What makes Mad Men unique is that it’s not so much telling a singular story as it is a series of vignettes. Don Draper is the protagonist and the character in which the story is revolved, but there’s no endgame for these characters. They are living lives, making mistakes, and attempting to get a foothold in a world that is bound and determined to replace them. And that is totally unique on television today. It’s emotional, funny, and oftentimes incredibly painful, because with this many character and story lines you are bound to find something that sticks with you.
For me, it’s always been the Don/Sally storylines. I’ve always had an open and loving relationship with parents, and to see Sally develop in the middle of such a dysfunctional home and still learn and be open and try to be better regardless is really powerful for me. Sally plays a prominent role in this episode, and is really the only person in Don’s life (and maybe the only woman since Anna) that he’s been honest with. In the episode, Sally is attending the funeral of her roommate’s mother, and makes plans with her other roommates to ditch the actual burial of the body and go shopping in the city. Sally, unfortunately, loses her purse, and she goes to her father’s office for help. He, of course, isn’t there, but Lou is. Through his rude pandering nonsense Sally finds out that Don isn’t there anymore. Sally is forced to wait at his apartment for him to return.
Don, at this point, is out and about, having lunches. It’s a little unclear what the hell he’s doing with these lunches; the people he’s eating with are members of rival ad agencies, but he doesn’t seem to be looking for work. The only conclusion I can come to is that Don is trying to feel important again, and that is super duper pathetic. This former golden boy has fallen so far that he needs what amounts to alumni dinners to make himself feel important again. Can you imagine Season One Don, at the height of his powers, taking lunches to make himself feel better? Christ. But is a strange way, it’s a good thing, because that shows that he’s really hit rock-bottom. Having Freddie Rumson pitch his ideas in secret is one thing, but those lunches are a new low.
Meanwhile, at the SCP offices, things are afoot. As previously written, Sally finds out about her dad’s employment status through a very unpleasant encounter with Lou Avery, which sets of a chain of events between Don and Sally. But it also sets off a concurrent echo; Lou is angry about being embarrassed by Sally showing up, and berates Dawn for not being at her desk to catch her before she could get to him. Dawn is then moved off Lou’s desk and switching with the front receptionist. Bert Cooper sees her out there, objects to a black woman being the first face clients and potential customers see, and tells Joan to move her somewhere else. Keep this in mind.
Near the beginning of the episode, Peggy gets an elevator with Ginsberg and Stan. After some great one-liners about her not having Valentines Plans (Ginsberg: “Have you seen her calendar? February 14th, Masturbating Gloomily”) Peggy sees flowers on her secretary’s desk and assumes they are for her. But, they are not; they are for her secretary, Shirley, to which Peggy does not know. Shirley tries to tell her, but is rebuffed several times, and eventually gives up because too much time has passed and it would be awkward. Peggy thinks that the flowers are from Ted, and has a message sent saying that an account is lost and there is nothing that Ted can do, implying that Ted cannot get back with Peggy no matter what. Shirley and Dawn discuss the Peggy-Flowers fiasco, and Dawn suggests that letting it go is the best proposition, or else she risk losing her job. Shirley is adamant that she will not take it lying down, and eventually, as Peggy is about to throw the flowers away, tells her the truth. Peggy is furious about being embarrassed and berates Shirley in the same manner that Lou berated Dawn. Peggy then requests that Shirley be moved.
So, now both black secretaries are on the move, but neither of them can go out to reception. Dawn has nowhere to go, at all. So, cut to Joan, who, as head of personnel, has to deal with all of that, and work the accounts she has, and be a partner in the firm. Jim Cutler comes into her office and offers her a job upstairs as an account (wo)man, and that allows Dawn to slip in the position as Head of Personnel. Shirley takes over at Lou’s desk, and the lady who was at reception is back at reception.
Now, several important things to note. Dawn snaps when being berated by Lou, and fires right back at him. This breaks the earlier piece of advice she gave Shirley about just keeping your head down. Shirley also disregards this advice, and gets to move up to secretary for Creative Director. It’s an interesting bit of writing, because it’s the best Civil Rights Movement piece the show has done. Many whites of that period and some African-Americans believed that the best course of action was to keep your head down, do your job, and wait for better times. Of course, it never works that way; those who oppress others will never give up that power until they are shown the power of those they oppress. Oppression is not Sterling Cooper and Partner’s lack of black employees; is that when they do hire black people, they only hire secretaries, and give them no chances for advancement. Both Dawn and Shirley stood their grounds, and they were rewarded for it.
Peggy, on the other hand, does not come out of this looking so good. She acted like a jerk to Shirley, a good secretary, strictly because she jumped the gun. Her first instinct is not one of logic, but of petty jealousy; she cannot even comprehend that the flowers are for Shirley. Her unprofessional attitude towards Ted and her attempts to embarrass him could’ve backfired, but they don’t. She gets away with it, but it just further undermines her psychological state. Peggy has few allies, and even fewer friends, and her attitude here really puts her in a bad place. Her attitude is in sharp contrast to Dawn and Shirley’s; they stood up for themselves, directly, to the face of the people treating them poorly, and Peggy doesn’t. She will not deal with the Ted situation like an adult, and it’s costing her emotionally and physically.
Back to Don. Sally knows that Don isn’t working at SCP at the moment, but chooses not to tell him that she knows. She’s obviously confused when he lies to her, but she quickly realizes that it’s not worth it. Dawn calls Don (lolz) about Sally finding out, but Don doesn’t tell her that he knows that she knows. So they go on a car ride, and after a bit the issue comes to a head. Sally tells Don that the reason she didn’t tell him that she knew was because it was more embarrassing to catch him a lie than to just leave it be. Don is angry at this, but Sally reprimands him; how dare he make her come to the apartment and put her in a position to be in the same elevator with Sylvia.
Fast forward to a diner that he and Sally stop at. Sally is reluctant to talk to him because of his constant lying, so Don tells her the truth. He told his truth, the story of his life, to the wrong people at the wrong time, and they made him take a break. Sally appreciates this, and ends up spending a nice dinner with her father. Don takes her home, back to campus, and Sally gets out of the car and closes the door. But then she opens the door, looks him in the eyes, and says:
“Happy Valentine’s Day. I love you.”
And then leaves. And that’s it. No sappy reunion, no overt displays of emotion. Just a simple declarative statement, and you see in Don’s eyes the shock. It clearly affected him in ways he wasn’t able to process. Here’s what I think: Don has always been searching for someone to love him and make him happy. But he’s also super self-destructive because of the awful childhood, so he destroys everything he comes in contact with. He can seduce women better than anyone around, but it doesn’t bring him any peace or happiness. But with Sally, something is different. When he’s honest with her, she reciprocates with love. She continually shows her father that all she requires of him is him, and that’s good enough. Don grew up his whole life thinking he was garbage that nobody wanted, and that showing his true self was a one-way ticket back to the hell that he endured as a child. But Sally knows everything about him, and still accepts him. And that changes him every time.
For the first time in a long time, good seems to be winning over douche-baggery. Dawn has agency (only a little, but still), Joan has become an accounts woman, and Don is finally learning how to not treat people like shit. Scotch for everyone!
See you next week.
[Photo via Michael Yarish/AMC]