By John Andrew Fraser
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey hit theaters on April 2, 1968—about a year before this episode of Mad Men takes place. In that film, monkeys gathered around a mysterious black slab as they learned to use bones as tools. That same black slab reappears in one of the movie’s final scenes as an elderly Dr. David Bowman reaches out to touch it while he is on what appears to be his death bed. That monolith was infinite, just like the one Lloyd, the Lease Tech guy, describes to Don.
Like 2001, ‘The Monolith’ is full of little nuggets concerning man’s past, present, and what exists beyond. When Lloyd asks Don for a light he muses, “the perils of technology; man can’t make fire.” Ginsberg’s angry because SC&P’s new computer is presently pushing the agency’s creatives to the side. Meanwhile, Roger and his daughter gaze up at the moon, and she wonders if we’ll ever put a man up there.
While the episode’s title is obviously referring to the large, upright slab that is the agency’s new computer, it’s also a reference to the large and increasingly impersonal corporate structure that has taken over at SC&P this season—of which the computer is really just the latest symptom. Volatile creative geniuses, like Don Draper, have been replaced by adequate, yet boring, middle managers like Lou Avery—not only at SC&P but all over corporate America. After watching ‘The Monolith’ it’s hard not to think that everyone at the agency is really just a cog in the machine. After a certain amount of time, they’ll all end up in the dump right next to a pile of out-dated IBM models.
It didn’t take long for Don to break the rules at work. To be fair, Jim Cutler and the other partners seem like they’re trying their best to make him fail. Don is the kind of employee who doesn’t receive agency-wide memos, he’s basically left to play solitaire in his office by himself all day, and when he is finally given an account, he’s forced to work under his former-protege who currently hates him. When he goes to Bert Cooper with the idea to present to Lease Tech while their in the office installing the computer, Bert basically tells Don that he’s about as valuable to SC&P as Lane Pryce’s rotting corpse. That’s the last straw—Don’s pouring out the coke and downing the vodka.
Perhaps the one partner who could have actually helped Don through his rough couple days at work was out of the office dealing with his own problems for most of this episode. The apple sure doesn’t fall far from the tree in the Sterling family. While Mona was rightfully turned-off by her daughter’s commune lifestyle, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised (given the commune-like atmosphere in his own hotel room) that Roger decided to stick around and smoke some weed with Margaret and her cult friends. After awhile, I almost felt like Roger was just going to stay on the commune and leave the ad world behind (would anyone at SC&P, besides Don, really even miss him at this point?). But after he sees Margaret sneak off with some hippy in the middle of the night, his paternal instincts kick in, and he tells her that she needs to be at home with her son. But Margaret’s just like her dad. He was never there for her when she was a child, so why does she need to be there for her kids? Roger suggesting otherwise just makes him a hypocrite. Who’s to say that if Roger Sterling hadn’t been born thirty-years later that he wouldn’t be living on a commune in upstate New York too? Where do Roger and his mud-stained suit go from here?—maybe to beat up some rednecks in a bar?—I’m guessing that the answer isn’t going to be good.
Despite all his stupid decisions, on some subconscious level, maybe Don knew he wanted to save himself from officially getting fired from SC&P. He calls Freddy Rumsen—maybe the only guy capable of talking some sense into him. Freddy’s hit rock bottom. He’s the ultimate cautionary tale from advertising’s golden age and he can see that Don’s halfway down the same path. He delivers a harsh but necessary message to Don, “start from the bottom, because that’s really all you can do at this point,” and the episode ends with Don promising Peggy his twenty-five tag lines by lunchtime. I think that there’s something to the fact that Don promises the tags, rather than I actually delivering them.
As we’ve learned from Mad Men and its predecessor, The Sopranos, real change is often difficult and painful to achieve. Don Draper spent a lot of this episode back-sliding, but things seemed to end with him preparing to get back on the right track. But how long until someone finds that empty bottle of vodka in his office? How long until there are more empty liquor bottles in Don’s trash? How long until Lloyd tells someone about his strange encounter with boozy-Don? How long until Don’s replacement is no longer Lou Avery, but HAL 3000?
By John Andrew Fraser
It’s almost always frustrating when reality fails to match up with our hopes, dreams, and the images we construct for ourselves in our minds. I bet Don felt like Megan would be happy to see him when he surprised her in California. I bet he visualized his return to SC&P as some kind of triumphant event where he’d come riding in on a white horse and drop-kick Lou Avery out a thirtieth-story window. It seems pretty clear that at least a part of Betty Draper dreams of becoming the perfect mother. Unfortunately, in ‘Field Trip,’ none of these things work out the way these two characters had planned. In fact, they don’t work out at all.
Megan is happy to see Don at first, but things quickly turn sour when she finds out that he’s really in Los Angeles to check up on her per her agent’s request. She expects the worst from Don when he’s back in New York by himself. He’s always away from the phone when she calls the office. When he calls back it’s always quiet—her guess is that he’s probably off cheating on her while consuming copious amounts of Canadian Club whiskey somewhere in a midtown Manhattan hotel. Megan’s about a season too late with the accusations of adultery, but somehow when the truth comes out about why Don’s never around his office phone it’s even more painful. The fact that Don had been lying to her about his work situation for months, the fact that he clearly doesn’t want to move to L.A. to be with her, makes her reevaluate everything. Last week, honesty led Don to the smallest ray of light. This week, it threw him back into the darkness. Maybe this is where it ends for Don and Megan.
Meanwhile, something sparks inside Betty while she’s having lunch with her old Ossining friend, Francine. While both used to be housewives, Francine’s now working as a travel agent, a job she calls a “reward.” Betty responds by claiming that her place is at home with her kids. Apparently, she really sells herself on this idea, because as soon as she gets home she volunteers to go on a school field trip with Bobby’s class to an upstate New York farm.
Everything about the trip feels weird. Betty’s sitting on the bus talking with her son about the Wolfman and Dracula. Bobby’s teacher isn’t wearing a bra. The class gets off at the farm, and Betty volunteers to drink cow’s milk straight from a pail. What?! Betty’s actually being a pretty good mom for once, until she lashes out at Bobby during lunch time for trading her sandwich for some gumdrops. Betty wanted so badly to prove to herself that she really was a good mother, but in the end, the reality of it is that she just reverts to being Betty.
I give Don some credit. He could’ve used his fight with Megan as an excuse to go on a forty-eight hour bender or something, but when he gets back to New York he seems clear-headed and hungry. He’s still being courted by other agencies, and in this episode he finally gets a formal offer from one. This matches an offer he gets from a random blonde girl who claims to know him (random question: Was I the only one who thought that this girl looked exactly like Anna Draper’s niece—I believe her name was Stephanie—who we met briefly in season four? I was sure it was her when she appeared onscreen last night). I thought Don might take the bait (from both the girl and the new agency), but he really just used the offer as leverage during an impromptu meeting with Roger. Don wants to come back, and maybe it’s because he doesn’t want his BLT to get cold, but Roger tells him to return on Monday.
But on Monday Don is that kid who invited himself to the party (rather than the guy strolling in on the white horse). He’s the man in the corner who’s left alone while everyone talks
behind his back. Ginsberg and Stan might be happy to see him, but the partners are not thrilled to say the least. Jim Cutler even thought that they had fired him. Ultimately, the partners decide to bring Don back, not because they particularly like him or respect him, but because it would take too much money to buy him out (and the agency’s eyeing a new computer!) His return is based on several conditions, however: he’s not to be alone with clients, he must stick to the script in meetings, he can’t drink in the office, and he has to report to Lou. Oh yeah, and he gets to take the office where Lane hung himself. Can Don Draper really change? We’re about to find out.
From Don’s first day back, to a possible Stephanie sighting, to Betty and Bobby’s country excursion, much of ‘Field Trip’ seemed like it took place in a weird kind of off-kilter reality. Sometimes when you step away from things and later return, everything seems like its upside down. I guess it’s only fitting then that this episode closes with Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 were 9.”
By John Andrew Fraser
Don Draper’s apartment is kind of like mine. Alright, his is way nicer, but we both have cockroaches that periodically scurry around our kitchens, and judging by the fact that he’s eating a meal that consists of Ritz crackers, I’d guess that our cooking abilities are roughly equivalent as well. Last week Don enlisted Freddy Rumsen to be his mouth while he was on leave. This week we learn that Dawn, his old secretary, is his eyes and ears at SC&P. He’s also taking lunches with other ad agencies, although they’ve heard the news—he broke down and cried in a meeting about chocolate or something like that.
Speaking of SC&P, things seem more fractured and disorganized at the office than ever. Is it possible that the sum of the agency’s parts no longer add up to a greater whole? The communications between California and New York are disjointed at best, and everybody seemed to want to fire their secretary in this episode. I noticed this last week, but I think it’s worth saying now—It really feels like all the old SCDP partners are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Obviously, Don’s out of the agency completely, and I don’t think we got one scene with Roger in the office last week. This week Jim Cutler tells Roger that he doesn’t want him to be an adversary (a.k.a. step aside old man). It’s worth asking just how long it might be until Roger and Bert Cooper are put out to pasture just like Don.
Yet, as SC&P might be beginning to burst at the seems, Joan and Dawn come out as real winners in this episode. Joan got no love last week, but finally Jim Cutler (of all people) notices that she has actually been working two jobs ever since she became a partner—she’s head of the secretaries while managing accounts. Cutler gives her a second floor office and tells her that she can pick someone new to head up the secretaries. Dawn was a perfect fit for this position and the scene where she inherits Joan’s office was one of the episode’s best. Lou Avery sucks (he can’t even buy his wife perfume when he’s supposed to), but Dawn might never have gotten that promotion if Lou didn’t blow up at her for not being at her desk when Sally unexpectedly arrived at the office. It’s funny how things work out sometimes.
While things were looking up for Joan and Dawn, Peggy still seemed to be stuck in the mud. For a second, I thought she was going to have another breakdown like the one at the end of last week’s episode when she found out that those flowers she thought were from Ted were actually for Shirley, her secretary. Nobody at SC&P really seems to be on Peggy’s side anymore, and she’s become increasingly isolated, drinking and brooding in her office during the day like she was channeling the ghost of Don Draper. So many fans thought that Peggy would be the female character on the show to finally break through the glass ceiling at the agency, but at this rate I wouldn’t be completely surprised if she ended up pursuing something else entirely as the series’ ended.
While the office politics were interesting, the real emotional core of this episode for me involved the scenes between Don and Sally. Those who thought that Don’s confession and cautious glance he shared with his daughter at the end of season six would magically mend the cracks in their relationship were wrong. Mad Men and real life don’t work that way. However, even though the two characters still have a lot healing to do, there was progress here. While Sally catches Don in another lie, when she visits the office and finds out that he no longer works there, he owns up to it and tells her that he was fired for telling the truth about his past at
a very inappropriate time. The two also speak openly about his affair with Sylvia for the first time. When Don asks Sally what he should write in a note to her school explaining why she would be late getting back, and she responds “tell the truth,” she’s talking about so much more than just the letter. At this point, it seems like Sally sees her dad for who he really is, flaws and all, and although she may be disappointed, she has gained a tentative level of acceptance. When she says “I love you” to Don at the end of the episode, it might be the most uplifting moment Mad Men has had in about two seasons.
Overall, I’d say that ‘A Day’s Work’ left me feeling a little more optimistic than last week’s ‘Time Zones.’ Still, there were a ton of death references to work with here. The reason that Sally pops into Don’s life is because she’s attending her roommate’s mother’s funeral in the city (and Don appears to be weirdly interested in the fun, eral). Pete Campbell (who seems a lot more like the old Pete Campbell in this episode), says that ever since he moved to California he feels like no one notices him. “It’s like I’ve gone to heaven, or hell, or purgatory,” he tells Ted. Ted’s response?—“You’re going to die someday. Just cash the checks.” What’s all this setting us up for? Mad Men is a pretty morbid show most of the time, so I don’t know if we can really even guess yet. But for now, it’s just good to know that on Valentine’s Day a simple and genuine “I love you,” is almost always more meaningful than the stuff that the Don Draper’s of the world try to sell us. I think even Don himself realized that on some level tonight. That’s progress, right?
By John Andrew Fraser
At this point, I’ve read a couple reviews of Mad Men’s first episode of its final season in which critics have said that ‘Time Zones’ reminded them of the series’ pilot ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,’ but personally, this episode made me think of the season five finale ‘The Phantom.’ The overarching theme of that episode was that Mad Men’s central characters were pursuing something that they could never achieve—perhaps something that didn’t even exist. Don was chasing happiness, which he hoped to find in his new relationship with Megan. Roger was chasing meaning, which he hoped to find through LSD, and Peggy was chasing a fresh start to her career, which she hoped to find at rival ad agency Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough.
In ‘Time Zones’ we see more clearly than ever that the show’s main characters are still chasing meaning, happiness, professional success, and personal fulfillment in their lives, but are all on the verge of despair because achieving these things proves to be so difficult for them (the exception to this is Pete Campbell who strangely seems at home in laid-back California). Peggy now has to deal with creative director Lou Avery who doesn’t seem to care at all about the quality of the work Sterling Cooper & Partners produces so long as it’s done on time. Joan still has to combat everyone who doesn’t take her seriously, whether it be someone from Butler shoes or a business professor. Roger has turned to having what appear to be recreational orgies in a hotel room, and when his daughter tells him that she forgives him for all his wrongdoings at brunch, he can’t even summon a half-way appropriate response. But the character trying to fill the biggest hole is obviously Don. He has no job, his wife lives across the continent, and Don even admits to a stranger on a plane that Megan knows that he’s a terrible husband at this point. “I really thought I could get it right this time,” he laments.
What about that stranger on a plane (who just happens to be played by Neve Campbell)? For me, this was the episode’s most interesting and odd scene. Did Neve Campbell’s widow character really exist or was she a figment of Don’s imagination? After all, her entire story seemed to be littered with references to Don’s past and present. She cryptically says that her husband died “of thirst,” and that his business sent him to a hospital to try to help him. She thought he was getting better, but the doctors told her that he would be dead in a year “they all would be.” She had just scattered his ashes at Disneyland, the place where Don proposed to Megan.
So what could all this mean? Obviously, I think there’s a lot of room for interpretation. On a very surface level maybe the woman’s husband was an alcoholic. Maybe Don knows that his drinking is slowly killing him, and the widow’s husband is serving as a mirror. I think Matt Weiner was probably going for something a little deeper here, however. As previously discussed, Don, Peggy, Roger, Joan, and basically everyone else on this show are driven by their thirsts—their desires to chase toward these phantom ideas like happiness and self-realization that always seem to slip from their grasps. Maybe it’s this thirst that will ultimately do these characters in as the series draws to a close.
Even though nothing totally awful happened to any specific character in this episode there was an underlying feeling of dread throughout the whole hour. While characters rarely die on Mad Men the show creates a feeling of impending doom that is unlike anything else on the air right now, and the final scene where Don and Peggy both have breakdowns that mirror one another scored to Vanilla Fudge’s “You Keep Me Hanging On,” highlighted the episode’s overall mood of despair. But on the bright side, Don was the voice behind Freddy Rumsen’s awesome Accutron watch pitch—somewhere a creative genius still lives in the shell that is Don Draper. Can he find a way to harvest that spark over the next thirteen episodes? Can he find anything close to fulfillment or peace? That final scene seems to suggest that the answer is “no,” but who can really tell at this point?
It’s 1969, but things are far from groovy. Throughout the 1960s America chased idealistic (some would say phantom) dreams that ultimately gave way to general disappointment in the 70s. Based on what I saw in ‘Time Zones’ many of Mad Men’s characters look like they may be headed toward similar disappointment in their personal lives as the decade (and the show) draws to a close.