Sunday, May 4, 2014

Episode of the Week: Mad Men - "Field Trip"

Episode of the Week is a recurring feature devoted to examining a notable episode from the past week of television.

Season 7, Episode 3

Mad Men has always been very good at depicting how ruthless time is.  It's a show about the tension between history, which moves forward with a shark-like certainty, and characters who may or may not be willing to progress along with it.  If you want to see how unafraid of major upheaval creator Matt Weiner is, then look no further than the state of many of the people who were considered the main characters in season one.  Don, Roger, Pete, Betty, Bert; they're all characters who once dominated Mad Men's universe, but now find themselves orbiting much further from the center.  Even Peggy Olson, the symbol of upward mobility in the early years of the series, constantly finds herself approaching ceilings she can't quite break through nowadays.

"Field Trip," the third episode in the show's final run, is all about this idea.  Given that it's a show that's somewhat about history, it's fitting that Mad Men is so well-versed in its own.  No other show on television creates parallels between past and present events in the story quite like they do, and the final season especially seems to be constructing a nice symmetry with the first one.  It's no coincidence that this week's episode is rife with callbacks to season one: Megan's agent calling Don to let him know of her antics in California bears a strong resemblance to Betty's therapist calling him many years ago, Anne Dudek makes her return as Francine (with a job!), and Ken Cosgrove even mentions Don's iconic carousel speech in passing.

It's all in keeping with the battle of new and old that dominates "Field Trip."  Roger's attempt to bring Don back into the Sterling Cooper & Partners fold is a literalization of that battle.  Don is happy (albeit with a few reservations) to learn that Roger wants him back, only to find out that Roger doesn't really have the power to make that decision.  Much like Don was replaced by Lou Avery, a man more willing to toe the corporate line, what used to be Roger's role in the company is increasingly being filled by Jim Cutler.  One of the subplots of the hour involves Harry Crane and his request to get a computer for the office, in order to give the burgeoning media department the data it needs to move the company forward.  It's telling that the computer comes back up when the partners are discussing whether they should bring Don back.  While there's not a one-to-one translation between the duties of the computer and Don, the juxtaposition further highlights the relentless wave of time and its role in these people's lives.  The world has less use for creative types with intractable personalities like Don, just as it has less use for maverick account men like Roger, and just as it has less use for old-fashioned housewives like Betty.

Give or take a "Shut the Door.  Have a Seat," or a "Gypsy and the Hobo," Mad Men is rarely known for being tense, but the entire sequence of Don unexpectedly returning back to the office is moist-brow suspense at its finest.  Director Christopher Manley makes Don seem so alien in this place that was once his domain.  Slow motion shots track his initial appraisal of the office, marking the changes that have occurred during his leave of absence.  Lou stands there in a still pose as Don approaches him, not as a man, but a figure who now has what he once did.  The camera follows the action with a hesitance to match Don's, after he realizes that nobody expected him to be there, and the one man who did has not even arrived yet.  Every frame is as concerned with the space around Don as it is with him, as characters pop in and out with their varied reactions to his return; from Ginsberg's delight, to Peggy's disgust, to Joan's bewilderment.

Writers Matt Weiner and Heather Bladt link Don's return back to work with Betty's more literal field trip with Bobby to his teacher's family farm.  In a beautiful bit of editing, the episode cuts the long, agonizing Don scenes with short bursts of the Betty storyline.  And while the claustrophobic office setting couldn't be more different than the pastoral farmland, the placement of those scenes alongside each other is very deliberate.  The interesting thing is that Don's story has parallels to the field trip on both the Betty and the Bobby side of the equation.  Both he and Betty find themselves expecting a pleasant outcome from their respective treks, only for them to be soiled in some way.  And like Don, Bobby just wants to be loved, but is treated with harshness even after he tries to make up for the mistake he made in giving away his mother's sandwich.  (That Don mirrors a child in any way speaks volumes about his character at this point.)

Mad Men has always had a fascinating relationship with change.  It's not quite as cynical as The Sopranos' "people can change, but most find it too difficult and quickly give up on their efforts" worldview.  No, Mad Men often shows its characters stuck in cycles, but they're much more aware of it and are trying to break free in incremental ways.  If there's anything to suss out about the final season after only three weeks, it's revealing itself to be about the characters still screwing up and having their flaws, but making inroads to improving.  The Betty storyline is a perfect example of that.  Her asking Henry why her children don't love her near the end of the episode is a heartbreaking bit of self-awareness.  A real attempt to show warmth on her part ends horribly, and it's easy to see her becoming a better person if she'd just stop getting in the way of herself.

That's why the final scene of the episode is such a powerful one.  After forcing him to sweat it out for the entire day, the partners finally invite Don into the conference room to speak with them.  The framing tells you all you need to know about the power dynamics in place at the office.  Bert, Joan, and Cutler are on one side of the table, filling the frame when the camera cuts to them; meanwhile Roger, Don's only ally, is completely isolated on the other side.  They offer him a contract that's completely constricting, one that bans him from drinking unless it's business related, forces him to stick to a script, and requires him to answer to Lou Avery.  Essentially, the contract strips Don Draper of everything that makes him Don Draper.  The camera then cuts to Don, zooming in on him as if he's thinking the same thing, preparing to give them a kiss off and start his own agency.  But then he says "Okay."  It's a rare moment of compromise from him, but a necessary one if he wants to avoid becoming a relic that just fades away.  Don has always been a man who runs, but this year has shown him actively fighting against that instinct.  This is a Don who waits, who stays, who apologizes and almost means it.  He's finally not getting in the way of himself, at least for now.

"Field Trip," is a near-perfect episode of television, even more so than last week's walloping "A Day's Work."  It may not be as flashy as some of the show's most praised episodes, but it deserves to be in the conversation of top 10 episodes when all is said and done.  Not only does it provide surface level excitement with Don's return to Sterling Cooper & Partners, but it's also thematically airtight all the way through.  It's the kind of literary episode that they did so well in the early seasons -- every piece just fits together.   Just look at how many different ways the "new vs. old" idea pops up, or how neatly the two main storylines align themselves, or the way Megan's audition plotline is like a micro version of Don's return to the office.  After a slightly off sixth season, season seven of Mad Men has been a return to form, an example of the show firing on all cylinders once again.  In just three weeks, it has disrupted the Hannibal vs. The Americans narrative that many people (including myself) seem to have constructed when talking about the best show of 2014.  Clearly, Matt Weiner wants a seat at the table too.


  1. I was surprised when Megan said it was over (hence my "That was unexpected" text from earlier in the week), but honestly I thought their relationship was dead at the end of Season 5 too, but they kept it going when she became an actress. I did love that commercial hollywood-esque shot from the premiere, but I guess it was all a fantasy.

    I have to say I think this is the first episode that has given Bobby just about anything to do. Like ever. Am I missing something?

    It was kind of hilarious that Don was just sitting at the art table acting like he owned the place and making Lou freak out; though it seems odd that Joan is so starkly opposed to Don after he defended her when she was forced to make that sacrifice for Jaguar. She seems to have gotten a little full of herself lately, what with her insistence on acquiring clients and now this.

    Also Peggy's "we don't miss you" came off as childish when she clearly hasn't liked Lou at all; though maybe she was just venting her frustrations because she didn't seem upset when the others told her he was there.

    1. Joan's (rightfully) upset with Don because he took matters into his own hands by firing Jaguar last year in "For Immediate Release," effectively making her sacrifice useless. And I think Peggy was just shocked when other people told her that Don was at the office, not necessarily happy. Just because she doesn't like Lou, it doesn't mean that she should be excited that Don is back. I've seen alot of this, the questioning of Joan and Peggy's feelings, using words like "childish," "full of herself," and "bitch" (you didn't use that last one but tons of people have been calling Peggy a "bitch" this year and it's very weird and uncomfortable for me.) It's like people don't remember that Don Draper is basically the worst person ever. He's pretty much like an abusive father to Peggy and every time she thinks she's escaped him -- her leaving to join CGC at the end of season 5, him being put on leave at the end of season 6 -- she gets trapped in his orbit once again.

      Bobby had something to do last year, when Don took him to see Planet of the Apes. I thought it was a great storyline, as was this one. They seem to be using him a bit more because they've finally found a capable actor to play Bobby, which is nice because I think he allows us to see an interesting reflection of both of his parents.

    2. I seem to have forgotten a lot of plot points from last year because you're right then; Joan being upset makes a lot more sense now.

      Maybe I'm just on the Don Draper train or something, but I always thought that Peggy still admired Don going back to the way she looked at him in "The Suitcase." I never really looked at him in that sense, but it does match the way she accuses him in "The Suitcase" and I agree that she didn't seem too excited about the merging of CGC and SCDP.

      Also I forgot about the Planet of the Apes moment, that was good too.

    3. I think what makes the Don and Peggy relationship so rich and complicated is that it's both your interpretation and my interpretation. There's definitely a mentor/mentee dynamic between them, especially in the early seasons, and I truly believe they're the two characters who understand each other the most. But that understanding also leads to why they butt heads so much, and the relationship has especially turned sour in the last few seasons. Even though "The Suitcase" was this big moment of connection for them, it was also born out of the fact that Don had been treating her horribly for the first half of the season. And he picked back up on treating her horribly pretty early into season 5.