A review of tonight's “Mad Men” coming up just as soon as I milk the wrong udder…
“I wish it was yesterday.” -Bobby
Though it's Betty who goes on the field trip that provides this week's title, Don has time to take two different trips over the course of the episode. And none of the three journeys end up the way the traveler envisioned them.
In the first, Don goes to Los Angeles – mid-week, because what else does he have going on? – at the behest of Megan's agent to get her to stop badgering directors while they're trying to enjoy lunch with Rod Serling. He thinks he's going to rescue her career, and instead he ends up almost killing his marriage.
In the second, Betty – having recently told her old pal Francine that she still believes, in her old-fashioned way, that the reward for raising kids should be the kids themselves, and not the job you can take when they're older – volunteers to go with Bobby's class to visit a nearby farm. What seems like a perfect opportunity to bond with her older son and bask in those rewards she tried to guilt Francine about instead is ruined, as far as she's concerned, because Bobby trades away her sandwich for some gum drops.(*) Now, Betty isn't there to see Bobby chase away another boy who tried to sit in her spot on the blanket, so she assumes he thinks so little of her that he'd give away her food, when in fact he's being a kid who just wanted candy and was blinded to the implications of that pursuit. (Having been to the grocery store with my kids today, I am very recently acquainted with this mindset.) We know from experience that Betty's a bad mother, so she's not wrong when she suggests this to Henry, but this specific incident is her creating drama in her life where none exists, in part because she resents the path she's been on that led to her riding that bus.
(*) Half-tempted to attach a poll to this review just to see where forcing a guilt-ridden Bobby eat the damn gum drops falls on the list of cruel Betty parenting moments. Locking Sally in the closet is still the worst, right?
The third – and, with all due respect to Don's current and former wife, by far most interesting – trip is also the shortest one. Don, given an offer from a rival agency (albeit, from Roger's suggestion, a lowball one), could easily take it, walk away from the mess he left at SC&P, walk away from the marriage Megan has offered to end, go sleep with the attractive blonde, take the new job, and go back to repeating bad old patterns. Instead – in what's been the most promising trend in this early stage of the season – he seems to be learning from past mistakes. He was honest with Sally, and it made things better between them. He was honest with Megan, and while she reacted at first with outrage, it wasn't anything he didn't deserve, and their later conversation was better. (If only to a point; Megan still doesn't want him flying out there that weekend.) And rather than play the hobo and run from all the damage he did with the Hershey pitch, Don goes to Roger's apartment (hat literally in hand) to see about getting his job back, then goes to SC&P on Roger's advice.
Now, it's clear that Don's hopes for this trip aren't as high as they were for the latest LA jaunt, or as Betty's were for the farm visit. His first steps into the office since Thanksgiving are intercut with shots of Don sitting anxiously in his apartment, terrified of what may come when he's there. For a moment, the editing even suggests that the glimpses of him at SC&P are Don imagining a worst-case scenario, and while it quickly turns out that this is real, it is also almost as nightmarish as he might have feared. His first encounter is with the odious Lou, Roger is nowhere to be found, and just as he's on the verge of slipping out the door before it becomes too mortifying, Ginsberg spots him and draws him back in to schmooze and catch up on work.
And then… Don Draper, master of the universe, mystery man who once erected impenetrable barriers between his work and home lives and couldn't have cared less about the lives of the people he worked with, is forced to sit in that room all day, to be gawked at by Peggy and Joan and everyone else, to look at Ken's baby pictures and hear one of the junior copywriters ramble on about his wedding plans, and to have awkward encounters with the other partners, and with Peggy, who still blames Don for Teddy's flight to California, and for the general wreck her life has become since the merger.
And for a while, it seems like Don Draper is going to be slinking out of that office with everyone watching him and either smirking or sadly shaking their heads. But instead Roger – in an impressive, unwavering display of authority (and contempt for Jim Cutler) – makes it clear that he wants Don back in the office(**), both as their friend and talented collaborator, and because it'll cost too damn much to let him go.
(**) Which, for now, will be Lane's former office. I've lost track of who (if anyone) is occupying that now, since I believe Peggy's back in the one she had before she left for Ted's agency.
Don's return comes with a series of draconian stipulations designed to make him quit: no time alone with clients, no deviating from a pre-approved script in meetings, no drinking in the office other than when entertaining clients, and, worst of all, having to report to Lou Avery. The Don Draper of earlier in the series would have sneered at any of those conditions, let alone all of them put together, but the Don Draper of earlier in the series led to the poor, lonely bastard we're watching now, and this guy seems to have learned that he has to try to do things differently.
Now, it may just be that the other offer was as weak as Roger suggests – and that every agency in town may be trying to buy low on the Don Draper experience – and that Don is confident that his immense talent will in time give him power over Lou, whom Jim feebly defends as “adequate” in a meeting with the other partners. But based on recent events, and Jon Hamm's performance, it seems to be Don making an honest effort to do better – to fix both himself and the situation he created.
And the possibility that Don could actually be growing here towards the end after a long period of stasis is just as exciting as the many awkward possibilities created by the new arrangement. For starters, how will Peggy cope with being caught between a condescending, out-of-touch rock and an erratic, bullying hard place? How long before Don is plotting some kind of elaborate revenge on Lou, or before Cutler is trying to get the elevator to break again right before Don tries to get on it? (Harry Hamlin did, after all, come from a show that employed that technique.) And with Ted completely marginal out in California (Roger equates his vote to junior partner Pete's), does Don's presence, even with all these shackles on him, tip the balance of power?
This season's been a gradual build, like always, but with the added wrinkle of there only being four more episodes before the show vanishes for a year. Still, even if we had to sit through some more of Betty being exactly the way we left her (January Jones can still provide value to the show, but not if she's playing the same notes as always), “Field Trip” puts us in a tricky, fascinating place for the rest of these 2014 episodes, and had some wonderful tension on the way to this point.
Some other thoughts:
* Betty isn't the only regular character to make a belated season 7 debut, as Harry Crane finally oozes his way on screen. Interesting that in a season where Don is finally starting to make an effort at times to be honest with the people around him, Jim singles Harry out as the most dishonest man he's ever worked with. I also liked the other partners' bafflement that Jim brought Harry's name up in the meeting about Don – and of course Roger would assume that Jim wanted the guy fired, rather than that he wanted to give the media department more support.
* More equitable trade proposal: Betty's sandwich for the gum drops, or Don for Harry's computer?
* While Harry and Betty were only missing for two episodes, this is the first time we've seen Anne Dudek as Francine since late in season 4. Dudek has various other TV gigs (she recurs on A&E's unfortunate “Those Who Kill” at the moment), but it also makes sense that Francine would have fallen out of Betty's life once she and Henry left Ossining for that big haunted house they've lived in for the last few seasons.
* Our first glimpse of Dawn handling Joan's old office manager responsibilities suggests that she's going to need some time before she has things as under control as her predecessor. I would suggest that Rome wasn't built in a day, but then I would be concurring with an opinion of Lou Avery's, and no thank you to that.
* Been a while since the show has done any jokes about people having to remove their shoes in Bert Cooper's office – in part because he went several seasons without having an office – but I was amused with how Joan's boots kept complicating things with Bert and Roger.
* The movie Don is watching at the beginning of the episode appears to be Jacques Demy's “Model Shop,” which also involves a man whose relationship with a would-be actress is falling apart.
* It's almost a relief when a new season begins and Bobby Draper is played by the same actor.
* The blonde who approaches Don's table during the offer meeting was played by Brandi Burkhardt, who hasn't been on the show before. Most likely, she was exactly what Don assumed she was: a hooker hired by his potential new employers as a signing bonus of sorts.
* I understand the desire to frontload as much of the episode as possible before the first commercial break – it's an old programming trick you'd encounter often with TV-movies and miniseries when they were dominant forms of network programming, where it theoretically gets you so absorbed in the story that you don't want to change the channel as the ad breaks start piling up later – but it just makes the second half of every episode feel very choppy, even if you're watching on a DVR delay and can fast forward through the ads. And structurally, I think the episode might have benefited from Don's very long day in the creative lounge being the part with minimal interruption, rather than his trip to California.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com