There are manifold parallels to be made between “Field Trip,” the latest installment of Mad Men, and Model Shop, the eerie Jacques Demy melodrama Don (Jon Hamm) is watching as the episode opens. The focus of the film is an essentially unemployed man who wanders aimlessly following an epic blow-out with his actress girlfriend, which is more or less what Don goes through when he decides to surprise Megan (Jessica Paré) by flying out to California. Even more telling, however, is the fact that Model Shop was Demy’s English-language debut and revisits Lola, the titular character of his smash first feature. Among other things, Model Shop served as a stern reaffirmation that you can’t go home again, and much of “Field Trip” revolves around an inability to notice that resilient adage.
It’s no coincidence that the episode also deals primarily with Don and Betty (January Jones), who’s rattled early on by a lunch with Francine (Anne Dudek). Now a travel agent, Francine nips Betty’s nerves by suggesting that there’s life beyond motherhood. When Francine talks about looking for leads and the struggles of professional life, Betty can only mention a tentative promotion that Henry (Christopher Stanley) might get, but she’s hardly the only person in an existential panic. Megan’s rampant insecurity about an “adequate” audition leads her to stalk an executive, the news of which spurs both Don’s visit and their proposed separation after he admits that he’s been getting paid to at once stay with SC&P and stay away from their business.
Even Peggy seems to be noticing the rust on her career and reputation. She spends the beginning of the episode kvetching about Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) getting a Clio nomination over her, only to then have to live through Lou Avery’s (Allan Havey) now-routine slams against her work. Of course, its revealed that SC&P itself is beginning to slip into obsolescence when Harry (Rich Sommer) makes up a story about having a computer, when a client is nearly snatched up by a rival agency already in the process of learning how to build programs. That this coincides with the company’s reappraisal of their relationship with Don does not bode well for any sort of future for anyone at SC&P.
The title of the episode clearly refers to Betty’s decision to act as a chaperone on Bobby’s (Mason Vale Cotton) class’s trip to a working dairy farm, where she’s quick to judge the teacher’s decision to go braless and belittles her ability to perform physical labor. In a broader sense, the title speaks to learning by doing, through direct experiences with ways of life. Neither Betty, who ends the episode with an unsettling bit of maternal resentment, nor Don, who ends up signing a new contract to return to the office, have learned much of anything through their experiences. The future scares them, and their fear manifests through Betty’s fury over Bobby trading her sandwich for a female classmate’s candy, and Don’s suspicions over a contract offered by Dave Wooster (David James Elliott). It’s why the camera holds on that close-up of Don’s hand on that doorknob, about to leave SC&P when Roger doesn’t show up for a planned meeting, as if to make sure we remember the one moment when Don could have moved on from his shattering past for good.