The latest episode of Mad Men picks up with a shot of Don Draper flat on his back – an appropriate position given the state of his emotional and occupational well-being. Don flew to and from California last week and had a fair amount of people to see, places to go – so we couldn’t really grasp the full extent to which his daily life has regressed – and oh, how it has regressed. For the first time since he’s been on leave, we see Don comparatively immobile and stewing in his own juices, and the psychological result is a depressing combo of intensely pathetic and terribly sad. Don bounces between borderline cliché resignation (he spends his morning consuming television and Ritz crackers in his bathrobe) and a startling denial as to his unemployment that reads almost like a twisted role-play. In addition to setting his alarm to 7:30 despite having no place to go, he continues to employ Dawn not only as a secretary but also as his sole window into SC&P. Readying himself in full Don Draper garb for the sole purpose of maintaining his odd ruse for Dawn, the former advertising superstar has fashioned a bizarre charade that serves to soothe his own listlessness and half-fool those who don’t know the bleak truth. He takes lunch meetings with businessmen he’s always been busy enough to spurn in the past, he grills Dawn about office occurrences with obsessive thoroughness, and he flips through magazine ads as if attempting to absorb vestiges of the thrill they once gave him. This is probably (hopefully) as rock bottom as things are going to realistically get, and although difficult to watch at times, it’s a tiny bit satisfying to see the one and only Don Draper standing “outside” on his figurative tip-toes, desperately peering in.
At SC&P, Valentine’s Day and petty misunderstandings agitate the office folk and trigger a sudden trend of secretarial relocation. Peggy finds a vase of roses on her secretary’s desk and immediately jumps to the mistaken conclusions that they’re a) meant for her, and b) from Ted. She spends the episode seething about Ted’s gall and leaving him nasty messages, fussing with the flowers and muttering angrily about artificial holidays. After a few half-hearted and unsuccessful attempts to tell Peggy the truth, Shirley finally comes clean about the roses’ true origin (they’re from her fiancée), and Peggy’s frustration and embarrassment in light of this uncomfortable news prompts her to angrily request a new secretary.
A few desks down, Dawn finds herself in a similar predicament with an angry Lou after her absence leaves him alone and defenseless with a bewildered Sally Draper after she wanders into SC&P seeking train fare. It seems like every time Sally slips in somewhere unannounced, she stumbles upon one of Don’s shameful secrets – this time, it’s the revelation that he’s not working anymore. Dawn returns to the office to meet Lou’s wrath and ends up getting fired, relocated to the front desk, and then eventually to Joan’s office as the new wrangler of personnel (Joan has been promoted to “account-man” and now claims a ritzy upstairs office). Over in California, Pete is highly offended by SC&P’s lack of faith in him when they refuse to give him a Chevy account over Bob Benson. He’s still having plenty of fun with Bonnie Whiteside (whose looks bear an uncanny resemblance to a certain other Mad Men blonde) while Ted is the very picture of misery – “Just cash the checks,” he tells Pete in an attempt to pacify him. “You’re going to die one day.”
The meat of the episode is in Don and Sally’s interactions, laced with overwhelming tension and dominated by awkward silences. Don insists on driving Sally back to school rather than merely supplying her with train money, and it’s just as much a ploy for much-needed company as it is an attempt to heal things with his daughter. The bulk of the trip is spent in cold quiet, with Don occasionally attempting to spark conversation and Sally continually shooting him down. Her disdain for Don stems not just from his betrayal, but also from a deep humiliation and anger at being saddled with the foul secrets that she doesn’t deserve to carry around. Instead of confronting Don as we know she’s capable of, Sally instead chooses to seal herself off from her father and avoid the elephant in the room at all costs. “It’s more embarrassing to catch you in a lie than it is for you to be lying,” she tells him. The pair stops at a diner to eat and the strain between them finally begins to thaw. They talk as freely as can be expected about the Hershey’s fiasco and Don’s increasingly rickety marriage to Megan, reaching a level of calm openness that nobody thought they could achieve. In a final display of fatherly playfulness, Don jokingly suggests that they dine-and-dash, at last prompting an ever-elusive Sally grin. As the remains of his old life lie in ruins all around him, Don realizes that one very crucial relationship is showing signs of rising from the ashes – a possibility that grows stronger when Sally departs with an “I love you,” sent his way.
Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC