Mad Men 7×03 ‘Field Trip’: Unfamiliar territory

Mad Men 7x03 Cover

Mad Men is less of a story about how people never change and more of a story about how people don’t know how to change.  There is a magical formula, a miracle way to alter your identity, but there is so much to it that most people have no idea where to start.  Do you try something new?  What if that new thing doesn’t work?  Do you just aimlessly wander until something clicks?  What if you wander for too long?  There’s no way of knowing if anything is working or not until it’s too late.

Mad Men 7x03-2

Source: AMC

That being said, Betty’s story in “Field Trip” stuck out as one that didn’t seem that useful on its own.  Betty accompanied Bobby to a class field trip at a farm, where she made many of the snide remarks that Betty is known for making.  But what struck me, and what convinced me of the power of Betty’s story, is that her pettiness is present on the bus ride (where she makes a sexual jab at the teacher), at the end of the trip (when Bobby trades her sandwich and she makes him eat all the gumdrops he received), but not in the middle.  Betty steps back from being immature and bitter for a moment when she engages with the trip, drinking the cow’s milk while Bobby smiled.  And, as a result of that, Bobby is legitimately excited for eat lunch with his mother.  That is, until she lashes out at him again.

Mad Men 7x03-1

Source: AMC

This is one of the big ideas that “Field Trip” is getting at, that attempting to change in a particular moment doesn’t erase the mistakes you’ve made in your past, nor does it erase the kind of person that you are.  Betty may have tried to adapt to the field trip, but something stopped her from following through.  Maybe its that she’s completely out of her element there, that she’s put so much effort into crafting the “old-fashioned” image of herself that she’s afraid of being uncomfortable in an unfamiliar place.  It’s especially hard to change in an unfamiliar place, but the catch is that it’s the ONLY place in which you can change.  How is a person supposed to change if they’re in the same old place with the same old people?  But how is a person supposed to change if they’re uncomfortable in an unfamiliar place?

That’s a question that’s plaguing Don right now.  He’s trying so hard to be this new person, but he’s in these familiar places where it’s horribly difficult to do so.  He may be approaching his relationship with Megan in a new way, but he still lied to her in the past, and that lie was what unraveled the entire thing.  Just because he tried to be a new person doesn’t mean that the crimes that the old person committed aren’t still crimes.  Distancing yourself from your old self is nearly an impossibility, if only because the past is always the past.  There’s no way to change that.

Mad Men 7x03-3

Source: AMC

Don’s story moves into its second half once his marriage with Megan unravels, because it’s upon his return to New York City that Roger offers him his job back.  It would be easy for Mad Men to be retreading the same water by sending back to SC&P, but the show does a brilliant job showing us just how drastically things have changed at SC&P, as well as how Don’s return shatters the uneasy status quo there.  “A Day’s Work” established the status quo for the time being, elaborating on how Roger is feeling increasingly powerless in his own agency and how Cutler is gaining strength and momentum.  It’s only fitting, then, that “Field Trip” has Roger responding to that loss of power by attaching himself to an old ally, somebody that can level the playing field a little more.

But Don feels so immensely powerless at the office, just as Betty felt on the farm.  When he walks back in, the layout is almost exactly the same, but the camera takes note of all of the changes, such as new names on the doors.  The space is the same, but the way in which people inhabit the space has changed immeasurably.  Not only that, but everybody around Don is more leery of his return than happy to see him.  Now that the agency has established an uneasy yet merely-adequate status quo, there’s no reason to try for anything better.  Better to sell a mediocre product than risk going for a better product that may not sell.  There’s always a certain complacency with mediocrity, and that complacency is perpetuated by Lou, the one who is the most alarmed by Don’s return.

Mad Men 7x03-4

Source: AMC

So Don walks into the office a changed man, one who is given nearly impossible terms to meet in order to stay under contract.  The problem is that, even though the office is drastically different, Don is still in the same old place with the same old people.  How can he expect to become better if he’s at his old job dealing with old stresses once more?  When it comes to changing, all we can do is wander around, trying to be better even if we’re returning to mistakes we’ve made in the past.  Because Don is returning to a place where he made a mistake (the Hershey pitch), because there is no past where that mistake didn’t happen.  And so, in his attempt to be a better person, that mistake will forever loom over him, beating him down every time he tries to stand up.

“Field Trip” may be one of the weaker outings of the season thus far, but it’s still a great episode that creates a strong parallel between Betty and Don.  Both of them are people unwilling to acknowledge their failings to an extent where they can counteract them.  And both of them are ultimately beaten down for that lack of acknowledgement.  Only time will tell if Don and Megan’s separation will stick, but for now, their relationship is another casualty of a past riddled with mistakes and failings.  And it’s entirely possible that Don’s share of SC&P could be another casualty of that same past.

So what did you think of “Field Trip”?  I didn’t say anything about Harry, but did you like his story as well?  Let me know in the comments!

Michael St. Charles

is just a Michigan State University grad who loves a good story. If he’s not off teaching the young ones how to solve quadratic functions or to write an expository essay, he’s watching old-school HBO shows, indie horror movies, or he’s playing Resident Evil 4.

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