Well, Seth, you were just complaining about the dearth of action so far this season. But this week’s episode had big events galore. Megan dumps Don! Don returns to the agency! Betty drinks milk out of a giant metal pail!
Ah, Betty. She’s Mad Men’s lightning rod character. Fans hate what a bad mom she is. Or they hate what a bad actress January Jones (supposedly) is. Or they hate the weird plots she gets stuck with. But I’ve always been a fan of Betty, and of January Jones in the role. I believe her as a character, and I think her story—the story of how the 1960s felt to a certain very particular sort of housewife—is fascinating and rich, and an important counterpart to the office sagas of Peggy and Joan. So I’m always glad when an episode leans heavily on Betty. In this one, though, she’s a true lead: Her story and Don’s run in parallel, and tell two parts of the same tale.
The episode is called “Field Trip,” and sure enough, Betty goes on a class excursion to a farm with Bobby. (Same Bobby as last season, by the way—nice job escaping Weiner’s Bobby-axe, current Bobby!) This unlikely trip to the country is spurred by a conversation Betty has with her old neighbor, who’s now working as a travel agent while her kids are in school, a busy and clearly fulfilling job—“I redefined his definition of first class”—that she considers a “reward” for her years of childrearing. “I thought they”—the children—“were the reward,” Betty says.
Realizing, perhaps, that she does not always treat her offspring as though they had arrived in foil and decked with bows, Betty resolves to lean in to motherhood, field-trip style. On the bus she makes a great point about Wolf-Man and Dracula. (Bobby beams as he tells his teacher, “We’re having a conversation!”) In the barn she is the first to drink the cow’s freshly expressed milk, and pronounces it sweet. With a fellow chaperone, she cracks jokes about the hippie teacher’s less-than-structured bra. We are the kind of women we are, the barb implies. She is not like us. Betty is trying on a perfect-mom persona like a woman flexing her fingers in new gloves. But when Bobby trades her designated sandwich for a bag of gumdrops, Werewolf Betty comes out. “Eat your candy,” she says with menace, and a crushed Bobby forces one down.
Poor kid. But it’s interesting that it’s the sandwich (not the jolting bus, or the pail, or being told where to smoke) that sets her off. The trouble with devoting your life to being a mom is that you’re not really a person to your kids. You’re like a building, or a public utility, or a force of nature, or a god, but you’re not always a human with a stomach who needs lunch. Of course, if you have no ego, this is just fine—like the good men at Ogilvy, you can eschew recognition and let the work speak for itself. But for a woman like Betty, who barely feels alive unless she is seen, it’s not enough.
Don’s story showcases the flipside problem. If the only thing you are truly loyal to in life is your work, you are screwed. Because there’s no guarantee your work will be loyal to you.
As the episode opens, Don is trying on the helpmeet role. He flies to Los Angeles at Megan’s agent’s request to help her combat some extreme audition jitters. On this trip, the truth comes out—that Don has been suspended, and lying to Megan every day since. She kicks him back to New York, and he decides it’s time to retrieve his old job, or get a new one.
Although “Clarence Birdseye” snags a competitive offer—in writing, with blond perks—Don instead goes for Roger’s tossed-off invitation to just show up on Monday morning. What ensues is hilariously uncomfortable. It’s essentially a field trip for Don, who has no business to conduct and must simply study the natives while staying out of their way. I loved watching the strained, chipper faces of the confused Sterling Cooper staff. But Roger’s prompt was canny. It forces a partner’s meeting, which finally delivers Don some answers.
At least, it delivers us answers—it’s not clear Don has sniffed out what his partners are up to. Those heartless curs. Cutler has successfully bought Joan’s loyalty with that office upstairs. She wants Don gone. The brass realize that Don won’t be content with “leave” forever, but that they can’t afford to buy him out of the partnership. So they agree to take him back, with a set of draconian limitations—no drinking around the office, no going off script when they pitch, no solo client meetings, no longer being the boss (he’ll have to report to Lou!)—and the agreement that if he breaks the rules, he’s fired and they can absorb his shares. This is a bald attempt to force him out on the cheap, and a very, very, very bad deal for Don. And even though the partners have every right to be skittish, it felt indirect and underhanded. I was rooting for Don to tear up that offer. But he accepts.
Maybe the new Don Draper has no ego. Maybe he just wants to do good work. But I don’t think this will end well. Although, unlike many Web conspiracy theorists, I don’t think Don’s going to die, either—did you guys catch Cutler holding up The American Way of Death apropos of nothing at all in that scene with Crane? I took that as Matthew Weiner winking at us all.*
Willa, Seth, I’ll leave it to you to dissect the confrontation between Megan and Don. But I am excited for the rest of the season. This is one of those dynamic-changing episodes, like the merger last year, that will reset what everyone wants in each scene. Are we going to spend the next four episodes rooting for Don not to drink? Not to quash the mediocrity that is Lou? Not to pull a wild idea out of nowhere and save a meeting going south?
Also, would one of you please remind me why Peggy hates Don now?
Correction, April 28, 2014: This post originally misstated the title of The American Way of Death. (Return.)