Sunday’s episode of Mad Men took us on a number of trips, metaphorical and physical. The theme here is related to Megan’s repeated questions: “Where are you? Why can’t I reach you?” Sure, she’s asking about why Don is never there when she rings up – but at the same time she’s not. He’s mucked up his entire world, and try as he might, it’ll never be what it was. He’s adrift, searching for a lighthouse.
This episode also sees the return of our favorite trophy wife, Betty Francis, who despite hardly interacting with Don anymore, still shares their children (and interestingly enough she’s probably the worse parent). The other day, I got squinty-eyed and a little pissy about this Salon takedown of the series by a young(er than me) writer named Matthew Brandon Wolfson. Wolfson notes that we’re supposed to “soak in Betty’s poise while pitying her for her limited possibilities.” I beg your pardon? I pity Joan Harris for her limited possibilities (even though she did rather put herself in this position), but I do not pity Betty Draper. She’s no bombshell, not thwarted by her femininity; she’s a petulant, blank-faced child. The piece is worth a read (?), but I’ll continue to rebut it throughout this recap.
“Field Trip” starts us out in a smoky theater where Don Draper idly watches a film set in San Francisco. This is the same theater where Don caught Ted and Peggy on a date; it’s where he taught his protege to escape to when she needs to get away from the office. Once the movie’s over he returns to his “work day,” which means calling Dawn because he needs typewriter ribbon. Poor Dawn, recently promoted to head of the secretarial pool, is utterly swamped. Don is peevish about her assignation of a courier to bring him his supplies. “I didn’t make any plans. I was expecting you to come over!” he cries. Dawn reports that Alan Silver called from California; Megan’s manager, the slimy, slightly swishy guy from last episode, wants to talk to Don. Dawn, overrun by SC&P business, can’t connect the call, so Don resentfully dials up Silver himself. (Poor Don. Must be rough.) Alan reports that the stress is getting to Megan. She burst into tears after bombing an audition, then stalked a director. “I’ve seen it before,” Silver says. “You know her best!” Of course this dude would call the husband to quell what he sees as a hysterical episode.
Don, obviously, jumps on a plane to California to “fix” Megan’s problem. The stewardess greets him warmly as “Mr. Draper.” When he tells her he’s flying home to surprise his wife, she flirts with him gently as her massive blond pompadour bobs near the ceiling of the plane. “I’ve said it before – I hate her!”
Out in Rye, Betty Francis meets her old friend Francine for lunch. “How are things in real estate?” Betty asks. Francine responds patiently, “I’m a travel agent, Betty.” Francine is thrilled to tell Betty about her new job, for which she’s in the office three days a week. She reports happily that one of her customers says she “redefined his definition of first class.” While Francine continues to contentedly natter about work, Betty becomes increasingly disgruntled. “Being alone in the house all that time, I really needed a challenge,” says Francine, echoing the sentiments of a million housewives in 1969. She amends this with a sly smile: “Fine, I needed a reward.” Betty, raising one perfectly groomed eyebrow, says, well, I thought the kids were the reward. She finishes this with, “I dunno, maybe I’m old fashioned.” Do y’think so?
At home, Betty’s little “rewards” are being cared for by a new nanny, and though she is reminiscent of Carla in the color of her skin and her plain uniform, she’s distinctly less invested, less acquiescent. The times, they are a’ changin’, and Betty Francis doesn’t change too well. Spurred on by Francine’s assertions that getting out of the house is a reward, Betty agrees to accompany Bobby’s class on a field trip to a farm. Bobby is understandably stoked – I can’t imagine he sees his mom too much.
On the bus ride, Bobby yammers on about King Kong, saying that he likes Kong “but he’s not really a monster.” When the teacher pauses in the center of the aisle to thank Betty profusely for coming along, Bobby cries happily, “We were having a conversation!” The bus hits a bump, bouncing everyone. After the young, pretty teacher turns away, Bobby mentions that she seems to really like Betty. “Yes,” Betty says, lighting another cigarette, “well, that blouse says she likes everyone.”
Outside the barn, Betty and another mother stand finishing their cigarettes. “Well,” the other mom says, “I hope no one accidentally grabs on the wrong udders.” Betty, bolstered by someone else’s position on the teacher’s lack of brassiere, tries fresh milk straight from the (cow) udders. At lunch, Betty returns from washing her hands to find out that Bobby has traded her sandwich for some gum drops. He didn’t know she was going to eat – and it’s not particularly surprising because for a long time, Betty Draper didn’t eat.
In fact, this episode focused a lot on Betty and food. In her depression a few years ago, she gained a significant amount of weight. By losing it again, she recovered the person she thinks she was – but she seems, somehow, to have a better mental balance with eating. At lunch with Francine, she offers to split a dessert. She is genuinely upset that Bobby took away her sandwich. So the question is, has Betty, who spent the first three seasons of this show smoking instead of eating at the kitchen table, really come to terms with her probable anorexia? Or is she taking weight-loss drugs to maintain her pristine physique? (If I remember correctly, the writers hinted at this last season.) It’s worth noting that according to the NIH, “1970 to 1971 prevalence presumably underestimates amphetamine use at the epidemic’s peak around 1969, because consumption in the United States was already declining when the surveys were conducted.” That would be so on trend. For me and millions of other viewers, all the “languid historical revisionism,” evidenced in details like this one, has definitely not come to see increasingly dull.
Betty, forever a mature adult, pouts and lights yet another cigarette when she discovers her lunch has been traded. In the evening she continues to guilt her son for what’s frankly a completely innocent mistake. Poor Bobby reports to Henry that he wishes it was yesterday. Betty, hugging Gene a bit desperately in bed, reports to her husband that “It was such a beautiful day, and he ruined it!” Yes, your 7-year-old son made an understandable mistake and you spend days making him pay for it. This makes complete sense. “Why don’t they love me?” she whispers to Henry over Gene’s sleeping head. In the audience, we facepalm. Betty’s “rewards” aren’t dolls to be played with, re-positioned, cuddled when necessary, thrown to the nanny when not. It’s totally distressing to her. I am Jack’s total lack of sympathy.
At SC&P, Jim Cutler is moving and shaking things up. He’s in a meeting with a big client when Harry Crane, clad in the perfect 1970s suit, with the perfect 1970s chops, pops in to save the day. The clients are thinking about taking their business somewhere that has a computer. Harry reassures them that SC&P has a great machine, that the company is in fact on the very forefront of technology. Cutler, proud and surprised, calls the Wall Street Journal to advertise SC&P’s technological prowess. Harry, practically steaming from the ears, tells him to kill the article. Jim says, “I felt badly about diminishing your contributions” when really what he means is that a Journal article will make SC&P, with its shiny computer, look brilliant. Unfortunately for Jim, Harry lied to the clients. There is no computer; they outsource their technology because, despite Harry’s pleas, the partners won’t invest. Harry Crane has always been a bit of a whiner, but Cutler won’t have it. “Are you aware your self-pity is distasteful?” he asks, tilting his silver head. He continues, “I believe you to be the most dishonest man I’ve ever worked with,” and I can’t tell if it’s a compliment or an insult.
Don arrives in California once again, bearing a huge bouquet. He clumsily arranges the flowers in a vase, where they look utterly out of place in Megan’s kitchen. She arrives home, grocery bags in both arms, and is thrilled but suspicious of his presence. She’s a little haggard, her eyes a bit haunted. She asks if he got fired (it’s clear she isn’t joking), and he answers that he just had a hankering. After sex, she admits that “It’s sunny here for everyone but me.” In the soft postcoital chatter, Don’s purpose becomes clear. While he’s all silky magic in a pitch, he’s no damned good at subtlety in his personal relationships. “You can’t get angry or desperate,” he says, condescension pouring from him. Megan gets the gist pretty quickly, jumping up and saying she’ll have to fire Alan. “You don’t have to fire anyone, you just have to not act like a lunatic!” Don cries. Women. Such lunatics.
News flash: it’s never a good idea to tell your wife she’s acting like a crazy person. Megan, who’s been sitting on some pretty serious lies, lets fly. “I’m sorry I had to interrupt your love affairs!” she cries. She remembers; she was his secretary. She doesn’t sound like a lunatic, actually. She sounds quite sane – at least, as sane as anyone married to Don Draper could expect to be. Her outburst, her questions, force Don to explain that he wasn’t fired, but he is on leave. He thinks, very wrongly, this information will vanquish Megan’s doubts. Not so, sir. You lied to your wife for almost a year and you don’t get off that easy. Calmly, Megan tells him, “I don’t want you to worry about me anymore. This is the way it ends. It’s going to be so much easier for both of us.” She kicks him out of the house. Where is Don? Why can’t she reach him? Indeed. He’s stuck between two coasts, stuck between two jobs, floating aimlessly through the metaphorical void as the world continues to turn.
Megan’s dismissal sets him in motion, however. He schedules dinner with Wooster, who’s been courting him for the last few episodes and who presents a hefty offer in a plain white envelope. At the restaurant, a blond introduces herself; she thinks she and Don have met. There have been so many blondes – did you recognize her? I didn’t. Neither did Don. Wooster evidently didn’t pay for her, though they wish they’d thought of it. She tells Don she’s on the top floor, and he stares after her as she sidles away.
Instead of having another drink with his potential employers, Don leaves dinner and knocks on a hotel room door, but it isn’t the one we expect. Who should be behind it, but Roger Sterling? Through his jokes Roger manages to let on that he wants Don to come back. He even includes a lighthearted “I miss you.” When she interrupts their brief meeting, Roger introduces his girlfriend Sherry to Don. She, in her hippie attire, provides a jolting contrast to Don’s staid suit, which could easily place him in 1956. He agrees to come into the office on Monday.
After he’s been offered a new job, turned it down, and got his old one back, he calls Megan “because he wanted to hear her voice.” He apologizes for lying to her: “I don’t know if I can undo it, but I can fix it.” Fixing it, she answers, tightening her robe, unpacking a cigarette, and rubbing at her tear-streaked face, would be getting a job in California the way he said he would. “I’m your wife. Stop pushing me away with both hands.” He tells her he loves her, and her face crumbles as she says goodnight in as strong a voice as she can muster. She’s alone, she’s miserable, and she’s done with pretense.
On Monday morning Don Draper goes into work. (It sounds so humdrum, doesn’t it?) It’s business as usual, but it is not usual at all. Since dropping the “D,” SC&P has moved on. Dawn and Peggy, his “girls,” have their own offices. His old space is inhabited by that horrid asshole, Lou Avery, who’s obviously not happy to lay eyes on the old Creative guru. When Don spots Caroline with a cup of coffee, he gives her a brief hug and offers to take the steaming drink to Roger. Caroline, it seems, isn’t simply doing Roger’s bidding anymore; the coffee’s for her and Roger’s not in yet.
After his impassioned directions to Megan about not letting things “erode your confidence,” “not getting angry or desperate,” Don Draper is all of these things. Insecure, angry, desperate. He wants his job back badly. It’s all he knows. Just as he puts his hand on the doorknob to leave SC&P, likely forever, Ginsberg calls out to him. “Boy, you smell good,” Michael says, typically. He leads Don into the Creative central office, where they’re putting together a TV spot for Chevalier Noir. He retrieves the storyboards from Peggy’s office, and Peggy perks right up when she learns Don’s back in the building. Soon the entire office is gawking at Don, who’s sitting uncomfortably in a small chair at a large desk in the same room over which he used to preside. Ken and Joan come back from a breakfast meeting, curious what exactly Don is doing there. “I guess I’m waiting for Roger,” says Don, all but shrugging. No one knows what’s going on here, and Roger’s not exactly the most reliable human. Joan visits Cooper, who sucks his teeth at her assertion that she can’t take off her shoes to enter his office – she’s wearing knee-high boots. Not only is a woman entering Bert’s sanctuary, but she’s wearing foot gear. The world is changing, eh?
In the central office, Roger walks by and does a double take when he catches a glimpse of Don, who’s been waiting for hours at this point. Don can smell Roger’s “early lunch” on his breath. Good old Roger finally calls a partner’s meeting, rounding up the important people to decide Don’s fate. Lou tells Jim gruffly, “You might want to call security” to remove Don from the premises.
In the impromptu meeting, Roger omits the portion where he told Don he missed him; he instead tells the partners Don begged to return to the fold. Joan, sharp-tongued and aware, notes that when they put him on leave they were simply allowing him to preserve his dignity while looking for other employment. For her part, Don humiliated her by having a temper tantrum about her behavior regarding her partner position (i.e. sleeping with Herb. Shudder). As per usual, Cooper doesn’t say much – but I get the feeling he wants Don back in the office. Cutler uses the opportunity to plant his own flag: “I think it’s more important we discuss Harry Crane,” Jim says. The agency is too dependent on “creative personalities.” Instead of re-hiring Don, they should get a computer! Roger finally pulls a trump card: if they fire him altogether, they’ll have to buy him out of the partnership. That’s more of a hit than the agency can take.
In the central office, Peggy comes by and remarks to Don snidely, “Well, I can’t say that we miss you.” She is the third woman intensely unhappy with him in this episode. She certainly has her reasons. After struggling to get out from under him, being yanked back in, then trapped between two mentors in a battle of egos, she deserves to throw a few darts. Before Don can say much to this mild one (Peggy has never been poison-tongued), Dawn summons him to the conference room, where the partners sit quietly, foreboding. He isn’t used to being on this side of the table, so to speak. They’ve decided to invite him back to the agency. There are, however, stipulations, “the violation of which will result in immediate termination,” Joan says icily. (Do you remember when these two were friends? That was the best.) They are that he a) never be alone with clients, b) stick to the approved script in meetings, c) never drink in the office, and d) report to Lou. Yeah, you read that right: Don Draper will be reporting to Lou Avery, his unworthy successor.
Don, who badly needs an anchor, takes those terms and signs back on. The gang’s all here. Over on Salon, Wolfson argues that “Besides token nods to major events, the series doesn’t engage with its characters’ surroundings: we know Civil Rights ‘happens’ and the counterculture ‘happens,’ but we have no idea why. None of the underlying structural changes that America underwent after 1945 and that contributed to its later social upheavals — interstate highway construction, urban blight, corporate growth, increased geographical mobility — get a serious mention.”
Frankly, this is the show’s genius. The upheaval doesn’t need to be spelled out. We don’t need to linger on Civil Rights, JFK’s death, or the growing number of families moving to the suburbs. We see all of these things, but we see them only in the simplest sense. The writers dance over them, urging us not to see why things are changing, but just that they are: things will never be the same. To lavish in the massive social changes that occurred over the course of the show, to give explanation for what was happening outside the agency walls, would be to apply our 50-years-out, “don’t we know so much better?” eyes to the decade. The sea changes of the 1960s are reflected brilliantly in the character of Don Draper, who refuses to ride the waves.
Returning to SC&P may prove to be a life preserver – for a time. But I’m honestly not sure how Don will function in the new environment. How do you think this dynamic will work? What did you think of the episode? Share in the comments!