Spoiler Alert! If you haven’t seen episode 703 of Mad Men, be warned that this piece contains spoilers.
Episode 703 of Mad Men, titled “Field Trip”, opens with Don in a familiar setting – alone at the movies, smoking and thinking. The movie – “Model Shop” – is set in Los Angeles and involves a love triangle between a young man who’s about to be drafted to fight in Vietnam and two women. The first woman is his girlfriend, but the relationship is on its last legs. She accuses the young man of refusing to commit to anyone or anything. The other woman, encountered by chance, works for a sordid modeling agency where she poses for erotic photographs for money she is saving to return home to France. Sound familiar?
The A.V. Club described “Model Shop” as a movie about lonely people failing to connect, and this description fittingly encapsulates much of what happens in “Field Trip.” The episode is structured as a kind of triangle, with Don being contrasted with Megan and Betty. Compared with last week’s densely compacted episode, “Field Trip” feels stripped down. But don’t be fooled. There’s a lot going on.
Don and Megan
Don returns home from the movies to get dressed for Dawn’s regularly scheduled visit, and he calls to request some office supplies before she leaves. Having taken on Joan’s old role, seemingly unbeknownst to Don, she is up to her ears in phone calls and busy work, leaving little time for her old boss. Dawn tries to beg off of her visit and arranges to have Don’s office supplies delivered via messenger. When she asks if she can put Don on hold, he hangs up on her. It’s the first of many humbling experiences Don will endure on what appears on the surface as his road to redemption.
Don returns a call to Alan Silver, Megan’s manager, who begs Don to help calm Megan down, explaining her recent erratic behavior. Being alone in a cutthroat town has taken its toll on Megan, and each rejection has her acting more and more like a crazed stalker as she tracks down directors whom she’s auditioned for in hopes of getting a second chance. In a place where perception is everything, Silver can’t represent someone who is seen as a high-maintenance nut job. Don, doing a bit of struggling himself, asks what he can possibly do. Silver says to tell Megan to relax.
Don shows up unexpectedly to buck Megan up, and at first, she’s thrilled to see him. She jokingly asks if he’s been fired, and he passes up the opportunity to level with her, opting instead to sweep her off her feet. Afterwards, as they make small talk, Don gives Megan advice about how to handle her rejection. “You can’t let it erode your confidence. You can’t get angry or desperate,” Don tells her. Those words will come echoing back at the end of the episode.
Don’s unsolicited advice causes Megan to bristle and become defensive. He attempts to personalize his advice, saying it comes from experience, but she attacks him, wanting to know why he’s never in his office when she calls. She accuses him of having yet another affair.
Cornered, Don finally confesses his “suspension” to Megan, an impulsive decision that isn’t thought through very well, as evidenced by the devastating consequences. Megan grills Don with a progression of questions that ends with her telling him to get out and go back to New York. Already feeling bad about herself, Don’s latest deceit is too much for her to bear. It’s a kneejerk response, an emotional counterpunch that is made without any forethought. She sees the writing on the wall, and makes a decision that she may regret later. Hold that idea because we will compare it with Don later in the episode.
Don’s response to this is to finally get off his ass and swing into action. When he gets back to New York, he meets with Dave Wooster and another guy from Wells Rich Greene, the sexy ad agency that seems like the perfect fit for Don’s talent.
An offer is presented in a sealed envelope, along with a beautiful blonde in white who presents herself, right on cue, and lets Don know where she’s staying at the hotel where the meeting takes place. The Wells Rich Greene guys deny any involvement, but it’s obvious they are pulling out all the stops to lure Don to their shop. As the woman walks off, Don turns to watch her go, obviously tempted. Wooster asks if they should have another round or if Don has someplace better to be.
Oddly, the cut away is not to the hotel room with the blonde, but to Roger’s apartment. It’s the first they’ve spoken since the Thanksgiving morning massacre. Don’s first question to Roger is how he can sleep at night. It’s a good question, given Roger’s permanently broken moral compass, but he easily side-steps Don anger by telling Don he misses him. When Don shows him the offer letter from Wells Rich Greene, Roger gives Don a backhanded compliment. “Nice offer. They’re really trying to make it look like it’s not a demotion.” It turns out that Freddy’s admonition to Don about being seen as damaged goods came too late.
One of Roger’s hippie girlfriends shows up, and before Don leaves, Roger tells him to come back to work at SC&P and they agree to meet on Monday morning.
Was Don offended by the “hard sell” attempt by Wells Rich Greene or was he offended by the offer itself – perhaps a junior position? The answer seems to lie in the call Don makes to Megan after the meeting with Roger. He tries to warm Megan up, but she won’t bite. Unfazed, he apologizes for lying to her and seems to be sincere. He finishes by telling her that he doesn’t know if he can undo the damage he’s done at SC&P (and by extension, with her), but he thinks he can fix it. He goes on to confess that he was afraid if she knew about his suspension she wouldn’t look at him the same way again, an idea she rejects coldly and truthfully. He ends the call by telling her he loves her, but she doesn’t respond. She seems to understand, in a way he doesn’t, that their marriage is over – that he wants it to be over, but either can’t or won’t admit it.
That said, Don forges ahead, and we see him in a new light. It’s Monday morning, nine o’clock. He doesn’t want to be too early, too desperate. But he’s nervous. He’s collecting himself, preparing for the comeuppance he expects. He knows he’s going to have to eat some shit, and he is resigned to it because he seems to accept that it’s all his fault. His only mistake is to believe that once the turd has been swallowed, he’ll have his old job back.
This first person Don encounters is Lou Avery, of course, and after a brief uncomfortable silence, they shake hands. Lou asks what he’s doing there, and Don says he’s ready to get back to work. “Good for you,” Lou says coldly. Lou is pissed off and tells Shirley to find Cutler and get him on the phone. When Lou and Cutler finally talk, Lou reminds Cutler that he has a two year contract, a telling detail in terms of SC&P’s honesty in their dealings with Don last Thanksgiving.
It only gets worse from there. Joan gives Don a frosty hello before running to Bert to find out what’s going on. Bert doesn’t like that Don has shown up on their doorstep. Later, Peggy pops in long enough to tell Don that they haven’t missed him one bit.
When Don runs into Roger’s secretary, he learns that Roger isn’t in and that their meeting isn’t on Roger’s calendar. Seeing the writing on the wall, Don awkwardly says he’ll busy himself until Roger shows up and bolts for the exit. As Don is about to leave the office, probably for good, Ginsberg catches him, and as if nothing has changed, asks Don to help out with Peggy’s Chevalier Blanc ad. Don instinctively answers the call, and before long is holding court with his old team of copywriters, sans Peggy.
One-by-one the partners run into Don and are surprised and horrified at his presence in the office. Of course, Roger is nowhere to be found until just before lunch, when Don jumps him and demands an answer. That Don has stuck it out until lunch is a testament to his determination to see this thing through. Roger tells him to sit tight while he assembles the partners.
At the partner meeting, Roger is the only one who sticks up for Don. It’s him, Cutler, Bert and Joan. Roger attacks the creative work the agency has been turning out, which prompts Cutler to defend Lou. It’s an interesting cleavage because in defending Don, Roger sides with creative, while Cutler goes with dollars and sense. It’s right brain/left brain, old school/new school, mystical/formulaic battle line, and before the series ends, one of these sides will win the day. My money is on Cutler, but my heart is with Don and Roger.
Roger reminds them that Don a genius, but is himself reminded of the messes Don left in his wake. The others want nothing to do with him. In fact, their understanding, aside from Roger, was that the Thanksgiving “suspension” was a face-saving tactic designed to give Don time to find a new job. Cutler, who only ever seems to want the agency to be better and hates the way creatives like Don are coddled, wants to cut Don loose so they can use his salary to purchase a computer for Harry, which will make them more competitive with the bigger agencies. Roger, seeing an opening, reminds them if they fire Don, they’ll lose their non-compete, which will free him up to work for one of their rivals. Plus, they’ll have to buy back his share of the partnership. It’s a sly move, using their money motive against them. This pours some cold water on the heated attempts to rid SC&P of their “collective ex-wife”.
We don’t get to see how this issue is resolved until Don is summoned by Dawn to meet the partners in the conference room. The door opens and Don enters, like a Christian to the lions. Don, very business-like and stiff, thanks them for the meeting and tells them that he’s spent his day re-acquainting himself with the business. Bert gets to the point by telling Don they would like him to return to work…as long as he agrees to their stipulations. Joan pipes in and informs Don that any transgression will result in his termination, along with a re-absorption of his partnership shares to the company. The stipulations include:
- Don isn’t allowed to be alone with any clients
- Don must stick to a pre-approved script when meeting with clients
- Aside from entertaining clients, there will be no drinking by Don in the office
- Don will work out of Lane’s old office
- Don will report to Lou
In short, it’s a one-sided offer designed to infuriate Don into walking out in disgust. No one in the room expected Don to accept the offer. It was written as a big F-You to Don, who would have never agreed to any of those stipulations in the past. Did Roger lose, or did he see the way the wind was blowing and go along with the plan, like he did when Pete got shafted on the Chevy deal?
Once Cutler announces the final Lou-stipulation, there’s a moment of pause as Bert pushes the agreement forward for Don to sign. Don takes the agreement, looks at them all, then shrugs and says “Okay.” In the moment before he speaks, the camera zooms in tight on Don’s face and we see his eyes as he sizes up the situation and holds his tongue. The episode ends on this note, so we don’t get to see the shocked faces of all but maybe Roger, who must have been elated at Don’s decision.
So. Is Don really attempting to fix things? Is he sticking around to pay for and atone for the transgressions of season six and earlier? Is he really going to eat his humble pie and work himself back into the good graces of all at SC&P? Think back to his advice to Megan, at the beginning of the episode, at her response to being rejected. Just as Don told her not to get angry or desperate, he takes his own advice and sucks up his pride and makes up his mind to work his way out of the hole he’s dug for himself. If Megan doesn’t watch it, she’ll be seen as damaged goods, just like her husband.
Don and Betty
Betty makes her season seven debut in this episode, and it’s a strange-but-fitting entrance.
Our first encounter with Betty is at lunch, where she catches up with Francine, her old neighbor from when she and Don were together. Francine works as a travel agent and brags to Betty about her new identity as a working wife/mom. Betty justifies her stay-at-home status as being old-fashioned, which Francine confirms, saying she always thinks of Betty that way. While there’s nothing wrong with being traditional or even old fashioned, the term is applied to Betty as an indictment of her rigidness.
Betty’s contrast with Don has to do with their identities and how they each respond to change. In seven seasons, we’ve seen Betty make attempts at change, but each time, she recoils at the first sign of struggle and reverts to her old ways. Really, she’s the same person now as she was in the first season – a childlike woman with tons of pent-up frustration.
Don, likewise, has tried and failed to change his ways. In some ways, Don has regressed more than Betty, and yet, in this final season, we see him on the cusp of making profound changes in his life. As Megan attacks him, he tells her he’s been better, that there have been no women and the drinking has been reduced to a fraction of what it was. He’s struggling, but he’s moving in the right direction.
To boil it down, Don has the greater capacity for change, being a deep and complex person, while Betty is shallow and static. Don has reinvented himself once, coming out of Korea, and appears ready for another transformation, while Betty appears powerless to change and unable to conceive of anything more for herself than be a trophy wife for Henry. She doesn’t even know how to love her children properly.
That she isn’t a good mother is driven home when she uncharacteristically agrees to accompany Bobby on a field trip to the farm where his teacher, Miss Kaiser, grew up. The housekeeper seems shocked and skeptical of this decision, but says nothing.
On the bus ride to the farm, Miss Kaiser walks back to thank Betty for coming along, and when the driver hits a bump, Miss Kaiser pitches forward, nearly exposing a breast. Betty can’t help but ogle the woman after that. It’s the middle of the burn-the-bra feminist protests, and rather than seeing this young woman as asserting herself, Betty confirms her old fashioned-ness by writing Miss Kaiser off as a tramp. Betty may look like Grace Kelly, but she acts like a sour old church lady.
All goes well on the field trip until Bobby thoughtlessly trades Betty’s sandwich to a classmate while Betty washes for lunch. When Betty returns and discovers what has happened, she shames Bobby badly and makes him eat the candy he traded for, even though he doesn’t want to. It’s a childish move one of his classmates might have perpetrated, and it doesn’t end there. Later that evening, as dinner is wrapping up, Henry arrives home from work to discover that Betty’s silent rage is still burning against Bobby. Betty leaves Bobby with Henry, and takes Gene to get his bath. When Henry asks Bobby what happened, Bobby only says he wishes it was yesterday. Poor kid.
Later, when Henry comes up, he asks Betty what happened. She tells him Bobby ruined a perfect day. Henry doubts this, then Betty asks if he thinks she’s a good mother. When he tells her he does, she asks why the kids don’t love her. He tries to shrug off her worry by pointing to Gene, who is nestled up asleep in her arms, but she tells him it’s only a matter of time. For what? For the boys to turn to Don, like Sally? Or for them to see that their parents aren’t perfect beings, but deeply flawed human beings who oftentimes don’t even love them.
This last point brings to mind Don’s conversation with Megan from episode 605 of last season when, on the night Martin Luther King Jr. is murdered, he confessed to faking his love for his children for many years. It’s a damning admission. “Then you see them do something, and you feel that feeling you were pretending to have, and it feels like your heart is going to explode,” he explains. This plays out even more when he takes all three kids to see the ruins of the whorehouse he grew up in. These fumbling steps towards vulnerability and authenticity are Don’s hope for the future, and we’ve seen nothing of the kind – yet – from Betty.
It is impossible to imagine Betty having the conversation with Sally that Don had last week, on the drive back to school from New York. Nobody grades on a bigger curve than kids do with their parents, and even still, Betty has a failing grade.
With time running out on this series, don’t look for her to have an epiphany any time soon. Her fate seems to be destined for tragedy – a lonely person, unable to connect with the ones she professes to love.
For years, fans of Mad Men have been hoping for a kinder, gentler Don Draper, and as it appears that Don may finally be turning the corner to that eventuality, don’t be surprised if Matthew Weiner throws us a curveball or two. I’d bet the farm that Don and Megan won’t be married when the series concludes.
And let’s pray that Lou and Don square off in a loser-leaves-town cage match.