Welcome back! This week on Mad Men, there were confrontations, recriminations, come-ons, brush-offs, tears, envy, anger, and gumdrops. It was a little exhausting, frankly. Join us as we recap the highs, lows, and unpasteurized tastes of "Field Trip."
Fake it 'til you make it
Instead of the straight shooters—Joan, Dawn, Shirley, and Peggy—we went to work with last week, "Field Trip" was an episode that focused on those other Mad Men, smooth talkers like Don, Betty, Roger, and Harry who've always been more comfortable living a lie than dealing with the ugly truth. During their surprisingly blunt and emotional breakup, Megan tells Don that, "I can't believe after all this time you don't know me." Don replies, "I know how I want you to see me," and in doing so basically sums up the entire seven-season series. Don has never really known himself—as Dick Whitman or as Don Draper—and with the possible exception of Anna he hasn't really known anyone else either. He never thought he needed to. For Don, a "genius" in the advertising world in part because of his mastery of deception, knowing how he and those around him want to be seen has always been enough. Until now, that is. Because Megan's right: Don doesn't really know her, and he definitely hasn't been honest with her, and she's finally had it. Megan deserves better anyway.
Though Megan and Don had fun and looked like a million bucks together, to me Don's true soulmate has always been Betty (Hofstadt) Draper (Francis). This week's episode really drove home the parallels between the two selfish, conniving, compelling characters—Francine even called Betty "Betty Draper" during their frenemies lunch. Betty could’ve lit her cigarette with sheer jealous rage listening to Francine go on about her job as a travel agent, and who can blame her? Betty has always been petty (like Don), and despite her big house, a hired woman to do her dirty work, and plenty of money (like Don), she feels unfulfilled (like Don). So she signs up to chaperone Bobby's field trip, and things start out swimmingly. She looks the part of the fun mom; she even drinks milk straight from the cow! But when Bobby accidentally gives away her sandwich, she turns into a petulant, passive-aggressive whiner (like Don). She ends the day feeling like no one loves her anymore because of how she acted (like Don) and despite everything, we the audience kinda see where she’s coming from (like? you guessed it: Don!). Where Megan deserves better than Don, Betty and Don deserve each other.
Roger, too, deserves Don. He now spends his days drinking with his hippie friends instead of putting in work at SC&P (just re-read that sentence and think about how far we've come in a decade) and his mouth's been writing checks that his smart ass can't cash. He casually tells Don to come on back to work, and, in the painfully awkward scenes that follow Don doing just that, both men learn that they don't have a place in the office anymore. No one takes either one of them seriously: Caroline is getting her own coffee and talking smack behind Roger's back, and the only person besides Dawn (who is a treasure and should really tell Don to shove it) who will give Don Draper the time of day is that weird dude in creative who wants advice about borrowing money from his parents. (If you also remember him as Frederick Crane on Frasier, then you also laughed picturing him asking Kelsey Grammer and Bebe Neuwirth for cash.) "Don is a very talented man," says Joan, as the partners deliberate over what to do with their colleague, "but how does he fit into everything now?" Time will tell, but if those interactions with the partners (and with Lou—who is still THE WORST) are any indication, no one's going to have an easy time of it.
I know I’m in the minority among Mad Men viewers, but I love Betty. When she put on her sunglasses and blew her cigarette smoke all over that farm? You know you’d be tempted to do the same thing if Bobby 7.0 gave your sandwich away. And look how charming her real-life farm visit was!
Is Jim Cutler slowly becoming one of the best characters on the show? When he called Harry “the most dishonest man I’ve ever worked with” I laughed out loud. He’s reading books about death and calling people out on their shit, and thanks to Harry Hamlin he’s gone from being Bizarro Roger to being one of the most dynamic people in a very dynamic office. Get it, Cutler!
WHEREFORE ART THOU BOB BENSON?
Old familiar places, old familiar faces
"Are you aware your self-pity is distasteful?" As Kelsey notes, Jim Cutler has grown in the SC&P offices from a quippy, Dr. Feelgood–retaining gadfly to a real-talk supremo, and while his question in "Field Trip" was directed at the eternally petulant Harry Crane, it could be asked of several of Mad Men's main players this episode. Harry's brief storyline, despite the shameless fabrication of an office computer, brought up two competing but crucial truths about SC&P. One, if the company really wants to compete, it needs to embrace that technology; and two, that the human relationships they are known for are in danger of being comprimised because of hacks like Lou Avery. Harry, remember, has always been the Cassandra of SC&P, and hopefully Jim Cutler will get past the distastefulness and listen to him before full irrelevance sets in.
Enough shop talk, though, because the macro force of that self-pity accusation line is contained—or is it exploded?—in Don's plot this week. Everywhere Don goes these days is a reminder of where he's failed: In Los Angeles, the confession of his employment status to Megan reveals him as a liar and a dud husband; at his meeting for a potential new job at the Algonquin Hotel in New York, the young blond woman who comes on to him is a reminder of all the women he's tried to escape into; and at the suddenly unfamiliar SC&P office, he spends the entire day in the limbo of the creatives' room, where everyone can see that he's trying to come back to a place that doesn't want him. (Bert Cooper's curt message to Joan—"He shouldn't be here"—might be the coldest cutdown ever uttered on the show.)
And self-pity (along with its faithful pal, whimpering fear) is the only explanation for why Don so quickly accepts the dismal terms of his return to SC&P. No drinking at the office? A preapproved script for every client meeting, no deviations or tangents allowed? Reporting to Lou Avery, who's basically an empty cardigan with a clipboard and a budget? We've already seen what working under Lou has done to Peggy's job; the implications of it for Don made my stomach actually drop. Yes, the man's got issues. Yes, he's fucked-up many lives, including his own. But one of the joys of Mad Men over the years has been the scenes in which we see how everything in Don Draper's life has conspired in its sadness and hope and urgency to make him amazing at honing tiny diamonds of storytelling that become great ads. (It's probably no coincidence that Ken Cosgrove acknowledged on of those, the "Carousel" ad, in "Field Trip.") The prospect of a sober, neutered, on-the-clock, company-man Don Draper is thoroughly depressing, and considering that the offer letter he flashed to Roger likely had no such restrictions, it's hard to understand why, partnership logistics aside, returning to SC&P was something he agreed to so swiftly.
Betty's self-pity might have been most distasteful of all. How heartbreaking was it to watch Bobby go from being all proud of having his mother on his field trip ("We've having a conversation!" he enthused to his free-boobing teacher) to being a gumdrop-munching shell? All I could think when Bobby spoke dejectedly to Henry at the episode's end—"I wish it was yesterday"—was that, "Kid, it could be worse. Have you met Roger Sterling?"
I know I'm not the only one who saw Don toss his cigarette butt into Megan's kitchen trash can and then spent the rest of the episode anxiously awaiting the news that her house had burned down, possibly with her inside. Damn you, Internet conspiracy theorists and Sharon-Tate-resemblance-mongers!
It also seems worth noting that the celebrity Megan failed to recognize while semi-stalking a TV director for whom she'd botched an audition was Rod Serling, former host of the Twilight Zone—as Vulture points out, by 1969 the show had been off the air for five years.
Betty and the other smoking mother's brief (heh) exchange about the bralessness of Bobby's teacher was Mad Men's first acknowledgment of the women's movement—will there be more?
Then why don't they love me?
I'm starting to suspect that this season's structure involves switching up episodic tone from depressing to wacky back to depressing in an effort to keep viewers on their toes, because "Field Trip" was a rough watch. To call Don's return to the office awkward would be an understatement—it was excruciating to watch. He can never be the old Don Draper again, so it's surprising to see him refuse reinvention and accept a less glamorous version of his old self. And DD was only one of the characters in last night's episode who seemed mired in their own self-perceptions.
It was beyond rich to watch Don give Megan a pep talk on failure and desperation, but his words were not completely unwarranted. Megan's aspirations to both pull ahead of all the other struggling actresses in LA (of which, you know, there are only a few) and maintain her Mrs. Draper status were not only unlikely to come to fruition, but also seemed to be at odds with each other. For whatever reason, casting directors aren't buying what she's selling, and while some would have us believe that's because of her teeth, being the abandoned wife of a master abandoner cannot help the situation. Megan is pulling crazy maneuvers to plead her case to directors -- a move that could as easily be explained by her failed attempts of connecting with Don as it could by her dreams of Hollywood success. Megan is held back from throwing herself completely into her career because of the strain of her marriage, and is literally being kept at a distance from her marriage because of the city she's working in. Rock, meet hard place.
Last night, we finally got our first glimpse of Betty and, in an episode as tension-filled as this one, it was almost comforting to see that little has changed. Betty has always been someone stuck in her own idea of perfection. While catching up with Francine, she eschews the very idea of needing a form of fulfillment beyond her children ("I thought they were the reward"). Betty's old-fashioned values of womanhood were possibly never clearer than when they were up against Bobby's teacher. If Betty and the other chaperone mom were less concerned with other's udders, possibly they would be able to forge as genuine and warm of a relationship with their children as the offensive teacher in question (remember how happy Bobby sounded when he proudly exclaimed, "We're having a conversation!"). Betty's attempts to maintain perfection are constantly at odds with bonding with Bobby and Sally, leaving her unable to achieve all that she envisions for herself.
While Kelsey aptly points out how similar Don and Betty were in last night's episode, I couldn't help but be struck by the Draper resemblance found in Peggy. Our girl Pegs continues to give us little to root for, pouting over her Clio snub and butting heads with Lou in every meeting. It's as if Peggy decided that Don's "break" left room for a new lone wolf in the office. While Don was able to simultaneously push away and draw in those around him, Peggy's attempts at being cold and detached only seem to diminish any power. No doubt she and Ted’s failed relationship, not to mention the pressures of being a female authority figure, inform her transformation. However, being ally-less is not a look that flatters many, least of all Peggy. Don always had the champion of his shenanigans in Roger, and it's clear that Peggy isn't ready to forgive Don for "sending" Ted away. While Pegs may be overcompensating after being burned by both the object of her affection and the object of her aspiration, she needs to realize that playing the miserable creative is neither a role suited for her nor a profitable one.
All three Mad ladies are working tirelessly to live up to a standard that they've set for themselves and are disappointed to find that there are still those around them that they cannot win over. Megan can neither break through to Don nor through Hollywood's entry fee. Betty is practically a stranger to her children. And Peggy continues to feel unappreciated, largely because she's acting appreciation-less.
While most of our Mad women were having a rough go of things this episode, it was great to see Dawn working out her new role. Not to mention Joan, who continued to bring it, both professionally and fashionably!
If last week's episode renewed interest in Pete Campbell Suicide Watch 2014, Don taking Lane's former office seems like the kiss of death if there ever was one. Also, was anyone else worried that Roger's tardiness could have been due to yet another heart attack?
Cultural References: The movie Don was watching as the episode opening was Jaques Demy's Model Shop; the book Jim Cutler held up to show Harry was Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death.
Inappropriate Office Behavior: As it has so many times before, this week's nod goes to Roger. Way to create an awkward situation, dude.
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