Don Draper has made a lot of bad decisions, but it's hard to think of one as ill-advised as the one that closes this latest episode ("Field Trip"). He's returned to Sterling Cooper & Partners ready for work, but it turns out no one but Roger Sterling really wants him back — and even there, Roger may just be trying to piss Jim Culter off. Peggy, who registers several thousand different emotions in the few seconds after she hears he's in the office, stops by especially to tell him he hasn't been missed. Even his former staunch ally Joan wonders, "How does he fit into this?" But it turns out firing Don is expensive; it means buying out his partnership and voiding his non-compete clause. Though most of SC&P doesn't want him working there, they damn sure don't want him working anywhere else. So they offer him his old job back, or rather a shadow of it, under terms so onerous he'd be a fool to accept.
Don takes the deal.
Whatever the consequences of that choice — and one imagines they'll be significant — the show has spent the first quarter of its final season building up to the moment when Don eats crow and asks for seconds. He's still got issues with commitment, but he's clearly not cut out for the solitary life; when he calls the West Coast, first to talk to his wife's agent and then to Megan herself, he's marooned in darkness, far more so than a three-hour time difference would account for. At the beginning of the episode, he's all dressed up, but with no one to see it; Dawn's too busy juggling the demands of her new job to run over his typewriter ribbon and onionskin. Megan's thrilled to see him when he unexpectedly shows up in Los Angeles, and she's less skittish and self-conscious than she was the last time they were intimate. But when she coos, "I needed that," it's not clear if she means sex or him.
As Don predicted in the season-opening "Time Zones," his marriage is about to implode; perhaps it already has and he just can't let it go. She kicks him out after she discovers he's been hiding his "involuntary leave" from her, sending him back to the cross-country plane he's taken so often that he's on a first-name basis with the stewardesses. Don's been telling himself, as he tells her, that he's been "good" because he hasn't (recently) slept with anyone else: For God's sake, he tells her, "I haven't even been drinking that much." Megan sees right through him: "So you woke up every day with a clear head and decided you didn’t want to be with me."
So Don, still "looking for love," has dinner with rival agency Wells Rich Greene and secures an offer: two, if you count the blonde who stops by their table and pointedly discloses the location of her hotel room. (Don's back on the market; it's in the air.) Instead, Don takes the envelope to Roger's doorstep and half-bullies, half-cajoles his way back into his old office. But SC&P is no longer the place where Don Draper was once treated like an angry and fickle god; it's not the same. Neither is he.
The camera floats through the hallways, the sound dropped almost to nothing, as Don takes in the reshuffled floor plan occasioned by last week's "A Day's Work." What's Dawn doing in Joan's old office, and why didn't she tell him she'd gotten a new job? (Note the secretary passing with a banker box as Peggy and Don talk, a callback to the previous episode's switcheroos.) He's been in stasis, but the world kept turning.
At the end of the hallway is Lou Avery's office, which Don comes upon just as his daughter, Sally, did in the previous episode. He, at least, ought to know what to expect, but he treats Lou like an interloper, peevishly swiveling his eyes to the office's interior as he mentions his desire to get back to work, as if Lou will just say, "Oh, right," and clear out his stuff. Don's petulant eyeroll as he walks away suggests again that he's going through a second childhood; evidently, he's worked his way up to the sullen teens.
Betty, whose emotional maturity lags even behind Don's, has a bonding moment with their son, Bobby, on a class field trip, swapping banter about vampires and werewolves on the bus. She stares disdainfully at a teacher's braless breasts peeking through her barely buttoned shirt, while he nervously averts his eyes, but he's impressed when she takes a swig of fresh cow milk (a substance whose symbolic value Mad Men has never been shy about exploiting). There's a touching moment when another student tries to sit on Bobby's picnic blanket and he tells him, "You can't sit there; that's my mom's place." But then Bobby fatefully trades away Betty's sandwich for a bag of gumdrops and she's explosively angry with him in an instant. (Bobby will be talking about those gumdrops in therapy for the rest of his life.) Don's working out his issues with his ex-wife through their daughter, Betty's doing the same through her son. Truth be told, the farm scenes often felt extraneous, especially when employed as truncated cutaways from the escalating action at SC&P, but it was worth it for the heartbreaking moment when Bobby's stepfather, Henry Francis, asks how his field trip went and he says, "I wish it was yesterday." Talk about burying your lede.
That brings us back around to Don's decision to accept reemployment at SC&P under terms that would make a midcareer hire flinch: He has to stick to the script in pitch meetings, depriving him of the ability to work that ol' Don Draper magic; those scripts have to be pre-approved; and worst, he has to report to Lou Avery, a pernicious waste of space under whom, as their dearth of Clio nominations makes clear, the agency has been doing competent but uninspired work. (Poor Harry Crane can't even get his own computer.) Don swallows the poison pill, perhaps because with everything else in his life falling apart, it's one known thing he can grab onto. Or perhaps because if he can't repair his marriage or his relationship with his children, his career, at least, is something he can mend. "I don't know if I can undo it," he tells Megan, "but I think I fixed it." (Sure, Don, and the fact that they put you in the same office in which Lane Pryce hanged himself in is a very good omen.)
Although Mad Men's a period show, the current dynamic at SC&P feels a lot like the present day, particularly in the culture industry: Do the work, do it fast, and therefore cheap. Don't worry about quality, the clients won't know the difference. But Don is old school, almost artisanal, championing an intuitive approach that not coincidentally parallels the way the show itself works. At the farm Betty and Bobby visit, the farmer warns them in advance that there won't be much to look at: They mostly grow potatoes, "so there’s not a lot above ground." It takes patient cultivation, sometimes without immediately visible results, but if you dig deep enough, there's plenty of nourishment to be found.
Previously: All in a Day's Work