For all of the "B" stories and revolving characters, putting Elizabeth Moss on the cover of New York magazine and claiming Mad Men is actually all about her, turning Roger Sterling's apartment into a rich, white man's version of the original cover of Hendrix's Electric Ladyland, watching the awkward march of Pete's Campbell's hairline or Ken Cosgrove's eye patch, Don Draper was, is, and always will be the center of Matt Weiner's fictional universe. If you needed a reminder of this simple fact, the seventh season's third episode, "Field Trip" provided a very clear reminder.
In an hour that saw Don's marriage dissolve and his first steps back to professional acceptance, it was impossible not to feel an electric charge when the camera toggled between Don as you rarely see him - apprehensive and nervous - juxtaposed against his confident stride as he walked through the door of Sterling Cooper & Partners for the first time in months. But the fear that swagger masked quickly bubbled to the surface when Don realized that no one knew he was returning and treated him dismissively. He could bark out orders for coffee to Dawn or ask to be brought up to speed on accounts, but the whispers and awkward comments spoke for themselves. The partners were conflicted about what to do, Roger's passionate defense of Don notwithstanding. So they did what people in companies do - they split the difference. Firing Don would be financial (not to mention creative) suicide, but the partners thought they could pen in Don's loose cannon antics with a list of demands: to report to Lou (good luck with that), to abstain from drinking in most situations (ditto), to take Lane's office (creepy!), and to never be alone with clients (as if Don likes people). Instead of saying "fuck you" and storming out, Don uttered a simple "ok."
Roger had it right, Don is a genius, at least when it comes to advertising, and much of what has been built at the Time-Life Center is because of his ability, so perhaps it was not hard for him to accept these demands. Or perhaps he knows, from long experience, that discretion is the better part of valor, and there is nothing wrong with living to fight another day. You see, Don has leveraged one particular skill during the time we have known him; like many people who do not cope well with confrontation and like to avoid conflict, he is a master of the tactical retreat. He's always gaming out his situation to see if he can fight a battle on more favorable ground. For years, he had the chit of working without a contract in case he wanted to leave on a moment's notice.  Then, because of his singular talent, he was able to establish a new agency when it looked like he would become a cog in the wheel at McCann.  He swapped Jaguar for Chevy and merged with CGC,  brought Dow Chemical into the fold  and all the while avoided ever having to face the music for his past, his demons, or his decisions.
It is understandable why people would not want Don back in the office. He is, as Reggie Jackson would famously call himself, "the straw that stirs the drink." The agency's mood, energy and vibe revolve around him. I will fix this, he told Joan after Jaguar was lost, to which she retorted that just once she would like to hear we.  But in exchange for his singular talent, everyone got to stand on his shoulders and bask in the glory of his achievements. In his absence, competent functionaries like Lou Avery and Jim Cutler keep the trains running on time but without any panache or sense of direction. There's no place in a buttoned up office for Roger Sterling, whose casual sexuality, inappropriate language and mordant sense of humor are lost on the Lou Averys of the world, but are appreciated by a guy like Don. Conveniently, Roger's advocacy for Don both helped him re-establish his own place in the partnership hierarchy, but also gave Don the kudos Roger long begrudged him.  Peggy, Stan, Ginzo and the rest of creative may shudder at Don's imperiousness, but they never questioned his talent. Now, they still get yelled at, it's just by someone with no vision or interest in their work.
So it is not surprising that Don is willing to accept the humiliations heaped on him by his fellow partners. He's even able to accept the piling on he experiences - Joan speaking of him as if he's some annoying appendage who was offered the dignified out of quitting instead of being fired , Peggy gratuitously twisting the knife by telling Don he hasn't been missed, or Jim Cutler expressing revulsion at Don's mere presence. But, as they said on The Wire, "you come at the king, you best not miss." Wrapping a bunch of conditions to Don's employment may offer some false sense of security to those who "this" is working for like Joan, or nursing grudges, like Peggy, who blames Don for Ted's exile, or even Lou, who is tepidly described as "adequate" by Jim, but the idiosyncrasies and demands of the gifted and talented are always excused because their contributions cannot be replaced.
Of course, Don's professional acumen masks deep trouble at home. In the episode's least surprising event, his marriage to Megan finally appears to have ended after he reveals his surprise visit was done at the behest of her casting agent and oh yeah, by the way, Don's been out of work for months. That Don continued to lie to Megan is no shock, but what he missed with Megan just like he did with Sally is that they both know him now - it's not that his lies have gotten worse, it's that the people in his life who used to give him the benefit of the doubt no longer fall for his bullshit. Sally rightly called him out last week and this week it's Megan's turn - coolly noting the lack of sound on the other end of the phone line when they speak, the fact Don is never home when she calls and the presence of a new "girl" on his line at work - she knows him, she was that girl once, and even though Don's not cheating, he's lying. No amount of practiced sincerity can make things better. Don has made the "apology" speech many times, he knows how to pull the emotional heart strings, he's in advertising after all.  He is always sorry, promises to do better and feels awful about how screwed up things have gotten.
But this stint of more sobriety appears to have been honored only in the breach - his lies are done in the service of saving face, the people who used to ignore his duplicity no longer do so. Once the people closest to you see you for who you truly are, attempting to put that genie back in the bottle is impossible. That Don and Megan will divorce is unsurprising, the facade of a bi-coastal marriage was not going to last any longer than his foreswearing of alcohol, but unless and until Don stops worrying about how he is perceived and focuses on who he wants to be, he is cursed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.
Don's return to the office should not be looked at as any great victory for him. The things that got him in trouble in the first place - the lying and the drinking - are still there. His interest in how he is perceived instead of improving the person he is has not changed either. He wanted to "fix" things instead of telling Sally or Megan that he had been put on sabbatical, but his solution was just to get his job back, not to do the harder work of figuring out what it was that got him booted in the first place. In the balance, he missed another key point - people's perception of who he is has changed - he can no longer hide behind the mask of inscrutability, ducking out for an afternoon shag or a double feature - he can no longer get away with the lies he once casually told and clean up the mess with a furrowed brow and an apology. It is entirely possible, indeed, probable, that this will not end well for Don. The falling man motif is one I have written about extensively and the idea that Don is always able to reincarnate himself just before he splatters to the ground has occurred numerous times during the show's six-plus seasons; however, at some point, like everyone's luck, Don's will run out. And so, things are unlikely to end well for him (or anyone else for that matter), but it is going to be a hell of a ride.
PS - you are a terrible mother, Betty.
1. When Pete threatens to expose Don's bogus past, Don's initial reaction is to move to California. The Wheel, Season 1, Episode 13. When Betty kicks him out toward the end of Season 2, he does the same thing. The Jet Set, The Mountain King, Season 2, Episodes 11 and 12. It is not until the possibility of working for Conrad Hilton becomes a reality (and with some not-so-subtle goading from Bert) that Don signs his contract. Seven Twenty-Three, Season 3, Episode 7.
2. Shut the Door, Have a Seat, Season 3, Episode 13.
3. Man With a Plan, Season 6, Episode 7.
4. Commissions and Fees, Season 5, Episode 12.
5. See, fn. 3.
6. Waldorf Stories, Season 4, Episode 6.
7. It's entirely possible that Joan is taking some revenge over Don's unceremonious dumping of Jaguar after she slept with Herb. Man With a Plan, supra.
8. Don's letter to Betty that results in his being welcomed back into the family home is Exhibit A for this idea. Meditations In An Emergency, Season 2, Episode 13.