'Mad Men' recap: Don tries to win 'em back

'Mad Men' recap: Don tries to win 'em back
Harry Hamlin, left, as Jim Cutler, Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris and Robert Morse as Bertram Cooper in "Man Men." (Michael Yarish / AMC)

There are few things in the life of a school child as exciting as a field trip. They hold the promise of an exciting break from the daily grind, from the drudgery of times tables and spelling tests, but they’re also fraught with potential danger. 

In “Field Trip,” ex-spouses Betty and Don both take a risky and impulsive break from their deadening routine in a bid to patch up troubled relationships. But, like that kid in your fifth grade class who threw up during the class trip to the science museum, they mostly succeed in humiliating themselves.

Don’s field trip is of the more metaphorical variety. As the episode begins, our protagonist is thriving  in his new career as a professional couch potato, idling away yet another workday at the movies.  This time, he just so happens to be watching “Model Shop,” a movie about a beautiful young woman abandoned by her husband in Los Angeles. (But, hey, at least he’s left the house and isn’t just in his bathrobe in front of “Our Gang” reruns. Baby steps, people.)

After an urgent call from slimy Alan Silver, who’s worried about Megan’s increasingly unhinged behavior, Don decides to pay a surprise visit to his wife. Once Megan learns that her husband has come out west not as some grand romantic gesture but to check in on her, months of bottled-up resentment and suspicion comes bubbling to the surface, and she confronts Don about his constant absence from the office. It’s like the saying goes: Hell hath no fury like an actress made to feel like an insecure weirdo. What’s interesting here is that Don isn’t the only one who’s been playing pretend. Megan may not be getting much work in L.A., but she’s been putting on an Oscar-worthy performance since she left New York.

Naturally, Megan is even more irate to discover that Don's been on a leave from work for months and that, as she puts it, "With a clear head you got up every day and decided you didn't want to be with me." With that, she calmly tells Don their marriage is over and sends him back to New York. While her steely resolve seems to crumble a bit later during a tearful phone call with Don, it seems all but certain the Draper marriage will not survive to see the '70s. And, hey, maybe that's a good thing? Do we really want to see these two in polyester double knits?

As soon as he lands in New York, Don immediately attempts to patch up the other estranged partnership in his life -- that with Sterling Cooper & Partners. While he’s a bit more successful, he’s also subjected to far more awkwardness and emasculation in the process.

Armed with an offer from Wells Rich Greene and buoyed by the attentions of an aggressive mystery blonde, Don immediately goes to see Roger. (I love how editing misleads us into thinking Don has gone to see Emily in her hotel room, when, in fact, he’s at Roger’s bachelor pad.)  Don's thinking seems to be that there's nothing quite like a new love interest to stir the passions of an ex. Roger agrees to let him come in Monday for a meeting to discuss his future, but he's driven more by guilt than jealousy.

Roger being Roger, however, he fails to tell anyone else at the office about this plan. Don arrives bright and early and is forced to sit around for hours until Roger finally shows up, drunk, around lunchtime. With no place else to go, Don takes a seat in the creative department and chats away with Stan, Ginsberg et al. In some perverse nod to routine, he even hands over his hat and coat to Dawn and asks her to fetch him a cup of coffee. She’s too polite to say anything, but it’s clear she’s a little embarrassed for Don -- and maybe even irritated by his officiousness. After all, she’s got better things to do than perform pity favors for her has-been boss.

Oddly, with the exception of Lou and Jim, the men of SCP seem genuinely excited to see Don.  The women, not so much. (Meredith's girlish gushing doesn't count.) It's Peggy who spitefully tells Don he hasn't been missed, though the exact opposite is true, and Joan, one of Don's closest allies over the years, who greets him with a strained smile and then marches to Bert's office to play tattle-tale.  It's a little like the proverbial nightmare about showing up at school with no clothes on, but Don, either bravely or pathetically, decides not to leave.

The parade of humiliations marches on steadily and by the time he finally sits down for a meeting with the partners in the conference room, it’s dark outside. Motivated mostly by economics, but also by their continuing belief in his creative genius, the remaining partners begrudgingly make him an offer, one that comes with a whole roll of strings attached. Don can’t meet privately with clients, he’s not allowed to drink at the office and, most egregiously of all, he is to report to the singularly awful Lou.

I expected Don to fling the contract back in Joan's face, launch into an epic tirade and march out the door to the sounds of same, as I suspect many viewers did. Instead, Don agrees to the terms without equivocation. "OK," he says with a shrug.  I hardly recognize this version of Don, a man so desperate to patch things up with his ex (so to speak) that he's willing to be treated like a parolee at the company he helped build. What's unclear is whether Don's newfound modesty is admirable or just pathetic. While it's refreshing to see Don swallow his pride, we also have to wonder why he's so fixated on returning to SCP. Something tells me his ego has something to do with it.

There’s also very clearly a connection between Don’s sudden determination to return to SCP and his flagging marriage to Megan, though the exact cause-and-effect is a little murky. Does Don want to win back SCP in a bid to prove to Megan he was right to stay in New York, or is he motivated to get his professional life back on track because his marriage is crumbling?

It’s also ironic that at the moment of profound alienation between husband and wife, Don is acting just like Megan.  She looked like a lunatic when she “just so happened” to show up at Brentwood Country Mart, and he looks every bit as crazy rolling into the office on a Monday morning as if he hadn’t been gone for four months.

There’s also a fascinating  behavioral parallel between Don and his ex-wife Betty, who makes her long overdue Season 7 debut in “Field Trip.”  After lunch with her old pal Francine, who regales her with dramatic tales of life in the travel agency business (stiff necks! storefront offices!), Betty decides to chaperone Bobby’s field trip to his teacher’s farm. It’s an impulsive decision, one motivated as much by jealousy and boredom as a desire to spend time with her children. It’s 1969, and being the wife of a powerful man just isn’t as impressive as it used to be.

That’s not to say chaperoning the trip is a bad idea -- in fact, it’s pretty good one at first. Betty and Bobby spend some quality time on the bus discussing the merits of various movie monsters (Bobby is partial to Wolf Man), and Betty drinks fresh milk straight out of the bucket, which is not only game but frankly pretty unhygienic. Best of all for Betty, the field trip even offers plenty of opportunity for snide, petty gossip about Bobby’s attractive young teacher. What’s not to love?

But the idyllic day at the farm goes sour when Bobby gets seduced by Susie Rogers and her bag of gumdrops. (Side note: Betty, you’re not a perfect parent, but you can’t possibly be as bad Susie’s mom.)  Like Don, Betty’s adventure is motivated at least in part by a desire to make things right --  to form a more loving relationship with her son and to bring a sense of purpose to her own life.  

However, unlike Don, who until recently was a star at his job, Betty has never felt entirely at ease on the home front. She’s landed in a profession that doesn’t play to her natural talents -- yes, she has a few!  -- and years of insecurity about her mothering abilities, exacerbated by her contentious relationship with Sally, lead her to overreact to Bobby’s lunchtime bartering.

In a poignant twist, she's not there to see Bobby proudly reserving a space on his blanket for his mother, and she interprets the Gumdrop Incident as a personal attack, instead of what it is -- a careless mistake made by a kid blinded by sugar lust. Rather than kindly but firmly instructing Bobby to return the gumdrops and retrieve her sandwich or, failing that, begging Bobby's trampy teacher for some of that farm-fresh butter and a crust of bread, she lights up a cigarette and immediately freezes out her son.

It's a childish reaction to childish behavior -- in other words, it's a classic Betty moment. The irony is that Bobby is actually desperate for his mother's love and affection, and willing to accept it on almost any terms.

Stray observations:

--Joan may still be fighting for respect from her male partners, but as a woman she gets to wear her boots in Bert’s office. Proof that a double standard isn’t always a bad thing!

--I love the intercutting between Bobby and Don, which also underscores the implicit parallels between their story lines. 

--SCP has never been the most efficiently managed agency, but even still it seems a little odd the partners signed Lou to a two-year contract and yet seem to have such different impressions of Don’s employment status.

--Don is moving into Lane’s old office, a.k.a. Peggy’s current office. Will they be sharing space, or is Peggy going to get shoved in the corner by the Xerox once again?

--Harry Crane replaced by a computer? Say it ain’t so! Could any computer be as crude as our beloved Harry? I highly doubt it.  


Twitter: @MeredithBlake