On Sunday’s episode of Mad Men, the Don Draper Redemption Train continued to chug along with just a few bumps — but first, let’s deal with the return of everyone’s favorite love-to-hate-her ex-wife, Betty Francis.
Last season, Betty’s story arc was something of a nothing-burger as she experienced a crisis of confidence: she gained weight, she lost weight, she dyed her hair brown, then she dyed it back, and so on. Nothing particularly exciting happened until she and Don had a throwback-Thursday conjugal rendezvous while visiting Bobby at summer camp, so this week, it was promising to see Betty volunteer to chaperone a school field trip — she’s a much more interesting character when she gets out of the house. Betty may say she’s happy being old-fashioned, raising kids and supporting Henry Francis’ political career, but watching pal Francine tell Betty all about the challenging boredom of staying at home reminds viewers of what they’ve known all along about Betty: Ms. Feminine Mystique is suffering from a case of the problem that has no name.
Maybe she’s just practicing what she preaches to Francine when she decides to spend more time with Bobby, but Betty does seem to be actively interested in trying to get to know him in this episode. (The way he ecstatically tells his teacher, “We were having a conversation!” suggests he notices, too.) Betty accompanies him on a school trip to a local farm, she listens to him talk about monsters on the bus, she volunteers to be the first to drink fresh cow’s milk in the barn — because she’s not like a regular mom, she’s a cool mom! But when Bobby accidentally trades his mom’s sandwich for some candy, suddenly the perfect day of mother-son bonding is ruined. Betty has probably thrown bigger fits about stupider things before, but this time, a bummed-out Bobby leads her to ask husband Henry Francis, “Why don’t they love me?”
Mad Men must be getting serious about her evolution as a character, as fans have had six seasons’ worth of answers to that question. Betty just isn’t a natural parent. She doesn’t understand that kids will be kids and make dumb mistakes sometimes, and when they do, she’s too personally offended to accept their remorse. Plus, she has a history of seeking attention from children to supplement whatever attention she’s not getting elsewhere in her life — remember her bizarre friendship with Glen Bishop? Betty is the frostiest ice queen January Jones has ever played — and that’s saying something for an actress who starred as X-Men’s Emma Frost, a villain who could literally turn herself into a diamond and become impervious to freezing temperatures. Maybe Betty is just doomed to be unhappy in the Weinerverse (that certainly seems to be the case for Peggy these days). Or maybe, like her ex-husband, she’s wondering why the people around her aren’t suddenly throwing themselves at her feet after she shows the first sign of effort.
Which brings us to Don. After Megan’s agent gives him a heads-up that his wife is coming unhinged as her acting career fails to take off, he flies out to California to keep her from unraveling — only that’s exactly what happens to their marriage. His inspirational pep talk about overcoming Hollywood rejection immediately raises some red flags, so Megan bites: Why is he here, where is he spending his time and whom is he screwing? Clearly, Don wasn’t just feeling guilty when he told his airplane acquaintance in the season premiere that Megan knew more than enough about his misbehavior — she’s been onto him for some time, even if, for the sake of their bicoastal marriage, she’s also doing her best to keep up appearances. (Which makes her “Did you get fired?” joke to Don after his surprise visit all the richer — some of the best exchanges on Mad Men this season have involved two characters who know each others’ secrets but delicately dance around them.)
The new and improved Don Draper opens up to Megan, spilling the details of his administrative leave and admitting he was too ashamed to tell her the truth. The confession doesn’t go as well as he expected, though — Don may have turned over a new leaf, but in Sunday’s episode, he mistakes honesty for automatically being a good person when, in fact, he’s selfish. He expects Megan to be impressed by his revelations, but he looks stunned when Megan suggests they separate; he believes fixing their marriage means getting his old job back, not moving out to California to support her; he declares he’s been on his best behavior, as if staying faithful and sober-ish was going above and beyond the call of marital duty. Don hardly seems tempted by the couple of blondes he could have easily bedded in this episode, but it’s obvious he’s more concerned with Megan’s opinion of him than Megan’s actual well-being.
Their phone conversation later in the episode recalls something Peggy told Ted last season after he decided to move to California following a change of heart about their romantic future: “Aren’t you lucky to have decisions.” Progress, schmogress — Don is still the center of his own universe, and everyone else is just a satellite that revolves around him. As the episode suggests, Don won’t truly get his act together unless he figures that out.
If his rough patch with Megan wasn’t a wake-up call in that regard, Don’s awkward return to SC&P certainly was. Marital drama motivates Don to take a lunch meeting, and when an offer comes down the pipeline, he confronts Roger, who invites him back to work — but neglects to tell everyone else at the agency. For the second episode in a row, the hard-working people of SC&P are caught off guard when another member of the Draper family shows up without warning. This time, instead of Sally discovering that her father no longer works there, Don realizes that everyone has moved on without him — even before Peggy gets a chance to bitterly rub that in. New faces have taken his old office; secretaries that once waited on his beck and call now have their own offices. As Joan so eloquently puts it in a partners’ meeting, “How does he fit into everything now? This is working. We’re still mopping up the damage he’s done.”
The partners are faced with some choices: Do they keep wasting money paying Don’s salary while he’s on leave, or do they take a financial hit and buy him out? Do they risk aiding their competition by firing him, voiding the non-compete clause of his contract, or do they keep a creative genius on the sidelines? Do they save his dignity over their own? Mad Men would have taken an interesting turn if the partners decided the answer to that last question was “no” — a true test of Don’s recovery would be whether he could handle whatever rejection detonates inside him — but what ends up happening works, too. Don gets to make his not-so-triumphant return to SC&P, but with a few conditions: He can’t drink, he can’t be around clients unsupervised, and he has to get approval from either Lou or the partners on just about everything.
This deal should change things dramatically. Instead of swooping into save Peggy from Lou’s slacker leadership with some dramatic Draper comeback coupe, Don may now have to work alongside her to earn back a smidgeon of his former glory — if he even gets that much. And for the first time in a long, long time, the man who used to be the boss now must answer to one.
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Write to Nolan Feeney at firstname.lastname@example.org