"You want to come back? Come back. I miss you."
And with those immortal words from Roger Sterling, my heart melted and "Mad Men" season seven kicked into high gear. We've spent two episodes in the first half of our final year with Don trapped in purgatory, waiting to hear whether or not he was really fired or if he'll be brought back to the company he helped build. In last night's episode, "Field Trip," we heard the answer as a defiant "yes" to the latter thought, but not without some risky stipulations to go with it. Via brilliant sequencing of story development motivating character change, Megan's split with Don pushed him not to the brink of boozing or whoring around, but back into the embrace of his one true love: business, and thus, Roger Sterling.
I'm getting a bit ahead of myself, though. To properly illustrate the importance of Don and Roger's reunion, we first need to cover the events immediately preceding it. "Field Trip" began with Don at his favorite place to ponder, the movies, watching Jacques Demy's "Model Shop" and smoking a cigarette -- an early sign that Don's creative thinking was back on track. After hearing a story from Megan's agent about her stress-stalking a casting director, Don jumps on a plane and sees a familiar stewardess who he does not hit on and from whom he orders a tomato juice. Don certainly seems to be on the mend, a personal choice that will undoubtedly be tested by his new contract stipulations. Again, though, I'm getting ahead of myself.
Don's "surprise trip" to see his wife couldn't have gone more poorly. Megan soon sorts out the real reason for his visit, prompting Don to say the other actresses who are getting rejected "are just handling it better" (oops) and then describing her as a "lunatic" (oh no). With the post-coital bliss evaporated, Megan turns on Don, accusing him of having an affair and forcing him to confess his true whereabouts and current predicament: he's on leave from work and has been lying to her for months. It's so refreshing to see Don telling the truth to his wife, the audience almost expects all to be forgiven simply because he's actually being open and honest about his feelings for once. It's a notable turn of events for a character showing true signs of improvement, but Megan has had enough. "So with a clear head you got up every day and decided you didn’t want to be with me," she says, reminding Don and the viewers of his true transgression. The trust has been lost, and perhaps the marriage. While a touching phone call from Don later on again illustrates his true love for Megan, his past actions may have put the relationship beyond repair (unless her casting woes send her running back to New York).
Spurred on by his confession, Don heads in the wrong direction to win back his wife -- as she readily points out in the aforementioned phone call -- but the right direction to get back his audience. While I haven't been bored for a moment over the last few seasons, the audience is dwindling and it's in part because Don hasn't really been working. One of the early thrills of "Mad Men" was seeing Don pull miracles out of his hat in the conference room. He spent his nights drinking and sleeping around, but was always drawn back to the creative realm, determined to be the best and build his company into a top tier ad firm. Whether it was love (Megan), lust (Sylvia), or shame (Sally), women ran Don's life last season and business took a back seat. His Hershey's pitch/confession in the season six finale was deeply moving, but it also perfectly illustrated how far out of the game Don had fallen.
Which is exactly what Roger tells him when Don shows up at his door, dangling his new job offer in front of his former boss like a jealous lover parading a phone number to his true love. "We did you a favor," Roger yells, a truth Don may not have been ready to face or could have heard from anyone else. The conversation does not start off well, nor does it appear to be leading to a reunion of the show's best couple. Just when we think all is lost, Roger reaches out with some honesty of his own. "I miss you," he says after telling Don to come back to work, and we believe him because we've seen it in the eyes of an aging man losing his grip on his own company to new partners, new blood, and new drugs these past two weeks. He needs his friend back in the office to help him feel meaningful again, and Don needs his friend to get his foot back in the door. Roger and Don are essential to each other's success, and it's about time they realized it.
The episode's final minutes of office politics put into overdrive were like the energy shot Jim Cutler's doctor handed out in season six: a refreshing dose of urgency to a show more than willing to make us wait for the payoff. Don's tense, dream-like decision to show up before almost bailing was framed to make us wonder whether he was ever really there at all -- but then Michael stopped him, asking him to look over some new work and pulling his hand off the exit handle. Don's in it, for real, and it's only a matter of waiting for either Roger to show up or the partners to kick him out. Then the tense, back-room negotiations started. Peggy couldn't believe it 'til she saw him, and even then treated him like a lost animal at the zoo, gazing at Don's back as staffers stacked up and even shushing Stan when he asks what's happening. Her final "hello" was more of a dismissal, telling Don no one missed him while he was gone.
As heartbreaking as the exchange between the fractured master and protege was, watching Roger fight for his man made it all better. In typical "Mad Men" fashion, personal devotion was masked by professional decorum as much as it enhanced Roger's ability to negotiate. He got what he -- and only he -- wanted, claiming to speak for Pete (though after that hug in episode one, Pete will be pleased) and reminding everyone of Don's non-compete clause as well as his financial risk. While the episode closed with Don agreeing to a deal that's insulting to his ingenuity and fair to his work habits, "Field Trip" served as a reminder of what "Mad Men" is capable of when it's firing on all cylinders.
The show has always taken its time to get where it's going, carefully placing story lines as well as considering topical, historical content every year. Now the show seems to be revving up for a rapid final lap with Peggy's anger over literally everything at its peak, Don's love life on the rocks (whether you think he really does love Megan is vital to your tolerance of his character), and a testy new contract that puts everything on the line. What happens next is anyone's guess, but the traps have been set and Don is better equipped than ever to side-step them with Roger at his side.
Criticwire Grade: A