Shall we subtitle this most recent episode of Mad Men as follows… Dismal Don, Bad Betty, Manic Megan? Maybe we should stick with “Field Trip”… make that plural, trips… and awkward ones at that for all who find themselves stepping out of their comfort zones.
If Betty on a bus “having a conversation” with her kiddo is out of character, her sniping at him over nothing isn’t.
Hell is for Heroes
Don’s a flop with Megan, when he plays reluctant white knight on a quick visit to the West Coast. It’s at the request of her agent, since the missus has been misbehaving: After a less than stellar audition, she hunted down the director, trying to plead her case for a role and interrupting a lunch with Rod Serling.
Rod Serling! Did anyone else wonder why the Mad Men crew picked that Tinsel Town luminary? Because Megan’s antics belong in the Twilight Zone? Or for the Fun With Phonics we can all have when rolling around “Rod Serling” and “Roger Sterling?”
Though Don comes clean about being in limbo with the agency – after a little couch quickie with his wife – she’s hurt that it’s been months of pretense on his part. Besides, she was convinced he was having an affair. Still, she’s articulating just how far “afield” their marriage has gone, so she sends him packing, straight back to the Big Apple. It’s a wrenching scene in which Jessica Paré shows the audience her acting chops.
Our truth-telling hero – better late than never – heads hat in hand to Roger, armed with an offer from another agency. He gets the “come back” speech from his old friend – perhaps to his surprise? – and Roger even says he’s missed him!
How do you spell relief? Well it ain’t ROLAIDS.
Try AWKWARD. And that’s how Don feels and we feel, squirmy and uncomfortable for much of this episode, as the Draper magic is off the mark in each attempt to set things right.
Backed into a Corner
Since buying him out would cost a fortune, the partners agree – eventually – that it’s a “financial decision” to keep Don on. But they set conditions that are a literal stranglehold in place of his usual role as Cock of the Walk.
This may be little more than the typical corporate ploy to force the latest undesirable to throw in the towel. The partners likely assumed Don would refuse the humiliating stipulations they demand, since he thrives on spontaneous spin, not to mention the bottle. Yet here’s what he has to live with as 1969 is hitting its stride:
You are not allowed to be alone with clients… You must stick to the script approved by the partners… No drinking in the office… You’re in Lane’s old office…
And Cutler, still angry over the relationship between Don and Ted, delivers what we think will be the decisive blow: “And you will report to Lou.” Nothing like creative genius under the thumb of managerial mediocrity!
Don responds with an anemic “okay.” Resigned to the New Rules… Hey! Where’s Bill Maher when you need him?
Tripping? La-La Land, Farm Fun, Office Nightmare
Our fallen hero isn’t taking the easy way out. Accepting those conditions means swallowing his pride that’s already been shredded. But come on. We know Don has a better chance of undermining whomever he needs to on his old stomping ground, and however icy the reception, his talents will out.
Let’s not forget he’s been “freelancing” behind the scene, feeding Freddy concepts and copy, while keeping up with clients and accounts thanks to Dawn.
Of course, Don’s hardly at his best after Megan’s rejection in La-La Land, where he feels utterly out of place. He’s worried and… dare we say it… scared shitless at the reception he’ll find at SC&P, and with good reason as the quasi-dream sequence of agency re-entry sets all of us on edge.
After all, nothing is the same as it was – new faces, new roles, his office now occupied by Lou, whose creative output is so poor as to result in only one Cleo nomination for the firm, to Roger’s chagrin.
Then again, while the creatives may have enjoyed some repartee with Don in their workroom throughout the day, everyone (except Roger’s secretary) is confused, annoyed, or pissed at seeing Don at the office.
I won’t say this was my favorite episode, but one way or another, we had to resolve Don’s employment status. Moreover, if Weiner and friends were going for making us uncomfortable, we certainly were. I will add that I am among the crowd that is happy to see Betty on scene again. Gee, did I really just say that?
But I’m also disappointed. We’ve had so many options to explore with Betty, but the storyline hasn’t gone there… her Dullsville marriage, perhaps a secret sex life, the potential for some feminist enlightenment (make that “women’s lib”), food abuse when she was Fat Betty.
Instead, we get Snide Betty smoking, superior, and disapproving, along with a replay of maternal manipulation, this time targeted at her second child.
For anyone who has been on the receiving end of a passive-aggressive parent, it’s pretty miserable. While I almost expect it between mother and daughter during the teenage years, it surprises me a little with Bobby. But Betty pulls her surly crap at the farm picnic, with what had been a “perfect day” up to that point, and it’s all due to trading a sandwich for gum drops. As if that isn’t enough, she persists in her nasty remarks into evening, then whines to Henry about not being loved.
Poor Bobby! No coat hangers required, but his time in therapy is predictable right along with Sally’s. Maybe they can get a twofer on the psychiatrist’s couch in the 80s…
More Mad Men Moments
And speaking of aggressive, what’s up with Peggy’s steely reaction to Don’s appearance at the office? Sure, sure, she’s still holding a grudge from months earlier, maybe years earlier, but her comment is cruel: “I can’t say that we’ve missed you.” Stark contrast to Roger’s declaration!
Jeez… not to be crude, but maybe Peggy needs to take a page out of Don’s old book. A little black book that is, with a night of nookie to cool her down. Let’s face it, she’s been a bit of a mess lately.
And this irritation I cannot ignore: The speed with which the scenes were intercut during this episode was disruptive. While it’s a device used frequently on Mad Men, the back-and-forth between Betty at the farm and Don at the office was too quick, too much, and too choppy for yours truly.
Listen, we get it… she’s on a field trip (out of her element), he’s on a field trip (in many respects); likewise, the back-and-forth to California is, for Don, like taking a visit to an off-site location – see a little something, pick up a souvenir, then high-tail it back to wherever you are comfortable. But we don’t need to be bludgeoned by this scene-slicing technique, which felt heavy-handed.
On another note, I was happy for the glimpse of Burt Cooper’s Rothko painting in the background. It’s been awhile since we’ve enjoyed any Mad Men art, and I consider this another missed opportunity by the show’s creators. However, I was tickled to see Joan wearing a colorful floral dress with a white collar. Art of a different sort?
She looked more youthful, more in step with the times, and the black boots were a great change from her usual style. Joan is also tip-toeing beyond her comfort zone, but smartly and successfully.
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