Smart Mad Men Recap: S3E2, “A Day’s Work”

SPOILER ALERT: It’s Valentine’s Day on Mad Men.

Mad Men

Don (Jon Hamm) and Sally (Kiernan Shipka) discover their french fries are cold. So are their feelings.

“Just tell the truth,” Sally tells Don. And then, miraculously, he does.

A lot can happen in a day’s work, and a lot does in “A Day’s Work,” the second installment of the penultimate season of Mad Men. (I’m calling bullshit on AMC’s seven-episodes-this-year, seven-episodes-next-year crap. It’s seasons 7 and 8, smartass.) The show’s writing is in top form, and seems poised to show off each cast member’s unique talents. This week we were served high-stakes office politics, petty office politics, and a whole lot of kickass character development in one of Mad Men’s most fascinating and crucial relationships.

But this week was remarkable for throwing in a rare morsel of racial politics as well. Some people may say waiting seven years to write a scene between two characters of color is too little too late, and I happen to be one of those people. After Dawn was introduced in season five and then promptly relegated to the background, there was no hope of seeing a fully fleshed-out nonwhite character on this show. The layers of subtext in Dawn and Shirley’s innocent exchange in the break room – coyly calling each other by their own names – felt like such a welcome new dynamic in a show that has so obviously been afraid of dealing with Black America in the 60’s.

As usual, the show brings up racial issues among its white characters, as when Joan asks Bert, with obvious sarcasm, “Do you want me to dismiss her based on the color of her skin?” It shouldn’t be so difficult, Mr. Weiner, to incorporate perspectives of nonwhite people in a show about an era of intense cultural change, to talk about race rather than around it. Or, if you don’t feel like discussing racism, include characters of color in situations that have nothing to do with race, like Shirley’s mixup with Peggy! The potential for diversity is and always has been there. Teyonah Parris is is a capable actress, and Shirley’s hair is fabulous in the extreme. (Seriously, between the Afro and the eye-popping dress, best look of the episode goes to her.) My point is, we’re in the home stretch now, but this is a thematic well Mad Men really should have drawn from more often.

I take back what I said last week about jobless Don being a hungry wolf. How sad is it that he has to get all groomed for a two-minute conversation with Dawn? Gorging on Ritz crackers all day is one thing, but loosening your tie and turning the TV back on right after the only human interaction you’ve had all day is another level of soul-crushing. Turns out no one outside SC&P knows about Don’s status as the “ex-wife who still receives alimony,” as Jim puts it. Sally certainly doesn’t, and her arrival in the office – reminiscent of when she ran away in season four – is full of distressing confusion. I found myself DEVASTATED when she asked Lou where Joan was, because it meant we were deprived a scene between those two actresses.

At this point an Emmy isn’t enough for Kiernan Shipka. How, how, how did Matt Weiner find such an astonishing actress so young?? That heavily green-screened scene in the car was just a master class. “Do you know how hard it was for me to go to your apartment? I could have run into that woman,” she says, struggling to restrain her agony. Jon Hamm’s forte is in conveying worlds of emotion with the subtlest of facial contortions, and Miss Kiernan – whose physical resemblance to her screen mother and father also boggles the mind – has of course mastered the art.

Sally is completely unafraid of Don, and as they make their way back to boarding school, completely unafraid of revealing how much he ultimately matters to her. In the diner we see an intricate, steady transition from moody teenagerhood to a kind of begrudging chumminess, and it’s satisfying to see Don’s honesty as the clear catalyst. If this is a show that likes to play with the question, “Can people change?” this episode seems to be pointing to “yes.”

It also includes possibly the best ending line Mad Men’s ever had, and a signal for a huge turning point for Don. Sally doesn’t hug him or kiss him on the cheek, but somehow, wishing him a happy Valentine’s Day and saying, “I love you” in her characteristic monotone is such an unexpected yet totally fitting moment towards which the entire series has been building. What a spectacular episode for Kiernan Shipka and Jon Hamm. Here’s hoping we see more resolution between Don and the most important woman in his life.

  • Peggy. Get your shit together. From the moment you realized it was Valentine’s Day on that elevator, you were a sad, hot mess. Seriously you looked like a raging bull in Joan’s office. Get your shit together.
  • Conference call shenanigans are hilarious.
  • So Bonnie’s pretty fierce. It’s rare to see a woman on this show who is confident in her career and herself; we’re used to timidity or housewifery, and so is Pete. Maybe she can help ease his temper tantrums.
  • “Jesus, Draper, is this your first funeral?” belongs on a T-shirt.
  • So does “Just cash the checks, you’re gonna die someday,” but it’s surprising and disheartening to hear that from Ted.
  • Suddenly Dawn is head of personnel! Was she the most qualified to take over, or did Joan promoting her have to do with undermining the repugnant Lou? Either way, werk it girl.
  • How weird and wonderful to see Jim, of all people, realize Joan works her ass off. “I’m not complaining.” “Maybe you should!” PREACH. Christina Hendricks looked like she was floating up to that second-floor office. Girl, you betta werk it too.

One thought on “Smart Mad Men Recap: S3E2, “A Day’s Work”

  1. Great review. Perfect thing for the post episode buzz. Helps me sort it out and get things I missed, like when I used to read Pop Candy after every episode of Lost. I would only add that the impact of Sally’s last line was doubled when one of my favorite songs by the Zombies kicked in over the credits, the lush and brightly hopeful This Will Be Our Year.

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