Russian filmmaker Alexander Khvan once described the movies as a "collective dream vision." Last night's Mad Men, entitled "Field Trip," opened in a cinema, with the projector's beam of light directed out of screen and into the viewer. The camera tracked down to reveal Don Draper, alone, dreaming of Los Angeles.
"Field Trip" has to be one of the strangest episodes in the show's history, a feat it managed without drugs or Lynchian pistol-waving; rather, the uncanny feeling of the episode came from the episode's structure—or lack thereof. The first 20 minutes unfolded leisurely, which by Mad Men standards might appear glacial if you aren't down to flounder. There was an imaginary computer, Peggy's hair looking great, and The Twilight Zone's Rod Serling (mentioned only in dialogue). What did it all mean? What center held the episode together? I can't account for the stray threads right now, but the most realized sections of "Field Trip" had to do with fantasy and dreaming, as prefigured by the opening scene.
Both Betty and Don live out fantasies in this episode. Both sets of baby-steps into the future are beget by conversation—one romantic, the other polite. Don flies to Los Angeles at the behest of Megan's agent, Alan Silver; from the sound of it, she's not doing so hot. Her nerves are shaken, she's cry-pleading with directors for more auditions and just generally making the kind of scene that means two men getting on the horn to decide her future. The phone conversation between Don and Alan recalls the dreadful late-night talks between Don and Betty's psychiatrist in season one. Only this is 1969 and Megan isn't looking to be treated by two men who know what's better for her.
Don's impromptu visit goes splat when he mentions Silver's request. Angry and hurt, Megan demands to know why it sounds so quiet when Don calls her on the phone. His initial denial makes it sound like he's gaslighting her—It's just really quiet at work now; don't rely on your intimate knowledge of the SC&P office to imagine it otherwise, dear!—and she becomes more upset. It cracks him into telling the truth, which is becoming something of a new-Don hallmark. Only Don is so fixed on the self-image he's been maintaining since he swapped dog tags with a dead guy back in Korea, that he failed to see how pursuing his old job could hurt his wife. See, he could've just gone to California after being cut loose. But, you know, the American dream and all that. So Don decides to get his job back.
Once a dream gets into your brain, it's hard to work it loose. There has to be some kind of trauma to expel the idea. An afternoon lunch with a friend puts a great notion in Betty's head. Her friend is back to work, which means the kids walk themselves to school. Referring to her new career as a reward, Betty's friend is riding the second wave. "I thought [the children] were the reward," Betty says. Maybe doubting herself, she decides to prove how much she loves being a mom and volunteers to chaperone Bobby's field trip to a farm.
This is where the editing gets interesting. Your typical television show practices the kind of invisible editing that, in general, means you take in a complete scene before moving to the next digestible chunk. That's not what happened last night. While Bobby and Betty ride the bus to the farm, Don prepares to go into work for the first time since the Hershey's debacle. From the jump, the editing puts the viewer on less than solid ground. Don sits in his apartment, checking his watch. It's nearly time to leave. This seems to be the frame for his imagining going into work for the first time, the way you might imagine an action you want to succeed at before doing it, the way I'm told surgeons often prepare for surgery. Visualize your success, like some self-help book command. So, initially, it seems like Don is getting himself psyched up (or, more likely, psyching himself out) for the task at hand. The first-person POV—a rarity on Mad Men—promotes the idea that this is an imagined situation. And then the camera passes the door of Dawn's new office. Does he know about her promotion? We don't have any hard evidence to indicate that he does, so how would Don imagine this detail of his journey? The ground tilts beneath the viewer's feet. It settles when you realize that Don sitting in his apartment wasn't a frame for imagining his first day back, it's an earlier moment cross-cut with his actual first day.
But this realization doesn't make that day feel any less unreal. Don's long afternoon wait is also cross-cut with Betty's day on the farm. The cross-cutting isn't fast, in a way that would create suspense or immediately call attention to the scenes as acting in parallel. Instead, the cross-cutting is at first slow, timed perfectly to disrupt a balanced flow of information.
The input is off. And odd. On the farm, there's sexual tension between Bobby's teacher and Betty. It's as if by resisting the call of feminism with regards to employment, Betty has found herself in the even more radical position of lesbian erotica.
First, Bobby's teacher thanks Betty for showing up. Nothing necessarily strange about that, but her tone is rather warm. Then, another chaperone makes a comment to Betty about the teacher's breasts, likening them to the udders of a cow. January Jones is such a cool performer, her face is hard to read in the moment. Is she downplaying that she's startled by the comment? Is she pretending to have not noticed the teacher's body? In the next scene, the teacher asks for a volunteer to drink some freshly expressed cow's milk. Betty steps up and, taking the pail from the teacher, has a drink of warm, sweet milk. This is how a GIF is made, people.
Back at the office, Don's day is not going according to plan. His dream of returning to his Don Draper fantasy life is a mess, and all because Roger's taken a long lunch. (And also because Roger didn't let the partners know about the visit.) This is when the episode clicks. With a match cut on Betty snapping open a picnic blanket on the farm, the distinct lines of action finally jive. The off-putting rhythm of the edits gets syncopated to reveal some larger structure that was unclear before.
"Field Trip" is about what happens when fantasies don't go as we dreamed. Betty's beautiful day as a mother and a housewife is subverted by sexual tension and then undone by gumdrops. Bobby trades his mother's lunch for candy from a girl in his class. (Get it? All men will stray. And they start young.) Don's triumphant day becomes a case of waiting outside the principal's office. He can come back from his suspension, but under some serious conditions. The hall monitors are gonna be all over his ass. He can't drink like he used to, can't be alone with the clients, has to get his beautiful speeches approved, and he reports to Lou.
And here's what none of us could have ever dreamed of—he says okay. I guess conscience does make cowards of us all.
Ross Scarano is a deputy editor at Complex. He tweets here.