"I see a sheep and a wolf, but which is which?"
No other line from last night's Mad Men, entitled "A Day's Work," better encapsulates the episode's effect. In both writing and appearance, "A Day's Work" kept everything out of balance, but just so, like a crooked Wes Anderson movie. Characters just misunderstood each other, just missed important bits of conversation or important gestures. The episode's mise en scene—everything in the frame—toyed with symmetrical arrangements of objects and colors, but then disrupted things ever so slightly, like a bully shifting a few of the pencils on the desktop you just organized.
That opening shot is nearly neat. There are the three rectangles across the top of the frame, with Don at the center, but the third block is a messy desk instead of a relatively clean white pillow. Critic Lili Loofbourow described the clutter of this season's premiere, "Time Zones," brilliantly last week; what we saw in "A Day's Work" worked towards balance. The world is trying to settle. Just like Don is trying to settle into an honest way of being.
He's got a lot of work ahead of him. In a situation straight out of spring semester, freshman year, when you realize that the work you put in during the fall maybe wasn't all the way necessary, Don is having trouble getting out of bed. The day before Valentine's Day, his alarm clock wakes him early, at 7:30 a.m. And then he goes back to bed for another quick five hours of shut-eye. The promise of TV and Ritz isn't enough to get him going until deep into the afternoon, a dilemma any college student can relate to. Finally, Don's day begins—and then soon ends—at 8, when Dawn arrives to brief him on the business he missed while eating crackers. He pays for the information; Dawn takes the money, but only reluctantly, and without compromising her sense of right and wrong (she won't break into Peggy's office and photocopy the Butler work). What's the money for, though, really? (More on that later.)
Keeping with the dormitory spirit, the episode moves to Sally—THANK YOU, JESUS—in her actual dorm, a crowded double, the kind where there's always another kid from down the hall hanging out. Another student's mother has died, and planning for the funeral is underway. Not planning, actually—more like scheming. Sally and her classmates want to get in some shopping during their trip to the city, and are going to take advantage of the generous time allotted for mourning to do just that.
The third sequence of the episode continues the dorm-ing and scheming. Pete and Bonnie talk business while humping on an office desk. Pete and Bonnie are thisclose to locking down the Chevy Dealers of Southern California, mostly thanks to alcoholism. All they have to do is send over the contract in the morning, and the sot who heads up the operation will sign without really remembering the previous night's business conversation. Remember: Pete's penis is inside Bonnie for not an insignificant chunk of this. Mad Men's first foray into sexposition turns into a classic college joke when Ted walks in. A good roommate, he doesn't turn on the lights and keeps his eyes averted to his roommate's sex life. Pete's not the kind of guy to remember to leave a necktie knotted around the door handle, but he's lucky enough to have a considerate buddy like Ted to make up for the oversight.
At the office the next day, Peggy sets one of the episode's farcical elements into motion when she mistakes her secretary Shirley's roses for her own. Note another bit of near-symmetry when Peggy calls Moira to relay a message to Ted:
From left to right we have flowers, phone, character, but it's off, right down to the way the flowers swerve from matching the characters' clothes. This kind of faulty mirroring occurs in the dialogue between Shirley and Dawn; they swap names when greeting, cooly joking about their status as the endlessly swappable and interchangeable black folks in the office. This was a landmark conversation in terms of the show looking beyond the bubble of the white world, and a really well acted one, too. The way Sola Bamis, who plays Shirley, screws up her face and voice to spit out "and she took em" is the kind of moment that makes you wish GIFs came with sound.
While the first stages of this Rube Goldberg machine-esque episode fall into place, Don is taking lunch with a rival firm. Yet another rival swoops in to deliver the sheep/wolf line. The other important bit of dialogue: Don quips about being interrogated.
It's the same word Sally uses when talking with him later in the episode. Forever the finder of truth, Sally ditches her friends after their shopping spree and heads to the office to see her dad. Instead, she finds Lou Avery, ever the piece of shit. From the office, she travels to Don's apartment to wait. In the apartment, we see for the first time that Don and Sally are dressed alike. The gray in her dress matches his suit, the bronze and black of his tie matches her necklace and tights.
The episode is crammed with missed connections, which places a great weight on this match. They're the pair that counts.
But initially, their interactions are all static. At the apartment, Don can't stop lying to her and Sally follows suit. You can watch Kiernan Shipka's face change when she realizes that her father isn't being honest with her. Her expression shifts, she goes slack and uncaring. It's sad (and impressive).
Look at the colors in the car when they set off on the drive back to Sally's school. Her red hat is flip-flopped against the position of the red steering wheel. A kind of disrupted symmetry again.
The heart of "A Day's Work," one of the best episodes in recent memory, is Don and Sally's relationship. They fight in the car, with Don's interrogation tactics prompting harsh truth from Sally. She speaks openly about Sylvia, and how hard it was for her to visit Don's apartment knowing that she might share the elevator with his former mistress. Don misunderstands his own daughter, likening her to Betty: "You laid in wait, like your mother." No. If anything, Sally's taking after the example Don set offscreen, and is telling the truth. After they stop for dinner and gas, we learn that Don has told Sally about his childhood. Just as Don's confession about his life to Megan occurred between episodes, this must've come sometime between the season six finale and the start of season seven.
The diner scene is a gem, all truth and earned warmth between the father and daughter. Echoing the episode's opening, Don pays for the privilege of conversing with such a capable young woman. He pushes Sally change to make a phone call after they get really real with one another over cold French fries. What's the money for? A way to be less lonely. The powerful white man needs to hear news from someone in a less privileged position to stay in the loop and feel connected. Imagine that.
The night's biggest surprise comes in the final seconds, when Sally says "I love you" to Don and the opening piano chords of the Zombies' "This Will Be Our Year" ring out. You realize: this is the most feel-good episode of Mad Men in the show's history. Sally gets the best out of her father (and the best line of the night—"I'm so many people," she says.) Dawn gets a big promotion and her own office. Joan moves up a floor. Everybody wins (except Pete, which is great. And Peggy, but she did that to her own damn self.)
Not for nothing: Odessey and Oracale, the album "This Will Be Our Year" comes from, opens with a song about a loved one being released after a long prison sentence. Right now, that feels a lot like Don. It feels so good.
Ross Scarano is a deputy editor at Complex. He tweets here.