Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Field Trip" (season 7, episode 3)

Mad Men - "Field Trip" (season 7, episode 3)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode until the series finale. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on April 27, 2014/written by Heather Jeng Bladt and Matthew Weiner; directed by Christopher Manley): Although the episode's most significant event is Don's return to SC&P (in an unusual brown suit which only underscores an out-of-place impression), "Field Trip" takes its title from Betty's more low-key storyline. After lunch with working pal Francine (remember her?), Betty begins to wonder how much time she has left to mother her quickly growing boys - especially now that Sally has become more distant and rebellious. Bobby is thrilled when his mother volunteers herself as a chaperone the following day, visiting the farm of his teacher Pam Keyser's (Kandis Fay's) father. This idyllic sojourn into a rustic corner of New York State takes a sour turn during the picnic, when Betty discovers that the boy traded her sandwich for a bag of gumdrops. An entirely, disproportionately harsh scolding ensues and that evening when Henry asks how everything went, Bobby mutters, "I wish it was yesterday," a poignant sentiment that could be shared by quite a few characters in this episode - Betty among them. Convinced that even adoring little Gene will hate her in a few years, she's unable to see the role she plays in alienating her own children.

In Hollywood, the second Draper wife is being driven frantic by her own regrets. Megan's agent Alan Silver (Jonathan McClain) calls Don and begs him to come out in the middle of the week to calm her down; Megan embarrassed herself by badgering a casting agent, weepily insisting upon a second audition after she felt she screwed up the first one. In her marriage, however, assertion and frustration take a less pleading tone. Megan is giddy when Don shows up unexpectedly, becomes furious when she finds out why, and is deeply wounded when Don finally reveals that he's been on leave for months and didn't tell his own wife. As was the case with him and Betty, Don's personal withholding may cause greater damage than infidelity (or suspicion of such). Although Don later apologizes and even suggests returning to California for the second time in a matter of days, the inexorable drift continues. On the other hand, that same night Don receives two or perhaps three distinct invitations, only one of them anticipated. First, at the meeting with representatives from Wells Rich Greene, Don gets an apparently enticing offer to switch agencies (although he doesn't even open the envelope in front of them). Next, the attractive Emily Arnett (Brandi Burkhardt) passes by their table, says Don knows her, and shares her hotel room number; he assumes this is a perk being offered by WRG, but they claim ignorance. Finally, Don does visit a hotel room and finds Roger, ready to welcome Don back to work. Was a call girl part of a ploy to woo him back and show Roger was keeping an eye on him? I don't think so, but the links between these scenes had me confused.

Unfortunately for Don, Roger (a no-show until halfway through the Monday he tells Don to come in) doesn't tell anyone else that the embargo has been lifted, leading to a series of tense, awkward, and occasionally even hostile encounters (the most hostile being the one who probably means it least, as Peggy spots Don sitting by himself in the lunchroom and snipes, "I can't say we missed you"). There are other matters onhand - Harry flat-out lies to clients about a secret computer that of course the office doesn't have (although this is as much a request to Jim as a fib to them) and Peggy is fuming after Lou declines to submit her work for Clio award consideration. But Don, simply by walking through those doors again and then doing literally nothing while others buzz around him, quickly takes center stage. Most of his colleagues are stunned by what they view as a brazen gesture; behind closed doors, almost everyone except Roger is incredulous about even considering the option of allowing him back. "We fired him," Jim insists, with both Bert and Joan backing up his intent, but no one wants to buy Don out. And despite his Hershey humiliation, they don't have contractual grounds to fire him. So they draw up a new set of stipulations: his position is demoted to senior copywriter, his client contact will be severely curtailed (no solo meetings or new business), there is to be no drinking outside of client social occasions, and he's going to be ominously shoved into the late Lane's since-unused office. If the SC&P partners have a message for Don, it's clearly more "Fuck you" than "Welcome home." But Don has a message for them too, and it's far more ambiguous: "OK."

My Response: Don's return to the office captures a phenomenon I'm not sure I've ever seen conveyed so palpably before: a feeling of no longer belonging to a place or an experience or a group where you were once completely at home. Every touch is superb: his confusion as he sees new names or descriptions on the doors, the reactions of each individual he encounters, his own body language as he awkwardly stands, sits, or walks around an environment that appears to be actively repelling and resisting his very presence. The sequence is so effective that at times it goes beyond representing a real type of social interaction and enters into the realm of dreams, in which - quite inexplicably - even loved ones can regard you as a stranger, and a deeply familiar location feels totally alien (even to the point of being fundamentally reimagined in appearance, despite an inner knowledge that it is supposed to be the same). I've mentioned this form before, in the episode where Pete took driver's ed, but "Field Trip" also evokes those ubiquitous back-to-school dreams in which twenty- or thirtysomethings imagine there's one last test or credit they never finished, forcing them to regress into a David Lynch-directed vision of Billy Madison. And somehow this passage remains just as effective when it allows us to step out of Don's anxious subjectivity. The partners' meeting, in which some of Don's closest associates (going back years) talk about him like a stain on the carpet that needs to be washed out, plays as the projection of an acute paranoiac.

I think the episode also works based on our own memory of the disorienting season premiere, in which we caught up with characters in new, unfamiliar contexts despite only being away from them for two months (onscreen; offscreen for original viewers a year had passed, further adding to the slipperiness of time). That episode, or the one after, would have been too soon to bring Don back in - we needed to experience his exile alongside him for a little while. "Field Trip" also redeems Roger quite a bit; the most immature and unprofessional member of the board seems to be the only one with any real humanity. From another perspective, of course, are the SC&P members wrong to be weary? Even if a part of us cheered when the dam of Don's dishonesty broke, that sort of candor is certainly a liability in his industry. Their concerns about him are warranted, their restrictions on his behavior going forward are mostly reasonable if rather condescending, and, after all, it's not like Don himself is been Mr. Rogers - he's fired people who were at least as desperate as he is (think Sal and Lane), sometimes for far less than he's done. But there's a rupture in the very texture of the show, which has often cultivated both a distance from and fascination with Don over six seasons. We experience the slights and humiliations of Don as if they are our own, we identify with his isolation and nervousness, and we are rooting for him to succeed even at the expense of everyone else.

Early in the previous season, Mad Men appeared to be nudging us towards the late-series prestige TV ritual of "Please, don't actually admire this guy, he's a bastard!" Nearly halfway through this penultimate mini-season, however, the writers are presenting Don at his most striving-to-be-honorable mode. Even so, we may find ourselves hoping he goes rogue again (if he can get away with it), upsetting the apple cart of this increasingly smug, complacent little company. Good or bad, we're with the guy...which doesn't mean we know exactly what he wants to do. The episode absolutely nails its final moment, as Don contemplates his options alongside the audience: should he tear up the paper and throw it in their faces? Is that what they are secretly hoping he'll do? Is patience the best revenge? Can he figure out a way to rise back to the top and not just restore but enhance his power legitimately, or is he letting himself inside the Death Star to destroy it from within? The way Don utters simple assent feels like a form of triumphant defiance, the salesman's deployment of the ultimate weapon in his arsenal (indifference) rather than an act of submissive defeat. Then Jimi Hendrix comes thumping in with that exact same tightly contained, barely restrained sense of overwhelming force and we know Don made the right call (for the moment). We just don't quite know why.

Next (active on December 27, 8am): "The Monolith"Previous: "A Day's Work"

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