Gumdrops are flop candy, Bobby. image courtesy of imgur
Last night’s episode was INTENSE. “Field Trip” is all about disappointment, the long road to redemption, and that ever-present theme of change. From the start, Mad Men has always been playing with the idea of “can people really change?” Can Don really change, or is this all a smokescreen? Will his ever-present manpain give him a jolt to finally move forward?
One of the strongest points this show has made over time is that Don has precisely zero control over his life, no matter how much effort he puts forth into that carefully crafted illusion. He tries way too hard to keep that control – he’s so desperate that it slips away rapidly the tighter he grips, like that sand metaphor you see emblazoned on shit at TJ Maxx. The only time he has any ounce of control in his life are those fleeting moments where he makes peace with being Dick Whitman. In this episode, we see Don finally admit defeat and accept a truly shit offer from SC&P. He’s starting to make his peace with himself and is ready to try and climb back up to his former glory. He’s ready to prove himself.
We find Don in a familiar place at the start of the episode – a movie theatre, where he’s seeing the French indie flick Model Shop. This pops us sometime in mid-April 1969, so it’s been a couple of months since we last saw everyone. Don is still in suspended animation, still longing for the agency, still lost. That particular film is a compelling choice, since it’s about a depressed, adrift guy running away from commitment to his live-in girlfriend along with other life obligations, and taking up with a French divorcée in Los Angeles. Seriously. Naturally, something about this movie undoubtedly sticks with Don, an adrift melancholy guy himself. He can’t admit to himself that he’s fallen out of love with both LA and perhaps even his LA-based wife alike, but I think he might be starting to get it now.
Flustered Dawn is buckling under the pressure of her new job. With all of that new responsibility on top of keeping Don’s shit in line, she’s becoming more unreachable, which Don absolutely hates since he’s still clinging to her leg like a fucking 2 year-old. She tells him that a call came in from Alan Silver, and Don begrudgingly returns the call himself. Silver, seeing Don as the manager-type, begs him to do something about Megan’s absurd/embarrassing thirst she’s parading around Hollywood.
This is not unlike Betty’s shrink calling Don to fill him in on her “progress”. Instead of being irritated like he was with Betty’s lack of direction, he decides to treat Megan differently and actually try to help and fix things; so, Don takes a field trip to surprise her in LA. He thinks he’s going to help set her career right, but he ends up almost destroying their damn marriage when he lets on the real reason for his visit. He manages to admit that he’s no longer at SC&P for the time being. Megan is horrified that he lied to her about his forced leave for actual MONTHS, when in fact he was trying to do the thing he’s never legitimately done before; stay the hell put and try to set things right in New York instead of just running off to LA and perpetuating the cycle. Their argument is sad and sincere, and it’s a lot to take in. Megan slaps him in the face with realness and tells him straight up to leave and get on a plane back to JFK. Daaaaaaaamn, Don. That backfired.
It’s interesting because instead of that horrid argument inspiring Don to booze and bang around, it instead motivates him to get his work ducks in a row for real, instead of faux-working. In the last episode, he embarks down that road a little bit with Sally, starting to repair familial relationships and coming clean in the process. After he gets back from LA, he takes a dinner meeting that ends up with a great fake-out where we think he’s going up to a hooker’s hotel room, but it’s actually Roger’s place. He has a frank and short discussion with Roger saying he’s had enough and wants to come back to the agency, showing Roger another offer he received at dinner. Roger complies, and tells him to come in on Monday, but uh, neglects to tell anyone else.
Betty is back, sharp as usual. She lunches with Francine, and their conversation is a goddamn sword fight. She’s straight up fascinated that Francine has taken a job a few days a week (ain’t that the dream) to get more fulfilment out of life now that her children are older. Betty is a little insulted and upset when she realises she’s old fashioned, only seeking reward in life from her children. Of course, the irony here is that her children who are old enough to know better hate and resent her. True to form, Francine throws shade, saying “Betty Draper, that is indeed how I would describe you”, hinting at her divorce being quite nouveau. She volunteers to be a chaperone for Bobby’s field trip to his braless teacher’s farm, and drinks gross fresh milk out of a bucket. How genuinely bizarre.
Betty comes face to face with the longterm consequences of her actions while having lunch with Bobby. For years, she has rarely enjoyed a meal with her children. They eat their hotdogs and fish sticks while Betty nurses wine and cigarettes. They’ve made quips in past seasons about how “mommy never eats” so when Bobby trades Betty’s sandwich for some gumdrops, he naturally doesn’t give it another thought because of how she’s always been. When Betty is pissed off that she has no lunch, Bobby feels ashamed and Betty is immediately confused when faced with that reality. That bizarre milk bucket tasting was indicative of Betty trying new things and sort of putting herself out there, and even going on the field trip at all was a small effort to bond with Bobby. She’s starting to realise it’s going to take a lot more work to repair that relationship than just that.
Henry comes home to a morose dinner in that tacky kitchen, with Bobby wishing he could turn the clock back to when he was so excited and optimistic about Betty coming along with him to the farm. That simple line “I wish it was yesterday” is totally gutting, and is a feeling that all of these characters are internalising as it is. It instantly strikes a chord with Betty, and thoughtlessly, she blames the horrible turn of the day on Bobby’s “behaviour” . She doesn’t quite know what to do with this information just yet, and true to form, she says something scathing and acts out in the most outlandish way possible. Later on, we see her in bed holding a sleeping Gene, visibly shaken and upset. I really felt badly for her when she sullenly asks Henry “why don’t they love me?” Betty is just now piecing together her past actions which have made her older children push her away. She’s played the part of this traditional wife-and-mother-archetype for so long, but has simply been going through the motions, not dissimilar to Don. Will Betty be able to course-correct? I hope so. I think she really wants to, she loves her children and wants to have a real relationship with them; she just has to figure out how to do that, like Don needs to figure out how to have a real relationship with Megan and basically everyone else he’s ever encountered in his life.
All I want to say about Peggy is DAMN, girl. Grow up and move past flop Ted. Don’s not the one who chicken-shitted out of your wildly inappropriate relationship, Ted did that all on his own; stop misdirecting your anger at your coworkers (past and present) and get on with it already. My eyes are going to fall out of my damn head from side-eyeing her so much. This shit is a bad look, Pegs. Peggy has myriad reasons to be pissed at Don, but this is actually the weakest one of them all.
In a fucked out way, I think that Don actually did Peggy a favour by outing her relationship with Ted. Of course he shouldn’t have done it in front of a client like a damn maniac, but it definitely needed to be done in a devastating manner to have some modicum of lasting effect. Everyone knew something was going on between them; the other employees were side-eyeing them and it was only getting worse and more obvious, so Don took the wheel and put a full stop to it by embarrassing the hell out of Ted and relinquishing all credit from Peggy for that ratchet mess of a St Joseph’s ad. That sting is rendered anew once the Clios roll around in this episode.
Don’s field trip to SC&P is super awkward to say the least. It runs parallel with Bobby and Betty’s jaunt to the farm, though Don actually manages to get a damn sandwich. He’s greeted with both abject coldness and warmth alike from the different employees, and this is the first time we actually see anyone inhabiting the creative lounge up to this point in the season. Not knowing what to do with himself and wondering if the inexplicably absent Roger just wanted to embarrass him, he sits around for hours like a child being punished. Don being back in the office knocks the partners off their respective axes, Cutler and Joan especially, and it was almost a total disaster until Roger finally shows up after a boozy “early lunch”.
Similar to Peggy, Joan has droves of reasons to be pissed at Don, but she actually chooses wisely like a normal-ass adult. In season 5 with the Jaguar creepiness, Don tried to rescue a woman he knew point blank did not want to be rescued. He tried to talk her out of banging hamplanet Herb in exchange for Jaguar’s business, but his timing was off; she truly appreciated that effort on his behalf, but she did gain a partnership out of that awful ordeal at the very least.
Remember that IPO Joan put a lot of hard work into making happen? When Don deftly destroyed it in one fell swoop with the merger, she’d had it with his self-serving behaviour and not thinking of the agency. His temper tantrum where he felt he was Doing the Right Thing(TM) rendered all of her hard work completely worthless and irrelevant. This includes bonking Herb, which is a slap in the face for him to insinuate that it essentially didn’t happen. Joan doesn’t have time for Don’s recklessness, hence her icy salutation when she sees him in the office. She wants to drag him, and rightfully so.
Bert and Roger are the only ones defending Don, both for practical and personal reasons. Bert aptly says “I don’t like the way this agency is spoken of”, meaning that the work has taken a major hit in Don’s absence, and they all know it. Cutler tries to change the subject to buying a computer, which would take the focus off flagging creative and place it on media, but thankfully Bert and Roger aren’t buying that bullshit. Joan is on the fence but ultimately sides with Cutler, as he pretty much secured in the last episode. Cutler doesn’t seem to get that Don’s value to that company is immeasurable and it’s only a matter of time until they start losing clients in rapid succession because of the shit creative headed by Lou. Roger is a lot smarter than everyone gives him credit for as well; he doesn’t just want his friend back to have some rapport in the office, he knows that the company has a definite end date in short sight with the way things are going now.
So, the partners air their grievances and come up with a solution; a massive demotion that I can only assume they thought Don would reject. Roger’s bottom line says what we’re all thinking; if SC&P lets him go, they’d have to compete with him and his unavoidably great ideas with some other agency. Who wants to do that? This is the first time Roger has had some spark in him this season, which is really great to see. After all, he’s the one who “discovered” Don at that fur shop.
Also, it was revealed that Lou has a 2-year contract. Really? Him?? That’s some shady business right there. Turns out that “leave” was really just a soft firing after all. But Don accepting that insulting offer from SC&P and calling their bluff was nothing short of amazing. He was one of the founding fathers of that agency, and they all know damn well it’s too much of a financial burden to buy him out.
One of the things I love about this show is their consistent way of having characters say so much by uttering so little in the way of actual words; Don saying “okay” to their garbage offer and accepting that dismal demotion is his version of CHALLENGE ACCEPTED. The old Don would’ve smugly thrown it out with a disgusted look on his face, but this guy is selfless, cold and composed. Boss.
The road to redemption for Don is undoubtedly going to be a long and embarrassing one – reporting to dickbag Lou? No booze on the clock? Stick to the pre-approved script? He can’t even be alone with clients?! Jesus Christmas. I can’t wait to see what happens. You’d better slay, Don.