Each week, Alissa Wilkonson reflects on the latest episode of AMC’s Mad Men.
I haven’t seen the 1969 film Model Shop, but Don Draper has. The first (and only) American film by French writer-director Jacques Demy, it’s been described as “a road movie that doesn’t go anywhere.” Which increasingly feels like an appropriate way to describe Don’s life.
That’s particularly true of this episode, entitled “Field Trip,” evoking those trips we took as kids—also road trips that couldn’t go anywhere. Part of the concept behind a field trip is that it’s a quick trip, designed to be completed inside the confines of a normal school day, and probably not far from campus. You can’t see anything too new on a field trip. You’re just supposed to be out of place for a while. And then you go home again.
The show’s formerly suave, enviable, world-by-the-tail antiheroes are turning into its cringiest bits.The episode starts with Don in a movie theater (a place where he goes to get creatively recharged) watching Model Shop thoughtfully. In the scene he’s watching, the protagonist, George Matthews, is driving around Los Angeles listening to a sinuous violin: Scheherazade’s theme, from Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1888 symphonic poem. Scheherazade, of course, is the young wife of the sultan in The Arabian Nights who is delaying her own execution by telling him a thousand and one stories. And in Model Shop, the listless unemployed protagonist is driving around L.A. attempting to keep his car from being repossessed and following a beautiful model he finds more interesting than his girlfriend.
So there’s that.
As I said in my recap of the first episode, in this season time is ticking, if not running out (and Vulture had a great look at the clocks in this third episode). But this has always been part of Mad Men. For a while, we thought the clock was ticking till the day Don’s deception was found out. But when that turned out to be a non-starter, it became clear that something bigger was afoot, especially given the show’s historical setting and the way its plot has turned on historical events, especially those of 1968. As I described it to a friend recently, the show is really about the particular cultural moment when optimistic popular modernity faded into ironic paranoid postmodernity, through the lens of Madison Avenue.
That generational shift has been clear on the show for a while (not least through fashion). But to me, “Field Trip” was the first time we really saw—and felt—precisely how unnerving it would have been to discover that you were now the old person, the man, in the very brave, very new world of 1969. This is not Don Draper’s world anymore. It’s not Betty’s world either, or Roger’s. Joan is managing the transition (in boots) and Peggy’s going to make it through, and Megan seems of a piece with the time entirely (she’s still not even 30). But the show’s formerly suave, enviable, world-by-the-tail antiheroes are turning into its cringiest bits.
One way this has always been clear is in the sexual politics of the show—men chasing skirts, women being coy. So it’s interesting to note how often Don gets ogled and propositioned throughout this episode: the stewardess on the plane playfully tells him she hates Megan; the woman in the Algonquin Bar flat-out invites him to come to her room; the secretary at SC&P just grins and makes a comment about how nice it is to look at him while everyone else wonders why he’s there.
Even Megan, laying on his chest after some thanks-for-surprising-me sex on the couch, says that she “needed that,” then revises it to say she “needed this” while touching his chest—but never says she needed Don. And he notices: “So it could have been anyone,” he says.
He’s also increasingly visually out of place—he’s beginning to look old in his ever-present, never-changing suits, around all the young guys in the office, and next to Megan, who angrily calls him “Daddy.” While Don is still remarkably handsome, he’s lost the confidence that made him magnetically sexy. And he can’t seem to quite stay up with the times: it takes him a while to realize the creative team is talking about a TV spot and not, presumably, a print ad, which was his bread and butter.
But Don is most clearly out of place in that incredibly uncomfortable day where he sits in the office, realizing he isn’t expected, isn’t wanted, and may have just made a giant fool out of himself for showing up. It’s painfully obvious how much going back to SC&P for Don is like most people going back to a former lover who may or may not be interested. Not wanting to seem too eager, Don sits in a chair at home, all ready to go, waiting for his watch to click over to 9 so he can go to the office. (If I know the feeling, and I think I do, I’d wager he woke up at 4 o’clock and couldn’t get back to sleep, so just shaved and showered and has been sitting there for four hours, willing himself not to burst out of his skin.)
The partners take him back, in the end—they have to, because it’s just too expensive not to, and they know something’s been lacking since Lou took over. But like a lover who’s been burned, there are conditions for the return. It seems all but likely that Megan—who has always been a wildly non-demanding wife for Don, which might be why he likes her—will have conditions of her own if she decides to take Don back. Megan is copping to who her real competition is.
That’s why Don says okay: he needs SC&P badly. But it seems the only person around there who needs him is Roger (“You want to come back? Come back. I miss you”), whose siren call is far more effective than Megan’s.
The other half of this episode is Betty’s, and it’s the first time I’ve thought that she and Don were two peas in a pod. Betty (“I guess I’m just old fashioned”) is feeling insecure yet again, this time after lunch with a friend who enthuses about how fulfilling her part-time job is. Betty volunteers to chaperone Bobby’s field trip to a farm in order to make herself feel useful, but wow, is she ever out of place on the farm, in her brocade suit, among the cows and the children and the braless jeans-clad teacher.
Nowhere is this more obvious than how she responds to Bobby’s mistake in trading his sandwich. She strikes out as if he’s deliberately hurt her, a thing that is simultaneously ludicrous (that child is absolutely dying to please his mother) and indicative of her very tender sense of self. But then again, Betty really has been through the ringer, between Don, and her parents, and her obesity, and the cancer and all the rest. Like Don, she’s pretty sure nobody can love her. It takes a different form than Don’s insecurity, but it’s destructive to her relationships all the same.
That insecurity pervades Megan’s behavior as well—some merited, some not—and could wreck her career, if she’s not careful. Roger’s barely working SC&P anymore. And Peggy’s mad at everyone. (Her mean-spirited comment at Don, however merited, feels like an odd analogue to Betty’s lash at Bobby. Not a great day for the Draper men.)
These characters’ inability to believe in (and desperate need for) the approval and love of those around them is what dislocates them from a world they used to own, the places they used to be comfortable. Their closest relationships are breaking on the shoals of their own certainty that those same relationships can’t last. Believing you ought to be unwanted might be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
For now, though, each of them is hanging on, playing George Matthews or Scheherazade to stay their own executions. They’re quieting the voice inside through any means possible—Don through returning to work, Betty through keeping busy with her youngest and still-affectionate child, Roger through his latest love interest and his “early lunches,” Megan through keeping Don at bay.
Over the credits, Jimi Hendrix: “Now if 6 turned out to be 9 / I don’t mind, I don’t mind / Alright, if all the hippies cut off their hair / I don’t care, I don’t care / ‘Cause I got my own world to live through / And I ain’t gonna copy you.”