I’ve said it before—it’s not easy being Don Draper. Especially given that the darkly handsome ad man isn’t really Don Draper to begin with. But this episode made it particularly awkward.
In “Field Trip”, the episode title ostensibly refers to Betty’s less than successful outing with son Bobby on his class field trip to a particularly bucolic part of New York. But it could just as easily refer to Don’s return to the offices of SCP, after a nocturnal visit to Roger Sterling’s bachelor pad scores Don a “get out of jail free” card from the reliably unreliable Roger. Don makes his appearance at the office the next morning, and the reaction to him ranges from outright hostility (the increasingly unpleasant, unlikeable Peggy) to stunned stares (most everyone else). Joan, who always thought of Don as a kindred spirit and supporter, is particularly stilted, reluctantly shooting out a right hand for a halfhearted shake, in a seeming attempt to keep Don at bay while fearing that he was about to transmit a communicable disease.
When after Don has cooled his heels for enough time to run through all the creative being done under the watchful (and not particularly discerning) eye of his successor, Lou Avery, Roger finally makes his appearance. He’s very late, half in the bag and seemingly put out that Don has actually taken him up on his offer. But Roger rises to the occasion, amazingly enough. The irritated partners meet to decide Don’s fate, and most would just as soon see him leave while they deliberate. That’s when Roger, in a remarkable and eloquent plea for his friend, makes a compelling case that SCP should rather want to have the still-brilliant Draper pitching for them than against them (summoning up a somewhat carnal image of Mary Wells and Don in high pitch mode dudgeon to make his point). The partners relent- and offer Draper back into the fold, but only if he promises to be a good boy and doesn’t mind reporting to the cardigan-clad Avery. The offer is on the table, and they wait for Don to make up his mind.
And, in what passes for a moment of high drama in the most nuanced show in television history, there is a long, pregnant moment when there is total silence. And, during that moment, I literally yelled at my TV, “don’t do it, Don!” I had seen enough humiliation in the previous half hour to last me the rest of the series, and was rooting for Don to tell his former partners to stick and ride off into the sunset and on over to Wells Rich Greene.
But Don takes the offer, setting up what should be an interesting battle of wills between he and Cardigan Man. If Draper gets his creative mojo back and the staff is won back to his side, Lou could, as threatened, ride out the remainder of his contract selling newspapers in the office building’s lobby.
The subtext of the decision to bring Don back is significant, as the partners—while protesting to the contrary—know the firm is in trouble. It has lost its creative spark, and contrary to Jim Cutler’s absurd contention that media is the way to sell clients, it’s creative work that stirs hearts and opens checkbooks. They know that a Don Draper, in control and on his game, can get people talking about SCP again. On that score, Roger is thoroughly persuasive and entirely right.
If rejoining SCP is a way to win back the heartbroken and outraged Megan, it’s probably a losing strategy. Don thinks that regaining his job will make him somehow more worthy of the younger woman, conveniently forgetting that the reason she made the trek to Los Angeles in the first place was to start over with Don out there. It’s really hard to buy Don’s reawakening of affection for his estranged wife, but his nocturnal phone call to her when he returns to New York was a bit of a surprise and made me think twice. I would have thought he’d have been relieved to return home a free man.
At this point, though, Don’s effort to resurrect his dying marriage is more about his struggle to be a good person and much less about his love for his wife. He’s explicit about it when he protests to Megan that he’s not seeing another woman when he actually tells her, “I’ve been good.” This is a still conflicted man trying to resurrect his sense of self-worth, and at least for the moment, he sees his flagging marriage as part of the equation.
Meanwhile, in a parallel universe (and in a telling parallel to the Don-Sally storyline last episode), Betty once again takes a stab at being a caring mom, with middle child Bobby the object of her erratic affection. Betty’s urge to parent is all about Betty- like Don, she’s on a quest for self-worth, in her case exacerbated by her seeing her formerly housebound (and terminally boring) friend Francine out in the working world as a travel agent, and enjoying it.
To compensate for her feelings of inadequacy (and perhaps with some remorse that her housekeeper seems to have a better handle on the kid’s homework than she does), she signs up to be a chaperone for Bobby’s field trip to a farm. Things are going relatively well until Betty steps away at lunchtime and Bobby engages in some age-appropriate boy behavior, trading her sandwich to a little girl in return for some jellybeans. She’s not as enthusiastic about the trade as her son, and she proceeds to spend the rest of the day in a snit, furious with the stricken boy. By the time they get home, Bobby wishes the day had never happened, which just proves that the only thing worse than Betty ignoring her children is becoming involved with them.
When Betty wonders to Henry why her kids hate her, the long-suffering and ridiculously patient second husband can barely muster more than a tepid rejection of her feelings of dejection. On the scale of “painful dark night of the soul leading to self-awareness and a more loving relationship with your kids”, Don’s arrow is pointing up, while Betty’s is down, way down. She seemingly has no idea why her kids might have reason to dislike her, meanwhile clinging to youngest child Gene while watching TV as if the boy were her pillow.
Don’s bond with his kids is sporadic but palpable, as he struggles not to let his own sad, tortured childhood interfere with his being a caring, effective parent. Betty, raised as a pampered princess, is only interested in being a parent when it reflects well on herself. For all of Don’s transgressions, there is still love and forgiveness from his oldest child. For Betty, there’s largely dismay, disappointment and indifference. Henry’s sympathetic step parenting is all the more impressive in this context.
We’re seeing glimmers of hope for Don as he returns to his hostile work family while trying to mend his family at home. For Betty, however, 1969 may as well be 1960. It’s a different time, with a different culture, different fashions, and different politics, but it’s the same old Betty. While still a beautiful woman, it’s not a pretty sight.
Submitted by Harlan R. Teller