Apr 27, 2014

Mad Men: “Field Trip”

By Josh Oakley

How much do we value our connections to others for what we can do for them, and how much is for our own benefit? A number of seemingly outwardly good actions or beliefs are taken or spouted throughout “Field Trip”. Even so, this is an hour of mostly selfish people making moves on their own behalf that happen to help somebody else. What one does is important, but does it ever trump the why?

Betty, for example, agrees to chaperone Bobby’s school visit to a farm. She does this for her son, she claims, and drinks from a bucket of milk to prove her investment. But as soon as Bobby trades her sandwich for a bag of gumdrops, she drops the courtesy act and spends the rest of the day acting petty. This is set off by a lunch with her old friend Francine, who is combatting early on-set empty nest syndrome by working as a travel agent. She seems fulfilled, in a way that Betty can’t claim. And this isn’t just because she’s a mother, and that’s not enough for anyone. It’s because she doesn’t think she’s all that good of a mother. “I really needed the challenge,” Francine tells Betty. Betty has plenty of struggle at home, though, apparently looking to turn all of her children against her, one-by-one. It was unfair of Bobby to give his mother’s food away, but her bitterness lasts through dinner. “I wish it was yesterday,” Bobby tells his adoptive father, beaten down by his mother’s contempt. Betty may speak out about wanting to be a good parental figure, but it seems to stem from an introspective place, rather than her actually wanting to show love.

Don isn’t much better, traveling to Los Angeles to convince Megan to calm down, on orders from her agent. What looks to Megan like an impromptu visit driven by a longing desire turns into a lecture. Don tells Megan to “stop acting like a lunatic”, and she responds by mockingly calling him “daddy”. Yes, he’s worried about her, but he’s unable to present this as beneficial to her. When he finally admits that he lost his job, he gives the worst Don pitch ever, trying to sell himself: “I haven’t even been drinking that much” is among the weakest possible self-defenses for an emotionally abusive alcoholic. He calls her later in the episode, asking if he can return, but he’s left to look out at the dark New York City around him, the back of his head blending into the dark.

At the offices of SC&P, the same manner of “one for you, but that one’s actually for me” is flourishing as well. To a lesser extent, Jim Cutler is finally listening to Harry Crane’s complaints about the media department. Cutler makes no effort to pretend that he’s doing this for Harry, but he’s still giving attention to someone desperate for it. More to the point is the relationship between Roger and Don. After a late-night confrontation, Roger tells Don that he’s welcome back at the company, which kicks off the beautifully orchestrated awkwardness of the episode’s second half. Of course, there is some degree to which Roger does like and miss Don. And there is the financial reasoning that he later uses to convince the partners. But it’s impossible to forget the war waging between Roger and Cutler, and the rehiring of Don is at least some element of victory for the man whose name is on the door. 

When Don does come back to work, it’s in a dream-like sequence that sees him slightly trailing younger men, thrown by the personnel shifts that have happened in his absence. It’s an impeccably shot reintroduction to the offices, perfectly capturing how foreign places can seem when they have continued to exist without your involvement. It’s the same feeling one gets setting foot in a childhood home after a college, or a high school years after graduation. The physical setting is familiar, but the particulars have changed, shifted enough to make everything look unreal.

Don spends a good chunk of the day entertaining the copywriters, catching up both the accounts, and people’s personal lives. There’s an imbalance, as the young workers flock to him and the partners scurry away to debate Don’s future. Of course, this context is foreshadowing for the seismic shift throw into the final scene: yes, Don will return to SC&P. But he’ll be answering to Lou, no longer in any position of power. He may still be a step above the majority of the creative team, but he’s not on top and in one of the show’s most shocking moments, Don accepts the position. This season has drastically reorganized the world of Mad Men, from the physical and emotional divide between the coasts, to the hierarchy of SC&P in New York.

That hierarchy has always been a vital element of the show, but this season seems to be placing an emphasis on whom controls whom and how getting bumped down the ladder can throw everything out of focus. As the show begins its final chapter, everyone is repositioning, growing or shrinking in importance relative to those around them. So what’s Don’t angle? As another Sunday night drama would say, “the climb is all there is”. Don could have taken what seemed to be a higher position (or least a more respected one) at another film; instead he agrees to a fairly humiliating deal at a place that no longer trusts him enough to be alone with a client. Is he trying to prove something to himself, or to somebody else? Does he want to repair, or is he sinking into comfort, jumping from what could be an opportunity?

There are people in this world completely open about their motives, namely the Lou Avery’s that complain about not getting exactly their way. There are the rare genuinely good people, like Dawn, and those like Peggy growing fed up with trying to hide their disdain of others. This culminates in a conversation between the partners, minus Don, opening up about the financial and reputation-driven reasoning behind their decisions. There is still plenty left unsaid, but this is a Mad Men scene played about as openly as ever. Some may be masking their intentions, but others are straightforward and cruel: “Well I can’t say that we miss you," as Peggy says to Don

In a vital but small moment, Ken says that a carousel reminds him of Don. This explicitly recalls the season one finale, “The Wheel”. There, Don’s pitch ties the “pain from an old would” of nostalgia to a Kodak slideshow projector. It’s quite likely his best pitch, giving emotional weight to a simple product. And it was also a speech that found Don looking backwards, seeing the fissures he had created in his family. While nearly everyone else in “Field Trip” makes their motives clear, even if they shroud the truth from those around them, Don’s decision at the end is a significant question mark. Is he looking to regain something he has lost, or manipulating his way into a better future? The fireable offenses seem to say the former, but the musical cue, Jimi Hendrix’s counter-culture song “If 6 Was 9”, speaks to the latter. In the world of Mad Men, there are two kinds of people: those that wish it were yesterday, and those that long for tomorrow. So the question remains the same: who is Don Draper?

Grade: A-

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