French filmmaker Jacques Demy hit it big with his 1964 musical, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, garnering a Palme’ d’Or, a handful of Oscar noms, and even a name-drop on Mad Men a few years back. And because Hollywood was poaching foreign talent even back in the ’60s, Demy was brought stateside to make his first (and only) American film: Model Shop.
It did not do well.
Demy’s mainstream success came from French people breaking out into sudden song and dance, and Model Shop contained precisely none of those things. Instead, it was about a young man named George (Gary Lockwood) on the brink of physical and existential disaster. He soon loses his car to a couple of repo men, and he loses his freedom to a Vietnam draft notice that’s just arrived in the mail. And so George floats around LA when he stumbles upon Lola (Anouk Aimée), a French model and the protagonist of an earlier Demy film — the aptly titled Lola. The two share a brief, passionate night; they talk of their deep affection for Los Angeles; they part ways, both a little more learned in the deep and meaningful way that can only come from a 1960s French art film.
And in “Field Trip,” this week’s episode of Mad Men, we find Don Draper wiling away his unemployed hours at the theater, thoroughly engrossed in Model Shop. As far as entertainment choices go, it’s kind of an awful choice (a depressed and aimless guy looking for escapism in a movie about a depressed and aimless guy), but as far as the episode goes, Model Shop fits in just right.
Not only are George and Don essentially the same person (hopelessly adrift in life and currently taking up with an actress of the French persuasion), but the actions taken in “Field Trip” and Model Shop are identical. One wafts across the city he loves, the same city he’s being booted from. The other wafts across the ad agency he loves, the same ad agency he was just booted from.
That wafting (Don’s wafting, anyway) is the centerpiece of “Field Trip,” and a knockout piece of TV-watching at that. But the episode doesn’t start with Don’s journey through the terrifyingly awkward halls of Sterling Cooper & Partners. It starts with Don being his usual post-advertising self: completely in denial and clinging to Dawn like a toddler to Mom’s leg. But Dawn has a new job and a new set of responsibilities she hasn’t quite gotten a handle on yet (it’s not clear when “Field Trip” is set, but it’s far enough along from “A Day’s Work” that Dawn has settled into being the new Joan, but isn’t totally competent at it). So even though Don treats Dawn like his personal secretary (and continues to do so throughout the hour, even when she’s clearly busy and even after he sees her name on her brand-new office door), she doesn’t really need this right now.
Megan does, though. At least, that’s what Alan Silver says. It seems she’s starting to come unglued, and is on her way to being someone else’s “crazy auditionee” anecdote, so Don flips the switch from Work Don to Husband Don and takes a quick trip out West to right this particular wrong.
This seems like a disaster of an idea. The past two episodes have dropped large, sometimes blatant hints that Don is fallen out of love with both Los Angeles and his Los Angeles-based wife, and the entirety of Don’s short trip is a waiting game for him to mention Silver’s call and shatter their happily married demeanor.
And then he mentions it.
And then he finds himself wifeless.
I expected bad things to come from this, but not divorce-level bad. But perhaps my (and, assumedly, other people’s) surprise is purposeful. We’ve never actually seen California from Megan’s perspective. We have no idea how she’s doing, if she’s lonely, how work is going, or even any of the details about this alleged audition implosion. For all we know, there’s been a steady series of events that led to this dumping, but like her husband, we haven’t really been paying that much attention.
Instead, our time is spent with a man who has lost his job and now lost his marriage, but now he’s finally determined to fix all this, damn it (the job, that is, not the marriage). But even if he’s still ignoring his wife, Don approaches the job hunt with a candor we haven’t seen in a long time. He sets the soonest dinner date he can with the fellows from Wells, Rich and Greene, and actually handles it like a real job interview — no more coy lunch dates and living vicariously through Freddy Rumsen. But there’s something about the Greene boys, whether it’s the way the skirt around a deal that’s really just a nicely worded demotion or the way they might have hired a prostitute to sweeten the deal, that doesn’t sit right with the newer and more honest Don Draper. So he bails.
And so we get the first of many things. Of Don coming into contact with someone from SC&P who isn’t named Dawn. Of two meaningful phrases spit out quickly, perhaps out of embarrassment: “fired” from Don, “I miss you” from Roger. Of the renewal of a friendship that’s been built on (and stepped on) in the last few years, and an admittance that maybe this firing isn’t a firing after all.
Which leads us to the big chewy chocolate center of “Field Trip.” We begin on Don, fearful with those pre-audition jitters, eyes flicking down at his watch or staring ahead with that wordless mix of fear and confusion that Jon Hamm probably has a patent on at this point. And we continue to see those shots, even as he makes his way into the office. That Mad Men (and our director for the week, Christopher Manley) would play with all these little flashback cuts (plus a healthy amount of POV shots) is so much more audacious than what we’re used to. Normally Mad Men cinematography is “slow camera, expensive period scenery,” but an episode that strays this dramatically from the norm can’t help but stand tall.
The entire sequence is awkward. Don being gawked at like a zoo animal is awkward. Don having to confront his own semi-firing, face to face, from all the schoolyard boys and girls is awkward. But here we run the gamut, and each coworker interaction is its own little microcosm of awkward. Peggy is cold and unfeeling awkward (when did she get so cruel). The copy team is hilarious awkward. Joan is friendly yet masking a terrible urgency awkward. And Lou Avery is a jackass. All of which ends in a display of brute force, and of feeble yes-manning.
Brute force from Roger, who absolutely kills it in standing up for his old friend Don. John Slattery tends to get shoehorned into sassy, booze-soaked comic relief, but his stand against the partners was anything but. Simple proof that Slattery’s still got it.
Feeble yes-manning from Don, who utters that final “okay” far quicker and with far less hesitation than anyone would expect. On the one hand, with eleven episodes to go, Don was probably set to return at some point. But now he’ll be subordinate to Lou, of all people (kudos, though, to Matthew Weiner and co. for crafting their own Joffrey Baratheon in just three short episodes).
It’s an “okay” that means so much.
For one, it makes the SC&P staff seem surprisingly heartless. Don might have deserved all that he got from his former office mates, but he’s also Don Draper. Seven seasons of drunken debauchery and philandering, and it’s still hard to hate the guy. Plus, after seeing him run the maze of uncomfortable small talk (complete with a bevy of POV shots), Don’s looking mighty sympathetic at the end of “Field Trip.” Bert, Joan and Cutler, sitting adversarially on the other side of the table? Not so much. After last night, a lot of SC&P looks like a gang of cruel Betty Francises, which might hurt their own stories next week (Joan’s, especially, less so curt Cutler and overtly racist Cooper).
That “okay” also means Don Draper is a roundly different person from the Don of a few episodes ago. Can you imagine a pre-Hershey’s meltdown Don agreeing to that kind of oversight? Either he’s so desperate to be back in the fold that he’d take any deal they’d offer (note that Don has been pretending to be at SC&P with Dawn for the past few months), or he’s actually a changed man. He’s drinking less and politely ignoring multiple opportunities to cheat on Megan. Sure, he calls her to announce that their marriage is saved, because he’s got his job back (even if, somehow, that manages to keep them from the brink of divorce). But for the most part he’s doing good.
“Field Trip,” however, is all Don, all the time, and so we have relatively little to spare for anyone else. And here “anyone else” is whittled down to two players: Harry Crane and Betty Francis (née Hofstadt, formerly Draper). Conveniently, they’re the two characters we haven’t seen at all this season.
Harry is off in his own unappreciated world, as always. Even if he gets his computer and it ends up being a huge deal — which it probably will be, just like TV was — I doubt we’ll hear much of it. We’ve got four episodes until another year of break, and there are probably more pressing issues to cover than Harry, struggling to understand the operating systems of the late ’60s. At least we can be like all the cool kids and ignore Harry, too.
Betty gets a similar kind of “where is she now” side plot. Confronted with a social circle that’s jumping into the workforce, she attempts an act of chaperoning, as proof that the stay-at-home mom is just as fulfilled as any Realtor (or travel agent) might be. She’s not, of course. But she tries. She steps up at the milk bucket and Bobby saves her a seat at lunch time. She’s breaking ground. And then one tiny setback and her shades are on, her cigarette is lit, and her demeanor cooled to a frigid “you’re dead to me, sandwich-trading son.”
That seems to be a pattern this season. Characters might pursue change, like Pete becoming LA fresh, or Betty volunteering to drink cow squeezings straight out the cow. But those of Mad Men are too set in their ways to ever really change, and one slight mishap sends us back to whiny forsaken Pete and cold unfeeling Betty. Really, the biggest change we’ve seen in years (probably since his marriage to Megan) is Don’s “okay,” and his acceptance of a horrible subservient position in the advertising world.
We’ve got a week to go before we see just what he makes of that.