This essay on Episode 7.3 of Mad Men originally appeared over at Kritik, the blog of the Unit for Criticism and Intepretive Theory at the University of Illinois. I discuss New Wave cinema, HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Oedipus complex, and lots more!
“Mr. Draper Goes to Town”
Monday, April 28, 2014
Deanna K. Kreisel (U of British Columbia)
[The third in the Unit for Criticism’s multi-authored series of posts on Season 7 of AMC’s Mad Men, posted in collaboration with the publication of MAD MEN, MAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press, March 2013) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]
The third episode of Mad Men’s Season 7, in addition to being unusually orange, was also remarkably cinematic. While the show often trades in subtle cinematic in-jokes (see, for example, Robert A. Rushing, “‘It Will Shock You How Much this Never Happened’: Antonioni and Mad Men” in Mad Men, Mad World: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s), “Field Trip” is fundamentally structured by two key movie references, one overt and one fleeting, which offer different points of entry into Don’s characterological arc. The first appears in the opening seconds of the episode and depicts Don’s own preferred point of identification: an aimless, handsome New Wave hero wandering 1960s LA while juggling a couple of feisty, beautiful women. The film is Model Shop (1969) by French director Jacques Demy (best known for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), and the show’s opening sequence thus rather heavy-handedly signals Don’s growing investment in a new cool self-image. The first seconds of the episode feature a bright disorienting star of light in the blackness that eventually resolves into that most hoary of movie-within-movie clichés, a projector beam in a dark theater, as the camera tilts to reveal Don staring intently, bemusedly, and almost longingly at the images flickering before him.
The film sequence on screen features the hero, George, a temporarily unemployed architect with grandiose dreams who is waiting to be drafted, driving his antique convertible down a Los Angeles boulevard while the wind ruffles his hair (the show’s designers doubtless wish their own simulacra of mid-century style could match the aching perfection of the depicted avenue). But the real crux of the film, for Mad Men’s purposes, is its ending. George telephones Lola, a French model with whom he has had a brief fling, but learns from her roommate that she has just gone back to France. George delivers his speech instead into a black rotary wall phone: “I just wanted to tell her that I loved her. I just wanted her to know that I was going to try and begin again. You know what I mean? That I was— I just wanted her to know that I was gonna try. Yeah, sounds stupid, doesn’t it? But I can, you know. I’m gonna— a person can— always try, you know? Yeah, always try. Yeah, always try.” Fade to black. The intrusive sound of jets overhead establishes another connection to Don’s situation—one of the forms his “always trying” has been taking is flying back and forth to LA to keep his marriage patched together.
But it also strongly echoes the 1962 film La Jetée, in which a hero learns that repeated “trying” can lead simultaneously to success and personal ruin. Later in the episode Don does deliver the words “I love you” into a beige desktop model, but they also seemingly fail to reach their target: Megan, on the other end of the line, responds simply “Good night.” But the formula for this particular segment of Don’s arc has been given: “Always try.” This mandate will follow him through an attempted break-up by his wife and a crushing set of proscriptions for his conditional return laid down by the partners at Sterling Cooper Pryce. After hearing the list of humiliating no-noes, Don still responds with all the sang-froid of a groovy star of the nouvelle vague: “Okay.”
Our second cinematic touch-point is a fleeting reference uttered by Lou, who provides us with the far less flattering shadow version of Don: “What was I supposed to do? Just hide while he sits down there cooling his heels like Longfellow Deeds?” The reference is to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), a film featuring Gary Cooper—an actor with whom Jon Hamm/Don Draper has repeatedly been associated [see, for example, Jeremy Varon, “History Gets in Your Eyes: Mad Men, Misrecognition, and the Masculine Mystique” in Mad Men, Mad World: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s]—as a hayseed trying to make his way in the big city after he inherits a fortune. This is the Dick Whitman version of Don, a hick marked by his humble origins—but without the Capra-esque vision of the redemptive power of just-plain-folksiness. The difference between the two heroes is particularly instructive in its presentation: while New Wave Don is out in the open, lovingly framed by the opening and closing shots of the episode and a clear object of longing identification, Hayseed Don hides in a fleeting, barred reference from a bad patriarch bent on violent suppression. Don of course has been fighting throughout the entire series for the right to cling to an ego-syntonic self-image of his own choosing; as he says to Megan tonight on the phone, “I just thought that if you found out what happened, you wouldn’t look at me in the same way…. I know how I want you to see me.” One of the ways in which (both intra- and extradiegetic) people have seen Don recently is as old-fashioned, out of touch with the times, a post-Kennedy hat-wearer, a bit of a rube. (This return of the repressed is even present in the depicted sequence from Model Shop: an antique car bobbing along in a sea of sleek modern be-finned models.) The concept of old-fashionedness is another recurring motif in tonight’s episode: Don changes from his groovy movie-watching threads back into his “man in the gray flannel suit” suit in preparation for Dawn’s aborted visit to his apartment; Harry the supposedly cutting-edge media expert toils away in an office stuffed with hilariously fusty furniture (including what appears to be a toy Civil War-era cannon); Betty explicitly refers to herself as old-fashioned in conversation with Francine.
While these individual characters are clearly clinging (somewhat paradoxically) to their slender spars of retro flotsam, the show itself is engaged in a deeper meditation on the new-fangled. The structuring absence of the episode is the computer: a device that promises escape from the old-fashioned way of doing things yet, pointedly, does not actually exist. Or rather, it exists, sort of, just not here and now; there’s one at Grey Advertising (former home of another of the show’s patriarchs manqués, Duck Phillips), and its presence there is maddeningly invoked by clients who want to know why SCP isn’t also using one on their behalf. Significantly, even that invocation is mediated—quite literally: the clients learn about it in the pages of The New York Times, and after Harry misleads everyone in the meeting (including a partner in the firm?!) about the existence of a computer at SCP he has to fend off a reporter from The Wall Street Journal who wants to write a story about it. The computer functions as the show’s objet a: a desired object that tantalizingly promises to complete a lack in the subject, an absent presence that characters keep circling back to (the clients, Harry, Jim) in their repeated expressions of need. In the scene where Harry and Jim process the meeting with the clients, this infantile need is made explicit: the former petulantly complains, “That article could have been about us if anyone appreciated our media department,” to which Jim responds, “Are you aware your self-pity is distasteful?”
The computer resides in the deepest levels of the episode’s diegesis: the hero of the film Model Shop is played by Gary Lockwood, who had also co-starred, along with H.A.L. 9000 the super-computer, in the third act of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey(1968). (Somewhat more fancifully, we also learn in this episode that Harry Crane’s full first name is Harold, the unspoken referent of the nickname “Hal.”) Of course H.A.L. in 2001, which was released in the year before this episode’s action, is the operative image of the computer at this particular historical moment: a diabolically intelligent machine bent on human destruction (he does in fact kill the Gary Lockwood character) operating under the cover story of “human error.” Harry Crane’s insistence to the clients—who, tellingly, are from the audio technology company Koss and include an engineer—that “computers don’t think; people do” functions as a reaction formation, a desperate attempt to fend off a repressed and unanswerable anxiety. The insistent repetition of the computer-MacGuffin jarringly interrupts even the most crucial moment of the episode: the partners’ meeting about re-instating Don. Roger is in the middle of advocating Don’s return as a way of returning to the firm’s roots, its creative chops, only to be interrupted by Jim, who has had a conversion experience of sorts: “I think it’s more important we discuss Harry Crane…. This agency is too dependent on creative ‘personalities’…. We need to invest in a computer. Period. We need to tell our clients we’re thinking about the future, not creative hijinks.” Roger responds with what could be the mantra of the entire series, “Don is a genius,” to which Jim replies, “Right now, Don draws a sizeable salary and has a partnership stake. That costs more than a computer.” The face-off is made explicit: an “old-fashioned” and romanticized vision of humanistic (and human) inspiration and creativity versus a future-oriented, mechanistic brute intelligence that threatens to render human agency obsolete.
More importantly, however, is the way the computer-as-extimate-object actually functions, as an interdiction machine. Its infrastructure of binary code operates as a potentially infinite string of Yeses and Noes, a kind of antidote to the pre-Oedipalized “creative” space where Don and the other visionaries messily conjure, drink, screw, and indulge in all manner of infantile excesses. What Harry and Jim (and perhaps everyone in the show, at least unconsciously) longs for is a proper father who will bring the Law to this realm of chaos. (Being forced to take off your shoes upon entering Bert Cooper’s office doesn’t quite cut it.) Of course, the analogy only works at one remove, since the creatives, and creativity, operate firmly in the realm of the symbolic—but certainly the show uses the inspired flailings of Don et al. as conceit for a kind of grand Oedipal drama. In a sense, then, the longed-for object, the Computer Father, promises a fantasized, impossible escape from longing itself. In fact, I would argue that the crux of this episode (if not the entire series) is the image of failed interdiction. As Harry complains to Jim in the scene where he confesses that the firm does not, in fact, own a computer (again, I want to underscore the incredible idea that a partner in the firm could be ignorant of this fact—testament to the power of the computer to function as objet a), “Believe me, I ask for one every Christmas and no one even bothers to say no.” Every Christmas, like a child: What could be worse than hearing No except hearing no response at all? Harry’s demand loops back on itself like a string of impossible code: the one thing a computer, unlike a bad father, cannot do is fail to respond.
The episode resides in the realm of unprohibited infantile desire, and is, appropriately enough, chock-a-block with images of orality. The subplot about Bobby’s field trip, which marks Betty’s first appearance this season, is almost hilariously full of The Breast: from the boob shot of Miss Kaiser leaning over the bus seat to the close-up of the cow’s udder to Betty voluntarily drinking warm milk from a pail (“It’s sweet”), we are treated to a long display of emblematic motherly nurture to balance the fantasized-father main plot. The breast as (quite literally) partial object promises an antidote to the cold, real Betty, who whines to Francis at one point, “Do you think I’m a bad mother?” (How many millions of viewers shouted YES! at the screen at that precise moment?) The one image of putative childhood oral pleasure we are given, Bobby with his gumdrops, is, sadly, just another perverse iteration of Betty’s bad mothering. Of course, Betty’s function on the show is nearly evacuated by her performance as a bad mother, so her question to Francis is both apt and ridiculous. But even Betty does not hear No at this point—or rather, the “No” in answer to her question is really just another forestalled interdiction, as Francis understandably fails to answer honestly. Thus the deep logic of the episode: from the moment we are treated to a close-up of Francine’s business card reassuring us “You Deserve It,” the show teases us with both the pleasures and consequences of indulging infantile desire, whether it be a luxurious vacation, a drink from a dark-brown bottle of whiskey (that cannot be marked by a grease pencil), a lost sandwich, or wallowing in the pleasures of “creativity.” The longed-for computer is a longed-for escape from the solipsism of these desires.
The one person in this episode who does hear interdiction is the ever-auditioning Megan, who is “walking around in a cloud of no.” The image of the audition is crucial to understanding how the “no” operates. Instead of simply saying no, the characters in this episode force one another to audition. Early on Don is bemused by Megan’s dogged demand for another chance from a casting director (“Why would she do that”?), only to find himself in precisely the same position—and every bit as abject—at the end of the episode. Thus, when he is presented with a list of what seem like Noes by the SCP partners—no being alone with clients, no drinking, no operating outside the supervision of father-Lou—we understand these putative prohibitions as proposals instead of absolute Noes. The moment that Don shrugs “Okay,” he accedes to a regime in which he accepts limitations on his chaotic behavior, and it almost seems as though he’s relieved. But this is not the primary Oedipal no of the infant, this is not the fantasized no of the computer. Don has, in a sense, been forced to audition during his long day at SCP before Roger appears (which ends with him reading a copy of Time Magazine with a cover story about the death of Eisenhower, the central American father figure of the twentieth century), and this process of chastening functions as Don’s long-delayed second-order, or phallic, Oedipal drama. An early scene in the episode, between Betty and Francine, establishes the relationship between challenge and reward. Francine explains why she wanted to go back to work as a travel agent: “Being alone in the house. All that time. I really needed a challenge.” Betty replies, “Well, there’s still plenty of challenges ahead, believe me.” “Fine. I needed a reward.”
Don is challenged by the partners to accept a nearly unacceptable set of stipulations, and in agreeing he gets his reward: a return to the world of “the creative,” which he had so desperately missed he was even willing to ghost his services through Freddy, and a (hoped-for) reconciliation with Megan, whom he imagines will take him back if he returns to the firm. The boy is promised, by the name-of-the-father, that in return for castration he will receive a mother-substitute in the form of a woman of his own. It remains to be seen whether Don’s Oedipal fantasy will mesh with that of his wife, who is a bit too insistent that she does not want to be rescued by her husband even as she spits “Thanks, Daddy!” at him immediately after sex.
The image of Don’s “Okay” is an extremely apt ending to an episode that has so coyly teased us with endings, from Jim’s holding up a copy of The American Way of Death to Megan informing Don that “this is the way it ends” to Roger mockingly telling him that the “man who talked to Hershey, I’ve seen that man wandering the streets with a sandwich board saying ‘The End Is Near.’” We all know the end is near, and of course the grand question that has structured the entire show, and even more insistently the episodes of its last season, is Will Don be redeemed? So far, surprisingly, Season 7 seems to be setting us up to believe that he will: from his new honesty with both Sally and Megan to his new emblem of “Always try” to his willingness to humbly accede to his partners’ chastening demands. There are disturbing counter-hints, of course: the threat of the computer anti-Don, the references to Don’s past in throwaway lines about his “riding the rails” and his glory days working on the Kodak campaign (the carousel in Central Park will always remind Ken Cosgrove of Don), Farmer Cy informing the kids on the field trip—which gives the episode its title—that “there’s not a lot aboveground,” even Bobby claiming that the wolfman is his favorite monster because “he changes into it.” Pick your monster, Bobby—this may be the last chance you get to do so.