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'Mad Men' recap: The Valentine's Day massacre

April 21, 2014|By Meredith Blake
  • A scene from "Mad Men."
A scene from "Mad Men." (Michael Yarish/AMC )

“Mad Men” is almost always more successful when it approaches Important Social Issues obliquely rather than head-on. Last year’s “The Flood” was widely panned for its awkward and heavy-handed depiction of Martin Luther’s King’s assassination and its aftermath. In contrast, “A Day’s Work” may be the smartest, most sensitive this show has ever been on the subject of race, mostly because on the surface it’s not about race at all, but rather an almost farcical chain of events set off by a bouquet of flowers. Both as drama and as history lesson, seeing how white people treat African Americans on an average workday is far more instructive than listening to them ruminate about race relations in the wake of a national tragedy.

The entire episode takes place on Valentine’s Day, 1969. 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.

It all begins when Peggy mistakenly assumes a mysterious bouquet of flowers was sent to her by Ted. In reality, they are a gift to Shirley from her fiance, but she decides not to point out Peggy's error. As Dawn advises her over coffee in the break room, “Keep pretending. That’s your job.” Dawn is, on a literal level, referring to Shirley’s job as Peggy’s secretary, but she’s also, however implicitly, talking about her “job” as a black woman.

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Despite the obvious personality differences between Shirley and Dawn-- their contrasting outfits tell you everything you need to know on that front -- they share a profound connection by virtue of the fact they they are black women working in a white, male-dominated world. And Dawn, who we sense is the more experienced veteran here, is essentially advising her not to rock the boat. It’s almost impossible to imagine a male character, or even a white woman like Joan or Peggy, voluntarily relinquishing a gift from a loved one in order to avoid a few seconds of awkwardness.

But that’s what Shirley does, and it backfires spectacularly. Humiliated, Peggy lashes out and demands that Joan find her a replacement. No, Peggy doesn’t say or do anything explicitly racist, but she treats Shirley as utterly disposable, and her reaction is almost certainly heightened by the awareness that she’s unintentionally been made a fool by her secretary, a black woman of much lower professional status who also happens to be engaged. Shirley has something Peggy wants, and is punished for it. 

Meanwhile, Dawn also finds herself at the receiving end of some ugly, racially charged behavior at the hands of Lou Avery, who is rapidly emerging as the most thoroughly loathsome character to date on “Mad Men.” Unpopular characters like Betty and Duck are usually more pathetic than truly despicable, but Lou, on the other hand, is the absolute worst. Don’t let the Mr. Rogers cardigan fool you: He’s King Joffrey in baby blue mohair. (I beg you, Matt Weiner, please don’t try to make Lou sympathetic by revealing his wife is dying of cancer or something: In a morally ambiguous world, it’s refreshing to have someone to hate.)

In any case, Lou would rather have the brain-dead-but-blond Meredith as his secretary than the eminently capable Dawn. He somehow views her inability to see into the future and predict Sally’s visit to the office as impudence, even though she happens to be out buying perfume for his wife. Subject to utterly impossible demands, Dawn is doing the very best she can but is penalized for not having supernatural abilities and, as a black woman, that’s the only way she could possibly be good enough. Meredith, meanwhile, is able to fail upward with comical ease. Lou doesn’t have to use ugly epithets to make his attitude clear.

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Leave it to the reliably out-of-touch Bert Cooper to act with the most overt racism. After spotting Dawn in the lobby, he immediately asks Joan to reassign her yet again. “I’m all for the national advancement of colored people, but I do not believe they should advance all the way to the front of this office,” he says, sounding a lot like many white people throughout the North in the ‘60s. If he lived in the Bronx or Brooklyn or South Boston, he might be saying, “Of course, black people should be able to vote -- but I don’t want them in my neighborhood.”

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