Taking place as it does on Valentine’s Day and the occasion of a funeral, flowers are major narrative motif that runs through the Mad Men episode A Day’s Work. These elements are woven into a story depicting characters who find themselves forced to “act” a certain way as they play out the various roles in their life. The episode explores the idea of individuals struggling to sort out truth from fiction as these roles are played with others who are performing roles of their own.
During the opening scene of A Day’s Work, Don is shown preparing for his role as an employed person. He sleeps in late, watches television, and drinks. One shot shows him holding a box of Ritz crackers before later getting dressed for his performance. It’s tempting to see this as a reference the Irving Berlin song, “Puttin’ on the Ritz” about people feeling “blue” who adopt the affectations of success (“tryin’ hard to look like Gary Cooper”).
One quick bit from this scene shows Don watching That Girl, a famous 60’s sit-com, at a point where the title character, an aspiring actor played by Marlo Thomas, is having a comically heated discussion with her father about what it takes to be an “actor.”
Now wearing a suit (his costume), Don meets with Dawn at his apartment for what appears a regular visit, in which she provides him news about current happenings at SC&P. In addition to intel about clients, Dawn hands Don a bag of Sweet’N Low and CoffeeMate. These are products which, respectively, pretend to be sugar and cream.
As stated, flowers are a motif throughout A Day’s Work. A mix-up over Valentine’s Day flowers play a major role in Peggy’s storyline, involving her secretary, Shirley. The act of sending flowers on February 14th is part of a cultural ritual for people performing their role in a relationship.
Peggy, mistaking a bouquet of red roses sent to Shirley by her fiancé as being from Ted Chaough, reacts with a hint of satisfaction. However, she chooses to play the part of an indignant jilted lover. Throughout the episode, Peggy is wearing a red bow. Shirley, wearing a red outfit decorated with flowers, is unable to communicate to Peggy the truth of the situation and is forced to play a role in acting out Peggy’s drama.
Interestingly, Shirley and Dawn (who themselves are aware of the interchangeable roles they play at SC&P) have a conversation in the break room where they discuss the floral dilemma. Dawn, holding a container of CoffeeMate, tells Shirley: “Keep pretending. That’s your job.” It’s also revealed that Shirley’s fiancé, Charles, is not happy about her working at SC&P. Therefore, in sending Shirley flowers at work, he is playing out a supportive role that may be less than truthful to how he actually feels.
Later, at Sally’s school, she and her roommates discuss pretending to be saddened by the death of a friend’s mother as an excuse to go on a shopping spree. A red pillow is clearly visible in the background and the purchase of flowers is discussed as they hatch their scheme.
The next day, Don takes a lunch with Dave Wooster. Both men play a semantic dance around the “truth” of whether or not Don is actually seeking employment outside of SC&P. At one point during their “scene,” a waiter in a red jacket walks past.
Meanwhile, Sally, wearing a red hat, uses the made up excuse of losing her purse to leave the train she is riding on with her friends. Going to SC&P and discovering her father’s lie, a distraught Sally meets Don at his apartment. They continue in their respective acts about Don’s job and Sally’s attendance at a funeral. The color red is prominent during the scene. While writing an excuse note for Sally to take back to school (the “truth”), a red wall hanging is clearly shown behind Don. Later, Don drives Sally back to school in his red-interiored car. Sally forces Don to admit to lying about losing his job. She also refers to Megan as “that woman” which is might be a callback to the Marlo Thomas character in That Girl. Frustrated, Don pretends to need gas as an excuse to make a stop at a restaurant.
At the restaurant, Don finally comes clean with Sally about his job. Sally maintains the fiction of attending a funeral that day and pretends to not be hungry. Note that instead of a bouquet of flowers like the ones that dominate the scenes at SC&P, a single red flower decorates the booth Don and Sally are sitting in. This corresponds to what appears to be the beginnings of a more honest relationship developing between the two. Sally asks Don if he still loves Megan. He says he does, but the honesty of that answer is unclear. Maybe Don doesn’t really know. Likewise, when Don drops Sally off at school, she wishes him a Happy Valentine’s Day and says “I love you, Dad.” Because Sally is still wearing a red hat, it’s not entirely clear if this is her genuine feelings at the moment or the act of someone who feels obligated (or both).
Finally, the arguably most honest person depicted in “A Day’s Work” is Pete’s love interest, Bonnie. Wearing a yellow dress decorated with flowers (in sharp contrast to Shirley’s), Bonnie reveals to Pete a complete awareness that the role she plays as a real estate salesperson giving multiple performances showing properties is part of a deliberate plan to attain happiness in “real” life. Later, Joan is allowed to lose the less favorite of the two roles she plays at SC&P, head of personnel and account manager, to focus on the latter. Note that the cardboard box she carries to her new office, unlike every other flower depicted in the office, conspicuously contains yellow flowers (ostensibly from her son, but really from Roger). When Dawn finally moves into Joan’s old office, her box contains no flowers at all. This suggests that both women may have finally been cast in more gratifying roles.