It’s Valentine’s Day in the second episode of the seventh season of Mad Men. Surprising in a show that works so hard for contemporary authenticity, tethering its characters to moments in American history (we’ve had assassinations, “I Have a Dream,” and, by my count, a moon landing is coming before too long), “A Day’s Work” depicts a yearly event that feels detached from chronological associations. The episode is insular, and the story lines, which develop and resolve themselves within its 45 minutes, parallel those that have been brewing for some time.
A bunch of misinterpreted roses are the primary agitator of office politics. At the end of the season premiere, Peggy Olson, alone in her apartment, sank to her knees in tearful frustration, and this week fares little better. Spotting the roses on her secretary’s desk, and assuming that they have been sent from Ted Chaough, she is made to realise her error. A day that begins with it embarrassment — courtesy of Ginsberg’s cutting quip that “she has plans, look at her calendar! February 14th: masturbate gloomily.” — ends with humiliation and shame, as Ted attempts to get in contact. We are reminded of Peggy’s arc from secretary to creative copywriter in earlier seasons as, now the joint-head of creative, she uses her power to unjustly blame her secretary in the way she so stubbornly resisted as a former underling.
It is the subsequent movement of secretaries that provides most of the show’s in-office story lines, which deftly address some of the continuing tensions. It isn’t just Peggy who wants a new secretary, but when Joan attempts to move Dawn to the position at reception, Bert Cooper pointedly objects.
Shirley and Dawn make light of their situation while making coffee, and in a perceptive moment call each other by their own names, mimicking the ignorance of the white characters that freely muddle the two. It is a great moment in an episode full of them, and demonstrates that the writing has not suffered despite AMC’s increasing curatorial presence. Dawn’s character in particular has been developed with patience over the last couple of seasons, and the sympathy she generates within the audience is finally rewarded by Joan’s decision to promote her, as a form of quiet protest. Never has the show been more heart-warming than during Dawn’s tentative smile as she sits in her new office.
Though many things remain the same in the seventh season, the audience meets the provocations of new boss Lou Avery, who is definitely not the same as old boss Don. As Don’s pretense about still being in work is shattered by Sally’s trip to the office, the episode heads toward a tremendously assured emotional climax, where his attempts to challenge Sally about her whereabouts, but finds that he no longer has the trust and respect, or the power they bring, to extract answers from her. Kiernan Shipka’s acting is pitch-perfect, and there is something tender and disarming about her world-weary delivery that reflects on the actress’s abilities as much as it does the writing of her character. The Don Draper of season seven is forced to accept that his new status demands more listening than talking. Another Valentine’s Day passes him by, and this time it is a reminder of his diminishing future career, Mad Men’s inexorable pace is finally overtaking him.