Episode Two of this season’s Mad Men could have been titled “For Love or Money.” On Valentine’s Day 1969, some of the folks at Sterling, Cooper & Partners are clearly doing their jobs just for the money. Others are doing their jobs for love of the job, or for love of someone on the job.

The episode’s actual title is “A Day’s Work,” evoking the mock-satisfaction of a job done but not well done (or even worth the doing). Much of the “work” in this office amounts to going through the motions, shuffling papers or—for office manager Joan Harris—shuffling secretaries.

And one could argue that this screenplay, even more than the average Mad Men screenplay, amounts to a shuffling of characters and themes. We’ll get back to that.

Don Draper, still on involuntary indefinite leave from SC&P, is going on lunch dates with men from other agencies. He is “looking for love,” as he puts it—and by “love” he means “steady work as an ad man.” He does it for love because he already has the money. As a partner at SC&P, he still gets paid despite his split from the agency. He is, as Accounts guru Jim Cutler puts it, “our collective ex-wife, who still receives alimony.”

Back at 783 Park Avenue, Apartment 17B, we see what “a day’s work” entails for Don. He rises at 12:34 to breakfast in his pajamas on whiskey and Ritz crackers. He spends the afternoon and evening drinking more whiskey and paging through magazine advertisements (“working”), until finally he gets dressed as though for work—to receive his sometime secretary Dawn, who knocks at 8:00 bearing updates from SC&P.

Dawn is covering the desk of Don’s successor Lou Avery, but she remains Don’s “girl” in the office—still Don’s semi-secretary and still his Girl Friday. Her mission, euphemistically, is to “answer your phone and keep you up-to date.” Translation: Mild espionage (“up-to-date”) and lying to the wife when she calls the office from California because you haven’t told her about your break from the agency (“your phone”). Dawn does all of this for love (loyalty and affection). SC&P does not pay her extra for the extra work, and she is reluctant to accept remuneration from Don personally: “There’s something about the money that makes it feel wrong.” Is it the espionage? Or is it that doing for money what you would do for love always feels dirty?

The subtext of this scene is the idiom “working girl.” In the very next scene, one of Sally Draper’s schoolmates points out the ambiguity of the term: “[My mother] says, ‘You look like a working girl,’ and I thought she meant I looked ‘low-class,’ like a secretary. But [turns out] she meant a prostitute!” Indeed.

The term “girl,” colloquial for “secretary,” gets quite a workout in this episode—which is full of “girl” trouble. As long as Dawn is working as a “girl” at SC&P, her homonymous first name ensures that the halls will still echo with “Don.” (Close enough.) The besweatered Lou Avery, who succeeded Don as Creative Director, feels the spectral presence of a better ad man. He takes it out on Dawn, deciding in this episode that he is tired of “sharing” her. He fusses to Joan: “I want my own girl!” Joan “shuffle[s] the girls” to accommodate.

Elsewhere, more girl trouble. The role of Bitter Spinster was played in this episode by Peggy Olson. Having no plans for Valentine’s weekend, Peggy is surprised and charmed to find a vase of roses on her secretary’s desk—until it occurs to her to source them to Ted Chaough, the boss who loved and left her. Phoning California, Peggy uses the language of the job to communicate aloofness in love: “Tell him that I got his message—no, tell him that I relayed his message to the client, and . . . there’s nothing he can do. There’s not—they don’t want to hear any more pitches. The business is gone.” Of course she has made a sitcom-grade mistake: The roses on her secretary’s desk were actually for her secretary, Shirley. Learning this, Peggy pitches a spinster-fit: “You have a ring on. We all know that you’re engaged. You did not have to embarrass me.” Poorly Written Bitter Spinster. Peggy demands that Joan take Shirley off her desk—so Joan reshuffles the girls to accommodate.

Leading to yet more girl trouble—which is also race trouble, and all in a day’s work for Joan (and the screenwriters). Dawn and Shirley happen to be the two black secretaries in the pool. When Joan shuffles Dawn out to reception, Randian lion Bert Cooper notices that “people can see her from the elevator.” To Joan: “I’m all for the national advancement of colored people, but I do not believe they should advance all the way to the front of this office.” Joan: “I’m sorry. Do you want me to dismiss her based on the color of her skin?” Cooper: “I’m merely suggesting a re-arrangement of your re-arrangement.” A reshuffle of the reshuffle, epitomizing the drudgery that is still Joan’s job, though she is a partner now and has one foot in Accounts.

So with “A Day’s Work,” we finally have a Mad Men episode that thematizes racism. Many viewers have noted this fact appreciatively; others may find the sociopolitcal material unsatisfactory. The flashpoint is provided by Bert Cooper, a marginal character in the office and the series. The joke about Cooper is that he is a partner emeritus, shuffling around SC&P in stocking feet. So overt racism is quarantined reassuringly in a character who is already a fossil in 1969, and in whom viewers have no investment. The Characters We Like are comfortably (comfortingly) on Our Side. On Park Avenue, Don has exhibited a relaxed affinity, a respectful gratitude and friendly interest, toward Dawn. And, back in the office: “Do you want me to dismiss her based on the color of her skin?” Go Joan!!!! This is sitcom-grade again (“A very special episode of Mad Men”).

One possible exception to the Characters-We-Like rule is Peggy: We are permitted to speculate that maybe she would have behaved less absurdly to a white secretary. But here we encounter a bad-writing problem. Peggy’s possibly-maybe racism was broached more compellingly in Season Five, Episode Four, when she did Dawn the favor of putting her up for the night—then awkwardly displayed reluctance to leave her purse in the room where Dawn was sleeping. It was a complex, plausible, and excruciating character note for a Character We Like, and as such it forced us to consider how we may be like her. It was a cut above the chronological snobbery Mad Men often serves up as sociopolitical critique, and it was several cuts above the cartoon-spinster conduct of Peggy in this episode.

After all that shuffling, the day and the episode end with two vertical moves. Joan has been working two jobs, as Jim Cutler observes: She has been a glorified secretary, and she has been an unglorified Accounts Exec. Cutler invites her to move up, literally and figuratively, to the vacant “account man’s” office on the floor above. She does—and she promotes Dawn to replace her as office manager. At the end of the day (literally and figuratively), two women are movin’ on up.

So are we making progress? Are our characters getting somewhere professionally, developing psychologically? Is society, and is Mad Men, approaching some sociopolitical insight? One hopes. But this week, what we got was the Office Shuffle—perfunctory themes and thin characterization. Without real introspection, there can be no real progress; this is what people say is the lesson of Mad Men. Someone please tell the Mad Men writers’ room, in which, one imagines, everyone was satisfied that they had earned their paychecks. All in a day’s work! Clocking out.

Articles by Julia Yost

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