The day in question in “A Day’s Work” is Valentine’s Day, and showrunner Matthew Weiner and company crafted an episode riddled with allusions to business as a love affair. When Don (Jon Hamm) is caught taking a meeting with a big shot by a headhunter for a rival agency, he quips that he’s just “looking for love.” And back at SC&P, Don’s relationship to the company is compared to that of an ex-wife of Jim (Harry Hamlin), who’s still having trouble finding footing in his relationship with Roger (John Slattery). And when Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) is in the midst of undressing peppy realtor Bonnie (Jessy Schram), the dirty talk takes the form of something like contract arbitration.
This feeling of emotional disputes being handled like salary negotiations is most potently felt when Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) allows the flowers on Shirley’s (Sola Bamis) desk to become the inanimate agitator for her still-raw feelings for Ted (Kevin Rahm). The episode continues to return to Peggy to see how long her unfortunate presumption reverberates in her, and she shows deeper shades of confusion, insolence, uncertainty, and shame as the day goes on. It’s one of the most assured, self-contained storylines the series has conjured thus far, made complete by its aftershocks felt in a secretary shuffle managed by Joan (Christina Hendricks), who also, in a quick bit, has the intentions behind her flowers mistaken.
The shuffle does have a happy ending, however, as Dawn (Teyonah Parris) is promoted from being Lou Avery’s (Allan Havey) secretary to taking over as office manager when Jim suddenly offers Joan an account manager position. The series has been quietly building Dawn’s character in flashes, enough so that her first moment alone at her new desk radiates a quiet joy. The new job doubles as a kind of reward for having to deal with the small fiasco that erupts when Avery chews her out for not being there when Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) walks into SC&P, unaware that her father no longer has an office there. The cherry on top, of course, is that at the time Dawn was acting as a marital proxy for Lou, picking out perfume for his wife’s Valentine’s Day gift.
Don’s presence at SC&P is certainly not the only fantasy that gets spoiled in “A Day’s Work,” as Pete finds himself bitter and in the grip of panic in response to the limit of professional competition and ambition in the L.A. office. And Sally’s imagined trip into the city for a funeral and some quick shopping is shattered by a simple mistake that ends with her hashing issues out with Don on a ride back to school. Sally’s favored illusion is that of a hip private-school girl who despises her family, and this encounter allows her to question the uncaring version of herself she’s devised at school to survive. There’s a great bit of acting toward the end of the episode, when Sally is on the phone with one of the girls she went shopping with, and Sally expresses increasing discomfort and irritation as the friend prattles on, as if she’s talking to her invented self. Despite the embarrassing and revealing nature of her discussion with Don, the airing of laundry that goes on between them ends with a moment of sublime clarity, and an expression of love that’s hard to confuse.