Mad Men is a novel on the small screen. Little happens in the text. Much happens in the subtext. Lines that seem to mean nothing can mean everything. The show plumbs the human condition’s depths. “A Day’s Work” was Mad Men at its poignant, minimalist best.
The episode addresses the show’s crucial themes or, more broadly, the fundamental questions of history and philosophy. Are we actors with free will? Are we just plunging toward an ultimate, cold determinist fate? Does truth exist independent of the show put forth for others? Can love pierce through the angst, offering connection and consequence where it appears none exist?
Don informs the McCann executive he is “just looking for love.” It’s a glib retort. But it’s also a direct, earnest and one sentence summation of his life. He finds love by reconnecting with Sally, who ends up on his couch. Sally, for better or worse, is the one character in Don’s life who sees all and still cares. It is flawed, to be sure, but genuine. Sally departs with a seemingly rote “I love you.” But at that moment it hits Don she’s the one person who, in any real sense, does.
As Don strokes his way back toward reality, Peggy drifts further away. She forgets about Valentine’s Day and, as Ginsburg crudely points out, she’s alone. But it goes beyond that. She leaps to a delusion of a lingering romantic struggle with Ted, only to find out, like the rest of her life, there was nothing. The flowers weren’t for her.
For the first time, Peggy’s fate is in her own hands. Yet, she wants to lash out and pretend she’s subject to the cruel whims of others, in this case her soon-to-be-ex secretary Shirley.
Pete elucidates his existential crisis to anyone who will listen. He does not know whether he’s in “heaven, hell or limbo.” He believes that “no one seems to feel his existence.” Of course, Pete has, in fact, done nothing but inflict his existence on others, especially the women in his life. His trouble has been not feeling their or anyone elses’ existence. He feels he is a mere instrument for others, when he has been using others as instruments the whole time.
Ted and Roger, subsumed by their own crises, have little sympathy for Pete. Ted tells him “just cash the checks. You’re going to die one day.” Roger just hangs up on him.
Joan moves upstairs to handle accounts, as Jim Cutler searches for a new ally. Dawn assumes Joan’s role as office manager, since she can’t be out front or working for Lou Avery. Their apparent landmark progress is the result of selfishness and afterthought, rather than a confluence of historical forces.
* Fashion, as always, has been critical. Outfits, hairstyles and automobiles, on trend or in varying degrees of off, place each character in time and place.
* Waiting for Bob Benson’s return. Hoping Lou Avery has an opening credits style tumble awaiting him in the near future.