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Mad Men Recap: A Perfect Day

“You have stiff competition, but I believe you to be the most dishonest man I have ever worked with.”

Jim Cutler says that to Harry Crane in “Field Trip,” and it’s a funny line. But Harry’s deception — spontaneously making up a nonexistent computer that analyzes local and national ad buys, to stave off a client who’s read about another firm’s actual computer in the Times — is mild compared to the SC&P usual. The place is filled with secrets and lies, a fact driven home by the sudden reappearance of Don Draper, who’s been on a suspension that many of his partners hoped would be a prelude to his disappearance.  

As written by Heather Jeng Bladt and Matthew Weiner and directed by Christopher Manley, the episode is filled with scenes you want to watch through the cracks between your fingers. It’s full of scenes where people show up uninvited, often under false pretenses, sometimes in places where they aren’t welcome.

Don does this twice in “Field Trip.” He goes out to Los Angeles at the behest of Megan’s manager, then returns to his old workplace. Roger — who seems as though he’s as big a screw-up right now as Don was in season six — failed to tell his colleagues that Don was coming. 

Meanwhile, in suburbia, Betty, who’s feeling insecure after a friend sings the praises of being a working mom, tries to prove what an invested parent she is by chaperoning her son Bobby’s field trip to a farm, where she drinks cow’s milk (mother’s milk!). But Betty clearly doesn’t belong there, and one moment of perceived disrespect — Bobby trading her sandwich to a girl who didn’t have one, in exchange for gumdrops — reaffirms her feelings of self-loathing and maternal unfitness.

Even Megan is dealing with a version of this. She’s doing well for herself in L.A., all things considered, but her feelings of self-loathing and inadequacy prevent her from realizing it, thus her stalkerlike behavior after mundane rejections. There are echoes of Don’s previous marriage: Megan’s terror that she’s a bad actress who’ll only get ahead through relentlessness (“It’s sunny here for everyone but me. I’m walking around in a cloud of ‘no’”) is a warped reflection of Betty believing herself to be an irredeemably bad mother even as she cradles a contented child while talking to Henry (“It’s just a matter of time”). Don, meanwhile, is unmasked for keeping his suspension a secret from Megan, in a conversation that feels like a baby version of the moment when he and Betty discussed his secret identity, paving the way for divorce. (Megan kicks Don out of her Los Angeles life in what initially felt like a prelude to divorce, but if the end of last week’s episode proved anything, it’s that this show believes in second chances, and thirds, and fourths. Yes, it’s made by a writer-producer who worked on The Sopranos, but am I imagining things, or does it seem a bit more optimistic about the human potential for change and growth?) 

The anxiety of feeling that you don’t belong somewhere permeates nearly every scene of “Field Trip” (what a dry yet appropriate title). The episode’s most intriguing sequence cuts between Don anticipating his return to the firm and highly subjective shots of him traveling through its halls, reading office door nameplates, realizing how much things have changed, and looking about as fearful as we’ve ever seen him. Most of the creative staff seems happy to see him — particularly the brainy, quick-witted Ginsberg, whose arrival in season five positioned him as a potentially Don-like creative genius, though nowhere near as domineering — but many of Don’s older co-workers are less than thrilled. Peggy and Joan are rightly pissed that he’s back; Peggy even flat-out tells him she’d rather he hadn’t returned. Bert’s reaction on learning of Don’s presence is a chilling four-word sentence: “He shouldn’t be here.” The prodigal son’s return is delayed by the bridges he burned. 

The partners’ meeting about Don is coolly practical: an admirable attempt to sift personal animosity from legitimate business worries. The firm needs Don’s creativity — its failure at the Clio awards can’t be entirely explained away by Ogilvy rigging the nominations; the sad truth is that a bean-counting, somewhat hacky mentality has settled in since Don’s departure. (The place has been Lou-ed.) But they can’t accept all the drama that always came with Don’s genius. The final scene accepts him back, but reluctantly, because firing him would cost them money they don’t have — and with extremely heavy terms and conditions. No drinking in the office. He must report to Lou. He can’t be alone with a client. When he’s in a room with a client and other partners, he must stick to a preapproved script. No deviations or improvisations are allowed. Pete’s description of Don in season six (after Don unilaterally cut Jaguar loose in a fit of pique) comes to mind again: “Tarzan, swinging from vine to vine.” The firm needs Tarzan again, but Tarzan with a briefcase, his every vine-swing approved in advance.  

Don says: “Okay.” Cut to black, roll credits.

I’m fascinated by the contrast in this episode between Don and Roger. For all Don’s continued entitled-male behavior (especially in Los Angeles; “Thanks for the visit, daddy,” Megan tells him), he seems more genuinely contrite than in early seasons. He’s not too much of a better man, but he’s definitely trying. He could’ve gone off with that mysterious woman he met on the plane in the season premiere but didn’t. He’s still drinking, but not as much, and in this episode we see him ask a flight attendant on the New York–to-L.A. connection for tomato juice instead of booze. When Megan quite understandably accuses him of cheating on her again, his distress as he insists on his fidelity feels desperate yet true. He wants to stop what Freddy referred to in the season premiere as a “Cyrano de Bergerac routine” and get back to work, even if it means accepting limits on his autonomy. These are all signs of maturity. Don’s in his early forties, but hey, better late than never. Truly.

Roger, meanwhile, is feeling more and more like the dark mirror of Don. “I found you at the bottom of a fur box,” Roger tells him during their after-hours meeting. “You were a disaster. I’ve seen that man, wandering the street wearing a sandwich board, saying the end is near.” Roger’s actually pretty close to that description himself. He shows up in the office when he feels like it and makes huge decisions without consulting the other partners. He hates himself and as a result cannot accept others’ love. He refused to even entertain his daughter’s forgiveness (complicated by self-righteousness and cultlike jargon as it was). Charming as he is, there’s something genuinely nihilistic about Roger. My colleagues keep writing pieces arguing that Don won’t survive this season, but I bet that if anybody ends up a casualty of the '60s, it’ll be Roger.

Odds and Ends

  • There are even small echoes of this “going where you aren’t invited” idea, as when a classmate of Bobby’s tries to sit beside him on a picnic blanket, or when Roger’s uncomfortable conversation with Don is interrupted by the appearance of one of Roger’s roommate/lovers.
  • So much self-hatred in this episode. Betty’s flaying herself is incredibly hard to watch. “It was a perfect day, and he ruined it,” she says of her son. That “he” needs an “s” in front of it. It’s true that motherhood never came easily to her — the moment when she twists the knife in Bobby and then lights a cigarette and puts her sunglasses on is agonizing, and you could make a case that neither she nor Don should’ve had kids — but during that bedtime conversation with Henry, I actually said aloud, “Give yourself a break.”
  • The Los Angeles movie that Don’s watching in a New York theater is Jacques Demy’s 1969 film Model Shop. It’s about a man whose relationship with a wannabe-actress is cratering. You can watch clips here.
  • That final L.A. scene between Megan and Don is one of the strongest scenes the characters have ever shared. Megan's really laying into him, and every blow lands hard. She's right to be angry at him for keeping his suspension a secret, and his explanation — that he was waiting to tell her until he'd been able to fix things—is classic alcoholic self-justification. The shot of Megan storming off behind him and slamming the door is a beaut — Don frame right, foreground —a nd it feels like a callback to that great shot in the "You Only Live Twice" sequence at the end of season five, which began with Don walking away from wide rectangular soundstage door that enclosed Megan like a proscenium. 
  • It's no fun to watch Peggy heap scorn on Don, but remember that they have a common adversary in Lou. 
Photo: Michael Yarish/AMC