By Ben Travers | Indiewire April 21, 2014 at 11:36AM
"Is this a joke? Just tell me now because I don't want to have to fire you later."
Peggy was on edge for most of Sunday's night episode of "Mad Men," illustrating "A Day's Work" was much less about business than personal quibbles and long-running disputes. For Peggy's part, the episode illustrated her hang ups with Ted, a relationship that's affected her more than she led on in the finale of season six or even the premiere episode of season seven. We saw her break down into tears last week, but it felt more like an exhausted surrender than a pointed admittance of loneliness or heartbreak. Now, on Valentine's Day, Peggy's mistaken assumption that the dozen red roses waiting "for her" on her secretary's desk indicated a willingness for the California-livin' Ted to rekindle a romance was as embarrassing for her as watching her request a new secretary was for the audience.
Unfair? Certainly. Cold? Without a doubt. But would you expect anything more from the self-refuted protege of Don Draper?
Unlike Don, her romantic entanglement was a misunderstanding. Ted called to straighten it out, but we never see the married man during Peggy's back-and-forth with her secretary. When we do finally see him, he seems bored, completely unconcerned with the miscommunications between the New York and L.A. office. In a rather amusing scene for anyone who's struggled to be heard on a conference call, Ted and Pete try to speak with Roger, Joan, and the rest of the New York office only to call it quits when technical issues allow the already bungled discussion to end (though the laugh out loud moment of the night came when Roger purposefully disconnected from Pete, dropping the phone in the cradle in classic Roger fashion when he didn't want to deal with disagreement).
It's sweet to hear Roger halfheartedly defend Don, especially when Jim labels him "our collective ex-wife who still receives alimony." Roger's first scene, when he walks into the office and cracks a joke only to be met with an icy response, also made me think perhaps Don's 'ol buddy is ready to welcome back his favorite drinking partner.
Speaking of the cool-as-ice leading man, Don had his hands full with a work briefing from loyal Dawn (arguably the star of this week's episode) and an unexpected visit from his daughter, Sally. Don opened up to his children at the end of last season, showing them the house he grew up in, but there's still a running tension between father and daughter from Sally catching Don with their neighbor. Some of those issues boil to the surface in "A Day's Work" -- namely, when Sally sharply confesses how hard it was for her to return home, fearing the sight of another tryst. Don apologizes, in the offhand kind of way he usually does, but it's not a reason to dump on the man who's already as low as he can get. In Don's mind, he covered this by letting Sally into his life like never before. He lets her in further during the conversation at the diner, telling her about his current status at work. Apparently, it worked: The most startling moment of an otherwise calm show was when Sally exits the car to return to school and offhandedly tells her dad she loves him. It catches Don off guard, but clearly leaves an impact. Unlike last week with Don masochistically freezing to death on his balcony, "A Day's Work" ends on a hopeful note.
One could easily assume this week's "Mad Men" was less about Don than the supporting characters. But this is Don's world and everyone else is just living in it. Peggy's woes are in part because of her own inability to accept who she is (Don's well-groomed successor). The kicker to Sally's storyline was telling her father she loves him. The only character whose progress isn't solely related to Don Draper is Dawn -- though her ascension in the ranks should please him considering how eager he is for the detailed inside scoop -- a notable twist considering the association they've shared since we first heard the feminine version of Don's name: Don/Dawn. Conspiracy theorists have most likely already plotted an ending where they walk hand and hand into the sunset, setting an ideal example of the American melting pot.
Minorities do have the only other claim to relevance in "A Day's Work," though. Dawn and Shirley's interactions with their bosses reflect as much about their characters as they do about their superiors at work. Peggy has clearly gone over the edge, and she knows it. After accusing Shirley of flaunting the fact she's engaged by wearing her wedding ring and telling her to "grow up," Peggy retreats to her office and hates herself for what she said. It's as though she can feel her mentor's worst tendencies taking over her life, and there's nothing she can do to stop it.
On the other side of things, Don's created such a harmonious relationship with Dawn that she doesn't even want his money. She sees the trips to his apartment and sharing of information as part of her job, and after her justified telling off of Lou Avery we know she's not afraid to speak her mind. In the end, neither Dawn or Shirley are scared at all. They say what's fair and needs to be heard, marking one of the few times black voices are prominently heard on "Mad Men." This isn't a complaint. Matthew Weiner and company have proven their awareness of racial progress throughout the '60s, and have given it more distinction as the decade and series come to a close. White males still rule the roost, as we discouragingly saw when Lou asked Dawn to be reassigned and then Bert "requested" her removal from the welcome desk because "people can see her from the elevator." But Shirley and Dawn's assertiveness -- as well as scenes like the one in the kitchen told from their perspective -- show their time is coming, even if sacrifices are required along the way.
Dawn's assumed inheritance of Joan's old job as Head of Personnel certainly indicates a leap forward. If the move was made by anyone else, it could be seen as an attempt to hide her, per Bert's request. But not Joan. Sure, she identified with Dawn and Shirley as a former secretary. She's ready for her role at the company to be significant. Joan's done with silly personnel battles, instead choosing to take an office upstairs as a member of the sales team. Her rise to power continues, and it couldn't be a more welcome sight. While the episode superficially rolled out slowly with few momentous twists or marked comedic moments to jolt the viewer out of a late night daze, women in the workplace -- Joan, Dawn, Shirley, and even Peggy, whose taste of power may have corrupted the caring girl who shared a beer with Dawn a few years back -- got their due while Don's own relationship with the fairer sex continued to develop. Groundwork was laid, and while it may not have been all fun and games, "A Day's Work" got the job done.
Criticwire Grade: B