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'Mad Men' recap: A field trip, a farmer's daughter, a prodigal son

Don Draper, still in a dark place, on

Don Draper, still in a dark place, on the season 7 premiere of "Mad Men." Credit: AMC / Michael Yarish

OK, so how to make Roger Sterling lovable (or at least respected) again? I guess we learned "how" in Sunday night's "Field Trip," the third episode of the seventh season before which Roger had morphed into a hapless hippy wannabe with uncertain judgment, terrible fathering skills, and irredeemably irreversibly awful talents for friendship and loyalty. (Roger just being Roger.)

Except: Maybe that lost talent is reversible, redeemable.

That standout scene in the conference room alone -- whereby the ego, stature, and even horn-rimmed glasses of Jim Cutler were incinerated under the withering assault of Roger, demanding the return of one Don Draper to the agency that once bore his name -- was proof enough. Roger, at long last, has been redeemed. 

This episode, the best of the seventh season so far, and the most intriguing for all sorts of reasons, established a whole new set of dynamics -- where "dynamics" have so far been restricted to whether Megan would get a real acting job or Don would tell her he had effectively been fired. (He did last night, to predictable consequences.)

This season has been all about the evolution of character, from either bad to worse (Roger, Peggy, Megan, Joan, and of course, Pete) and from worse to better (Don). "Field Trip" established the possibility that everything we had gradually, ruefully come to expect in our beloved characters -- their bitterness, incipient racism, egotism, cravenness and depravity -- just might actualy reverse itself.

The return of Don is just one of those game-changers.

How this jumbles everything up was only partially hinted at: Don's willingness to accept third-tier status at the agency he largely helped bring into existence suggests that he has other motives beyond bringing Megan back into his affections (because it is unclear from last night whether that is even possible any longer, or advisable; at least that provided the pretext, however, for Don's return to Sterling Cooper). What does Don want? Does Don even know what he wants? Can he even live, for a second, in the shadow of bitter hack Lou Avery who will look for every opportunity to destroy Don once and forever, or until his contract runs out in two years?

The return of Don will answer some of these questions.

And what of Joan? Speaking of character, I've come to expect exactly the performance Bert Cooper turned in Sunday night: a tired hack more interested in the feng shui of his office than in the agency's future, he cut loose Don without thought or remorse, and had to be reminded by Roger last night that his outright firing would cost his agency more that it could afford. But what has happened to Joan? What's happened to her is power: The taste of it, and slowly the command of it, is now too deeply embedded. Even though she owes her career to Don, she too flips him off like a bad memory.

The return of Don will threaten her position, and potentially even divide or dilute Roger's attention, upon which she so keenly depends (for obvious reasons).

When Peggy says (snippily) that the absence of Don has made no difference, she was really in some sense only addressing herself: Peggy's become a lost character this season, without bearing or self-respect. As much as she earned that self-respect in the first place, Don at the very least gave her the opportunity to earn it. But she has squandered it, knows she has squandered it, and has no one but herself to blame.

The return of Don will either deepen her self-disdain, or allow Peggy the long process of pulling herself out of her hole (which, she fails to realize, Lou has helped her dig).

The return of Don will make things more interesting. The return of Don will make people better -- or worse. The return of Don will make Don better -- or worse.  The return of Don will make "Mad Men" more thrilling. The return of Don will put "Mad Men" back exactly where it should be: Don among friends ... or, more likely enemies.

Meanwhile, that side story: The field trip? What did that all mean? Of course I have my theories. The key here was the farmer's daughter -- an old joke's punchline, so sexualized has the image become (and pity all farmer's daughter's everywhere for this). Yet there she was, bending over Betty and Bobby, au naturel as it were, and Betty, horrified.

To me, the whole side-trip story was the story not of Betty and Bobby, but rather of Betty and Don: The betrayals, the temptations, and how they engendered self-loathing in Betty (witness that scene at the end, in bed). Betty is not an awful mother -- she once married an awful husband, who betrayed her repeatedly, and she remains in thrall to the bitter memory.

Don continues to define her whether she likes it or not. On the flip side, there is Don, trying to become the best husband he can be to Megan. For Betty, the bitter irony of that conversion (which of course she knows nothing about) lies in an innocent trip to a farm.

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