MAD MEN Debriefing: Between the lines

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If last week’s episode of Mad Men was all about keeping up appearances, this week’s was all about miscommunication.

Courtesy AMC

Courtesy AMC

An intercontinental partners’ meeting goes haywire, thanks to staticky speakerphones garbling everyone’s words, and perhaps even their intent. This sets the stage for all manner of misunderstandings in the hour. Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) is excited about landing the Southern California GM dealership association, an account which we learn would bill nearly as much as SC&P’s current Chevy account on its own. As always, Roger (John Slattery) can’t take the kid seriously, insisting they go through Detroit and Bob Benson (BOB BENSON!) before making any decisions. Ted (Kevin Rahm), naturally, is trying to broker peace between his officemate and their East Coast counterparts, over bickering partners, lost sound and confused secretaries. They decide to table the decision until Monday, but Roger later has other plans.

Pete, unsurprisingly, takes offense to this, irked that he isn’t being taken seriously and that his major coup isn’t acknowledged by New York. A frustration he takes out on realtor girlfriend Bonnie (Jessy Schram), who deftly reminds him that the thrill of disaster is what spurs on their respective sales careers. Pete, though, exclaims to Ted that they should just start their own agency, where they can be their own bosses, and I’m still expecting this to come to fruition one way or another by season’s end. He’s sick of being taken for granted, and one would expect he’s going to crack sooner rather than later.

Courtesy AMC

Courtesy AMC

Don (Jon Hamm) continues to loaf, acting like every college freshman before him: sleeping until noon, chasing breakfast with Canadian Club (bottle marked to watch consumption), and sitting around in his underwear all day, until he forces himself into a suit to feign productivity when Dawn (Teyonah Parris) shows up after-hours for a surreptitious progress report on the happenings at SC&P. As usual, she is still the paragon of morality: she’s loyal to Don despite his ousting and will absolutely help him keep on top of work, but refuses to be paid for her off-books assistance. Unlike most characters on this show, she is upfront with her intentions and her limits. Where Don’s always used his money to make things right in any situation, Dawn demonstrates how simply being a good person can go a long way, too.

Courtesy AMC

Courtesy AMC

However, being a good person is not without its perils, especially when one works at SC&P. Her covering for Don with Sally (more on that later) gets her in hot water with Lou Avery (Allan Havey), who now scoffs at having to “share” her with the firm’s absentee creative director, even more so when she stands up to him for being a total jerk. It’s a moment that definitely makes the audience cheer, while simultaneously shake their heads, because there was only one way that could have ended. Sure enough, Lou forces Joan (Christina Hendricks) to reassign Dawn, as punishment for her imagined transgressions against him by apparently not foreseeing when a title partner’s teenage daughter would happen to stroll into what used to be her father’s office in the middle of a weekday. (Albeit Valentine’s Day.)

Unfortunately, Lou isn’t the only one making his secretary pay the price for his frustrations. Poor Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) first breaks our hearts by pulling the “I’m totally fine that it’s Valentine’s Day and I’m forever alone” act, badly, but then she makes us wince in an all-too-familiar gag when she mistakes her secretary Shirley’s (Sola Bamis) flowers as her own. It’s not just that she doesn’t once think those card-less flowers on Shirley’s desk might not be for her; it’s that she makes such a big deal over them for the rest of the day, even after the eventual reveal. In a comedy of errors, she believes the roses are from Ted, toying with her emotions from California, and she answers him back in the guise of a work memo about a client not wanting their business anymore. Which only confuses him even more, since, as we know, he most certainly did not send her any gifts, and now thinks they’re losing another client for real. Oh, Peggy.

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When Shirley finally fesses up about the flowers being from her fiancé, Peggy chews her out for embarrassing her in public — even though Peggy is the one who made matters worse by drawing attention to it in the middle of the bullpen. Instead of apologizing for accidentally stealing Shirley’s flowers, Peggy makes everything all about herself and how this reflects upon her, not unlike her egotistical mentor Don. It’s not a side to Peggy we like to watch, but it’s not unheard of either. (Remember when she worried over leaving her purse out in the open when Dawn spent the night in her apartment?) She runs into Joan’s office on the heels of Lou’s outburst, and stubbornly demands she also reassign Shirley. Joan’s had enough of all of their selfish whining blaming her competent secretaries for their mistakes.

Dealing with other people’s problems is, of course, what has made Joan’s career. As I said last week, her co-workers don’t recognize how essential her work is to their day-to-day lives, and Peggy’s tantrum in her office is proof of that. Curiously, though, one person who does seem to understand Joan’s building frustration is Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin). Her office in the middle of the bustle of the creative department is emblematic of her problems at SC&P in general; nobody takes her seriously because she’s literally in the middle of the hallway, with people breezing in and out of her office in transit, pinning their demands on her while heading to the copier.

Courtesy AMC

Courtesy AMC

Jim notices this, and offers her her own office upstairs with Accounts since she’s handling Avon now, which Joan happily accepts. I hope Joan’s keeping her eyes open, because this all seems too convenient at the moment and I sense some ulterior motives afoot. I have to admit, I’m not entirely sure what Jim’s game is here. Sure, he could be a forward-thinking visionary who recognizes that Joan’s going to need a carrot to keep handling the preschool that is Sterling Cooper & Partners. Yet, I can’t help but feel this is a power play of his against Roger; after all, he ominously warns the latter in the elevator that he would “hate for [them] to become adversaries.” What better way to stick it to Roger than by plopping his former mistress into the office next door?

As in the season premiere, we see that Don can’t completely leave work behind either, still seemingly analyzing print ads and daytime TV for inspiration for his next big pitch. However, his current status comes back to bite him when Sally (Kiernan Shipka) unexpectedly finds him at home on a weekday afternoon, knowing this is bad news for his career. Grown-up cigarette-smoking Sally is playing hooky from school (actually, playing hooky from her roommate’s mother’s funeral, ouch), but a lost purse means she has to find her dad at work for train fare back to boarding school, which is when she discovers he no longer has an office. (Lou, of course, answers her as nicely as he does Dawn.) Sally’s always had the remarkable ability to see right through her father, which is why she doesn’t buy his excuses when she finds him “home sick.” Don doesn’t pass up the opportunity to spend time with his daughter, though, and offers to drive her back home, even if she’s still giving him the cold shoulder she’s been passing his way ever since she caught him fooling around with Sylvia (Linda Cardellini) last season.

Sally has perfected the sullen teenager act, and is snotty with her father on the ride up, which ticks Don off a little. That is, until Sally lashes out that she’s really terrified that she’s going to run into Sylvia at any minute when she’s at her dad’s, or that she’ll “smell [Sylvia’s] perfume” and relive that day, and she generally breaks all of our hearts, because we can see how much Don’s philandering has hurt her. Her walking in on her dad and his mistress last season was the moment he was knocked off his pedestal for her, and she’s clearly still reeling from learning he isn’t infallible. It’s part of growing up, but for someone who worshipped her father as much as Sally did, it’s no wonder she’s acting out with snark and smokes. Kiernan Shipka was especially fantastic in this reveal; she’s grown exponentially as an actress every season, and is handling Sally’s turmoil with such grace.

Courtesy AMC

Courtesy AMC

Don is gobsmacked by his daughter’s revelation, and he tries hard, or as hard as someone like Don can, to level with her. He admits to Sally at their diner pit stop that he behaved badly at work and disclosed things about his past to clients that cost him his job, and I particularly liked that when Sally asks what exactly he said, he answers her “nothing you don’t already know.” I found that a nice nod to last season’s finale, when Don took his kids to visit the house in which he grew up in an attempt to share his history with them. (I do wonder just how much Sally knows, though. Would Don really confess his whorehouse upbringing to her?) She then astutely questions why he doesn’t just move to California to be with Megan, if he doesn’t have work anymore, and when he tells her he really just wants them to live in New York, it’s obvious his daughter knows before her father even does that their marriage is over. Wise-beyond-her-years Sally asks him if he still loves Megan, and I think she can tell he’s paying lip service to that. (Not to get too philosophical, but the only woman Don has ever really loved is sitting across the table for him at that diner.)

The Don-Sally relationship has always been the true heart of Mad Men. While saying that she keeps him honest would be a stretch, because that’s probably impossible for Don, she’s as close as he ever really gets. He reveals parts of himself with ease to her that he never can without extensive cost to anyone else. More than that, though, he wants to have that kind of relationship with her, at least for fleeting moments before his inherent Don-ness takes over again. Like when he took her to visit Anna’s house in California, or to his old stomping grounds last year, he pretends that he’s a better person than he really is when he’s around her, trying not to let his upbringing and his mistakes taint her. Sally can root to the truth of him with surprising perceptiveness for someone so young; she really is his Greek chorus.

Courtesy AMC

Courtesy AMC

Once she decides her dad is being straight with her, her surliness abates, and we even get a glimpse of Old Sally when she falls for her dad’s attempt to Dine and Dash, rewarding him with a smile we haven’t seen from her in what feels like ages. She knows her dad isn’t perfect by a long shot, but she loves him, plain and simple. That unqualified, unsolicited “I love you” as she bounces up the steps back to school punches Don in the gut. He knows he doesn’t necessarily deserve that, but Sally is the only person who has loved him unconditionally from day one, and one would hope this whole affair has made him realize he’s coming dangerously close to losing that forever if he doesn’t nurture that bond with her.

(Sidebar: did anyone else get a chill when Don told Sally he didn’t like her going to funerals, and hoped she wouldn’t have to anymore?)

“A Day’s Work” is never done, especially not on such an advertising-heavy holiday as Valentine’s Day. Mad Men has often framed episodes through a holiday, but this was a decidedly unconventional approach to Cupid. While the secretaries get flowers from their loved ones, Peggy’s sad and lonely, Lou’s going through the motions for his wife, and Don can barely remember he’s married. Yet Sally’s simple three words to her dad demonstrate what Don has really been after all this time, even if he doesn’t know it. Someone to know who he is, and love him for it anyway.

Many balls are in the air right now, and it’s going to be interesting to see how they’re juggled going forward.

Even if Bob Benson has to come back to do it.

Nels
Nels knew how to operate a TV remote control before she knew how to talk. As a result, she has spent an inordinate amount of time pretending she actually lives on a soundstage. When she isn’t watching whichever show is currently capturing her heart, she is writing about how said show is currently capturing her heart. She loves pie.

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