Mad Men: Is Don's Marriage Over? Is His Career?

Dissecting "Field Trip," the third episode of the seventh season

Ashley Fetters and Chris Heller discuss the latest episode of Mad Men.

Fetters: Halfway through "Field Trip," the third episode of the season, Mad Men delivered one of its rare treats: the dressing-down of a bad husband by his long-suffering wife. Don visits Megan in California when her agent urges him to intervene; when the truth comes out about why he’s there, other truths—like the fact of Don’s unemployment—finally come out too. Even after Don has accused Megan of “acting crazy,” “acting like a lunatic,” being too emotional, and saying things that are plainly untrue, she points out that even if Don’s supposedly the rational one in the situation, then “with a clear head, you got up every day and decided you didn’t want to be with me.” And then she tells him, “This is the way it ends. It’s going to be so much easier for both of us.”

In the canon of great Mad Men tell-offs, this one should be categorized as more heartbreaking than high-five-worthy—it lacks the gleeful punch of Trudy Campbell’s “I will destroy you” last season, or Betty’s withering “Stop it, Don, nobody’s watching” in Season Two. But all the same, this felt like the successful execution of a confrontation that was a long time coming. Chris, were you a little relieved, like I was, to see Megan stand her ground for once?

Heller: So very relieved. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Megan, since SC&P’s West Coast office offers too many juicy opportunities to bring her back. Telling off Don, though? That’d be one hell of a way to go. She’s right to dump him: Notwithstanding the California promise that wasn’t, Don has always treated his wife like the lesser half of the marriage. It’s all over this episode: Alan’s wants him to handle her “confidence” problem, he ignores her obvious emotional distress, and she derisively calls him “Daddy.” After last week’s heart-to-heart between Don and Sally, it seemed clear that the marriage was at an impasse. If Don didn’t want to move to California, he would have no future with Megan. He didn’t, so they don’t.

Fetters: This episode brought some satisfyingly concrete developments in another ongoing uncertainty, too: the state of Don’s career. I love that the show actually embraced the awkward ambiguity of what “on leave” meant for Don. “Wait, did Don get fired?” was a question for a lot of viewers last season, too, and I’m glad to see that it was part of a longer setup for Mad Men to do what it does so well: Use random, seemingly inconsequential happenings as the setups to private tragedies and public absurdities. One man's unfortunately vague choice of words in a board room in 1968 lead to another man spending a full day uncomfortably on display in his old office in 1969, unsure of what his role is there or whether he has one—that’s purely Mad Men’s brand of quiet calamity.

But let’s talk about what really got me thinking this week—Don’s final “OK.” At the end of the episode, the partners at Sterling Cooper offer Don his job back under some very strict stipulations: no drinking in the office, no going off-script in pitch meetings, no alone time with clients, and he reports to Lou Avery. And Don says OK.

What I’m struggling with, Chris, is why. He has an offer from another agency, and presumably that offer doesn’t prohibit him from doing all the things he’s historically been so good at in the office. (Think back to when we first met Don Draper, in the pilot. He was the star of Sterling Cooper, known for his ability to woo clients one-on-one and come up with stellar ad pitches on the fly.) And his awkward reintroduction into the SC&P habitat made it painfully clear that nobody’s quite sure where he fits into the office ecosystem anymore. Peggy, once his protege, spits at him that nobody really misses him at the agency. What do you think is pulling him back to SC&P?

Heller: First things first: Let’s take a minute to applaud Jon Hamm’s greatness in this episode. Sure, he didn’t bring out the meaty gravitas—and he didn’t cry, either—but Hamm played all sorts of emotions across Don’s face at pivotal moments in his life and career. When Megan breaks up with him: frustration, anger, and a bit of smirking relief. When the Sterling Cooper partners make a lame duck of a job offer: pensive, desperate, and just ever-so eager. He’s been playing Don for so long now, every wrinkle of his performance bears the cumulative weight of the character’s baggage. It’s really something.

So, why do I think Don takes the job? It doesn’t have much to do with the inner-politicking of SC&P, for starters. (Although, I did love the delicious irony of how Lou’s contract forced an imperfect decision. Remember when Don’s lack of a contract used to cause all the problems?) Twice in this episode, Don suggests that his return to the agency will fix what ails his relationship with Megan. “Things can be the way we want them to be,” he dejectedly promises her during their last phone call, “because I’m going back to the agency.” He sees the status quo as some kind of cure-all. It’s difficult to believe that Don thinks a job will save his marriage, but how about all of his other problems? The drinking, the lack of a routine, the Little Rascals marathons on weekday afternoons? A return to SC&P will allegedly sweep all those cobwebs out of his life—or at least he believes it will. As we’ve come to expect from Mad Men, though, I’m not so sure it’ll ever be that simple.

When Don arrived at the office on Monday morning, he looked like a man out of time, dressed for a different era. Think about the uneasy contrast between him and the boys in the copy bullpen. There’s Don, hat literally in hand … and then there’s mustachioed Ginsberg, wearing a goofy cardigan over a rumpled shirt and tie. If he truly believes that this job can save him because it was a life vest once before, he is sorely mistaken. Times have changed. The SC&P partners will surely be angling to fire him as soon as possible—if only to spring for a shiny new computer. He must know that by now, right? He is doomed.

Fetters: It’s interesting to me that you point that out this week, because in this episode, it’s Betty who takes on that role that so often falls to Don: She’s a living relic of an era that’s rapidly disappearing, who can’t see that her commitment to doing things the proper, old-fashioned way is only hurting her. Betty shames her old friend Francine for having a three-day-a-week job rather than being content with being a full-time mother (“I thought [children] were the reward”). But her confession to Henry later reveals, once again, that motherhood isn’t really that satisfying to her at all. For six seasons of Mad Men, we’ve watched Betty pretend to love being a housewife, only to find herself unhappier because of it—but now, she’s holding fast to that fantasy even after other housewives, like Francine, have abandoned it.

But, in any case, hooray for the return of Betty Francis, the real Queen B of my heart. Seriously, bow down.