Here’s a little secret about workaholics: they’re not the only ones who let their sense of self hinge upon their professions. The truth is, in America we’re trained from a young age that our identities are linked to how we spend our days. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” eventually gives way to “what do you do?” and we know that our response to the latter, that small-talk classic that lets first dates and new acquaintances get a basic read on us, is important because it gives us a clear place in the world. I’m in advertising. I’m an actress. I’m a stay-at-home mother. These answers aren’t just how we see ourselves; they’re the reasons we have to get out of bed in the morning.
When that’s threatened, when we fail at the jobs we let define us, we freak out because we’re losing something—a way to make a living, potentially, but it’s more than a livelihood. It’s a life, one we’ve worked hard to establish and grown accustomed to, and when we can feel it slipping away from us, we get scared. That much was evident this week in “Field Trip,” which saw several characters grasping at clearer answers about what exactly it is they do.
Things aren’t going as swimmingly for Megan in California as we’ve been led to believe, and her agent calls Don to tell him that after a string of rejections, she’s getting embarrassingly desperate. She’s been ambushing directors (you know, kind of like the way a young Don snuck up on Roger in the lobby of Sterling Cooper and conned his way into a job so many years ago) and asking for second chances at auditions, so Don’s called in to help her get a grip. He takes a little field trip to California and surprises her, but she gets upset when she finds out why he’s there. They fight, and she’s convinced he’s sleeping around because she can never reach him at work, and—hot off his big confession to Sally last week—Don finally comes clean and tells her he was put on leave. This only makes Megan more furious, because as she points out, “with a clear head, you got up every day and decided you didn’t want to be with me.” She kicks him out and tells him “this is the way it ends,” which doesn’t exactly bode well for their marriage or for Megan. She was alone in California before, but now she’s there without a safety net; how will she handle the pressures of trying to become the actress she so desperately wants to be without a support system, without someone to fly in from New York and prop her back up when she falls?
Meanwhile, Betty’s also trying to figure out where she belongs. She has lunch with her old friend Francine (who we haven’t seen since season four!), who is now a travel agent who works out of an office three days a week. Francine seems happy to be working, saying that it gives her “a challenge” and “a reward,” so of course Betty feels the need to tear her down, admitting she may be old-fashioned but insisting that it’s more important for her to be a housewife. But of course, raising her kids isn’t really what Betty does, either. She’s got a nanny for that, and after her lunch with Francine, she starts to realize that she doesn’t really do anything, so she tries to give the hands-on motherhood thing a go, volunteering to chaperone Bobby’s field trip to the farm. It all goes smoothly until lunchtime, when she finds out Bobby accidentally traded away her sandwich for some gumdrops. Bobby apologizes and offers to go get the sandwich back, but Betty declines, and it’s like a switch is flipped. Smiling, pleasant Betty disappears, and rancorous Betty rears her ugly head and insists that her son choke down the gumdrops as she smokes and goes hungry. Later that night, Bobby’s upset, obviously, but so is Betty. When Henry asks her what happened, she says “it was a perfect day, but then he had to go and ruin the whole thing,” and the awful part is she means it. When she asks Henry why her children don’t love her, we get a little sense of just how warped and paranoid Betty truly is. Mentally, she lives in a world where an honest mistake that’s easily reparable becomes an insurmountable personal attack on her, a day-ruining indication that her children don’t love her. So the vicious cycle continues, and she keeps spewing her bile and pushing them further away.
The thing that none of these characters realize is that who we are and what we do are contingent upon how we are to people, and this is painfully clear when Don finally makes his return to SC&P. He manages to nab a job offer from a rival agency, and a woman walks up to his table in the middle of his dinner and propositions him, but for the second time this season, he chooses work over sex with a strange woman, and it’s not her door he winds up knocking on that night; it’s Roger’s. The two old friends hash it out, and Roger finally says “You wanna come back? Come back. I miss you” and tells Don to come in on Monday. In typical Roger fashion, he doesn’t tell any of the other partners, and the reactions to Don’s return give us a glimpse of just how many bridges he’s burned over the past few years. Joan’s reluctant to let him return because she’s a smart businesswoman and she views him as a liability, but she’s also never really forgiven him for the way he fired Jaguar without consulting her or thinking of all she went through to reel in that account. Cutler’s unsympathetic because of the way Don treated Ted, and so is Peggy, still. She winds up being the most unwelcoming of all, telling Don “I can’t say we missed you.” Only Ken seems truly happy to see Don, peering at him through that ridiculous eyepatch and giddily telling him about his new baby boy.
Despite the fact that Roger is the only partner who really wants Don back, he wins the argument by reminding everyone that Don’s a partner, meaning if they were to fire him, they’d have to buy him out, which would eat into their profits all the way through 1973. Plus, if they fire him, they lose his non-compete clause, meaning they’d essentially be paying to play against Don Draper—not exactly a promising financial situation. So Don stays, but under a few conditions: He can’t be alone with clients, and he has to stick to a pre-approved script when pitching them. He gets Lane’s old office (you know, the same one in which our dearly departed Brit hanged himself), and he’ll report to Lou. He’s not allowed to drink in the office.
No way, we all think as the camera zooms in on Don’s face, dramatically awaiting his response to these new terms. That’s not Don Draper. Pre-approved pitches? No drinking? That’s not the man we’ve come to know over these six-plus seasons. We watch as the corners of his mouth turn up a little bit, expecting them to continue into that dark sneer we saw at the beginning of season four; we expect to hear the opening chords of “Tobacco Road” kick in again as Don whips the other job offer out from his pocket and tells the partners where they can put their list of caveats. But instead he utters just one word—”Okay”—and Jimi Hendrix continues the sentiment as the credits roll, singing “If the sun refuses to shine, I don’t mind.” Don could have taken the other job and ensured himself more creative freedom, but this isn’t simply about being an ad man again. It’s about being a good man, about fixing the mess he left behind, righting some wrongs. Working alongside Peggy and under Lou is bound to be bumpy for Don, and it’ll be fascinating to see how it plays out—partly because of the potential conflict, but mostly because it seems like Don really is trying to better himself. He’s willing to humble himself and accept this neutered position because it’s finally time for him to realize how awful he’s been to everyone and start working to make it right. For Don, the question’s no longer “what do you do?” Instead, we’re left asking ourselves what he’s going to do.
—Was it just me, or did Emily Arnett, the woman who approached Don in the restaurant, look exactly like Anna’s niece, Stephanie?
—It’s frustrating how bitter Peggy is so far this season. She’s jealous that Ginsberg got nominated for a Clio while her work on the Rosemary’s Baby-inspired campaign wasn’t even submitted, and she’s still holding grudges, letting personal issues with Don prevent her from doing great work with him. She’s had to deal with awful Lou Avery, and she’s been dissatisfied with the quality of work the agency’s been putting out, and yet she’s still pushing Don away.
— “Computers don’t think. People do.”
— “It’s sunny here for everyone but me.”
— “Are you aware your self-pity is distasteful?”
—Are we ever gonna see Bob Benson again, or has he disappeared into the ether just as mysteriously as he turned up last season?
—Don’s confrontation with Roger gave us a few great lines, including “I just have one quick question: how do you sleep at night?” and “Merry Christmas, love Judas.”
— “I just thought if you found out what happened, you wouldn’t look at me the same way.”
—In an episode so blatantly about identity and how we feel we’re perceived by others, there’s gotta be something to the fact that Bobby’s favorite monster is the Wolfman “because he changes into it.”