Valentine's Day 1969 finds not much romance amongst the Sterling Cooper crew and no little consternation over work. But there are some definite green shoots of hope and change popping up amidst the confusion and anger.
The biggest change comes for Don Draper in this episode in which Jon Hamm once again proves he deserves the best actor Emmy. Draper is still stuck in his inactive reserve status at Sterling Cooper after being suspended at the end of Season 6 after his inappropriate candor with potential big mega-client Hershey about his true upbringing and history with their chocolate, yet we've seen that he's at the top of his game when it comes to creativity. But Don's betwixt and between in terms of having a gig, reduced to pitching his own agency via Freddie Rumsen, only to have the brilliant ad watered down by Peggy Olson and then rejected out of hand by the mediocre fuddy-duddy the agency unaccountably has working in Don's office.
Tellingly, there is no Valentine's Day or night tete-a-tete for Don and Megan, his fetching young secretary-turned-actress wife now out in Hollywood.
But there is for Don and the most important woman in his life, the show's point-of-view baby boomer, his daughter Sally Draper.
She contrives to be in Manhattan on Valentine's Day for the funeral of a friend's mother. After averring as how she won't mind seeing mother dearest Betty lowered into the ground, she's off for what she says is her real reason for being in town: shopping. But, consciously or not, Sally has a deeper reason for being around. To see her dad. So she loses her purse and drops by, notably unannounced, on her dad at Sterling Coo. Only to find, of course, that he is nowhere to be found. There's a strange and not at all nice man in her dad's office; the aforementioned Avery arse, who gets negative cred for disrespecting a troubled teenage girl. He gets even more negative cred for subsequently trashing his and Don's secretary Dawn, who had been out when Sally came by picking up a Valentine's gift for Avery's wife. The fact that this amiably vicious clown is the head of creative for Sterling Coo while Don is on paid forced leave, Ted Chaogh has decamped for LA, and Peggy is relegated to relative Siberia is an index of the trouble that you can be Sterling Coo is going to find itself in this year unless Don comes back.
Dreading running into her dad's ex-inamorata Sylvia in the lift, Sally goes to Don's swanky apartment to get the real what's up. Which she does without too much difficulty, as Don seems to grasp that what his daughter wants most from him is the straight story, even if it's not the super-cool tale he prefers. After all, he revealed his true background in the stunning Season 6 finale. From there, admitting that he's been suspended by his partners with full pay for telling the truth at the wrong time is nowhere near as mortifying.
A return to active duty status for Don at Sterling Coo should be in the cards. He's still drinking, but he's measuring his consumption to avoid diving down the bottle. And even more to the point, there is no one good running agency creative. Lou Avery is a thoroughgoing mediocrity and an ass to boot. Ted is moping out in LA. Peggy seems to have regressed talent-wise and, in any event, lords her shards of power and status over her co-workers in increasingly irritating and dysfunctional ways. Far from taking over and flourishing, as many assumed from her iconic pose at the end of Season 6 in Don's office, it seems she needs her old boss Draper around so she can remember to be inspired by his creative ways and not his destructive ones.
Her pettiness was on dramatic display when she foolishly assumed that the flowers on her secretary's desk were for her, forgetting that Shirley, Sterling Coo's second black employee, is engaged. She then devolved further when she learned the truth, after amazingly ordering her secretary to throw away the flowers when she realized they were not from her ex-inamorata Ted out in LA.
While Shirley, whom we see joking with the agency's other person of color, Dawn about their white colleagues' awkward cluelessness by calling each other by the other's name, ends up as Lou's secretary, a likely ill-fated arrangement, Dawn ends up at the end of the episode in clover. But only after Bert Cooper's racism -- or, at least, his recognition of ongoing racism in professional New York circles -- surfaces with his countermanding of Joan Holloway's appointment of Dawn as the agency's receptionist.
Seeing how Joan is struggling juggling her burgeoning role with important accounts with the unpleasant sorting out of personnel arrangements in the wake of Lou and Peggy's churlish treatment of their subordinates, the sometimes sphinx-like Jim Cutler demonstrates that he is one of the few at Sterling Coo who fully understand that Joan is not simply a sex bomb with a brain by successfully suggesting that she focus on her growing role in accounts where Ken Cosgrove, unseen this week, is clearly floundering. Joan and Jim thereupon make Dawn the head of personnel for Sterling Coo, turning what began as a token hire in response to a Sterling Coo ad tweaking a rival agency for water ballooning civil rights protesters into a move of real consequence.
But even younger characters than Bert Cooper still flounder as they consider the roiling state of race relations in 1969 America. While Don is off at a luncheon with an old ad buddy -- played by David James Elliot, star of the turn-of-the-millennium hit series JAG which went on to begat today's most watched scripted show, NCIS -- to gauge his options at jumping to another agency and to do some damage control on emerging rumors about his Hershey's pitch meeting, the two buds go on and on about how promising the New York Knicks look this year. Promising because a white player, an Ivy League All-American fellow named Bill Bradley (later a Hall of Famer and US senator), has made the team's rotation. He's nowhere near the star that his black teammates Willis Reed and Walt Frazier are, but he's a sensation nonetheless.
What Don learns about his rep, incidentally, is mixed but not too bad. There are some stories floating about him, but they're confused. They may even add to his mystique, a point driven home when a top gun for mega-agency McCann-Erickson Worldwide -- who in an early season signed up Betty Draper as a model as part of a recruitment move on Don -- drops by his lunch meeting to try again to win him away.
However, Don has a no-compete clause in his contract as a Sterling Coo partner, which may make it difficult to join another agency or, say, start his own with Pete Campbell and possibly Peggy out in LA. The simplest and most logical thing is for his soberer and wiser self to return to Sterling Coo to replace the dreadful Lou Avery. But logic, as you may have noticed, does not always prevail.