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Mad Men, Ep. 7.03: “Field Trip” – How useful is regret?

Mad Men, Ep. 7.03: “Field Trip” – How useful is regret?

MM - 7.03.01

Mad Men, Season 7: Episode 3 – “Field Trip”
Written by Heather Jeng Bladt & Matthew Weiner
Directed by Christopher Manley
Airs Sunday nights at 10 on AMC

“The f***ing regret. The guilt. These things. Don’t ever let anyone
ever say to you you shouldn’t regret anything.
Don’t do that. Don’t. You regret what you f***ing want.
Use that. Use that. Use that regret for anything, anyway you want.
You can use it, okay?”
Earl Partridge, Magnolia

Earlier tonight, when I went back to re-watch Don’s Hershey’s speech from last season of Mad Men and looked at it alongside everything going on in “Field Trip,” it took only a moment or two until I started thinking about the first time I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. Earl’s speech to Phil about regret is something that’s stuck with me since then and is very unlikely to be forgotten about anytime soon. After Don delivers that pitch, when he gives a bogus story about tying his father’s love to receiving a Hershey’s bar, he looks over at Ted and down at his own shaking hands, realizing how fake the whole scenario is. And for the first time in that kind of setting, we see him be honest with a group of people. I get embarrassed when I think about certain events in my past (the most embarrassing of which always surprise me when they evoke this involuntary verbal reaction–like, I’ll either laugh or scoff or mutter something aloud in response to a memory as if I had the opportunity right there and then to alter what had already happened). I can only imagine what Don thinks when he re-lives that scene. But regretting something doesn’t mean that the thing you regret should be changed or that you should spend your waking moments wishing you could change it. Among those embarrassing memories are the first of my relationships, in which I was so nervous about being a good boyfriend that I would be willing to believe the same things my girlfriends did, even if I was ambivalent or–worse–actually believed the opposite about something. It was a revelatory and freeing experience when I watched Magnolia. Here, in the midst of a relationship with someone whose life’s motto was “No Regrets,” was a fictional character saying something I truly and strongly believed in. Who was she to say that regrets are things you should try to minimize? It was a question I asked myself. Then it was a question I asked her. Then it was a question that caused a huge fight. But it remained a question that needed to be asked if I wanted to be honest about who I was. I never wanted to live my life aiming for “No Regrets.” Nor do I now. Instead, I try to harness the regrets I’ve accumulated, of which there are plenty–almost daily. There’s a danger in that, too, though. It’s easy to go the other way and write off regrets as things that have made you who you are, which is a popular phrasing that is used by people who don’t want to give the regrets much thought. Yet, who the hell am I to say my way or Earl’s way is the right way. The key part of his speech is to use the regrets “for anything, anyway you want.”

That’s a long-winded way of saying that I take issue with Bobby telling Henry that he “[wishes] it was yesterday.” I want to reach through the screen, shake Bobby by the collar and say “Look, kid! You regret what you want! Use it!” The characters in “Field Trip” are in places where they can either let past events define them by brooding over that which cannot be changed or they can let those events define them by trying to live with them and move on as effectively as possible. Peggy, of course, is content to continue to believe Fate has dealt her a crappy hand. “Well, I can’t say that we miss you,” she tells Don. Peggy regrets most things Ted-related, and using Don as a scapegoat (appropriately so, from her perspective, since his actions sent Ted to California) is a nice way of avoiding culpability and tackling that regret in some kind of mature way. Even Bobby is more willing to let the regret settle in. There’s an issue with his relative innocence affecting that comparison, certainly, but the fact that he’s asking for a re-do is, I think, a step in the right direction towards letting the field trip build his character while Peggy avoiding that contemplation is holding back any development for her in these early episodes.

And before getting into Don, who dominates “Field Trip” through the sheer force of Jon Hamm (he can join Leo DiCaprio in the Perpetual Losers section at all awards ceremonies–you know, right where Peggy is without her Cleo. Zing!), how regret plays on Roger Sterling in this episode is something that fascinates me. I’ve always loved Roger. I think John Slattery was born for the role, and if Roger isn’t the funniest and/or most entertaining character in Mad Men on a consistent basis, I don’t know who is. With that chummy persona, however, comes the image of being a carefree person who is putting up with life for the occasional laughs and drinks. Matthew Weiner often does a great job of reminding us that Roger is so much more than that, but those reminders do need to be there. The best of those reminders is seen in how Roger so ferociously defends his friend, Don, in “Field Trip.” Roger misses Don, as he says in the unannounced hotel room drop-in. But there’s so much more to it than that, and when Roger goes off on Jim, literally yelling at the guy on Don’s behalf, the weighty effects of regret are clear. Roger can’t go back and change what happened when the partners asked Don to step aside, even though part of him might want that. What he can do is own up to what he believes and fight for Don when no one else will. It’s one of Roger’s best moments in the series, as far as I’m concerned, with the practicality of what he’s saying about Don being a genius and pointing out the complications of buying out his shares only serving as a mask to cover up that he’s cashing in on his own re-do. Maybe the guy who told the Hershey’s people about growing up in a whorehouse and feeling the only happiness he ever felt from a chocolate bar doesn’t deserve to be thrown under the bus. Maybe he just needed to try to connect with someone on something. Life’s lonely enough as it is. Why make that worse for Don by punishing him for being honest at an inopportune time?

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Don’s journey in “Field Trip” builds up to his sit-down with the partners, when he is given the chance to say “Okay.” He’ll take whatever they give him. There’s some genuinely upsetting scenes along the way, though. This is probably a silly and academic-essay way of describing Don’s situation, but he appears to be trying to mend two failing marriages: one with his wife and one with his agency. When he tells Megan “I don’t know if they want me or they don’t want me,” that’s an issue that just as easily could be applied to Megan, who doesn’t know what Don wants from her. She gets embarrassed, wondering why she would ever think that Don would possibly show up just because he misses her. It’s sad. But it’s true. I find some of the dialog in their break-up fight really difficult to take in because of similar experiences I’ve had. The two have reached the point where the distance is part of the thing that’s keeping them together. How could Don and Megan possibly co-exist in California as the people they are? Megan wants a sympathetic ear to listen to her lament about walking around in a cloud of “No,” and Don does the typically masculine thing by being presumptuous enough to try to fix her situation simply by saying things (guilty as charged, right here). Instead of basically calling her insane and telling Megan to just deal with it better, Don might have avoided the fight through a simple “Yeah, that sucks” (or whatever that is in period-appropriate lexicon). Yet, is that a way of being dishonest with oneself? If Don really believes that Megan needs to learn how to take defeat better, should he bite his tongue for fear of alienating her? And if he does explain his thoughts on the matter and criticize her fairly based on his opinions, should he be upset that it causes the final rift, pushing her to call it off? At some point, people stop being compatible enough and they owe it to themselves to recognize when that moment is. So, while Don shows his true colors later in the episode by calling Megan in an attempt to patch things up (again, season seven Don is worlds apart from season six Don), I don’t know if it’s worth it for either of them. Megan says as much: “It’s okay, Don. This is the way it ends. It’s going to be so much easier for the both of us.” I really do like Megan as a character. She brings great energy to Mad Men and has tested Don in some of the most interesting ways the series has tried. It would be disappointing, then, to see her role diminished because of the failed marriage, but I can’t imagine the two being able to compromise and go on with Megan now knowing that Don could have been living with her if he had only wanted to.

The patch-up with the agency goes much better by the end of the episode, though the in-story hours before that are full of uncertainty and mixed emotions. Director Christopher Stanley makes a brilliant choice in cutting between shots of Don sitting at home and his arrival at SC&P, allowing that first minute to be interpreted as something that Don is envisioning. We see, though, that everything is real and that his triumphant return is anything but triumphant. Later, he tells Roger that he’s “not going to slink out of here with [his] tail between [his] legs,” which is the only reason he suffers through talking with all the people who are either surprised he’s there or most likely actively dislike that he is there. However, there are a couple positive aspects of his return, and leave it to Ginsberg to be the one to integrate Don back in so seamlessly. Ginsberg’s surprise quickly wears off, and he drags Don in to talk about some ideas the creative team is working on. It’s as comfortable as anything will be for Don while he waits for Roger, and although I kind of wish we had seen Don work some of his magic, it still just feels right to be looking at Don sitting in front of a bunch of material at the office.

To get back to the original point, there are plenty of ways Don could handle being told the stipulations that come with being asked back to work. For many people, the regret that comes with a situation like Don’s might affect him to the extent that his pride would not allow for being treated like that. Peggy, for instance, might use bitterness where understanding would be a better path. Yet, Don uses his regret well. I don’t think he’s sorry about saying the things he said. Those needed to be verbalized. Dick Whitman has spent too much time being Don Draper to keep those things to himself. But regret regarding the way that they were verbalized makes sense. Rather than ignoring that, Don learns from it. To some people, it might be a shocker that Don learns anything ever, but that is discrediting his character a tremendous amount. He might not be totally comfortable in his skin, but he knows how to deal with it better because of the mistakes he’s made. Just as he’ll have to adapt to a new approach to his job. Just as I’ll have to adapt to new relationships. Just as everyone will have to adapt to their own recurring situations with the benefit of past experience.

– Sean Colletti

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Other Thoughts:

– Don may be more sympathetic now than ever, but he’s still capable of being a Dick (see what I did there!?). Case in point: expecting Dawn to cater to his every whim. Bless you, Dawn, for putting up with this guy. May you be rewarded with a bouquet of roses that Peggy will inevitably throw in the trash.

– The telephone conversation Don has with Alan about Megan’s erratic behavior brought to mind those scenes from the first season of Mad Men, in which Don is retrieving information from Betty’s therapist behind her back.

– Speaking of Betty, Francine calls her Betty Draper. How does she feel about that!?

– Also speaking of Betty, hey! It’s Betty! Haters say what you will, but Mad Men is not Mad Men to me without January Jones. All her reactions in this, from looking at Miss Kaiser’s blouse to her coldness after Bobby trades her sandwich (oh, no, Betty! Not the sandwich! God! Bobby ruins everything!), are absolutely perfect. Just like Betty. Betty is a saint. Betty Francis 2016.

– Harry also makes his first appearance of the season. He gets to talk computers and have this exchange with Jim: “Are you aware your self-pity is distasteful?” “You know what? This conversation is over. I’m really not interested.”

– And just before that: “What are you smiling about?” “Did you not call for a fireman.”

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

– But the best Harry-related moment comes later, when the partners are talking about Don. Jim brings up the media issues and mentions Harry by name, to which Joan and Roger respond, respectively: “Harry Crane?” “He’s gone. Anything else?”

– Ginsberg being a pal to Peggy: “That’s comforting. You weren’t rejected. You weren’t even considered.”

– Once again, Don has plenty of attempts to do historically Don things. His flight attendant hits on him, which appears to be something she’s done a few times without getting the reaction she’s looking for. Then, at a business meeting, a young woman named Emily essentially invites him upstairs for sex. When we see Don knock on a hotel room door only to have Roger open it, it’s very clear we’re in the New Don era. He even tries to explain that to Megan: “There is no one else. I’ve been good. I haven’t even been drinking that much.” Progress?

– This exchange between Don and Megan really mirrors last week’s conversation at the diner with Sally: “I know how I want you to see me.” “Don’t lie to me.”

– When Betty drops some of her Dracula knowledge on Bobby, it prompts him to boast to his teacher: “We were having a conversation!” Good for you, Bobby. Betty gets extra motherly points for being the cool mom who drinks the milk. Bobby even shoes away some kid who tries to sit down on their blanket.

– Don: “Good to see you.” Lou: “Sure.”

– Of all the reactions from people to Don’s return, Ken’s was the least complicated. He genuinely seemed happy to see Don and was quick to show off his baby pictures.

– Bert hates that Joan wears boots that are a hassle to take off.

– Don: “Bert, how are you?” Bert: “Capital.”

– Don’s stipulations: 1) not allowed to be alone with clients, 2) stick to the script as approved by the partners, 3) no drinking in the office except for client hospitality, 4) uses Lane’s old office and 5) report to Lou. I’d say number four is probably the easiest to swallow despite it being terribly morbid, plus remaining guilt (if any) for firing Lane. To me, number five is the most horrific. Good lord, Lou is just awful.