‘Mad Men’ Recap: Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them

By  · Published on April 21st, 2014


“Elenore,” the 1968 single from The Turtles, does not have a particularly hard edge to it. Because The Turtles were not known for their hard-edged rock. They were known for “Happy Together,” which you’ve all certainly heard because it’s been in roughly eight billion movies, TV shows, commercials and classic rock radio stations. But The Turtles were tired of their bubble-gum pop reputation and their hit single about blue skies and holdin’ your girl real tight. They wanted to branch out and stretch their stylistic limits, much like other bands of the time (bands that rhymed with “The Cheatles”), but their label, White Whale Records, said no.

What The Turtles needed was another “Happy Together.”

So The Turtles wrote another “Happy Together,” a song so sappy and upbeat it could not possibly be taken seriously, a song with lyrics like, “I really think you’re groovy, let’s go out to a movie.” Surely, the world would know that this was a snipe at their previous, sugar-drenched pop.

But they didn’t. The song went all Springtime for Hitler and became a huge hit, with White Whale and general audiences not really noticing that it was supposed to be stupid.

When we hear “Elenore” in last night’s Mad Men (entitled “A Day’s Work”) it has a dual meaning. The song is sugary, but with a hollow center – just like Don and Sally Draper’s state of affairs as it hums from the car stereo on the way back to boarding school. Don thinks he’s doling out a typical father-daughter chastising, but he’s the one who deserves a dressing-down. Sally found out he lost his job, more or less (“Our collective ex-wife who still receives alimony,” according to Jim Cutler). And worse, she’s still wounded- badly, at that- from catching her dad in the throes of extramarital bliss last season.

Don thinks he’s teaching his daughter a lesson, but he comes off like a wrong-headed parody of the ’60s sitcom dad, complete with a hint of the old “rear projection” effect in the car’s rear window.

And like the minor comedy of errors that led to “Elenore” sitting at the top of the charts, two twin sets of mistakes lie at the heart of “A Day’s Work.” One is Peggy, Shirley and a few long-stemmed roses that really should not have been separated from their card. And two is Don and his decision to keep the whole “semi-fired” thing close to his chest. Let’s start with Don since that’s what “A Day’s Work” does.

Anyone who’s wondered what a Don Draper does when he can’t be Don Draper, wonder no more. The epitome of cool sleeps until noon and munches Ritz crackers while watching The Little Rascals (no doubt, something a young Dick Whitman saw when he could scrape a few cents together). Before, his windows didn’t work. Now, I’m guessing they still don’t, given his newfound roach problem. He’s even marking the volume on his Canadian Club, for reasons I can’t quite wrap my head around (saving on liquor money? Watching his alcohol intake? Slowly succumbing to cabin fever?). But of course, no one can know he’s fallen on hard times – not his family, not even those from work who can clearly tell he’s fallen on hard times, so he preens himself up for the world’s saddest check-up from Dawn.

“No, I can’t stay for coffee.

No, Mohawk met in the conference room.

No, I can’t take your money.

Okay, okay, I’ll take the money.”

As if that handful of bills will really keep his seat warm at SC&P. It’s this great fib that lets Sally venture too close to his old office and into the unrelentingly crappy gaze of Lou Avery (who, despite that Mr. Rogers vest last week, is so opposed to children that letting one into his office is a near-fireable offense). This lets us have several scenes of quality time with one of this show’s strongest pairings: Don Draper and his surprisingly un-Don Draper-like daughter. Granted, their conversation in the car got a little messy, but dinner is how this forlorn, powerless Don gets his groove back. At least for a little bit.

Like last season’s finale, Don’s able to open up to his daughter and say a few sentences that are 100% lie-free, giving a vague outline of why he’s no longer at SC&P. But then, he’s able to sense some of what might be digging at Sally – the funeral she turned into a shopping trip (remember when Grandpa Gene died and Sally went a little crazy? Don does). And he one-ups his own good intuition, realizes that his teenage daughter needs a little adventure, and gives her some in the form of an impromptu dine-and-dash. It’s enough to earn both a “happy Valentine’s Day” and an “I love you,” which is no small feat. Which is where we leave our erstwhile protagonist, as Jon Hamm knocks another series of deeply expressive eye movements out of the park, and the piano chords of The Zombies’ “This Will be Our Year” begin chunking away (long gone are the times when this series might have any jazz on the soundtrack).

On the other side of the emotional spectrum is Peggy, caught in a separate yet equally tangled web of lies. Like Sally, she’s acting on false info, sending vaguely coded messages to Ted (who genuinely thinks they’ve lost an account) and ruining an entire workday because a few flowers snowballed into a giant stress headache in her brain. She’s a severely frazzled bundle of nerves, but unlike Don and his own set of problems, Peggy’s life snafu is where “A Day’s Work” brings the jokes. The creative team all get in their one-liners (Stan, upon seeing the flowers: “Hard to believe your cat has the money”), and the situation leads to a sharp little moment when Dawn and Shirley use each other’s names. I’m guessing that happens about ten times a day.

Despite Peggy’s severe emotional distress, her screen time last night was fraught with comedic tension, not dramatic tension (that was saved for Don and Sally). Then, the two storylines switch for the wrap-up. The dramatic lies finish all warm and fuzzy, and the comedic lies finish with Peggy screaming at her coworkers and feeling terrible about herself. They run point and counterpoint throughout the episode in a terrific bit of scripting by Jonathan Igla and Matthew Weiner.

And all these myriad mistakes by the SC&P staff lead to two major shakeups, in the ascension of Dawn and Joan to higher offices. Joan’s upward mobility was hinted at last week, but Dawn’s was the big surprise, and both hold huge potential for this first half-season thing. While stories on Mad Men tend to move glacially, given the series’ slower pacing and its tendency to leave month-long gaps (like this one) between episodes, Peggy’s development from naive secretary into screaming mad copy chief was a straight arrow. Or straight-ish, anyway. Compared to someone like Pete, who’s been doing the “woe is me” thing for years, and Roger, who’s getting less and less screen time each season, a pair of characters with huge narrative potential is a wonderful thing.

“A Day’s Work” even gives each woman a shiny new source of conflict for the coming weeks. For Joan: Roger and Jim Cutler have begun a slow siege on each other, and something tells me their battle will be several shades uglier now that a new accounts woman is making waves. For Dawn: Now that Bert Cooper’s official policy on black employees is “not where people might see them,” a black woman with her name printed on her office door is probably not going to go over well. Also, because this series is at its best in those little dialogue-free moments, pay special attention to Teyonah Parris (who plays Dawn) when she starts beaming at her new desk. Can’t help but smile with her.

The one sore spot in “A Day’s Work” is the time we spend out in sunny LA. Without Don and Megan (like last week), our only outlet to the other coast is Pete Campbell, and Pete squanders most of this hour doing the same things he’s always done. For a second, it looks like he’s actually Mr. California Cool; putting the moves on his new real estate squeeze while Ted is perilously close by. But once again, he’s undercut by Bob Benson, and once again Pete must bemoan the terrible state of his career to anyone within earshot.

Pete Campbell has been doing this for almost as long as Pete Campbell has existed in the public eye. And while that might make perfect sense from a character standpoint (and it totally does), hearing someone whine “no one’s paying attention to meeeeee” for several season of TV becomes grating after a very short while. There’s but one season left to see something (anything) new from Pete. Let’s hope the queen of LA real estate is the one to coax it out of him.

But aside from that little black mark, this season’s two for two so far. “A Day’s Work” lacks the big oomph of story that last week had, but that’s to be expected. And giving Joan and Dawn some new digs is plenty oomph enough for now.

My one hope for episode three: let’s find out what the hell’s up with those liquor bottles.