Mad Men is a show about consequences—the brutal, belly-scraping humiliations we experience as a result of our own miserable choices—and “A Field Trip” was exhibit A. After his Dante-esque descent last season, Don and the viewers finally received some release from the Purgatorio of his relationship with Megan and prolonged absence from SC&P. But there’s no more magical resetting.
When Don finally reveals his employment deception, his second wife declares, “This is how it ends.” Meanwhile, the agency couldn’t afford to terminate Don’s partnership, so the SC&P cabal of Bert, Roger, Joan, and Jim makes the pragmatic decision and invites him to stay—as long as he remains dry, closely supervised, and at the mercy of Lou “Adequate” Avery. Oh, and he has to take Lane’s old office. Maybe they’re hoping it will rub off.
A swift decampment to McCann would be far more dignified, but Don’s capacity for self-reinvention is waning. Even with offer in hand, he’d rather stay at SC&P, the agency he helped birth through bravado and force of will, a place where he is now pitied and openly despised—thanks, Peggy—rather than pack up his sordid baggage and head somewhere else. And so Don consents to everyone’s terms. He’s a beaten man.
It’s been only a few short months since we left 1968, but already we’re hurtling toward the 1970s and an accelerating shift in office culture. Harry Crane berates Jim Cutler for undervaluing the media department, and by episode’s end, it’s Cutler lobbying hard for the investment in computer infrastructure. Lou Avery chews out Peggy for wasting Stan’s time developing art for a hypothetical idea, but he’s right: The future belongs to those who can efficiently manage costs and people. Juggling her new and old positions, Dawn maintains the pretense of managing Don’s office, later taking his hat and coat and fetching coffee, but he has to place his own phone call to Megan’s agent like a big boy. Even Joan doesn’t remove her boots when entering Cooper’s office. The era in which everyone else spent the bulk of their work time coddling entitled white men—the blowhards like Roger who waltz in at lunchtime reeking of gin and expecting to call the shots because their name is on the door—is waning. By the time Don returns to walk a mortifying gauntlet down the SC&P hallway, there is literally no place for him.
Bless Michael Ginsberg. Oblivious to social cues, he inadvertently rescues Don from abject humiliation by shoving work under his nose, occupying the protégé role once filled by Peggy, who has also seen herself supplanted thanks to Ginsberg’s Clio nomination. (Nice try brushing that one off, Peggy—we all remember your voice cracking in “The Suitcase” when Don took the Clio for Glo-Coat.) Squirm-worthy moments like these sustain Mad Men’s anti-hero conceit even after, like last season, Don descends to his most unlikeable. His dislocation and abasement here are so complete, it’s difficult not to feel compassion as he’s forced to watch the creatives scurry to Lou’s office for a “meeting.” Don’s stature is so tenuous, the insecurity and minimal distractions could just spur him to his best work. But with Don under Lou’s creative thumb, that might not matter much.
After a two-episode absence, Betty reemerges in the company of Francine, her season one chum from Ossining. But instead of smoking in housecoats and trading juicy rumors about their divorcée neighbor Helen Bishop (she of the lately hatched hearthrob offspring, Glen Bishop), the former pals trade passive-aggressive slights over coffee cake. Betty one-ups Francine with insidery jargon about Henry’s campaign (“AG—Attorney General”) and their efforts to woo New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller before airily misremembering her friend’s career. But Francine—now clad in a rose-hued power pantsuit—has become a working mother herself, discovering a renewed sense of purpose sitting in a storefront three days a week with a finger in her ear. Betty’s gamesmanship falls flat, and her latent insecurities kick into overdrive. When Francine says she relishes a reward beyond rearing her kids, Betty bristles: “I thought they were the reward.”
Demonstrating the same misguided rebelliousness that led her to go brunette after some St. Mark’s hippies criticized her bottle-blonde lifestyle, Betty marches home to play the mothering heavy to her African-American maid/nanny, who appears to handle the more tedious nurturing duties like helping Bobby with his homework. Poor Bobby is overjoyed when Betty comes on his field trip, but for Betty Hofstadt Draper Francis, Bryn Mawr alumna and former couture model, the country farm represents a new circle of hell. Especially when Bobby’s teacher turns out to be warm, free-spirited, and bosomy. Perhaps feeling competitive with the farmer’s daughter’s swinging udders, Betty sips milk straight from the cow—both a step outside her coiffed comfort zone and an assertion of her own maternal nature. Until Bobby, with a child’s impulsivity (and logic—after all, when have we seen Betty eat since slimming down?), trades her sandwich for some gumdrops. The perceived betrayal cuts Betty to the core. “Why don’t they love me?” she wails to Henry, moments after laying a day-long guilt trip on Bobby. She answers her own question, proving that the more these characters change, the more they stay the same.