Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 7.2
"The Working Day"
Guest Writer: Corey K. Creekmur

Monday, April 21, 2014

posted under , , , , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[The second in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 7 of AMC's Mad Men, posted in collaboration with the publication of MAD MENMAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press, March 2013) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]

"The Working Day"

Written by: Corey K. Creekmur (University of Iowa) 

“ … in secret as it were, the contraband of modes of behavior proper to the domain of work, which will not let people out of its power, is being smuggled into the realm of free time.”

-- Theodor W. Adorno, “Free Time

Everyone agrees: last week’s season-launching episode, “Time Zones,” was a bummer, to use a term current in early 1969, when this final (half) season of Mad Men begins. “This is the end,” Jim Morrison was already announcing in 1967, the actual musical touchstone for the episode’s two framing songs, by the Spencer Davis Group and the Vanilla Fudge. Or at least this is the beginning of the end for Mad Men, and the rather grim episode seemed to announce that the last season would trace a downward spiral. Grounded in its historical moment by Richard Nixon’s January 20th inauguration (another beginning of the end of an era, perhaps), we might, in the time travel we conduct in the consumption of historical fictions, remember what is coming, since our past is these characters’ immediate future: not just the cultural high points of the Apollo 11 moon landing or Woodstock, but the Manson Family murders and Altamont (both in California, of course, now one of the series’ regular locations).

Among the major characters, “Time Zones” left Don Draper looking terrible and alone on his freezing New York City balcony, while simultaneously across town Peggy Olson broke down in her lonely apartment. Back at the office, an overworked and one-eyed Ken Cosgrove complained that he doesn’t even have time to take a crap, and for all of her efforts for the firm, Joan Harris is again reminded that she isn’t the boss. Only Pete Campbell in Los Angeles (feeling good vibrations, unlike everyone else) and Roger Sterling in New York seemed to be having some fun at the tail end of the 1960s, Pete by comically assimilating to a California lifestyle (Don cluelessly calls him a hippie), and Roger by fully indulging in the last gasp of the free love movement. Don – previously suave and smartly dressed – now seems fully out of time and place, arriving in LA (in an homage to Benjamin Braddock’s return home from school at the start of The Graduate [1967]) in a suit and hat (a hat! in 1969!) that now render him entirely uncool, especially in contrast to Megan’s trendy mini-dress. Perhaps the most telling evidence of a drastic shift in the energies of Mad Men’s final season is marked later in the episode when Don chooses work over sex; moreover, across the entire episode, all the characters are eating more than they are drinking, like never before.

Indeed, following the example of Don’s sexual restraint (and pathetic monitoring of his alcohol intake by marking his bottles), it’s back to work for everyone in the subsequent episode entitled “A Day’s Work.” But in this episode nothing works. In “The Working Day,” Chapter 10 of Capital, Marx examines the unique temporality developed in the history of capitalism, which redefined time itself in terms of the value to be derived from the control of (and class struggle over) concepts like the working day and work week, which increasingly and precisely monitored time devoted to labor. However, in the struggles between capital (for a longer working day) and labor (for a shorter working day), it was persistently revealed that the length of “the working day” was a mutable, contested entity that, in Marx’s words, “fluctuates within boundaries both physical and social.” While “A Day’s Work” hardly dramatizes the sort of historical class struggles (appearing for the first time in Capital, as David Harvey has noted) Marx accumulates in his chapter, it does consistently demonstrate the instability and even failure of the regulation of time by business -- or, later, education, when Don’s daughter Sally is at risk of violating school curfews and deadlines. “A Day’s Work” derives its title from the idiomatic expression “It’s all in a day’s work,” which usually summarizes with mild resignation the mundane, typical activity of any particular form of labor. Dramas such as Mad Men (or comedies such as The Office, for that matter), although largely set in work spaces, in fact rarely dramatize “a day’s work,” or work per se, especially in its most tedious forms. Such narratives are instead organized to feature the moments when unusual achievement, celebration, tension, conflict, or scandal disrupt quotidian, repetitive patterns of work. Mad Men has of course often centered on such moments, and while “A Day’s Work” doesn’t shift its focus to, say, the anti-drama of a character stocking a supply cabinet or typing up a budget report, it does turn our attention to the relatively ordinary ways in which work doesn’t always, well, work.

Significantly, this work day also happens to be Valentine’s Day, an ostensible holiday but not one of those special holidays that offers us “time off” from work. Valentine’s Day offers some distraction from the work day, but not a complete disruption in labor. Indeed, as a sales-centered holiday, it condenses the mixture of sex and business that has always been at the (mass-marketed) heart of Mad Men. As an event, Valentine’s Day, devoted to the commercialization of romance and desire, seems overdetermined for the characters of Mad Men, whose daily work shares similar goals with the single day. (Tellingly, these advertising men are not the best consumers, relying on their secretaries to purchase their wives the day’s requisite perfume and flowers.) However, near the end of the episode, Peggy shouts, “All I know is that today was a work day and I didn’t get anything done!” While her Valentine’s Day has been especially miserable, she’s not alone. The episode begins with Don waking up to his 7:30 a.m. alarm, a standard time to begin a conventional working day that gets one into the office by 9:00 a.m. But a deceptive cut (appearing to take place seconds later) reveals that he’s still in bed at 12:34 p.m. (In the capitalist regulation of time, nothing would begin at 12:34.) Don then begins his (late) day unproductively, watching an old Our Gang comedy on TV (he’s no longer part of a gang) and eating Ritz crackers out of the box, without the energy to even kill a cockroach that runs across his floor. When he’s finally getting dressed for work, his surreptitious secretary Dawn informs him that she’s working “overtime” for him at 8:00 p.m., and when she leaves a minute later he unknots the tie he just put on, his own odd workday apparently over. On his strange, secret work schedule, Don is literally off the clock yet still on the payroll. Later in the episode Jim Cutler will refer to Don in soured romantic and financial terms, as “our collective ex-wife who still receives alimony.”

We also discover that Don is now apparently “taking lunches” with representatives from other advertising firms, even though he seems to have a contract that would forbid him from “making a change” and jumping ship. (Again blurring business and romance, Don claims that he is “just looking for love.”) For the executives if not the staff of Mad Men, the work day has always been flexible enough to include three-martini lunches and afternoon trysts in Manhattan hotels, but “A Day’s Work” rather surprisingly reminds us that the standard work day is the basic structural unit of the agency and all of its employees (even Stan Rizzo informs Peggy in the elevator that he won’t be working on the weekend), a point illuminated, once again, by this particular day’s persistent, off-kilter ineffectiveness.

On the whole, “A Day’s Work” is organized as a series of mishaps, missent and misread messages, faulty communications technology, wasted energy, and unproductive labor. (We are even told, in passing, that despite Don’s dramatic pitch last season, “Ogilvy signed Hershey.”) Beginning with Peggy mistaking herself as the recipient of a dozen red roses actually sent to her secretary Shirley (“an honest mistake,” Dawn allows, but one that will be hard to fix), a semi-comic tone links a collection of frustrating events that conclude with Peggy’s outburst declaring the entire day an unproductive waste. After a brief moment of delight (“Look at you, every inch a girl,” Stan notes), Peggy decides in disgust that the flowers are from the spurned Ted in California, and she sends a message through Ted’s secretary rejecting what she thinks are his unwanted advances in the coded language of a failed business deal: “I relayed his message to the client … the business is gone.” Another comic sequence cuts smoothly between Pete and Ted in California and the executive board in New York even as their own telecommunications technology falters and breaks their link apart. New York and California are out of synch: California can hear New York but New York thinks it can’t. A follow-up communication, avoiding the troublesome “gizmo,” between Pete and Roger on the phone leads to Roger hanging up as Pete rambles on before his secretary informs him he has been “disconnected.” Pete’s frustration about being undermined regarding the contract he is signing in Los Angeles results in him petulantly declaring to Ted that “we’re not talking anymore; from now on, we’ll both pretend that I’m in New York.” Further extending the day’s confusion of business and romance, Bonnie Whiteside, Pete’s real estate agent girlfriend, informs him that her business trumps his desire: the houses she attempts to sell are her work spaces, not the spots for sexual assignations that Pete takes them for, a point she emphasizes by telling Pete to return the sign he took off the front lawn of one of her properties to dissuade customers, who ring the doorbell and receive her attention anyway.

Despite this comic tone, the eventual result of these mishaps is visible, painful frustration and self-awareness of the limits of control for many of the main characters. Pete wonders if he is in some sort of heaven, hell, or limbo since it seems “no one feels my existence.” Peggy’s day (which begins with a cruel joke, that this Valentine’s Day includes her scheduled plans to “masturbate gloomily”) descends from a comic misunderstanding to an outburst that baldy exposes her petty jealously over her secretary’s engagement (an event that seems to continue the intensifying degradation of the character from the previous episode, surely to the dismay of her many fans). A brief shot of Peggy grimacing in private embarrassment at her own outburst is almost too painful to watch. Even Don, often seemingly the master of his (self-created) identity, acknowledges to Sally that his unclear status, which he hopes to somehow fix, “is kind of up to them.” Only Pete’s girlfriend Bonnie finds a “thrill” in the fact that “our fortunes are in other people’s hands.” The entire episode is an ironically, tightly organized demonstration of the feeling of the increased loss of control.

These more existential displacements of identity (always central to the story of Don Draper, of course), and especially the undermining of agency and control, are extended via an absurd sequence of inefficient, unproductive reorganization within the work place on this single work day: Joan is asked three times, by Lou (in sexist terms), Bert Cooper (for pointedly racist reasons), and Peggy (selfishly), to “shuffle” the secretarial staff, including the two African American secretaries Dawn and Shirley, who clearly recognize their own semi-invisibility and racialized interchangeability in the white-dominated office by playfully calling one another each other’s names when they meet in the break room. Eventually, it seems, Joan herself, after rearranging the staff, will relocate after Jim Cutler, recognizing that she holds two jobs, invites her to move upstairs as an “account man.” (Dawn lands in Joan’s private office, to her apparent satisfaction, concluding her day of unnecessary relocations: she will also continue to work for Don.) Even if a few of these shifts lead to happy results, most again simply underline a structural instability and hierarchy in the business (or in capitalism more broadly) that is beyond almost everyone’s control. Even Roger Sterling, when asked by Joan if he disagrees with her literal elevation to a higher position, affirms that his view “doesn’t matter.”

The awkward and failed communications that hold together the episode extend beyond the work place into the episode’s significant recovery of the ongoing narrative following Don’s relationship with his daughter Sally, who only discovers that her father is not working by attempting to find him in his office (now occupied by Lou) after she has lost her purse shopping in Greenwich Village following the morning funeral of her roommate’s mother. Requiring an excuse for her absence from school, she tells Don, after he asks her what to write, to “just tell the truth.” Addressed to a world-class liar, the moment is a bit heavy-handed, but allows for Don’s later summary of his current position (which also, we have heard, circulates as a rumor in the advertising world): “I said the wrong things to the wrong people at the wrong time …I told the truth about myself, but it wasn’t the right time, then, so they made me take some time off, and I was ashamed.” As Don explains to Sally, telling the truth is not simply the right thing to do, but depends crucially upon proper timing. Sally then asks her father a disarmingly direct question: “Why don’t you just tell [Megan] that you don’t want to move to California?” which he doesn’t answer, instead teasing her with a playful game of transgression. He tells her that they will leave the restaurant without paying, an irresponsible, illegal possibility they both seem to enjoy until he pulls out his wallet and puts money on the table, restoring the rules of order and exchange with a smile. Earlier, in a heated exchange, they explain the reasons for their lies to one another. Sally learns her father is not working, but doesn’t tell him she knows this; he learns from a too-late phone call (yet another failed communication) from Dawn that Sally was at the office, and then doesn’t tell her he knows this. As both lies are exposed, Sally is outraged that her father is “interrogating” her and that he “finds [her] story a little suspicious.” “Why would you just let me lie like that?” he asks. “It’s more embarrassing for me to catch you in a lie than just lying,” she explains. In an episode where almost no message seems to be correctly sent or received, and when people simply announce that they are done talking, or abruptly end conversations, these exchanges between father and daughter come closest to genuine communication following their awkward beginnings, although it remains telling that Don and Sally finally bond over a playful lie that has them pretended to be partners in crime, virtually an incestuous Bonnie and Clyde. (Sally’s attending a woman’s funeral, and her own grim joke wishing for her mother Betty’s death, also lends a macabre element to the episode, accentuated when Peggy removes the misplaced roses from her office, noting that they make it smell like “an Italian funeral.” The successful business of florists of course relies upon a steady stream of funerals as well as the annual event of Valentine’s Day.)

When Sally is returned to her school, her parting comment to her father – “Happy Valentine’s Day, I love you” – visibly startles Don, and probably us as well. Given the evasions and coded statements throughout the episode, we have to wonder: does she mean it? Her flat delivery suggests that she is offering a rote statement, a standard but perhaps not sincere claim of affection from a daughter to a father, and seemingly quoted without emotion from a mass-marketed Hallmark card designed to articulate love like clockwork, once a year. The comment and Don’s reaction motivates the episode’s only non-diegetic song as commentary, the opening of the earnestly sweet “This Will Be Our Year” (which also declares “Darling, I love you.”) But perhaps, like all of Mad Men’s meticulously selected songs, we are intended to pause when we remember that the song was performed by a group called The Zombies.


Make A Comment


Joan Hawkins said...

great discussion. I was interested in how everyone seemed in a kind of in-between state. But on the whole found this episode much more satisfying than last week's.

Lauren said...

Don is now as "old-fashioned" as his favorite cocktail (an observation my colleagues Rob and Lilya) have made.

I liked last week's somber episode and find it interesting that the rapprochement with Sally has come so early. Their rift at the end of last season was the occasion for so much that I almost expected (to the extent that I ever think ahead to what might happen in Mad Men!) it would last longer. Sally seems to recognize her own rebelliousness as like her father's and to identify with his faults rather than wholly condemn the man. This makes room for forgiveness and the game of playing Bonnie and Clyde together. Don has always been a better father than a husband--give or take his penchant for breaking up his marriages!--and so it makes sense that he seems to be trying to find the "right time" for truthfulness with her.

I wonder if Dawn's move upstairs means that she is now assuming Joan's former role (personnel manager) or just temporarily occupying her space.

Speaking for myself, Corey, (since I was arguably too rough on Peggy at the end of the last season), I don't think fans should object just yet to Peggy's conduct: MM has never shrunk from showing its main characters in a bad light. Joan has often been the character more implicated in racist attitudes and behavior. Peggy has been more equalitarian in spirit but also ambitious after the kind of power she sees around her. Maybe what seems like the cliche of her lousy career woman life will become an occasion for more reflection on where her success has taken her? Fans of the character should not despair...yet.

Anonymous said...

I disagree. Sally's comment is entirely sincere. It was difficult for her to say, that's why she did it in such a rushed manner. Her attitude changed the moment Don began to tell her the truth. And he knows this. That's why it was the most important moment of the entire episode.

brb said...

I also saw the "I love you" as sincere. She certainly had no problem refusing to give Don affection earlier, so it's hard to see the motivation for deception here.

I suppose it seems suspicious since Don clearly wanted it so bad, as evidenced by his choked up silence and his ironic "I'm just looking for love." But it seems to be genuine. Sally has a teenager's penchant for saying uncomfortable truths, as well as a knack for discovering (or walking in on) truths about her father and other adults.

It seems to be the only successful Valentines day of the episode. Don tells the truth he won't tell his wife. He is the successful Valentines consumer, convincing Sally to let him buy her a coke and to eat the meal he bought for her. And it was the lunch that led to the show of "love" he was looking for at his business lunch. It was moving, especially in light of the other secret truth Don let her in on at the end of last season, his childhood home and true identity.

John Branch said...

Given the cultural prescriptions that come into play on the ambiguous "holiday" of February 14, the authenticity of any declaration such as Sally's “Happy Valentine’s Day, I love you” is likely to be problematic. I don't know how the moment feels (see below), but it's easy to understand that a viewer might doubt whether she means it.

(I haven't yet seen this episode or anything else in the current season. In the absence of a DVR, I'm resorting to the desperate expedient of reading the analyses here.)

Kritikerna said...

Great post man! This episode is great!