What is the cost of going backwards?
And there's nothing quite as sad as a one-sided love
When one doesn't care at all and the other cares too much
- Dolly Parton, “When Someone Wants To Leave”
- Dolly Parton, “When Someone Wants To Leave”
In this week’s episode of Mad Men, entitled “Field Trip,” the scene where Don sat, looking at his watch, waiting to return to the offices of SC & Partners, made me extremely anxious. It’s the most anxiety I’ve felt watching television since Season Six’s “The Crash” where the entire office was on speed, which brought back some long past sensations and personal memories. But I felt anxiety watching Mad Men this week because Don’s situation reminded me of a terrible recurring dream I have.
Most people have the common nightmare where you are back in college and you are in class and it turns out it’s the end of the year, but all of a sudden you realize that you haven’t been in the class all semester and you’re going to fail. Aside from that scenario, the most common anxiety inducing dream I have is the one where I have gone back to work at a previous job.
The “going back to an old job” dreams are so unsettling because normally when you leave a job, there is some heavy level of emotion involved. Either you hated the work you were doing and found such a joy and release in leaving the job that you couldn’t imagine ever being back. Or perhaps you didn’t want to leave but found a job you couldn’t say no to and had to leave a good situation and good people behind. Or maybe it’s a little bit of both and finally when you leave you understand that the people you worked with appreciated you and that your fixed time with them is over; the way your world was specifically aligned for all those hours in a day, all those weeks, months and years, is over.
When you’re thrust back into an old office or job in a dream, notions of pride sneak into your mind. You wonder what brought you back to the office. Did things really go so poorly in your new situation that you had to retreat and return to a place that was familiar, a place from which you thought you had moved on? Normally, these dreams end three specific ways for me: an old co-worker calls me out for being back in the office, which jars my logic and wakes me up; I realize that it was a mistake to come back and flee the office; or things go fine and I continue working in the old place. I usually wake up from the last scenario with the strangest lingering ache in my heart.
In “Field Trip,” Don had the choice of moving on to a new agency or attempting reconciliation at SC & Partners. By taking the new position, he would have to swallow his pride and pretend, as Roger said, “like it wasn’t a demotion.” What Don wasn’t prepared for was the shaming he would have to go through while he waited to find out his fate at SC & P.
Throughout Don’s prolonged purgatory in the creative lounge, he was forced to smile as a parade of old faces passed him by. Everyone in the office has continued living their lives without him present. “Things are working,” as Joan says. The creative may be “adequate,” but there are no major, moody shakeups from Don and the terrible power that comes with his genius.
Peggy tells Don that they don’t exactly miss him. But that isn’t true. Even though Peggy still blames Don for driving away Ted and for acting as an emotional fascist towards her for much of their professional relationship, she misses his creative drive and desire to be different. And, hell, we know Ginsberg misses him. He can tell Don is back by hearing the way he walks down the hall and he’s quick to get Don back up to speed with the current roster of work, as well as tell him how great he smells!
But for the most part people have moved on. Joan is an account woman. Dawn is no longer Don’s secretary. People are putting up with Lou and his sweaters. Ken has a baby. When you remove yourself from a situation—or, like Don, act so terribly that there’s no choice but for others to remove you—things carry on in one way or another. People adapt, they create new routines, they figure out how to get by. What is the emotional and psychological cost for going back?
At first, like many, I was surprised when Don accepted the restrictive offer that the partners laid out. That’s probably because, in my still fairly young age, I normally err on the side of irrational pride. I’ve made it a point to never go backwards in life. I’ve seen what happens when you do that and it’s always uncomfortable and never good.
And I am very often guilty of wanting to do things my way. Too often do I find myself wishing to be left alone by “the powers that be” because my moral and ethical compasses are pointed north, and my sense of productivity is always right. And, frequently, that can be a mistake. So I double back, listen, try to change, but then come back to the same frustrating place of not wanting to be told what to do.
Here, we expect Don to snub his nose at the contract, just as he did to Bert Cooper back in Season Three’s “Seven Twenty Three.” Instead, Don accepts the terms. He’s doing his penance in his personal life—somewhat successfully with Sally and very nearly failing with Megan—so now he has to do it as well in his professional life. That means swallowing his pride and “getting back to work” as he says to Lou, with a certain conviction, when the two first awkwardly meet.
So far, Season Seven has been about Don actively trying to change. In the past, Don’s always succumbed to the same temptations and fallen back into the same patterns. This is the first time we have truly seen him veer from the cycle that has brought him so low. We’ll see how long it lasts.
I’ve read a lot of criticism of the Betty storyline, but I highly enjoyed it. To me, her narrative seemed like a very contained short story that I would enjoy reading. A prideful and bored suburban mother, after having lunch with an old friend who has decided to go back to work, goes on her son’s field trip to a farm in order to prove that she really does still enjoy being a mother and that her children do still need her. A rare day of bonding with her son is ruined when the son makes a decision to trade her sandwich. The mother, still a child herself, reacts poorly and punishes the son by making him eat the gumdrops he received by trading her lunch. Later that night, she continues to rub in the boy’s mistake until he wishes that the day had never happened at all. And then, later at night, the mother lies in bed with her sleeping toddler and asks her husband why her children don’t love her.
I think that sounds pretty fantastic. Now, others may say we’ve seen this all before with Betty, but I believe her story is used as an interesting foil for Don’s plotline. Don and Betty both fall into the same patterns of bad behavior and each have, at different times, tried in some way to improve—Betty more superficially and less so than Don. However, Betty seems to be stuck in her same repetitive cycle of childish, outdated behavior, while Don for the first time seems to be on his way to substantial, active change.
Plus, Betty’s story allowed for the nice mirroring of Don and Bobby. Bobby tries to do something nice by trading Betty’s sandwich to a girl who didn’t have one. He probably traded his mother’s sandwich because she at one time had an eating problem and most likely abstained from eating lunch. Instead, his attempt at a good deed goes horribly wrong and he is punished. Don tries to help Megan by relaying her agent’s advice. Instead, he unwittingly continues to act like a condescending father figure towards Megan and causes the most recent fracture that may finally end their marriage.
To me, it all worked.
Finally, it all comes back to the Dolly Parton lyrics at the top of the page. “When Someone Wants To Leave” is all about rejection, as is much of Mad Men as a series. Hell, there was even a Season Five episode called “The Rejected,” which is the episode when Freddy Rumsen returns from his leave of absence.
Throughout Mad Men we have not seen Don in a position of being rejected. He pursues and then usually gets what he’s after, whether that thing is good for him or not. But in this case, it’s going to be much harder for Don to get what he wants.
Right now, Don is involved in a one-sided love. He wants to get back to work at the agency he started, but most of the agency, most of the people in his life, want him to leave as badly as he wants to stay.
Even if he is willing to listen to their demands, swallow his pride and calmly say, “Okay,” that may not change things at all.