend, she's my roommate," Sally answers. Even though Don doesn't seem like a friend to Sally, either – he's just her dad – the two start acting like friends by the end of the episode, thanks to Don's efforts to tell Sally the truth.

This is the Don we saw at the end of Season 6, showing his kids where he grew up. He not only resolves to go out of his way to focus on his relationship with Sally, but he firmly commits to having a conversation with her and buying her a patty melt, even as she's pushing him away. Sally, meanwhile, takes a call from her so-called friend and realizes that she'd rather confide in her father.

"I don't like you going to funerals," Don says, and it may be the biggest foreshadowing of Don's eventual death since the first time those opening credits rolled. "It was awful," Sally answers honestly, then tells Don, "I only went so I could go shopping." Don sees through that, knowing she's not that into shopping.

"Life goes on." Don tells her, preferring that she look forward and not focus on sadness and death. "I'm so many people," Sally somewhat nonsensically answers. Don's face tells us that he recognizes himself in that statement. This is as honest as these two have ever been with each other, a fleeting moment in which their connection shines through over and above everything else in their lives.

"Happy Valentine's Day," Sally says when she gets out of the car and returns to school. "I love you." "Mad Men" doesn't serve up that many sentimental moments or true confessions, but the show sure makes them count. The look of affection and pain and surprise on Don's face says everything.

The next heartfelt exchange between two characters, though, feels like more foreshadowing. "I'd hate to think of you as an adversary," Jim tells Roger in the elevator. "I'd really hate that," he adds again, with a real note of sincerity in his voice. Jim may be a better liar than even Don, and he's going to have a lot of allies (Joan, for one) if he ever decides to wage a full-on war. Pete is usually right about these things. Roger may regret rolling over because it's "best for the business."  A major rift at SCP feels unavoidable, with allies transforming into adversaries overnight.

But then, no matter how honorable or cautious you try to be in the American marketplace, there's no sidestepping injustice. In late capitalist times, the wheels of progress are fueled by inequity. To hear the characters of "Mad Men" tell it, all you can do is shrug and accept it. Or as Ted puts it, "Just cash the checks, you're going to die someday."

Next on Mad Men: Episode 703

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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