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Monday, April 28, 2014

Review: Mad Men "Field Trip"

Season 7, Episode 3
Grade: B
Verdict: This week's episode is a study in a subplot being trampled underfoot by the main storyline, with Don continuing to pull the focus of the audience attention while the sole "B plot" exists only to further the themes of Don's central struggle, and creating a sense of character set-back along the way.

Bobby Draper, looking down at his food and being lightly questioned by Henry Francis as to what has his wife and Bobby's mother so upset, softly says "...I wish it were yesterday".

If there was one line that could sum up the entirety of this third Season Seven episode of Mad Men it would be that line utterance by Bobby, wherein our main players are fighting back the tidal wave of changing times, trying to restore "how things used to be", be it through their relationship to their children, their marriages, or just what simply got them out of bed in the morning. 

"Field Trip", compared to last week's episode, has a very streamlined main plot/subplot structure, and feels a little like a throwback to Season One, focusing on our two major focal points from that season (Don and Betty) while also taking care to provide some nudges and nods to that somewhat less complicated time when the series began. This is a direct response to the final imagery we saw in the premiere, of Don facing the changing cold wind that was blowing in. He's now firmly attempting to integrate himself into the present, no longer content to live in solitude inside his mid-60's time capsule of an apartment. The past is now a thing we look wistfully back on as "the good old days".

Don takes center-stage again this week and the continuation of the previous two episodes' plot momentum wins the day here, as we see "Don the father" attempt to utilize the same techniques he saw work with Sally on Megan and to a lesser extent, Dawn. Don the gruffer, more selfish father comes out when Dawn turns into the disappointing "daughter" that leaves her "parent" behind for other priorities. Don, still heated by Dawn no longer rushing to meet his needs, is then greeted with Megan's agent, Alan, calling him to report in on how she's reaching a desperation point in trying to secure roles in Hollywood. Don attempts to shift gears when he realizes that the angry tactics don't work, and instead makes an attempt to being a more caring kind of paternal influence on his wife (always a dangerous thing in a relationship of supposed equals).

Once he makes his surprise appearance at Megan's home, and his planned tactic falls apart on him, he attempts to instead be as truthful with Megan as he was with Sally, informing her of the fate his career befell. It doesn't work in quite the same way. Don has such a low opinion of women, surely stemming back from his issues with his own mother, that he equates conversational efforts that are utilized on teenagers to that of a grown woman who is his partner. In doing so, Don completely misses the point: Megan's issue isn't about whether or not he has a career, whether or not he is Don Draper, the ubiquitous ad man, but where he's located. Don compounds his misunderstanding of his wife's thoughts when he says: "I know how I wanted you to see me", which somewhat echoes back to Don's self-defeating "I'm surprised you ever looked at me" back when Betty learned the truth about him in Season 3 during the night that their marriage ended. 

This conversation with Megan moves alot quicker and doesn't quite have the emotional heft of that previous split, but the quicker nature of Don being sent out the door by Megan is probably the point. Don is unfortunately a terrible husband by nature at this point, even when he's not having an affair, he still doesn't understand how women really tick beyond the physical. Even after all of that, the first move he makes when he goes back to New York is to call Dave (the ad agent suitor from last week) to set up a dinner to secure new employment at that firm. He then calls Megan to inform her of that news, as if that will win her back. Once again, Don just doesn't and won't get it. It's a marriage that's doomed, as Don chose the route of fortifying his career and the ability to be "Don Draper" rather than the familial happiness that was awaiting him on the left coast.

From there, the episode takes an interesting slant utilizing the field trip that Betty chaperons Bobby on as a metaphor for the the situation in which Don finds himself after going to Roger and arranging a meeting to bring him back to the firm (of course using the offer letter from Dave's firm as leverage of a sort). They both find themselves in places in which they feel wholly unfamiliar. Betty, dressed in her housewife wares and smoking cigarettes, looks oddly out of place on the farm in which Bobby's teacher his class on a field trip. This runs parallel to Don returning to SCP, to faces that he's never seen before and name plates in new areas as offices have changed in his absence. While work continues in the offices with Roger absent and no one else knowing why Don is there, he sits in the art room alone awaiting his eventual call. Betty, smoking her cigarettes, is on the outside looking in as well, not allowed to enter the barn where the rest of the group ventures until her smoking runs its course.

When it comes time for lunch for Betty and Bobby, Betty has come to find that her lunch has been traded away for gum drops...Bobby, not thinking about his mother, had a goal in mind and was willing to trade away something that actively matters in order to get it. Don is, of course, doing the same thing, tossing aside not only his marriage, but also his own dignity in a sense by coming back to work at SCP under some fairly scrutinizing terms, including the worst of them all, answering to Lou. Now, they both have to eat their gumdrops, both literal and not. 

Both Betty and Don feel a sense of rejection in a way as well; as we saw last week, Sally wishes Betty was "in the ground", which surely manifests itself as some form of hostility whenever they're together lately. This feeling likely intensified when Bobby displayed this carelessness, though its hard to really feel sympathy for Betty when she pulls her childish routine of not eating dinner either in order to make Bobby feel even worse. It's clear that the writers were aiming for a way to get Betty questioning why her children don't love her the way they she expects them to as a counterpoint to the hostility that Don is confronted with from almost all of his old colleagues other than Roger (and of course Ken, the office good guy, when he isn't stressed to the nines). 

But, the way in which the situation resolves itself actually does a disservice to Betty as a character. It's no mystery that we as viewers recognize her to be a terrible mother, and this isn't exactly the first time she's struggled with her children's complicated feelings about her, yet this week's effort felt like character reduction to highlight her childish nature. The idea of focusing on the Betty-Bobby relationship in comparison to last week's Don-Sally dynamic is perfectly timed, but painfully executed. I'm no Betty defender, but she deserved better, especially when Don's storyline is getting all the more kinetic. 

To close on that matter, Don is back at SCP, with no real position, unless Peggy is bumped down from Copy Chief, or Lou is bumped aside as a figurehead leader in Creative. One way or another though, Don is back to set things back on their head, and likely reinvigorate the work that Stan, Peggy, Ginsberg and the rest have settled into under Lou's watch. This creative resurgence was already starting to take a foot-hold when Ginsberg and Co. pulled Don into their workspace as he was waiting for Roger to arrive, and he already began to work with them through a campaign effort. As Roger admitted behind closed doors to the other partners, "Don is a genius" and his liabilties are outweighed by the fact that it's better to have him under their thumb than untethered elsewhere, especially if they're millions of dollars poorer for it through a buy-out.

The choice of Hendrix's "If 6 Was 9" is a perfect closer in a season making its mark for musical choices. Don has rearrived to upset the "adequate" applecart that SCP has settled into, turning everything upside down. I can't wait to see how it all goes down...here's hoping the writers also remember that its female leads have to be a little more three-dimensional as well.

Thoughts To Ponder:

- I wanted more David James Elliott and I got it, sadly, I'm sure this'll be his last appearance given how he was basically used to get Don his old job back. So it goes...

- Bob Benson watch: 3 episodes in, still no sightings. Come on Episode 4!

- The fake-out regarding Don showing up at Roger's door after being approached by the young woman at the bar was so well-done, it had me confused for a moment..."wait, did Roger send that girl?", though much of that is attributable to just how almost dreamlike her approach to Don was.

- Ted and Pete's reactions to Don's return will likely occur off-screen, but I'm sad we'll probably miss that moment.

- Peggy is an utter nightmare this season so far isn't she? She's almost as rudderless a character as Betty. I sincerely hope this changes soon, and its all a preamble to something better.

- Roger and Don have one of the deepest must nuanced friendships on television, full stop.

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