Reviewing the “Mad Men” reviews: Lines are drawn

Don's back at the agency with new rules, new allies and new enemies. Will he be allowed to do his job?

Topics: TV, Mad Men, don draper, amc, tv recaps,

Reviewing the "Mad Men" reviews: Lines are drawnJohn Slattery in "Mad Men" (Credit: AMC/Michael Yarish/amc)

Last week’s episode, “Field Trip,” is a cluttered installment with plenty of loose threads. Understandably, most critics focused on the cringe-inducing return to form of Don’s ex-wife. And, not surprisingly, Betty’s petulance and awful parenting did not inspire much sympathy. In fact, her low profile in the previous episodes only served to heighten folks’ need to unleash on her when the time was right. Rachel Lubitz at the Washington Post writes, “Ah yes, that’s the Betty we all know and love and love to hate” and calls her “just as comically immature as when we left her.” Jeff Labrecque at Entertainment Weekly refers to her as “Mommie Dearest.” And Cynthia Littleton at Variety wrote, “The witch is back, twisting the knife in her kid’s gut, wallowing in self-pity, narcissism, jealousy and the status-conscious scheming that may be her ugliest trait of all.” What is gratifying about all this ill will, however, is that most people have come to terms with the fact that Betty is unlikable because the character is unlikable. These are tough traits to play and actress January Jones continues to do so masterfully and with great, if unappealing, humanity.

This week, much digital ink was devoted to pondering the fate of Don Draper’s relationship with his current wife, Megan. Some are predicting doom. Sam Adams at RollingStone writes, “his marriage is about to implode; perhaps it already has and he just can’t let it go.” Others are more optimistic. “Megan kicks Don out of her Los Angeles life in what initially felt like a prelude to divorce,” writes Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz, “but if the end of last week’s episode proved anything, it’s that this show believes in second chances, and thirds, and fourths.” I must cop to a fairly high level of indifference here. I see Don’s back-and-forth trips to L.A. as something of a distraction from the more significant drama at home in New York. Don may indeed want Megan back to a limited degree, but it seems clear that his true devotion has always been to his work. As he says in the episode, it was his efforts to fix that all important relationship that kept him separate from Megan. I believe, as she says, that if they split, it will be easier for both of them.

By far, my favorite moment in the episode is when Roger Sterling defends Don, calling him a “genius” and belligerently advocating for his return in the face of the staunch skepticism of the rest of the partners. Of course there are practical reasons for this passionate display: Sterling is a money guy, Don has a contract, firing him would be costly. But I also like to believe that Sterling does actually miss his old friend and his immeasurable talents. (If persnickety Jim Cutler can miss boring-ass Ted, how much more should Roger lament the absence of his hard-drinking, alpha compatriot from the good ol’ days of misogyny and advertising.) Roger’s going through his own personal derailment at the moment, though slower and far more psychedelic than Don’s meltdown. How can he not empathize even a little? It is possibly because of this once solid friendship that part of me wanted to believe that Roger sends the coy but oh-so-willing Emily Arnett to Don’s table as he is being wooed by another agency to let him know that someone at his old shop still loves him. It definitely seemed like a gleefully deceitful, Roger Sterling-type thing to do.

My hopes were dashed when I realized that Matthew Weiner and “Mad Men’s” creators were toying specifically with these bromantic notions as well as with long-held perceptions about who Don Draper actually is versus who he may become. As AJ Marechal at “Mashable” writes, “This scene offered us a great misdirection, as well — at dinner, Don was wooed by an attractive blonde, who told him where her hotel room was. As we watch Don knock on a door, our instincts kick in and we assume he’s about to have a rendezvous after his falling out with Megan. To see Roger open the door was one of the pleasant surprises of the episode, emphasizing Don’s effort to be a changed man.”

So, the bad news is that Roger Sterling hadn’t given much thought to Don’s return — certainly not enough to orchestrate it with a little bait and switch. The worse news is that none of the partners wanted it either and are, likely, still angling to force him out with their stifling stipulations about his employment henceforth. There is, however, a ray of sunshine in that Michael Ginsberg and the rest of the low-level SCD&P creatives under Peggy seemed ready to welcome Don back with open arms and quite a few questions both personal and professional. They know he’s a genius and, as such, their spiritual leader. Hurt as she may be, even Peggy knows that the firm will never distinguish itself operating under Lou Avery’s lack of vision. The new restrictions will sting Don, but I’m betting that this Sunday we see him rally the troops somewhat. The field trip is over. It’s time to get back to work.

Neil Drumming

Neil Drumming is a staff writer for Salon. Follow him on Twitter @Neil_Salon.

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