If this were any show other than Mad Men, “Field Trip” would feel a little like a filler episode. At first glance, it exists solely to move from one, fairly stable status quo to an imbalanced, all-bets-are-off new level. But Mad Men isn’t much like anything else that’s on television. Plot is treated often as a necessary evil rather than the driving force of anything. Mad Men delights in small character moments that either a) reveal to us how a character is or b) reveal to us how a character is changing or has changed. These character moments are what makes “Field Trip” (and plenty of other episodes in the show’s run) stand alone as something more remarkable and compelling than a bridge to another place.
We know that the year is 1969, and that it’s a time past Valentine’s Day, but we don’t know much else. It seems that the date is intentionally left ambiguous so as to contribute to the disorienting nature of this episode. Our characters are all in unfamiliar territory, at best, and are completely adrift, at worst. However, as unfamiliar as it all feels and is, there’s a new paradigm at Sterling Cooper & Partners. Lou is the Creative Director and has been for a few months now. To our eyes and ears, he’s despicable, but as Jim Cutler says, he’s adequate. Although business might not be exactly booming, it’s consistent. The partner who started the firm is absent; a ghost of an increasingly haunting environment, and everyone is more or less fine with it.
Everyone is fine with it, except for Don Draper, of course. For months now, Don, a man of nearly unparalleled wealth and privilege, has been out of work, living modestly and alone – and that’s putting it nicely. When we last saw him, he told his daughter that he didn’t know what he was going to do, that he was going to fix it, but he didn’t know how just yet. He’d been peddling his creative work into the agency through the vessel of ole Freddie Rumsen. He’d met with other agencies (about accepting positions that were probably beneath him, no less). His secretary, Dawn, had been keeping him abreast on what was going on in the agency. On one hand, it might seem like he’s just biding his time. Perhaps he’s finally being patient and thoughtful instead of impulsive. But on the other, sure, Don is biding his time, but only because he virtually has no other choice.
At the beginning of “Field Trip,” we see Don getting restless. It’s hard to blame him; he can only go see so many matinees at the movie theater. He calls and bothers Dawn, who’s simply way too busy to handle all of the responsibilities of her new position and deal with this delusional guy who was basically fired months ago; he just doesn’t know it yet. Don really needs something to do, and when Megan’s agent gives him a call, he gets that something; it’s just not a particularly appealing mission. Don is tasked with rebuking his wife for how she’s been conducting herself in California. Now, Don isn’t in California. He’s only vaguely aware of what she’s really doing over there. All he has to go on is the word of a sleazy, condescending swindler that Don instinctively didn’t even like in the first place. Going over and “surprising her” with a reprimand is going to go just great, right? Obviously not, but that’s how we end up with the first of our titular field trips. (Remember that episode titles of Mad Men seldom only have one meaning.)
The other field trip is more literal. Sweet, naïve Bobby Draper has a field trip to an old farm, and he couldn’t be more excited. “They make butter. And grow eggs!” he hilariously exclaims. Much to his delight, his mother Betty agrees to chaperone. Bobby adores and is generally in awe of his mother, but he has such a hard time connecting with her. All he wants to do is make her proud and have her love him, but she’s so unreachable. However, Betty is more concerned with herself and her feelings than she is with her son’s. She can’t focus her energies on teaching Bobby how to grow up, because she’s never quite figured out how to do it herself.
In a way, her failings aren’t any different than anyone else’s on the show. They’re in equal part because of her inner character, and because of her failure to adapt to the times. She admits as much early on in the episode. “Maybe I’m old fashioned,” she says to her old friend, Francine. But much to her chagrin never has there been a worse time to be old fashioned. The times are favoring, as Pepsi and a season two episode put it, “those who think young”. Betty is ever prim, proper and elegant in a time when relaxed, loose and free has become the new normal. Everyone is aware that she’s stunning, as she coolly smokes her cigarettes outside the barn, but she stands out and is incapable of merely fitting in. Upon meeting the very pretty and young teacher that Bobby so clearly adores, Betty cattily remarks, “That blouse says she likes everyone.” She’s long based her self worth on her looks, perfectly willing to objectify herself if it makes her feel better. But in “Field Trip,” she shows that she wants to be an object of affection just as much as she wants to be an object to be ogled. When she offers to drink warm, fresh milk, she isn’t trying to be attractive – though you know she’d do what she could to show she’s hotter than the teacher, if she was among different company – she’s saying, “Look at me! I’m a cool mom”.
It’s a perfect day out at the farm until Bobby ruins it! That selfish little kid trades away his poor mommy’s sandwich to a girl who didn’t have one for candy he doesn’t even want! Okay, maybe it’s not that big of a deal. Bobby probably should have thought about why there were two sandwiches before he gave hers away, but he was just trying to be nice. That’s one way Betty could have looked at it, at least. But instead of making it a teachable moment, Betty shames the poor kid into thinking he’s done everything short of ruining her life. Instead of letting it slide, and letting him enjoy the day, she makes it all about herself. It leads to the most heartbreaking moment of the episode. When Henry gets home, Bobby glumly tells him that he wishes it were yesterday. Henry tries to comfort Betty, telling her she’s a good mother. He tells her that her kids love her and will always love her. But everything else we’ve seen shows us that that’s not true. Not until she starts acting like a mother instead of a child, at least.
In California (and oftentimes throughout the whole show), Don is a mirror image of his former better half. The first time Don visited Megan this season, it’s very clear that he’s taken a back seat in Megan’s life. But when he surprise-visits her, she’s overjoyed. He’s finally genuinely making time for her because he wants to see her, and not the other way around. That is, until she comes to find out that his surprise is actually closer to the ambush that Roger feared when his daughter called him up out of the blue in the premiere. After he has sex with her for what has to be the first time in several months, Don gets to the point and presents a master class in how not to deal with your wife. “Maybe they’re just handling it better,” he says of Megan’s competitors. “You can’t get angry or desperate,” he says of his wife. He also calls her a lunatic and says she’s acting crazy. Bravo, sir.
Megan, for all her flaws – and like everyone else on the show (and in real life) she has many of them – has always been smart and independent. She’s not about to put up with his unsubtle sneak attack, and quickly turns the tables on him. She puts together that Don is always out of the office. Why is it that when she calls she never hears typewriters or the typical debauchery of the agency in the background? To her, it’s obvious that he’s whoring around with a new secretary or a client. What if she comes to surprise him and catches him in the act. “That’s a scary thought,” Megan says menacingly. It is, but not for the reason she thinks.
Once the truth comes out – the truth that Don has been on leave from the agency for months – the power dynamics shift yet again. Megan goes from feeling like she’s being treated like a child – “Thanks for the visit, Daddy” – to being the one in charge. One second Don is acting like the concerned parent; the next he’s Bobby Draper, getting scolded for being a bad boy. “I’ve been good” Don pleads.
So many times Don has succeeded in the role of Daddy, the older, world-weary gentleman who looks after his wife. He treated Betty like a child, but she often acted like one, and more or less expected it. However, as old – or, sometimes just old-fashioned – as Don acts, he’s often reduced to a childlike state. This has been present in the show since the first season, but it’s become more prominent in the last few seasons. In an episode last season, we saw Don imitate a baby for public theatrics, and then privately curl up in the fetal position on his couch in his office. In “Field Trip,” Don is constantly treated like a kid not mature enough to sit at the grown-ups table, not responsible enough to be left to his own devices, and not perceptive enough to know when he’s being manipulated.
And you know what? He’s earned it. But that’s not what’s so significant about it. What makes it so significant, and what has made Don so interesting this season, is that he’s finally accepting it. He knows how much destruction he’s wrought in both his personal and professional life, and he’s ever so slowly owning up to it. When he returns to New York, he apologizes to Megan, which he never would have done so quickly in the past (if at all). Still, you have to wonder, is it because Don is more mature or is it because Don is that alone now? Either way, the magic words of last week’s episode don’t do the trick for Don this time around; Don’s “I love you” is not returned by his hurt and betrayed wife. However, getting kicked out by Megan clearly gives Don a jolt. He meets with representatives from another agency at a dinner in which he’s propositioned by a young, blonde girl. The guys have nothing to do with it, they say. (Don seems skeptical and so am I.)
In the meantime, there’s also a little subplot involving Harry Crane, who has been absent in the preceding two episodes. These days, Mad Men has such a large cast, and Matthew Weiner is so intent on focusing on so few characters at a time that even episode three has a bit of a “getting the band back together” feel to it. Harry has a goofy quarrel with Jim Cutler over SC&P’s need for a computer. You see, SC&P uses another company’s computer, but Harry refers to it as “their computer”. “It’s semantics,” he says, while he whines about how the media department (and by extension, he) doesn’t get enough respect or resources. Actually, it’s bullshit, and Cutler calls him out on it. “Are you aware that your self-pity is distasteful?” he says in disgust. He’s right, but so is Harry. SC&P does need a computer. Pete’s not around this week, so Harry plays the role of the tremendous slimeball that just so happens to be speaking the truth. Later Cutler puts him in his place again. “You have stiff competition, but you may be the most dishonest man that I’ve ever worked with.” How irritating it is when the most dishonest, distasteful people are the ones who are right.
This young, truncated season has followed an interesting trajectory. The premiere (“Time Zones”) was very sad and ends in an extremely dark place. The second episode (“A Day’s Work”) is dark throughout, but the ending is very sweet. “Field Trips,” though, is a rather loud and angry episode of Mad Men. There are many fights, and the episode closes on a note of excitement. After Don’s fight with Megan, and after he receives the apparently-lowball offer from the other agency, Don finally confronts his old friend, Roger Sterling. Don’s outraged and betrayed at how Roger treated him. Roger starts on the defensive, but he takes a couple shots at his fellow founding partner, too. “Don’t be a big baby about it,” Roger says, again infantilizing Don. At the end, though, he relents and tells him to come back to work.
What follows is a great scene in which Don mentally prepares himself to go into the office, intercut with him actually going into the office and being struck by the weirdness of all of the change. SC&P, the company that wouldn’t exist without him, has moved on. Dawn has more responsibility. Peggy has a new office. Pete and Ted are in California. And there’s a new guy in his old office. The first person Don encounters, fittingly, is his replacement, the ever-miserable Lou Avery. Tellingly, both men act condescendingly towards each other. “It’s Lou, right?” Don says, initiating the conversation. Then, when Don says that he’s ready to get back to work, Lou patronizingly replies, “Good for you,” with a look equal parts smugness and bemusement.
Beyond the new guy, though, it’s fascinating to see how all the regulars react when they see Don, stripped of his mystique for the first time, back in the office. Ken Cosgrove, for his part, is absolutely delighted! He’s known Don forever – he mentions the epic 1960 “Carousel” pitch, even – and he seems to be in a good place for the first time in quite a while. Now that he’s a father, maybe he’ll finally stop letting his work define and ruin his life. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Peggy, who is absolutely repulsed. At first, she acts like it’s a sick joke. When she finally goes to face him, she says three things and they’re all nasty, ending with “Well, I can’t say that we missed you.” It stings to see how much their relationship has eroded, considering how much it has meant to the show. This is a woman who once bailed him out of jail in the middle of the night and secretly housed his lover for him. She’d once do anything for him, and now she can’t stand the sight of him. (If you’re scoring at home, this is third week in a row Peggy’s ended up in the L-column. She also finds out she loses an award to Michael Ginsberg, who probably only cares about the award because she cares about it, and gets shut down by Lou, who proves once again that the only thing he gives a damn about is the bottom line.) It’s also hilarious to see Don sincerely mingle with the young copywriters he hardly gave the time of day to when he was in charge.
The partners are also shocked that Don is back, which is because Roger failed to inform them. His name’s on the building, he drunkenly and nonchalantly brags; he doesn’t have to do anything. The other partners see it differently, which gives way to the most contentious and shout-y fight of the episode. Everyone’s on a different page, it turns out. Roger wants him back. Cutler, blaming Don for Ted’s self-imposed exile, wants him gone. Burt Cooper wasn’t prepared to deal with the situation any time soon. Cutler speaks for Ted. Roger speaks for Pete. Joan thought the leave was a way of firing him while letting him keep some dignity.
“This is working,” says Joan. Is it, though, Joan? That depends on how you define that word. The office is divided. The creative department is in shambles. And, suddenly, everything feels painfully fake. Roger, who initially appears aloof, drunk and childish as usual, is the only one who’s fully considered the situation. They can’t fire him without bankrupting the agency, and they can’t let him go to another agency, because he’s a creative genius.
And so, after a long, frustrating day, Don is invited to sit down with the adults. He’s welcome to come back, but he’s hit with an embarrassing litany of stipulations, the most degrading of which comes courtesy of Jim Cutler: “And you’ll report to Lou.”
Don takes a glance at the contract, pauses just long enough for the moment to sink in, blinks his eyelids and gamely utters the word “OK”.
“If 6 was 9” by The Jimi Hendrix Experience plays and the credits roll. All of a sudden, what’s up is down, and what’s down is up. It’s 1969.
With those two syllables, Don Draper, the man who’s been roaming around rock bottom for months, takes his official first step up. He’s completely humbled. He’s beyond swallowing his pride, in part, probably, because it’s his only move, but also because it seems Don is finally ready to grow up. Time and again we’ve thought there was nowhere else for him to fall, that there couldn’t possibly be a lower place, only to find another shocking and devastating trap door.
Whether or not it’s actually possible, Don Draper is ready to start his slow – and earnest – ascension back to the top. And whether the rest of the agency likes it or not, Don Draper is back.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently writes about sports and culture for Yahoo Sports and Yahoo Voices, and previously covered the Carolina Panthers for Football.com during the 2013 season, as well as college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future.