Don Draper is a liar. We have known that since the day we met him, but after saying the "wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong people" as Don explains his involuntary hiatus from SC&P to Sally, it seems as though his effort at self-improvement is halting at best. He is still lying to his wife about his employment status, cagey with a colleague at lunch, and would have continued keeping Sally in the dark had she not inadvertently discovered his deceit. And let's not even mention the sudden reappearance of liquor in his life.
Don is drifting aimlessly, and whereas in seasons past he could buckle down at work when his home life was unstable or focus on his new marriage when he became disinterested in work, now, he has neither, and thus, the seepage of old habits - of shame and stealth - become convenient shields. So he is taken aback when he tries to shout down Sally for lying to him and she pushes back, hard, on the fact that she had to come to his apartment building and risk running into Sylvia. He's still collecting a check from SC&P, but dances around the circumstances of his departure, and is left to having Dawn provide crumbs of intelligence to him on the sly in a vain attempt to keep abreast of things in his absence.
And Don's absence is unquestionably felt at SC&P. As unmoored as Don is, the agency's character is clearly different. Without Don's vision, mediocre work is accepted by Lou Avery, a quintessential middle manager more interested in keeping the trains running on time than offering clients creative work that will move the needle and who, we learn, is quick to temper. Peggy, denied both the professional challenge Don presented her and the personal warmth Ted gave her, is souring before our eyes. That once plucky junior copywriter who deftly moved up to be Don's chief lieutenant is now a pale shade of her former boss - nursing her drink (and petty grudges) along with a cigarette, the frustration that comes with feeling like good work is not rewarded, and the anger at unrequited love.
Of course, if Peggy wants to win any awards for petulance, she must contend with the heavyweight champion, Pete Campbell. He may look (and talk) like a hippie, but neither a comely blonde woman nor 3,000 miles of separation to his prior life in New York have altered Pete's attitude. As he marinates in another perceived professional slight, it is left to his new girlfriend to set him straight about the difference between being squeezed by corporate bureaucracy and suffering at a true force majeure. While Pete may not like interacting with Bob Benson in order to get a blessing to sign a group of Southern California GM dealerships, Bonnie shares a story of losing a commission after busting her ass for months to land the deal because someone tossed a cigarette out a car window.
So it is left to Joan, in the awkward position of being both an equity partner in the firm and an aspiring account manager, to provide A Day's Work its moral compass. When Dawn gets caught between Lou and Don and is not permitted by Bert to sit at the reception desk, Joan rights the wrong and twists the knife in Lou's back while solving her own problem of carrying dual jobs by promoting Dawn into her personnel position and taking an upstairs office, officially severing her ties to the life she lived for 16 years and starting anew. That Peggy lashes out at Shirley over a slight that did not even exist or Bert showed a lazy prejudice that Joan finds distasteful make the elegant solution that much sweeter, but the early returns on SC&P without Don providing creative ballast are not good.
Meanwhile, Don's fits-and-starts attempt at truth, of figuring out who he is and what he wants to do are rewarded, tenderly, by Sally, who tells her cad of a father she loves him. That Matt Weiner reminds us that we are all redeemable after piling on an hour's worth of bile and bitterness is one of the many reasons this remains one of television's most compelling programs.
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