"Mad Men" recap: It's just a matter of time

In last night's episode, Don experiences rejection and Megan only wants to be understood

Published April 28, 2014 12:16PM (EDT)

                         (Benjamin Wheelock/Salon/AMC/Frank Ockenfels)
(Benjamin Wheelock/Salon/AMC/Frank Ockenfels)

"Hopefully now things can be the way we want them to be, because I'm going back to the agency." Don Draper, conflicted American icon of false hopes and hopelessness, of escapism and stoicism, of insecurity and arrogance, has returned to the SC&P offices. He is sweaty and anxious before he even sets foot in the offices, and things just get more awkward and desperate from there, as a parade of shocked and disgusted faces greet his return. Lou looks furious. Joan looks sick. Peggy looks furious and sick. Even Dawn, Don's former secretary and the only person Don's been in touch with since he left, cringes a little when she sees Don's face. Only Ginsberg is unabashedly happy to have him back.

It's oddly satisfying to see Don humbled – and a little surprising, really, that he doesn't get angry and storm out. But clearly Don chooses to play a falsely confident role, and chooses to believe in his own creation myth. He thinks he can only be a winner if he never admits to having lost or failed or stumbled. Going to another agency would've been tantamount to admitting failure for him. Confessing to Megan that he'd been put on leave would've allowed her to see the truth about him, that he's not the big man she thought he was.

Don: I just thought that if you found out what happened, you wouldn't look at me in the same way.

Megan: I can't believe after all this time you don't know me.

Don: I know how I want you to see me.

Good old Don. Megan just wants to be known and understood. She just wants him to stop lying, to come out to California, to treat her well and live up to his promises. But Don is too wrapped up in his own needy narcissistic bubble to hear any of that. All that matters to him is for Megan to still see him as dashing and infallible, the way the stewardess on his flight sees him. Don doesn't really want to know Megan and he doesn't really want to be known. He wants to be a shiny, bulletproof brand, adored by all.

Instead, he's the invisible boy in Michael Ginsberg's ad campaign. No one wants him to return. Everyone – except for Roger, a drunk, lonely dinosaur -- just wishes he'd go away. So even though the episode starts with rumors that Megan's been acting crazy out of insecurity, even though Don just got through telling her, "You can't let it [rejection] erode your confidence. And you can't get angry or desperate," by the last scene of the episode, Don ends up the most humbled of all. Somehow his words to Megan – don't let rejection get you down, don't get angry, don't get desperate – start to sound like a map of his own inevitable future in the new, much more modern, much less groovy SC&P offices.

Don is experiencing real rejection, but resolves not to acknowledge it. (More on that later.) Meanwhile, Megan and Betty are both imagining rejection around every corner, even though it's not necessarily there. Betty has lunch with Francine, her old friend who always seems to find her hopelessly naïve. Francine talks happily about working as a travel agent, boasting, "I have three phones and no secretary." This is a clear callback to the show's first season, when Francine discovered her cheating husband's phone bill, and asked Betty, "What woman would he be calling in Manhattan who answers her own phone?" Now Francine has become that modern, phone-answering woman. But Betty isn't having any of it.

Francine: I really needed a challenge.

Betty: Well, there's still plenty of challenges ahead, believe me.

Francine: Fine, I needed a reward.

Betty: I thought they [kids] were the reward. I don't know. Maybe I'm old-fashioned.

Francine: Betty Draper, that is indeed how I would describe you.

As Francine turns away, Betty glares at her angrily. So when she returns home and finds the maid doing homework with Bobby and Gene, she impulsively agrees to go on a field trip with Bobby. On the trip, though, Betty behaves like an old-fashioned scold, smoking on the school bus, scoffing at the hippie schoolteacher, then becoming overly offended when Bobby innocently trades her sandwich for some gumdrops. (Since he rarely sees his mom eat, he assumes she won't want it.) "It was a perfect day and he ruined it," Betty later tells Henry, then claims that her kids don't love her. "What are you talking about?" he asks, pointing to Gene cuddling up to her. "It's just a matter of time," poor, insecure, preemptively bitter Betty replies. It is just matter of time, of course – a matter of Betty being hopelessly out of step with the times. She could use a challenge and a reward, but instead she'll keep spinning in her useless circles, living vicariously through her husband and kids and resenting them for it all the while, a thoroughly old-fashioned woman to the last breath.

Megan's rejection may be less imaginary, but her depression is even more severe. She's been going to auditions for months with little success, and it's starting to eat away at her. "It's sunny here for everyone but me," she tells Don. "I'm walking around in a cloud of 'no.'" That "no" includes Don's refusal to move out to California after promising he would. When he admits that he hasn't even been working, and is thus actively choosing not to be with her even with no restrictions on his life, she kicks him out. His response is comically clueless. "Have you calmed down?" he asks her, like he can will her to forget the whole thing.

This cluelessness is repeated later in the SC&P office, when one face after another drops when Don shows up. He instructs Dawn to get him some coffee, clearly unaware that the whole world has been turned upside down since he last set foot in the office.

Remember that scene in "Boogie Nights" when the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve, 1979, and all of the free-loving, "Spill The Wine," good times of the '70s  give way to the dreary, addiction-plagued buzzkill of the '80s? That's how the new, modern, ultra-professional SC&P office must feel for Don now, with its talk of financial considerations and computers and its joyless, sober, thoroughly unromantic worker bees like Lou Avery.

In case this drastic sea change is lost on us, the partners let Don know that yes, he can come back to the agency (If he must!) but he won't be able to drink, or meet with clients alone, or improvise his pitches, or get creative on the fly, or get creative at all, with anything, really. Hmm, OK. So basically, Don, you can't do any of that stuff you really love to do. Oh and also? You'll be in Lane Pryce's old office – um, you know, the one HE KILLED HIMSELF IN? And you'll answer to joyless, sober, punishing, resentful Lou Avery.

If Don isn't going to die at the end of the series, Matthew Weiner is certainly making a fun sport out of having us believe that he is. Last week Don told Sally he hates her going to funerals. This week, when Megan tries to break up with him, she says, "This is the way it ends. It's going to be so much easier for both of us." Morbid, no? Is Megan going to kill herself, or get murdered as so many have predicted? Either way, as obvious as it seems, it's not hard to imagine both of them ending up dead. Megan's death would certainly be the last shove that could push Don over the brink.

At the moment, though, Don doesn't seem all that concerned. He just wants to be back in the fold. Hopefully now things can be the way Don wants them to be. Hopefully.

But Bobby's words are probably the clearest sign of how Don may soon feel about the new, sober workplace to which he's returned: "I wish it was yesterday again."

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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