If we know one thing, it’s that Mad Men episode titles are not subtle, and they usually apply to not just one character, but many of them in slightly different ways. “Field Trip,” episode 3, is about things that go beyond the everyday. Sometimes they’re just fun, or seemingly fun, like a trip to a farm, and sometimes they’re a disaster, like showing up to work without any (metaphoric) clothes on. Field trips have a lot of potential, but they are full of unknowns. They don’t happen every day.
We begin with Don in a nearly empty theater, smoking. He flicks his ashes to the side and I’m reminded of Megan warning him that that’s how forest fires are started: don't flick his ashes off the deck when he’s visiting her in L.A., they’ll know who the firestarter is. But he’s not in L.A., he’s in Manhattan, in a movie theater that might be the same one he took Bobby to back when they watched Planet of the Apes. That was a father-son bonding moment; this is Don alone, which is how we've been finding him these days.
He gets home and calls Dawn, who’s now swamped with her new job as head of personnel. He doesn’t know and she can’t very well tell him, so she says she’ll send a messenger to bring him what he needs. He’s affronted, thinking, he’s here waiting for her, why is she not there for him? She also tells him Alan Silver, Megan’s producer, called, and when Don returns the call he finds that Silver has bad news to share about “our girl.” Megan is losing her confidence, he says, behaving crazily and begging for work. Megan needs her husband to help “nip this in the bud.” Don needs to be needed. He hops a plane to L.A. to surprise Megan, but this trip is about making himself feel better too, so you can see the writing on the wall. This is not going to end well.
At the office, Peggy is typically grim and Ginsberg is typically sexually-harrassy. Lou Avery is typically a jerk, putting down Peggy, nickel-and-diming, pushing his own ego before quality. Lou is the anti-Don.
Then we get a much-needed glimpse of Betty Draper. She’s out to lunch with Francine, her friend from the old neighborhood, who's now a travel agent working three days a week. “What’s that like?” asks Betty, sort of breathlessly and sort of in horror, and Francine describes it in detail with a euphoric tone. Betty, always a bit insecure in her worth, attempts to make herself feel better by indirectly putting down Francine’s choices. “As [the kids] get older there’s less and less to do, I really needed the challenge,” explains Francine of her job, adding, “I needed a reward.” Betty retorts, “I thought they were the reward. Maybe I’m old-fashioned.” She is thrown, though she’s bitchy-Betty as ever. And I’m not sure she’s ever been old-fashioned. It’s just one image she clings to in the absence of something else.
There’s a mini-firestorm brewing with Harry and Jim Cutler over media and computers that I won’t get into too much except to say of course it’s really about power. Every episode so far has shown us these dueling forces in the office, and here we get it again, with some different players. I don’t know if this means the agency will split again, but I do think the current players will not all be there by the end of this season.
At Megan’s house in L.A., Don, the “good husband,” is putting flowers in a vase, surprising her. When she comes in with groceries, she’s thrilled, and they have a cozy little moment on the couch until Don, only a master of subtlety when it comes to his own feelings, reveals that he’s come because he’s gotten a call from Alan. Megan is pissed by the patronizing—“thanks for the visit, Daddy,” she says. But she’s more pissed when he finally tells her he was put on leave. Not because he’s out of a job, but because he didn’t tell her, and because, also, that whole time he could have been with her in L.A. Yeah, Don, that’s a fuck-up. She kicks him out, telling him, “This is the way it ends. It’s going to be so much easier for both of us.”
Cut to Betty, home from her lunch and eager to prove herself as a good mom. Luckily, there’s a field trip tomorrow with Bobby’s class. She decides to go. Bobby beams. This can only end terribly.
Back in New York, Don gets an offer from another agency (and an offer from another woman, who sees him at the dinner where he’s having his meeting and claims to know him). But Season 7 Don goes not to her but to Roger, where, with some fraught conversation about the betrayals each of them feels the other has inflicted, Roger offers him his job back. At home again, Don calls Megan, who is clearly upset. He apologizes again, and tells her that he had been afraid, if she found out the truth, she wouldn’t look at him in the same way. “I can’t believe after all this time you don’t know me,” she says. But the real issue is with him, not her: “I know how I want you to see me,” he says. Still, he can’t act in a way that meshes with that desire, which is in fairness a very human problem, though we're not all Don Draper. She tells him not to come back out, but I think the door is still open for reunion.
Betty knows how she wants to be seen, too. As with Don, it’s a vision that’s often at odds with her reality. Don is better at playing the part, though at times when Betty really wants to, she’s formidable. On her field trip, she wants to be the perfect mom. She sits on the bus next to Bobby, chatting about things he likes. “We were having a conversation,” he says proudly, when the woman who is giving them a tour of the farm interrupts them. Betty says, equally proudly (and maybe a bit smugly), “Bobby asked and I couldn’t say no,” and then can’t resist a snide comment about the girl.
Don’s dressed like he’s going into the office, the same thing he’s been doing before Dawn’s visits, but this time it’s different, he’s really supposed to go in—or at least, he thinks he is—and he imagines the ways in which this could be horrible and awkward. It’s a return to an office after an embarrassment that, again, a lot of people who are not Don Draper can relate to (office Christmas party, anyone?). Of course with Don it’s worse, and so when he finally goes in, we’re ready for the shit to hit the fan. And things are different—Peggy is Copy Chief, Dawn is working in Joan’s old office. And then there’s Lou Avery. (Are we eventually going to find out something that makes Lou a little bit sympathetic? Because right now, he makes me more viscerally angry than anyone else on this show.) Lou works hard to be remotely genial to Don, but as soon as Draper walks down the hall, he’s on the phone to management. However, Ginsberg is legitimately excited Don is back, as are a few other of the creative rank and file, at least one of the secretaries, and Ken Cosgrove. Not happy: Lou, Jim Cutler, Bert Cooper, Dawn, who now has to put up with being Don’s 24-7 secretary again, though she doesn't let on, and Peggy, who eventually comes in to tell him no one missed him—though maybe she's partly just protecting herself. And Joan, finally recognized at the agency as an account executive in her own right, is vehemently anti-Don. This awkward-even-for-the-viewer scene continues, and continues, and Roger doesn’t arrive and Don waits and everyone gossips in rooms around him. The partners gather to discuss what to do. And Don, who in a previous season would have stormed out by now, waits, and lets Dawn order him a sandwich. This field trip has gone badly.
Meanwhile, Betty and Bobby enjoy the farm—Betty drinks from a pail of fresh milk, to Bobby’s great happiness—until Betty finds out Bobby traded her sandwich for gumdrops and cannot contain her rage and tries to make him feel as bad as this has made her feel. Later that night, at home, she is still torturing poor Bobby over his mistake, and tells Henry, “It was a perfect day and he ruined it.” But the real problem is with herself, Betty’s sense of her own value to others and what they should think of her has always been off-kilter, in a different way than Don’s. The thing is, Bobby adores her, it’s on his face whenever he looks at her (he may grow up to marry a very mean lady), and she can’t see it herself. “Why don’t they love me?” she asks Henry, who thinks she’s being ridiculous. “It’s just a matter of time,” she says, until they grow up and see something other than what she wishes she would… like Sally, like Bobby … but of course, she’s had a hand in it the whole time. It's her own fault.
Back in the office, the partners realize that firing Don is not an option. Not only will they have to buy him out as partner, he’d then be able to compete against them. It’s not an entirely financial decision because there are clear sides, dividing lines between those for the way it used to be and those against. The power struggle that’s been percolating between Roger and Jim so far this season is coming to a head. Don meets the partners in the conference room, and they give him a deal that, for the Don we know, seems impossible, a monstrous slap in the face that he’d never agree to, a charge against his dignity. He’s told he can’t be alone with clients, must stick to a script approved by the people in the room, and can’t drink in the office. He has to work in Lane’s office. And worst of all: He has to report to Lou.
He says yes, and he didn't have to—we know he had another offer in hand. But part of him always had to return, perhaps, to be the self he wants to be. Maybe he’s paying penance, too, or perhaps he's just ready to shake things up and he knows he can (creative will have to get better with him around, for one). And then, of course, functionally, there had to be a way to get Don back into the office so that things could play out between him and Lou, and possibly Peggy, and all the rest of them. So, get ready. Don is about to go on another field trip.
Previously: When Pretending Is Your Job