Mad Men: Season 7, Episode 3–The Field Trip

“All I can say is that Don is a very talented man – but how does he fit into things right now?”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

For all that it’s a subtle, nuanced drama dissecting a time and a society long vanished, Mad Men is still, at its heart, also a soap opera. Some episodes feel that way more than others, and this week’s was definitely one of them, with twin plots following the developing travails of Don and Betty. For Don, there was the challenge of rescuing his marriage and his career; for Betty, salving her remaining family life, now she’s averted the challenge of bringing up Sally by packing her off to boarding school. This being Mad Men, the results for both were not entirely happy.

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The field trip of the title, was, at its most literal, Bobby’s school trip to a local farm, for which Betty, in an uncharacteristic display of altruism, volunteered to be a chaperone. But in the metaphorical sense, Don’s trip to California and his uneasy return to the offices of Sterling Cooper & Partners, were field trips too, and every bit as uncomfortable.

Both resulted in the characters taking long, hard looks at themselves, and not liking what they see (as if Don ever does anything else). In Betty’s case, it would seem to be richly deserved; her sulk/tantrum after Bobby’s innocent mistake of trading away her sandwich actually made her look less mature than her pre-teen son.

On the face of it, Betty’s scenes were the more slender of the plot threads. All that actually happened was that she went on a field trip with Bobby, lost a sandwich, and came home unhappy. Yet as ever with this show, it was all the little unspoken nuances that gave this apparent ‘B plot’ so much more depth.

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Betty’s been getting more and more coldly unsympathetic since the series began; starting out as a stressed-out victim of Don’s serial adultery, she gradually developed into the very epitome of a terrible mother. She may not be abusive, but she’s certainly neglectful, all the while still expecting unconditional love from her children and not understanding why she doesn’t get it. “Why don’t they love me?” she pined to Henry after the trip; having given out such hostile vibes to Bobby all afternoon that he recited what could virtually be the show’s mantra – “I wish it was yesterday.”

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To give Betty her due, this week was all about her consciously trying to fulfil her role as a mother. She bonded well with Bobby on the bus, over a conversation regarding movie monsters; she gamely had a go at drinking the freshly-squeezed cow’s milk; she even bitchily bonded with a fellow mother over the teacher’s lack of a bra. And yet that sulk over the sandwich put her right back to square one.

Betty has always been, basically, so unhappy that she ends up taking it out on her children. It’s no wonder her relationship with them is less than perfect. In part, this is one of the show’s frequent themes; deconstructing the artificiality of the post-war ‘nuclear family’ concept. Last season, Don confessed to not feeling he loved his children enough, but that’s a level of self-analysis that seems to escape Betty.

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What it really comes down to is that she’s just not suited for the role that 1960s middle class America demands she fulfils; she’s not mature or caring enough to be a mother, but expects that it will work out for her because that’s just the way things should be. After what became of her marriage to Don, you’d think she’d have worked out that the suburban idyll she’d been peddled was a fantasy by now. But she persists in believing the illusion.

In that, at least, Don is smarter than her. Apart from his own frequent navel-gazing, his suspension from the agency seems to have brought home to him that his recent self-centred (and self-destructive) behaviour is a problem for everyone around him. This week he seemed to be trying to set things right, both with his wife and with his work. The failure at the former seemed to chasten him enough to succeed at the second.

It was his usual patronising desire to be a white knight that had him flying out to California after the phone call from Megan’s worried agent; unsurprisingly, Megan was less than pleased at that. But ironically after everything that’s happened, it was his confession of the truth about his job that was the final straw for her, rather than his roving eye (and hands). Not just because he’d been lying to her (again), but because it meant that he could just as easily have moved to LA to be with her, and hadn’t, preferring to mope around in Manhattan trying to win his way back into advertising. As she put it, “you got up every day, and you decided you didn’t want to be with me.”

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It would be nice to think Don was a reformed character when he didn’t go off with the woman so obviously trying to seduce him in the hotel restaurant. But the one thing that obsesses Don even more than deluded one night stands is his work. So, one clever jump cut later, and the door being opened wasn’t hers but Roger Sterling’s, as Don had come begging for his job back.

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Don’s a complex, and increasingly dislikeable character, but his job is the one thing that really defines him; ironically apt for a man so much made up of lies that advertising should be what really fulfils him. He probably should have known better than to rely on Roger though, since the promised meeting took some hours to materialise, leading to Don spending the morning looking visibly uncomfortable hanging round the office.

If you’ve ever been in the position of returning to work after a long absence (for whatever reason), those scenes neatly captured the feeling of discomfort and the mixture of familiarity and unfamiliarity when you realise things have changed in your absence. So Don was surprised to find, for example, that Dawn now had her own office. And while Ginsberg and Stan were genuinely pleased to see him, the welcome he got from Joan was considerably frostier, and those from Lou and Peggy downright hostile.

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After Don’s cavalier treatment of her last season, Peggy had every right to be unforgiving, but the partners’ reactions were less clear-cut. Basically, they’d tripped themselves up by, as so often in this show, leaving things unspoken. Hence, Roger (and Don himself) had taken the ‘suspension’ at face value. Joan, Bert and Jim had intended it as a discreet final exit. Perhaps they should have spelled it out more clearly, as Don did with Lane – that ended so well.

Roger’s passionate defence of Don was countered by an equally passionate condemnation from Jim Cutler, with Joan backing him up. It was nicely played that, while the conversation was ostensibly about Don, it was also about which of them held the power at the office. Roger’s increasingly absent and distant; meanwhile, Cutler has put his own man in Don’s office, got Joan on side, and sidelined his own former partner to an office 3000 miles away. Not only was this shouting match about which of them was dominant, it also reflected that, from Cutler’s perspective, the surprise return of Don was an unexpected spanner in the works of his plan.

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The fact that we didn’t see the argument continue was interesting, the scene jumping instead to the partners offering Don a potential return to work, but only on the most humiliating and emasculating of terms. I’d say Cutler may have, in essence, won out; Roger got his wish for Don to return, but those terms (including surrendering his partnership if they’re breached) are all in Cutler’s favour. Either Don would refuse out of pride, or return as a neutered, vanquished rival. Which in the end he did, but I suspect Jim Cutler is underestimating him if he thinks Don’s no longer a threat.

On the face of it, Don looked chastened and deservedly humbled. Or was he just desperate? If Megan has truly left him for good this time, his work’s about all he’s got left; it’s believable that he might suck up those humiliating terms to get his foot back in the door. Jon Hamm’s patent hangdog expression of desperation has never seemed so appropriate as it was here.

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Historical Events

Still none to speak of this week. Though judging from the sunny weather at Bobby’s school trip, a couple of months have elapsed since February, when last week’s ep took place. I’m guessing the Moon Landing hasn’t happened yet, since it would have merited at least a mention.

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On the subject of technology though, the ever forward thinking Harry Crane’s new obsession is for the agency to acquire a computer; he’s already been telling potential clients they have one, which isn’t true. This led to Jim Cutler’s admiring comment, “you’re the most dishonest man I’ve ever worked with” – plainly he’s trying to get Harry on side too. But as with TV advertising, Harry’s ahead of the game here; marketing data analysis was almost a science fiction concept in 1969. Now it’s what ‘helps’ Google to find your shopping, and Facebook to send you the ‘right’ ads.

Where’s Bob Benson?

This week – nowhere! Not even a mention! I do hope we haven’t seen the last of James Polk as Bob, aka Don Draper MkII.

Dedicated Followers of Fashion

Betty Francis may be a horrible mother, but she still has elegant dress sense, albeit increasingly behind the times. This week, she appeared to have dressed for a bit part in a 1950s Fellini film, while the world around her increasingly shifts to the costume styles of Woodstock:

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Nice though it was to see Harry Crane back, his outfit was (for him) somewhat restrained. Yes, the jacket was checked, but also dark, sombre, and almost respectable.

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Being Harry though, he had another:

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Roger, on the other hand, may be well-dressed at work but lets it all hang out at home. Thankfully, when Don came to visit, he was actually dressed, in a housecoat that can only be described as ‘interesting’.

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And Ginsberg is managing to blend ‘office professional’ with ‘baggy hippy’:

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Megan’s agent seems to have started the 70s early:

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But thankfully the lady herself was as resplendent as ever, in a multi-coloured blouse and bath mat combination:

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Betty’s friend Francine, meanwhile, had found the pink trouser suit version of Patrick McGoohan’s Prisoner costume:

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This was, as Mad Men goes, a pretty plot heavy episode, and yet not one of its most enthralling. Ironically, I tend to find the show at its best when not much actually happens, but everything’s in the subtext. That’s not to say this wasn’t a good epsiode – it was – but it’s notable that I found Betty’s plotline (in which not much happened) more compelling than Don’s (in which lots happened). Still, though, a good piece of TV drama. But not Mad Men at its best.