Using Valentine’s Day as a setting to explore the ennui and loneliness of its characters is not a new or particularly original conceit for a television program. Heck, even Mad Men has already done it, in the first episode of season two. However, the folks at Sterling Cooper and Partners – in the office, in the small L.A. branch, slumming around his apartment waiting to be rehired – are just not feeling the love this week. So, the February 14th time setting feels just right.
Don is going through a middle-aged unemployment malaise. He wakes up at his work alarm (set at 7:30) and falls asleep, only to look back at the same clock five hours later. He is bored and aloof, watching television, reading magazines (or rather, the ad spaces in the magazines) and just dressing like a slacker. That is, until secretary Dawn (Teyonah Parris) comes over, when he gets on a suit and tie to hear more updates from the Manhattan office. (Meanwhile, Parris gives a terrific performance in this episode, sharp and layered, as the secretary torn between the interests of her two bosses, while trying to stand up for her interests.)
Don is just as moody as Sally, going through pubescence and feelings of desperate loneliness. She puffs on cigarettes with her roommates but does not draw on them, trying to keep up a façade without turning into a replica of her father. She mopes around New York after losing her purse and walks back to her dad’s old office, only to find a disheveled Lou Avery sitting on his couch. When Sally confronts her dad at his apartment, he understands that she can see through his lies. Don is stuck in a place where it would be foolish to lie to his daughter. (Choice exchange: “What’s the note supposed to say?” Don asks Sally. “Just tell the truth,” she replies.)
The father and daughter share scenes of blistering tension, although there is also a shared misery between them. It is a pleasure to see Shipka back as Sally, ashamed of her dad yet reliant on him. Perhaps Don can continue mending some of his familial strain now that he has some time off? With, you know, a little bit more pizzazz than a spontaneous dine and dash.
The last time Mad Men had a Valentine’s Day, Peggy had just been boosted to be one of the creative copywriters, but the misogynist jokes were still flying through the staff rooms. Now, Peggy has reached the pedestal where she is a creative head with her own office, but she is also a much dimmer, more despaired young woman. She reacts deplorably to a ballooning bouquet of red roses on her secretary’s desk, without a note, believing they are from Ted. This sends Peggy into a flustered rage – even more so when her secretary, Shirley (Sola Bamis), explains that they were a gift from her fiancée.
Peggy may be the boss, but like Don, she does not have much control. It may have been a bit much to expect (or a bit lazy, creatively) for episode writers Matthew Weiner and Jonathan Igla to have Peggy sit in her office all day, huffing and puffing tobacco, as she avoids dealing with the roses. Her outbursts to Shirley and Joan only make her more of an office fiend, although it seems over-the-top given how long she struggled to gain respect at Sterling Cooper. This negating characterization is intriguing, but does not entirely work in such a volume – it may have been wiser to show just a bit of her ego and ennui this week and continue developing it through the season.