SPOILER ALERT: It’s getting real on Mad Men. And like Don getting his shit together, recaps are better late than never.
“I wish it was yesterday.” Tell me about it, Bobby Draper. Welcome to the real world.
So much happened in the third episode of Mad Men’s final season, turns out I needed a whole week to process it. (For this week’s episode, click on!) Between the almost certain demise of Don’s marriage to his reentry into the agency – to say nothing of Betty drinking fresh milk from a pail! – this installment could have easily passed as a season finale knockout. With only four episodes to go in the (half-)season, it’s hard not to wonder if each will include quite as much defecation hitting the fan.
We open “Field Trip” with a gorgeously Weineresque scene of Don in a dark movie theater, expertly flicking his cigarette. He’s California dreamin’, but it’s always been a distant fantasy compared to his existence in New York. While on the phone with Megan’s agent, it’s impossible not to notice the stark difference between the two coasts. Don’s world is full of shadows and paper bag-covered booze bottles, while Alan’s LA office is all soft yellows and browns, the sun and palm trees dazzling. Learning Megan has been demanding and misbehaving in California isn’t much of a surprise; during her brief time as a copywriter she had a penchant for myopic perfectionism too, even failing to see how saving Heinz was a huge victory. Her agent makes her sound so unstable, Don immediately gets on a plane, but I think Megan knows exactly what she’s doing.
Hey, it’s Francine from season one! (That actress must be SO STOKED to be back on the show.) Betty’s reintroduction scene is a subtly tense one, covering what’s expected of women and what’s becoming “old-fashioned.” When January Jones unleashes one of her signature Bitch Faces as Francine’s back is turned, it speaks volumes. Like many, I have reservations about both Betty and January Jones, but this episode managed to produce a somewhat spectacular showcase for both.
On their farm field trip, she and Bobby are actually really charming together, chatting about comic book characters and his slutty, braless harlot of a teacher. Betty drinks fresh cow’s milk, because she’s a good mother, then punishes Bobby excessively for swapping her sandwich, because she’s a bad mother. As her final scene with Henry makes clear, the tension between those two identities is as present for Betty as it is for Mad Men in general and the audience’s perception of her. Long after she stopped being a central part of the story, Weiner has been pushing Betty towards her nastiest tendencies and then daring us to hate the game not the player. What I loved about this storyline was its quintessential Bettyness, the self-conscious acknowledgment that this woman alienates her children, but what else can she expect from this world? “It’s only a matter of time,” she mutters, before even baby Gene will hate her. It’s hard to tell whether to feel sorry for Betty or laugh at her.
Don’s second wife, meanwhile, looks fabulous in a tacky floor rug kind of way, and is delighted to see him in her Hollywood home. Following this season’s trend, Don tries his hand at honesty again, but he’s an amateur when it comes to timing and it bites him in the ass. How ironic that Megan chooses now to call Don out on his cheating, when he really has “been good.” There argument is layered and devastating, charged with the subtext at the heart of every problem their relationship has ever faced: money. Can’t Don see how much this woman loves him and not his money? Megan moves from furious to heartbroken to numb, saying, “You got up every day and decided you didn’t want to be with me.” Don says nothing, and in the ensuing silence we see Megan’s face dismantle their marriage.
Jessica Paré, ladies and gentlemen. Between this and her later scene on the phone, the actress has proven herself once again as a powerhouse of vulnerability and passion. She and her fabulous bob acted the hell out of this episode, and it may be the last we see of her for a while, considering the other rather juicy plot development that is likely to dominate the rest of the season.
Roger’s argument with Don in his hotel room parallels Megan’s, in that both are laden with years of bitter backstory, and end with the surprising revelation that Don is loved anyway. Acquiring self-worth is hard you guys. Don’s dreamlike entrance back into the agency is beautifully filmed, full of anxiety and confusion as he takes in Peggy and Dawn’s names on their office doors. Those women’s reactions – Peggy is baffled, then narrows her eyes in a way that would make even Betty squirm, while Dawn uncertainly takes his coat and agrees to get coffee – are almost lost among the general alarm that spreads with news of Don’s arrival. Ken makes an overt carousel reference that only serves to illustrate how far Don has come since his heyday, while Joan (LIVING for her hair in this episode, and don’t even get me started on those boots) gives the subtlest of twitches, unable to deal with this in her typically practical fashion.
In the end, as Don loiters in purgatory, Roger fights tooth and nail for him in a shouty partners meeting that culminates in their agreeing to let Don back in under a few strict conditions. Like many of this episode’s triumphs, it’s a great scene because it benefits from sheer volume of backstory. After six whole seasons of getting to know these characters, it’s a delight to watch Roger and Joan and Jim and especially Bert embroiled in the office politics that have always fueled this show. It’s a great time to be a longtime fan of Mad Men.
Of course, an entire novel could be written about the 27-second interaction between Don and Peggy, in which she simply says, “Well, I can’t say that we miss you.” I’m still recovering from Elisabeth Moss’ glare.
- “You have stiff competition… but I believe you to be the most dishonest man I have ever worked with,” Cutler says in awe of Harry Crane, who is flat-out lying to clients about the existence of computers in SC&P’s overlooked media department. It’s a great line made brilliant by Harry Hamlin’s pause in the middle of it. His presence in this ensemble used to stick out a bit, but now he coheres nicely.
- Best dressed might actually go to Don for his sumptuous brown suit and striped tie. There were several “Don’s still got it” moments, including that random chick at the hotel dining room. What was that about?
- Don: “Good to see you.” Lou: “…..Sure.” Yikes. And now Don has to report to that guy??
- The cinematography was stunning here, especially Dawn letting Don into the conference room. The camera was often panning and swooping to convey the shaky ground on which he’s found himself. Major props to Matt Weiner, director Scott Hornbacher and cinematographer Don Devine.
It’s only fitting that in the same week the cult classic Mean Girls celebrates its ten year anniversary, we get an episode of Mad Men full of petty power plays and gossip. SC&P feels like a high school at the moment, with Peggy throwing shade at Lou, Joan joining her to add to their Burn Book, and Don and Roger huddling like schoolboys, talking in hushed voices about breaking the rules “off-campus.” Don Draper, former captain of the football team, has returned to upend the status quo, and since the ensuing drama is all based on past grudges and pecking orders with low stakes, it’s no wonder it feels like the Plastics are stomping the hallways. Joan’s even wearing pink.
At the same time, though, “The Monolith” channels Hitchcockian motifs and a series of bleak tableau shots, all lonely, colorless interiors. Don arrives at the office to find it eerily empty, a phone dangling from a desk. Much of the rest of the episode is consumed by the distressing sounds of an IBM computer installation, and Caroline is mock-screaming like a victim in a horror movie. Things are changing at an alarming rate at this agency and in the world, what with a confusing new computer and the imminent possibility of a man on the moon. 1969 is scary, and 2001 is scarier. It’s almost no wonder Don has to smuggle alcohol into his office and Margaret goes completely off the deep end.
The Margaret, I mean Marigold, storyline mostly didn’t work for me. After toying with the irony of Roger being able to relate to his daughter on this fundamental level of despair, the writers decided to pin Margaret’s meltdown on her feeling hurt about Roger spending too much time at the office or something. Her transition is so extreme it’s difficult to understand how she can’t see the reason in her parents’ arguments. Can she really rationalize abandoning a child crying himself to sleep each night by blaming the (relatively mild) dysfunction of her own upbringing?
However, a part of my soul expands with anticipatory glee every time Mona makes an appearance on this show. Talia Balsam is a spectacular actress and her chemistry with John Slattery is of course palpable (they’re married IRL). Nobody does “fabulously beleaguered” like her, and here the news of her daughter’s disappearance puts her in a daze of vague, mascara-ridden anxiety. I was living for that glorious coat and updo at the commune, but what is with the awkward chain around her neck in the first scene? Roger also sticks out like a sore thumb in his impeccable blue suit, and the image of him splattered with mud, walking away from the farmhouse is a striking one.
Meanwhile, the tables aren’t so much turning at SC&P as they are spinning out of control. Lou, probably suffering from penis envy, buys Peggy with a raise and hands her a presentation for Burgerchef, an account Pete stumbled upon in LA. Roger convinces Jim to add Don to the account, providing him an olive branch and a test. Of course, this means Don must be called into his former protege’s office to be given the most menial of tasks.
Elisabeth Moss does a great job conveying the range of feelings Peggy has about assigning Don work. She’s terrified to enter his office (next door! oy!) or meet his vicious glare, but smugly takes a victory sip – to her credit, after Don leaves her office. Before we feel sorry for the guy, let’s remember he once threw money at her in front of her colleagues, used her relationship with Ted to screw up their personal and professional lives, and was basically only nice to her like three and a half times.
On the other hand, it’s never nice to be asked “Why ARE you here?” by a man for whom you presumably have some respect. That Bert responds to Don by mentioning “a dead man whose office you now inhabit” is just low, and judging by his furrowed brow, even Bert seems to think so. Don decides to drop the contrition thing and fuck the rules, deliberately ignoring Peggy, boozing it up, and intimidating the Lease-Tech guy, a potential client and believer in counting stars without appreciating their beauty. (Or something like that… there were several on-the-nose symbols and juxtapositions in this rather meh episode) It takes five-years-sober Freddy Rumsen to put Don back on track and make him see how much of an assdick he’s being.
Freddy Rumsen. What a great guy. Without him, Don would have almost nobody. “Go in your bedroom, get in uniform, fix your bayonet, and hit the parade,” says Freddy, and he does. If there’s one thing that gives Don purpose, it’s advertising. When Freddy demands that he “do the work,” it’s a sign that out of all this misery and self-pity, there just might be hope on that carousel.
- The passive, mundane shit Lou was saying in that conference call cracked me up. “Peggy is great. Yes. Also? Don. Are we done here?” What a doormat of a human.
- Janie Bryant sure is having fun with 1969 California fashion, especially with Bonnie and her crazy fishnet dress thing.
- I love that Roger asks Meredith if Don is in. Her definitive “yes” suggests this is a daily routine, which means Roger’s really rooting for his old pal.
- Best line of the episode: Roger’s “He’s spent three weeks in that cave and he hasn’t clubbed another ape yet.” Runner-up: Jim’s “High praise indeed.”
- I’m pretty sure there is a heaven, and it’s just sitting in a room gossiping and drinking with Joan and Peggy. I could barely hear them over the sound of my snaps.