Season Seven, Episode Three: A very eventful episode of Mad Men. Two story arcs move us forward, though one (strangely compelling one) does not.

Are Don and Megan Draper finally over? In the major arc before the first commercial break, Don speaks long-distance to Megan’s agent and learns that Megan has been exhibiting desperate (stalker-like) behavior toward industry types in L.A. Don flies out unannounced in the middle of the week. Megan’s libidinal delight upon his arrival turns to melancholy as she reflects on her rejections (“It’s sunny here for everyone but me”) and then to outrage when she learns the reason for Don’s visit (“You came out here to, what, pull me out of a bathtub where I slit my wrists?”) and then to suspicion and accusation (“You’re never [in the office] when I call. … Who’s your new girl, Don?”—by which she means mistress, not secretary). Don confesses, not to having an affair, but to having been on leave from SC&P since Thanksgiving (it is now early spring). Megan is furious over the secrecy, and furious that all this time he could have been with her in L.A. but chose not to. She throws him out, with “This is the way it ends.”

I indulge in bald plot-summary here because I have waited so long in patience for these two to split up. As Megan ca. 1968-69, Jessica Paré is a tedious screen presence in hideous clothes. Their crackup has always seemed a foregone conclusion, given how impulsively Don proposed (at Disneyland!) in Season Four and how incapable he is of husband-like qualities (sustained honesty, loyalty, sobriety). The writers have been flirting with it since the midpoint of Season Five. Get on with it! A long-distance phone call later in the episode may or may not herald a rapprochement; let us hope not.

Is Don back? In the second major arc, Don visits Roger Sterling’s rooms at the Algonquin, armed with an offer of (under)employment from a rival agency. Following a brief exchange of hostilities, in which Don reminds Roger of his betrayal (“I got the message: ‘Merry Christmas, Love Judas’”) and Roger reminds Don of who plucked whom out of obscurity (“I found you at the bottom of a fur box”), Roger invites Don back to SC&P, with characteristic insouciance: “You want to come back? Come back. I miss you.”

Don returns on Monday morning, in a sequence so surreally awkward that we think at first it may be a nightmare scenario in a fever-dream. Roger is nowhere in sight, nor has anyone been told to expect Don. Our hero is just slinking back to the elevator when copywriter Michael Ginsberg spots him and pulls him into the Creative Lounge to spitball some ad copy. Unfortunately, the Creative Lounge is set up like a fishbowl: It is in the center of the office floor, and its walls have openings on all sides. Peggy & Co. gather to gawk, and the whisper goes round: “What’s he doing here?” The Creative Lounge is furnished and decorated like a kindergarten classroom, with low tables and chairs and colorful artwork tacked on the walls. Working among the young copywriters (who are all petite, one notes for the first time), Don looks like Dad coloring with the kids. Where once he was lord, now he is freakish and extraneous.

Roger arrives late to work and drunk from lunch, but his pocket square is gorgeous. He calls a partners’ meeting, and there ensues a battle for the soul of SC&P—as the question of whether to take Don back becomes a flashpoint for all the questions about the agency’s identity and future. Managerial Joan Harris and Machiavellian Jim Cutler reveal themselves to be friends of mediocrity and enemies of the Creative Department. Both are in Accounts, so they value relationships and reputations. A time bomb like Don, however gifted, creates problems for them. Within the agency, Joan has long been tasked with smoothing over relations between personnel, and Jim’s aspiration is to manipulate everybody—so both like their colleagues tame.

Both want Don frozen out. Jim’s argument is that, going forward, SC&P should be less dependent on “creative personalities” (that’s a pejorative) and “creative hijinks.” In a similar vein, Joan queries: “How does [Don] fit into everything now? This is working.” Is it? Roger opines that “our Creative is invisible,” prompting Jim to defend Creative Director Lou Avery: “Lou is adequate.” That is not a pejorative, because for Jim, Creative should be seen and not heard. Rather than bring on creative talent, “We need to invest in a computer” and make Media the department of the future.

Roger is an Account man too—but he is also a wit, with a sense of style and play, and he is bored with anything not beautiful or brilliant. For this reason if for no other, he is no friend to mediocrity. His arguments in support of Don are three: the argument from quality (“Don is a genius”); the argument from financial reality (“Even if we do fire him, he’s a partner. We have to buy him out”); and the argument from sheer terror (“We fire him, we lose the non-compete [clause]”—and who wants to follow Don’s act when he is pitching copy for other agencies?).

Beautiful and strange it was to see Roger bestir himself to some end other than decadence. For a while on Sunday night, Roger Sterling was trending on Twitter, very deservedly. Then Donald Sterling succeeded him, rather less deservedly.

And Roger carries the day—sort of. The partners allow Don to return, but with some stipulations. Bert Cooper: “You are not allowed to be alone with clients. You are to stick to the script in meetings.” Joan: “Outside of client hospitality, there will be no drinking in the office.” Roger: “You’ll be in Lane’s [Pryce] old office.” Jim: “And you will report to Lou.” In other words, “You can come back, if you let us geld you.” Failure to comply will result in termination of Don’s employment and reabsorption of his partnership shares; that is, he is being set up to get fired properly. Zoom in on Jon Hamm’s face: “OK.” Fade to black.

And yet with all that, the episode takes its title (“Field Trip”) from a third plotline in which Betty Draper Francis chaperones her son Bobby’s class trip to Miss Kaiser’s dad’s farm. And nothing much happens there. Which is kind of great.

Inspired by a chat with an old friend to embrace the role of “good mother,” Betty envisions this field trip as a “perfect day” with her son. This is her first appearance in Season Seven, and we see immediately that, from once being a Poor Man’s Grace Kelly, she has evolved into Albino Jackie—a pristine political wife with flipped hair, big sunglasses, and immaculate sportswear. This icon of plasticity is contrasted strongly with Miss Kaiser, Bobby’s teacher and Farmer Cy’s daughter, an earth-mother type who is unencumbered (we are invited to note) by a brassiere. When the cow gets milked, Betty surprises and delights her son by volunteering to sample the raw milk. The huge tin pail eclipses her exquisite makeup and coiffure, and her verdict—“Sweet”—is delivered with her customary stilted-princess affect. The sheer weirdness of this dabbling in natural things is of a piece with the one thing that has always been compelling about January Jones’s Betty—her paradoxical plasticity, her natural unnaturalness.

She does not belong among natural things. Farms are dirty, but Betty imagines this one as a pastoral idyll, all golden dust motes and pretty picnics. Until, during lunch, little Bobby mars the scene: He trades his mother’s sandwich for a bag of gumdrops. Betty will not forgive him, nor will she allow him to make amends. Bobby is not permitted to reclaim the sandwich, nor will Betty partake of the gumdrops, nor may the rueful child abstain from the ill-gotten sweets. “Eat your candy.” So our little Adam must eat the fruits of his fall.

In the evening, Betty reports to her husband Henry, “It was a perfect day, and he ruined it.” Henry asks Betty and then Bobby, “What happened?” Neither answers, but the answer is: Nothing, or nothing much. With any imperfection, “a perfect day” is no longer perfect. If the day wasn’t “ruined,” the perfection was.

The swiftness and totality of the disenchantment show the importance of the quality of fantasy to Betty’s outlook. The quality of fantasy, which is also the quality of plasticity. Notoriously, January Jones is not a good actress. But barring extremes of emotion, she does not need to act on Mad Men. She delivers “mid-century lobotomy patient” round the clock, and many observers have come to appreciate her life as surreal kind of performance art. She is a plastic figure of fantasy, on camera and off.

A figure of fantasy, and also of nostalgia. Little Bobby mourns in the evening: “I wish it was yesterday.” Betty envisions and represents the Edenic “yesterday,” compared to which today is always already “ruined.” In nostalgic fantasy, any imperfection today declares our exile from the lost idyll. Poor Bobby is being trained to be miserable. But the idyll, insofar as it existed at all, was unnatural and plastic.

Whenever this theme is rendered as a more or less overt sociopolitical lesson (“Hey, the Eisenhower Era wasn’t actually perfect! Have you heard there was sexism and racism and homophobia and—”), Mad Men fails. But insofar as the ironies of nostalgia are embodied by the underrated (un)natural strangeness of January Jones, it is a great thing the series does, a riveting and revolting comment on how we remember and misremember the past, the national past and our own.

This is why Betty Draper Francis may stay. For Megan Draper there is no excuse.

Articles by Julia Yost

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