With advance screeners verboten for the rest of the season, “Mad Men” reviews have taken on a slight “Survivor” element: Take some of the country’s most insightful TV writers, set them in front of their computers at 11 p.m. Eastern, and see what they’ve come up with by morning. (I’m recapping the rest of the season for Rolling Stone; my first review is here.) There are a few counties left to be heard from — Starlee Kine‘s pieces typically drop on Tuesday — but we’ve culled the best from what’s out there, and the results are pretty promising, both in terms of the verdict on “A Day’s Work” and the health of TV criticism as a whole. As with “Breaking Bad,” the reviews of “Mad Men’s” final season feel like the result of a secret pact among TV critics that everyone brings their A game, making reading about the show as fulfilling as watching it.
Scott Meslow, the Week
“Mad Men” has always been interested in the difference between how its characters act and how they feel, but it’s rarely been as explicit as “A Day’s Work,” which embeds that theme into every scene. Nothing can be trusted. Even the episode’s title is a lie; Don’s definition of “a day’s work” seems to peak when he halfheartedly pages through a few magazines. We’ve seen Don get low before, but we’ve never seen his bones stripped so clean.
Alan Sepinwall, HitFix:
Despite — or perhaps because of — how little gets accomplished professionally, this is a marvelous episode of “Mad Men,” so loaded with fine emotional moments both big and small, with intrigue at work and at home that resonates besides having almost nothing to do with who anyone is sleeping with (other than the problem that starts because Shirley has a fiance), and with a sense of hope mixed in with all the existential despair being suffered by Don, Pete and others.
Chris Heller, the Atlantic
This episode was all about how the tiniest, seemingly innocuous disturbances can throw off the orbit of a person’s life, sending him or her careening off and colliding into other people’s paths: a misplaced purse, a malfunctioning conference-call box, a love note removed from a vase of flowers.
Walter Dellinger, Wall Street Journal
One reason that often nothing seems to happen is that nobody seems to be telling the truth. Without truth, there is scant capacity for growth. The show is all about lies, secrets, and misimpressions. Sally lies to Don about where she’s been. Don, more profoundly, lies to Sally about being employed, as he has lied to his wife. Roger lies to Pete about what went on in the meeting when the conference phone was not in fact disconnected. No one seems to offer the truth about who sent flowers to whom.
Linda Holmes, NPR
While there’s a long way to go yet in fleshing out these characters and these stories, Dawn’s promotion and the complexities of Joan and Peggy’s interactions with Dawn and Shirley were a big step forward for “Mad Men” beginning to take the kind of interest in the way flawed people dealt with race — and what that meant for the people they dealt with poorly — that it has with gender from the start.
Willa Paskin, Slate
Lou and Peggy both behave like boss-babies, selfish children who expect someone else to clean up their mess. That someone else being, specifically, Joan. Lou to Joan: “None of this is my problem!” Peggy to Joan: “Just fix it!” And then, the doddering racist white guy icing on the cake, Bert Cooper, who comes into Joan’s office and requests that a white secretary sit at the very front desk.
Meredith Blake, Los Angeles Times
Whether it’s Christmas, Thanksgiving or New Year’s Eve, holidays are always an interesting time on “Mad Men,” and in this case, a day dedicated to love — or at least to selling candy — becomes an ironic device for showing us that just about every white person at Sterling Cooper & Partners is, if not an outright bigot, then at least kind of a complicit jerk.
Maureen Ryan, Huffington Post
The Don-Sally story line — the only “date” on this rather grim Valentine’s Day — wasn’t about the affirmation of a father-daughter bond, it was about Don paying his respects to his dead relationship with his daughter. He thought the one bond that meant the most to him was unfixable. He was wrong. The look on Don’s face is realization that he may be worthy of Sally’s love. But Don has to keep re-learning that it’s possible for him to be loved despite his lies, despite his past, despite his self-hatred.
Todd VanDerWerff, the A.V. Club
“I’m so many people,” Sally tells her father, as way of explanation, but she doesn’t need to tell him, of all people, that. He understands what it is to feel boxed in by who you are and long to become someone else. And yet the Don Draper who might have seen this as a key to escape in the early seasons has been replaced by the Don Draper who stays, hoping to make things right.
Tom Wright-Piersanti, the Star-Ledger
The fall was pretty harsh here — Don’s cringe-inducing lie about his job, their confrontation and battle on the car ride, the first half of dinner — but it’s all worth it to get to that moment where Don gets vulnerable about his career. The outpouring of truth after that is cathartic and affirming for both of them; Sally might as well be Don in a wig when she tells him, “I’m so many people.”
Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture
I don’t think it’s an accident that in this episode, the two most arrogant partners, Don and Roger, get decisively overruled and have to accept it, and that Don’s most vulnerable and intriguingly self-aware moment with Sally comes when he admits that he got fired because he told the truth, but at an inappropriate moment (a mistake that many characters make in this episode). Nor do I think it’s accidental that the melodrama of the reshuffled secretaries and the ultimate recognition of Joan’s true worth were sparked after Don’s daughter (the next generation of Draper; the next generation of American) visited the male-dominated workplace and learned that her dad didn’t have a place there anymore.
Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter
Ultimately, what made this episode work was the closure Don and Sally had on his character — how revealing the dark side to her (by accident) last season woke him to be a better person. Took a long time to come, indeed. She wants to know why he’s no longer at SC&P and Don, exhaling, tells the truth (which, as we know, is all she wants from him). “I didn’t behave well. I said the wrong things to the wrong people at the wrong time.” Sally asks what he said. Don: “I told the truth about myself.”
“A Day’s Work” embodies the best of what Matthew Weiner and the show’s other writers have to offer: dramatically compelling scenes that move the story forward, deepen our understanding of several major characters, and adhere to a tight theme. Sometimes, “Mad Men” stalls out, or sacrifices emotion or suspense just to create a thematic echo chamber. Last night, though, “Mad Men” was firing on all pistons.
Sunday’s off-kilter comic episode plays like a dark, mythic farce, in which puny humans strive for ridiculous glory while fickle, intemperate Madison Avenue gods push people around like chess pieces.
Ben Travers, Indiewire
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.
Starlee Kine, Capital New York
Now he/s been banished to a solitary life, where he grows sicker of himself by the hour. There’s no escaping his own thoughts, every distraction feels like a reproach. He turns on “Little Rascals”and there are he and Peggy conducting a focus group for lemonade. He opens a magazine and sees an ad for soup. “How do you handle a hungry man?”