“What do you do around here, Don?”
That’s the question on everyone’s mind, even Don’s. Four weeks into his whimper of a return to SC&P, he remains in career limbo, cooped up in a mausoleum of an office his without so much as an ad campaign to his name. Relapse was inevitable, which means repetition was unavoidable.
In last week’s episode, "Field Trip," we saw Don swallow his pride and accept his old job on SC&P’s conditions, not his. It was a new leaf for the entitled and narcissistic anti-hero we love to hate. But of course, it didn’t take long for the tantrums to come back.
When I was pining for old Don, I meant the charming Don who churned dazzling copy from Seasons 1-5, not the cringe-inducing, sloppy mess from Season 6. It’s painful and embarrassing to watch. Truth is, we’ve been expecting the return of this Don. Not just the viewers, but his co-workers, too.
That’s the trouble with self-immolation, especially one so spectacularly disastrous as Don’s Hershey fail last season: Walking away unscathed is impossible when the fire spreads so far that it burns bridges in its destructive path. Now these friends-turned-foes are practically foaming at the mouth to see Don crash and burn again.
Bert, Cutler, Lou and pretty much all the partners, except Roger and Pete, are convinced he’ll implode. Joan plots with Peggy to find if he’s broken a rule on his agreement. “How does he fit into everything here?” Joan asked last episode. He’s an intruder, and he doesn’t belong.
But Don isn’t the only invader at SC&P. After an excruciatingly long and tense elevator ride, Don walks into an empty office and finds everything halted. A red phone eerily swings off the hook (more on the significance of that imagery in a bit), implying something devastating has happened. It’s almost as if a meteor came hurtling to SC&P and swept out the dinosaurs. The technology-adverse dinosaurs, that is.
As Don walks upstairs, he finds the staff crowded around a clunky but then state-of-the-art computer. It’s an invasion that Don, and mostly anyone who’s Team Don (think: Roger and Ginsy) sees as the death of the creative backbone of the agency, aka Don.
It "can be a metaphor for whatever’s on people’s minds,” IT whiz and entrepreneur Lloyd says. Don’s never been an optimist, so this looming, whirring machine that’s commandeered the creative team’s lunch room only means one thing: doom.
That is, until Lloyd asks Don for advertising advice. Lloyd is eager to find a way to make Lee’s Tech stand out from IBM. Suddenly, Don flips on that pro-technology switch as soon as he’s useful again.
“They don’t have you and they don’t advertise,” Don cajoles Lloyd. This is the Don we want. It’s heartening to see the return of this charismatic genius of an ad man. But any spark of hope that Don reignites is quickly doused by a gulp from a stolen liquor bottle and a deluge of self-hatred.
Bert shoots down Don’s idea to pitch a campaign to Lee’s Technology, since his interaction with a potential client clearly violates the partners’ strict stipulations. Don starts huffing and puffing and boasting that he could have taken his talents anywhere. When Bert asks why he didn’t leave, Don says it’s because he helped start that agency.
“Along with the dead man whose office you now inhabit.” Ouch. Bert, leave the zingers to Roger and Meredith. Even Ice Queen Betty would say that’s cold. From the pang of regret that floods his eyes as he turns his head, Bert knows that it was out of line, even if it was true (note how the agency’s new name, Sterling Cooper & Partners, knocked out both Draper and Pryce from SCDP).
Don storms out of his office. He knows his career there is as good as dead. Accepting his fate, he tacks up Lane’s old Mets pennant he found under his desk.
To Lane, that pennant was his desperate attempt to shed his British persona and blend in as a full-fledged, baseball-loving American. Eventually his financial struggles caught up with him, leading him to embezzlement, termination and suicide.
To Don, it’s a white flag of defeat. He, like Lane, tried to be something he’s not: someone who belongs. Namely, a respectable, functional partner of the agency he started. It worked for so long, until his boozing and self-loathing ruined his personal and business relationships.
Now that cursed pennant haunts him. It’s there as he slams the door when he realizes he must report to Peggy (his female protégé — how humiliating!) and it’s there floating above his head when he wakes up from his pity- and booze-induced creative nap.
He even puts it in the same exact spot, right next to the door where Lane’s lifeless body swung listlessly after hanging himself in Season 5, which was eerily mirrored by the dangling red phone off the hook in the beginning of this episode.
As tiresome as "Mad Men’s" repetitive plotlines can be, the writers’ intricate weaving of past seasons' details into current episodes is what makes this show still enjoyable. It’s a thanks to all the loyal fans out there who have stuck it out all these years.
Surprisingly, Don’s relapse doesn’t result in him getting fired. Instead of drunk-dialing an ex — there’s too many to list here — Don calls Freddy. A wise call, even if his intentions were just to duck out to a Mets game. Freddy’s the only person who’s Team Don and isn’t a bigger mess than he is (I’m looking at you, Roger). And he’s one hell of a sponsor.