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'Mad Men' Deconstruction: Ep. 3, 'Field Trip'

Why is Don Draper the most focused and potentially happy person on "Mad Men" -- and was this episode merely a place holder? Let's ask Harry.

Mad Men Roger Sterling Episode 703 - H 2014
AMC

If six was nine indeed.

The Jimi Hendrix song "If 6 Was 9" closed out a Mad Men episode where the world seemed very much out of kilter -- almost nobody was happy with what they were doing in life -- and Don Draper said one very small thing that proved that he knew exactly what he was going to do with his life despite all that has happened previously.

"OK."

That's what he says to the assembled SC&P partners who have crafted a set of guidelines for his return so odious as to be, they believe, completely unacceptable to him.

And that's how the episode ends, with a feint -- Don's brow looking like he's welling with disdain reading their list of demands. But instead he says quietly and without delay, "OK."

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This is one hell of a Trojan Horse move by Don, but it's seemingly motivated not by a need for redemption -- he could clearly go somewhere else, even if it's for less pay -- or save face by rebuilding his career. No, this seems more like Don wanting to do what he's good at, what he's always loved to do. Being an ad man gives Don about the only slice of happiness he gets in his life. The women can come and go, but the job, that's something he wants to keep. It's his only real constant.

Dick Whitman might be faking any number of things as Don Draper, but what he's not faking is that in a life he's barely been able to manage or milk for much happiness he can sell some kind of happiness to other people. He's a good advertising guy. He created that himself; he didn't put on someone else's coat and fake it.

Sure, there's still pride at play. He didn't want to slink out of the office when Roger botched setting up the meeting about Don's return -- a meeting that, by the clock in that office, happened at 7:05 p.m., leaving Don to endure a full day of what the hells. But who would have wanted to leave? Embarrassment and/or pride can make you stick out a lot of tough scenarios.

Don was there because he wants to work again at the company he helped create, save and flourish. He's not done. He's said that before. And I have to believe that in Don's mind, the meltdown he had at the Hershey meeting last season had less to do with selling lies than it did with living one. Once he straightened out the latter part (especially with his daughter) and began the slow process of rebuilding his life -- who he is, how he lives that life, his behavior with others etc. (which is likely to be an arc that carries over these final 14 episodes) -- then it was time to pick up what he dropped.

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In many ways, returning to SC&P is a perfect storyline to follow. Even though Joan tells the other partners, "This is working," it's clearly not. The firm is a mess. It needs bigger accounts. It needs more passion and dedication from the people who work there (yes, even Peggy, who shouted down Stan and others in the past for sloppy work and not caring). "I can't say we've missed you" was as tacky as it was cold, saying more about Peggy than Don. She may resent Don, but Peggy would certainly be having more joy at work if he was there.

Lou is clearly an aging hack (and an insecure one at that). Jim Cutler is a coaster at best. Roger -- though he admirably stuck up for Don and at least had the right business sense to remind everybody else that no, they didn't fire Don, and they were on the hook for his salary and to buy out his partner shares if they did (plus lose his non-compete clause) -- has been irrelevant for a while and is drinking and drugging and dulling his woes away.

Harry could probably leave (and may, since he realizes SC&P doesn't have the vision, currently, to see the future, much less buy a computer). Joan is trying to fill the gap, but is new at it. Peggy is bitter and disillusioned (and who wouldn't be with Lou as their boss?). Ted hates California and is moping. Pete loves California but hates the everyone back at SC&P. People are coming in late. Everybody is grumpy about everybody else's ideas. If, as Bert suggests, word on the street is not good about SC&P, it has nothing to do with Don and the Hershey's situation.

Now, given his "OK," Don could come in and revitalize everything in very little time.

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Is anyone really happy with what they're doing? Megan isn't. Bert, Peggy, Roger, Ted, Stan, Ginsberg -- that's a whole lot of unsatisfied people.

Don? Don is focused. He's driven. He may have messed up and will likely continue to mess up in certain areas (and yep, he really needs to tell Megan, as daughter Sally suggested last week, that he doesn't want to move to California). Don may yet have something left in his heart for Megan, especially since he's been rebuilding a lot of things he crushed with his own hands, but the odds are he's more in love with work than anything at this point because he does work well -- he doesn't do women well. And besides, there's still Neve Campbell (!) potentially out there somewhere.

Don and Megan remain intriguingly unsolved, but I'm inclined to believe her fate will be out in Los Angeles, not with Don.

A Don that's not distracted by women and is getting his drinking in line could be a very electric kind of Don. I hope to see that.

Of course, "Field Trip" had less to do as a title about Don's trips to California as it did for Betty's sojourn to a dairy farm so that Matt Weiner and the Mad Men writers could remind us that she's a gigantic drag and a terrible mother. Betty is a child -- something Weiner has been pointing out for ages. The return of former pity-party friend Francine only heightens the fact that Betty hasn't changed at all. Francine is working three days in an office as a travel agent and finding real rewards there. Betty is still pretending that the dream of being a trinket on the arm of a man and a stay-at-home mother is not really a nightmare. Relentlessly unhappy since the start of the series -- she was tailor-made by her own awful mother to be Grace Kelly with a lovely brood and a successful husband -- not much about Betty and her life has changed. It's not working out.

I'm not sure what Mad Men can do with Betty anymore. People not changing is a fundamental part of Weiner's storytelling, so if he's going to put his efforts into changing that arc with Don, it's unlikely he'd do it with a bunch of others as well. My guess is the Betty we know is the Betty we'll continue to get.

It was nice, however, to see Bobby and Gene, if only to know that Betty hadn't left them at a park somewhere a couple of season's back. And with Bobby being long forgotten, it amounts to something of a pleasant surprise to see him in a scene that mattered, being truly happy that his mother was on the field trip and that they shared a conversation together and that he saved her place on the blanket, etc. Those were great and believable scenes made more so by the fact that Bobby got to play a kid making the exact kind of mistakes (or oversight) that a kid would make -- there are two sandwiches in this bag; of course I'll trade one for candy. It's a split-second, irrational decision. But then Big Baby Betty tortured him with guilt for it and said he ruined the day.

"I wish it was yesterday," poor Bobby says. We hear you, kid. Godspeed when you run away.

"Field Trip" was a more scattered episode than the two preceding, and it's important to remember that we're in the infancy of a larger story. The episode did what it needed to do: Update Don's relationship with Megan and elaborate on his relationship with work. In that sense, the next episodes should gain traction built on what happened in this one.

One complaint I have is that, since we're only going to get 14 total, I'd like to see either more explicit progress on storylines like, say, Roger's after-work life (drugs, debauchery; dealing with his daughter) or more allegorical episodes, like the brilliant premiere. (I guess we're to assume that Don freezing on his balcony had more to do with his battle with the bottle than something deeper or more existential.)

It's not that an episode like "Field Trip" is, taken by itself, bad. It had important elements (returning to SC&P being the primary one) but felt too much like a place holder. Yet impatience is also at work here. Or, as Jim Cutler would say, "Are you aware your self-pity is distasteful?" Hey, maybe we'll get some more Sharon Tate riffs next week. In the meantime, I leave you with the wise words of "Harold Crane":

"You know what? This conversation is over. I'm really not interested."

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine