Mad Men Episode 703 & 704 Deconstructed

by: L.P. Hanners

As one episode ushers us back to the past, another vaults us into the future where an aroma of hope curiously lingers….

Mad Men’s episode 703, the third in this final season, felt familiar. Although we were eventually introduced to a Don we didn’t recognize (“Ok”), something felt so utterly classic in this episode. Maybe it was that we had the opportunity to spend some time with Bobby, or that Betty manifested herself as cold and self-centered as ever (if the Don & Megan / Don return moments hadn’t been so powerful, I would happily spend this entire discussion examining Betty’s season debut). Or maybe, it was that the episode commenced with Don in a very familiar place, one which he, like many of us, seeks out in moments of distress, the impregnable, cavernous dark womb of a movie theater.

Within the theater we find Don, with far too much time on his hands, taking in Jacques Demy’s 1969 movie Model Shop, which stars Gary Lockwood as a playboy caught between two women (sound familiar?). A film that was panned upon its release, Model Shop masterfully portrays the era’s youth trying to make their way in an eccentric and unfamiliar city. People like Megan, who, we dramatical ascertain, finds Don’s belated honesty to be too little too late.

Megan, alone in LA, is confused, frenzied, and sabotaging her own career with immature, desperate acts (funny how this idea manifests itself later in the episode as Don ignores his own advice and show’s up unexpected at Roger’s). Megan’s childish actions bring to mind Betty’s behavior in the first half of the series ((It was also a callback to how Don was checking in on Betty with his conversations with her therapist, also in Season one.)), and while Megan falls short in shrewdly managing her career, she’s still brilliant when it comes to assessing the sociology of her marriage.

Megan is a rare find. A talented individual with amazing drive, but her acts of desperation highlight the awful place she is in emotionally. Megan isn’t just insecure about her auditions, she’s truly insecure about Don. It is a shame Megan doesn’t realize how hard Don is trying, and that he is changing his ways because of her (“I’ve been good. I haven’t even been drinking that much”). But Megan cannot shake the fact that Don has made a conscious decision to withhold the truth from her on a daily basis, and as Megan pushes Don away from her, possibly for good, we come face to face with the true theme of the episode – rejection.

“Field Trip,” the title of this third episode, most literally refers to Bobby’s class trip to his teacher’s father’s farm, a trip which Betty has extemporaneously decided to chaperone. Betty’s first appearance of the season was altogether familiar, and it was easy to miss the significance of it at first glance. There were many moments in the episode that were callbacks to the show’s golden age, for instance the sudden appearance of Betty’s old friend Francene. This reunion winds Betty up, causing her to make an impulsive decision to chaperone her son’s field trip after becoming irritated by her maid’s lack of enthusiasm. Even though Betty sticks out like a sore thumb on this trip, she still manages to somehow blend in enough to be accepted by everyone and enjoy herself. Betty is surely relishing all the validation and appears to be taking an active interest in her son’s life, that is until he does something impulsive himself. Enter, the dark, neurotic Betty from season’s past, and we now know that Betty’s relationship with food hasn’t changed just because her size has. By episode’s end, Betty’s entire universe crashes hard, and she’s left questioning if she’ll ever really have a chance at being loved by her children. And to make matters worse, poor Bobby is bewildered by it all, declaring distressingly to Henry, “I wish it was yesterday.”

In many ways, “Field Trip” is as much a nod to taking a trip through the show’s golden age as it was a literal allusion to Bobby’s trip to the farm. The episode featured countless nods to the series’ beginning: ladies throwing themselves at Don in animated fashion, Ken’s mentioning of the carousel, Don at the movies, Francine. But the most significant of its callbacks is the completely unexpected re-teaming of our heroes – Don and Roger. Roger and Don decide themselves it is time for Don to return, without thinking about how this affects anyone else in the office. This is regular behavior for these two of course, and this intimate and private conversation ultimately births the return of Don to the company he helped found. Unfortunately for Don, his re-entry into the world proved to be as difficult as it was fascinating to behold.

Don’s return to work is a moment that germinated with Don’s conversations with Sally last week – when he was truly vulnerable. Remember how he tip-toed around Sally, and the truth, before finally acknowledging what both of them already knew, the same way everyone is tip-toeing around the status of his “leave of absence?” It took Don a few months, and that revelatory visit with Sally, but he eventually stepped out of his comfort zone, swallowed his pride, and began that mini-journey, manifest and conquest back to his agency. He’s going back to the circus, and he’s the elephant in the ring. The scope of the narrative’s sequence is much bigger than just Don’s story though – everyone is pulled in for one hell of an ensemble performance that’s constantly changing perspective throughout the last half of the show.

The return commences with Don anxiously glancing at his watch (“It’s not a timepiece, it’s a conversation piece”), and soon we experience a multitude of reactions to Don’s arrival ((Don’s return paralleled his first appearance at the firm (shown in flashback in Season 3) when he showed up unannounced claiming a vague invitation from Roger.)). Don’s return is a real delight in terms of engaging television; an occasion that finds the shows characters in the middle, as opposed to simply for or against something, or aligned as friend or foe. For every smiling face Don encounters, the next is one of panic. The next indifferent. During this anxiety ridden sequence, Don wears his heart on his sleeve, forging a relatability with the viewer not yet experienced in the show. And then Don does the unthinkable, in order to return to work he agrees to a list of stipulations which tether him to SC&P like a dog to a leash. A man so famously freewheeling that he operated for years without even a contract, now agrees to a series of insulting and binding restrictions? Why?

Don, it could be argued, wants what he cannot have. Dave Wooster offered up a new life on a platter, but SC&P is playing hard to get. Don wants to earn his way back, prove to himself and to the firm that he has what it takes to bounce back (this is a man who comes from nothing remember). And, its fascinating to view this “Ok” as more than a compromise, but a victory, a rebirth of sorts. Don is back, albeit hat in hand, but he isn’t going to beg or apologize. This is his company, and it is time to see how bad he really wants it…… 

Symbolism in the world of Mad Men tends to be far from overt. In fact, Weiner’s world of allegorical doorways and meaning hidden in everything from individual characters to the books they are reading, films or shows they are watching, and vices they choose, can be dizzying and downright mystifying. From Freudian allusions to crafty personifications, the objects and personas that inhabit the show almost all have significance. But never before has it been so apparent, so markedly obvious, as it was with “The Monolith.” ((An obvious reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the name given by humans to the mysterious black slabs found scattered throughout the Solar System.)) Man vs. Machine, Computers vs. Creativity, Us vs. Them – all facing off with impassioned fervor as Mad Men comes face to face with the eventual, technological progress.

The fourth episode of this final season, accordingly entitled “The Monolith,” is a reference to the new computer that surfaced this week, displacing the creatives’ lounge and agitating SC&P’s occupants. The computer, which “does a lot of things like make Harry Crane seem important,”(John Slattery’s delivery is still, after all these years, sharp as a tack!) is greeted with equal parts enthusiasm and suspicion, the way all innovative advancements have been dating back to the dawn of fire, the invention of the wheel and the birth of air travel. And this is the point, plain and simple. It isn’t often that Mad Men blatantly bashes you over the head with metaphorical objects, but the Monolith computer, which has been referred to as a “doorway to the future,” does just that, and it also reminds Don Draper, every time he emerges from the elevator, what is waiting for him – the future, whether he is ready for it or not.

According to Lloyd Hawley ((Played by Robert Baker from the television show Valentine and later Grey’s Anatomy. I have heard him described as the unpretentious Seth McFarlane – a comparison I appreciate!)), the the Monolith computer acts as “metaphor for whatever’s on people’s minds.” And in Roger’s case, at the bemoaning of his ex-wife ((“These people are lost, they’re on drugs and they have venereal diseases” is easily the line of the night!)), what is on his mind is family, specifically his daughter. Roger’s personal life is in shambles, and his current dabblings in free-love and experimental drug use are proving to be unfulfilling. Sure he has experienced an awakening of sorts, but he never bothered to take action and physically turn his life around with any deeper sense of wisdom from it. Life is to be lived, it’s not a side effect from a drug. If during one of his spiritual awakenings he came upon any true revelations, he never bothered to actually apply the answer to anything. Roger’s wanderings into the burgeoning hippie movement should make him the perfect man to handle his daughter’s decision to flee the responsibilities of life. Yet, ultimately Roger is who he is, a man too childish to handle Marigold’s blatant daddy issues. And in the end Roger’s storyline was disappointing, and not because of the quality of the material, but because the developments were disappointing for Roger himself. He’s just someone who isn’t worthy of a happy ending, as of yet anyhow.

While Roger faces his own demons, Peggy is immersed in an unforgiving match of office politics and cowardice, and is aligned in a seemingly no-win contest with her former boss, Don. Although Peggy finds herself in an precarious situation, the events that unfolded reinforced an idea that has been coming to a slow boil as this series has progressed, in that we may be on the verge of a role reversal between Peggy and Don. Peggy isn’t becoming Don per se, but she’s certainly becoming a version of him. The depth and range of her character has definitely reached a Don Draper-like stratosphere, and her position of power within the office places her in an intriguing position moving forward. All the speedbumps she has encountered all season, along with an underhanded raise and nod of encouragement, may actually prove worth it.

In addition to the Monolith, there was also another compelling symbol floating around in the episode, a Met’s pennant which belonged to Lane Pryce. When Don accidentally stumbles across it his first reaction is to throw it away, reminiscent of the moment he threw away PFC Dinkins’s lighter in “The Doorway.” This pennant also brings to mind the obvious – Lane Pryce. Don’s role in Lane’s death will always be significant, and the fact that now Don inhabits his office is chilling and telling. And it could be easy to surmise that Don’s occupation of Lane’s office foreshadows his eventual downfall, that Don will be the next SC&P partner to self-destruct. But surprisingly, when Don eventually pins the pennant to his office wall, a whiff of optimism permeates the awful stench of despair overwhelming the office.

A Mets pennant around 1969 might prove to be more significant than its obvious, and poignant, connections to Lane. The Mets this year were a special team you see. In their seven previous seasons, the Mets had never had a winning season. In fact, they lost at least one hundred games in five of the seasons. Their season (like Don’s) got off to a rocky start as they were an uninspired 18–23 through their first 41 games. They then reeled off a club-record 11 straight wins and starting with their 42nd game, the Mets went 82–39, with an impressive .678 winning percentage, the rest of the season. Regardless of this surge they remained in second place most of the season behind the Chicago Cubs. They were even in third place, 9.5 games back from the Cubs, deep into August. Astonishingly, they won 14 of their last 17 games during August, and 24 of their 32 games during September and October to surge past the Cubs, finishing 100–62, eight games ahead of the Cubs. That 17 game differential is one of the largest turnarounds in MLB history and the ‘Miracle Mets’ are well known as one of the greatest comeback stories in sports history. It’s hard to not have that in mind when Don finally sits down at his typewriter, at the stern advice of the now sage life-coach Freddie Rumsen, and “does the work!” 

In the show’s final scene, as Don unleashes himself from the office’s elevators poised and determined, he passes by a control board en route inside. Don marching by a very literal symbol of the future into his own became an empowering moment, and one forged from Don’s realization of what could be, as Freddie Rumsen can easily be viewed as The Ghost of Don Draper’s Future. A blatant reminder of the consequences that lay in wait at the bottom of a bottle. As “Field Trip” took us on a journey into the past, “The Monolith” launched us decidedly into the future, and thanks to Freddie there may actually be a glimmer of hope in the days ahead.

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