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'Mad Men' Review: 'Field Trip' To Unknown Territory

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Do not read on unless you have seen "Field Trip," Sunday's Season 7 episode of "Mad Men."

"They lose their confidence." -- Megan's agent

"Okay." -- Don Draper

Maybe this is the season that "Mad Men's" women act out of character -- some of them, anyway. Last week we were treated to Peggy, three months out from a breakup, acting like a lovelorn, angst-ridden teenager and embarrassing herself in front of the secretarial staff.

That seemed a little extreme, and, given that "Mad Men" has generally given its female characters nuance and depth, it's a little alarming that this week Megan was allegedly acting like, as Don so gently put it, "a lunatic." I must confess, when I heard her agent say that she had stalked a director, calling him at his home and following him to a lunch (with Rod Serling!), I couldn't quite believe what I was hearing. Aside from Betty, Don has generally surrounded himself with non-lunatic women -- ladies who are quite capable of logical thinking and have a Herculean ability to clean up his messes.

Yet we were led to believe that after a few short months in California, Megan had become a mess, which doesn't quite track with the Megan we've come to know. Sure, she's trying to break into a brutal business, but I can't quite believe the level-headed Megan -- who'd put up with her share of emotional trauma during her marriage to Don -- would become quite that erratic and obsessive so quickly. That was simply hard to buy.

Yet the reason for the contrivance eventually became plain to see: We were set up to believe that Megan is the one who has lost confidence in herself and whose self-esteem had catastrophically eroded; but those descriptions, as it turned out, more accurately apply to Don.

Why else would he acquiesce to the partners' draconian plan? Even if I had quibbles with the story of Megan's audition from hell (and I had a major problem with the giant sucking sound that emanated from the Betty storyline), the episode certainly ended on an entertainingly suspenseful note. We were left to ponder all week whether Don has a plan for dealing with Lou and the rest of the agency's problems, or if he simply had no choice but to take the gig back under apparently intolerable conditions.

Sure, he had a reasonably sweet job offer from Wells, Rich, Greene but as Roger pointed out, that job would have been a demotion. He likely would've reported to someone else. If he has to be someone's underling, why not do that at the firm he helped to found? The Machiavellian side of me wonders if Don assumes he has more angles to play if he has a home-field advantage, so to speak. Maybe he can win over some allies at the firm, and it would be a major coup if he can win the still-angry Peggy to his side. Perhaps he's got a long-range plan for sending Lou back to Duck Phillips as if the sweater-wearing mediocrity were Chauncey the dog.

But maybe the decision wasn't strategic at all. Let's face it: Don's confidence has been worn down by all the rejection he's faced. Think about how long it took for anyone to say a word to him when he returned. When he arrived, Don glided through the office like a ghost. Most employees didn't even notice him: He had an awkward conversation with Lou and a genuine hello from Roger's secretary (who is nice but not exactly a power player at the firm). Remember when Don strutted through the agency like a conquering hero? Nowadays he can't get his own secretary (who isn't really his secretary) to bring office supplies to his apartment.

I want to spend a minute on that scene in which Don returned, because it was shot in an unusual way, one that made me think of all the death analogies "Mad Men" has played with over the years. The camerawork had a floating quality, as if Don were merely hovering over everything, as people sometimes say they do in near-death experiences. Don was unconnected to the activity around him, and he was confused by the different placement of some people's offices and the faces that passed him. He was completely detached from what was going on around him, until Michael Ginsburg called out to him. Being recognized broke him out of a dream -- perhaps it may be too grand a statement, but it was as if Don had been reborn in that moment. Or perhaps he just returned to reality.

The problem was, once he was ensconced with the copy writers, it's not like things improved much. In fact, much of the episode revolved around Don's gross miscalculations. Don assumed Roger would show a sliver of responsibility and arrange it so that Don could officially come back. Don assumed Roger would arrive at 9 a.m. or so and call a meeting to address the situation. What Don hadn't realized is that Roger is the new Don -- completely unreliable and irresponsible. Roger had always had that lax, hard-drinking side to him, but in recent months, he's slid over the edge into irrelevance. For Don to count on Roger to truly have his back is not wise at all; things have changed a lot over the years, and the balance of power in the firm has shifted far away from Roger Sterling, his drunken protestations notwithstanding. (Only a man who's lost most of his power would have to shout that loudly about his authority.)

Don truly miscalculated his arrival time. Recall that he spent a lot of time looking at his watch in the home scene that was intercut with his "floating" return to work. I think he wanted to time it so that by the time he arrived around 9:30 a.m., the partners might have already met and decided his fate. The watch shots were a nice callback to Don's elegant pitch (delivered through Freddy) in the season premiere: "It's time for a conversation." It certainly was time for a conversation about Don, but it took nearly 10 hours for that conversation to take place. Scattered throughout the episode were shots of the clock behind the copy writers' room, where Don slowly and irritably frittered away the day. People treated him like an alien, a stranger or a problem to solve: He had an intensely awkward encounter with Ken and Joan, and treated Dawn like she worked for him, which she clearly does not (the primary job requirement for anyone working for Don is to have the patience of a saint).

Whatever confidence he tried to give himself as he sat there in his apartment, alone, trying to psych himself up for his return, much of it must have drained away while the partners kept him waiting. It was a humiliating position to be in, and Don was humbled even further by the conditions the partner set on his return. Don, the charmer, can never be alone with clients. Don, whose spontaneous pitches were the stuff of legend, has to stick to a script. No imbibing Scotch solo, while staring out at the Manhattan skyline? What madness is this?

The rational among us understand the reason for caution. The firm simply can't afford to have a loose cannon in charge of creative. Outside the office, the younger generation has gotten freer and looser, but the partners have their incomes and families to think of. They're less inclined to tolerate creative "hijinks" -- stable mediocrity is more lucrative than unreliable genius.

Speaking of a genius, what in God's name induced Don to accept that stringent offer (one that they may have designed to force him to say no)? I can think of a few ideas, and it's exciting not to know which theory is right. But here are a few:

  • Don does not want to let the other partners win. He helped found the agency, and he'll be damned if he lets it slip away from him. And perhaps he took the offer because it was so strict and seemingly designed to repulse him. Don relishes a challenge, and he does seek out rejection like nobody's business.
  • Don thinks that, once reunited with Peggy, they can return the firm to creative excellence and somehow force out Lou.
  • Don doesn't really want to go work for Wells, Rich, Greene because he knows he could never be the primary star there. He was just using that offer as leverage with the firm and is too tired and scared to start over somewhere new.
  • As noted above, maybe he realizes he is out of options and that this offer is the best he can do.
  • As for the "sticking to a script" thing, he knows the partners won't care if he goes off-script but makes the clients happy with the work.

Who knows what the real story is, but one thing I'm sure of: Don was terrified to re-enter the workplace he once ruled like a potentate. Perhaps that sense of being a ghost, of being dead, of being dislocated, was a form of self-preservation. He may have entered a mild dissociative state just to function in such a hostile, familiar-unfamiliar environment. If I had to guess, I'd say that Don's acceptance of the partners' terms was equal parts pragmatism, bravado and fear. Better the devil you know and all that.

Don's other big miscalculation of the episode: His treatment of Megan. Try as he might to catch up with the tenor of the age, he simply can't get there in a lot of important areas. He doesn't understand that Megan will not put up with condescending, judgmental assessments of her choices. Notice that Don doesn't even ask for her side of the story before making her feel like s*** about the bad audition. In his post-coital conversation with her, he put his foot in his mouth time and again, and while coming clean to Sally may have worked, things are way too far gone with Megan. Telling her the truth about being fired was too little, too late. Don's been on a truth-telling mission these days, and it's good to see him turn over a new leaf in that regard (though, of course, he's selective about the truth most of the time).

But the truth can't always fix a bad situation, and the truth is, he doesn't want to leave New York. So will Megan return to New York to patch things up? I tend to doubt it, and I also wonder if we'll see this relationship go around in circles for the rest of the season. While Jon Hamm and Jessica Pare do great work in their scenes, watching Don and Megan's relationship circle the drain isn't a prospect that fills me with excitement.

Don's only real wife has always been the work, and to see him return to the field of battle with any number of enemies squaring off against him? Now that is a prospect I very much want to see. Bring it, Lou.

Hail of bullets:

  • For the love of all that is holy, why is Betty still on this show? She and Don divorced years ago, and nearly every single scene that features her -- in this episode or any other -- reiterates the same points made time and again. She is a narcissistic woman who is more immature than her children, and she lacks the self-awareness to know how hurtful her icy, mean and unforgiving behavior is. The only difference is, now it's poor Bobby instead of Sally on the receiving end of her withholding nonsense and self-absorbed martyrdom. As I've written in the past (too many times to count), Betty could have been used as an interesting commentary on the times, and she's had some effective scenes in the past, but her characterization has been so limited and repetitive for a long time now that the character has simply worn out her welcome. Look, this is "Mad Men's" final season. This kind of storyline -- i.e., mostly filler, -- was irritating in Seasons 5 and 6, and it's especially galling now that these characters have so little time left. As some other critics and I have said for years, "Mad Men" simply has a blind spot where Betty is concerned. The show clearly thinks she's interesting; and in the early seasons, when the writing for her was nuanced and complex, she wasn't a drag. But that time is long past, and if you still enjoy seeing her, more power to you. But for some of us, it's just getting repetitive, and as the show winds down, I'd rather spend time on almost anyone else than go around in claustrophobic, boring circles with Betty.
  • Jessica Pare did great work throughout the episode -- this was her finest hour. "So with a clear head, you got up every morning and decided you didn't want to be with me." Her line reading of that sentence was devastating and heartbreaking.
  • Harry's not the only liar at the firm -- Lou lied as well about why Peggy's work wasn't submitted for an award. Lou. Is. The. Worst.
  • So is Harry fired? What will we do without his appallingly awesome wardrobe?
  • Even though he's the worst, that was some quality shade Lou threw at Don: "Good for you!" Oooh snap.
  • "I shouldn't lie to you, and I'm sorry and I want everything to be OK." Don Draper says that line, at some point, to almost everyone he gets close to, but he needs to learn that it's not a magical incantation that fixes huge screw-ups.
  • Don rejected the blonde at the restaurant not just because she was a Betty clone, I think, but because he wanted his job back (as I said, the work has always been his primary partner). That said, I enjoyed the misdirection of the hotel room door. Who expected Roger to answer that door? Not me. And that was a delightfully vintage argument Don and Roger had. Lord, I miss those two arguing like an old married couple.
  • "We're having a conversation!" Oh, the look on poor Bobby's face when Betty took an interest in him. Hope she's saving for his therapy bills as well as Sally's.
  • A "Mad Men" lady having a much better week: Joan, who is taking care of business as an accounts woman and taking a leadership position among the partners. I can't blame her for not really being in Don's corner: One more mid-pitch meltdown and the agency would become a laughingstock.
  • "I can't say that we've missed you." Wow, Peggy, I know Don's done a lot to interfere with your personal and professional life, but whoa, that was a sick burn. Then again, to give Don an interesting arc in this final season, the show has really got to take him and his relationships to a very low point, doesn't it?
  • "Where you been? Riding the rails?" Stan only may be getting a couple lines per episode, but he makes them count.
  • There were actually two field trips in this episode: Don's foray to California, which ended about as well as Betty's trip to the farm. You could also think of Don's trip to SC&P as a third field trip -- that went great, too!
  • "Lou is adequate." Disagree!
  • A drunk Roger bloviating about how important he is at the firm where he can barely be bothered to show up is almost as pathetic as a Don who's willing to work for Lou. We are living in Opposite World! That said, I'm dying to see what happens next week.

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