Mad Men – “The Milk and Honey Route”

I can’t believe there’s only one episode left of Mad Men. Though there are a couple characters that still need screen time (Peggy didn’t even appear in this episode, which makes me think she’ll be featured heavily in the finale), this episode very easily could have been the series finale. It felt like one for so many characters, particularly Don.  After next week, I’ll be watching this whole season over again.

Obviously, major spoilers, so only read on if you’ve seen the episode.

“You’ll have to become someone else.

“It’s been a gift to me, to know when to move on.”

I’m beginning with Betty this week, because there’s so much to talk about. I’ve often thought to myself that, perhaps, Mad Men would end with Don receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis. After all, his character always had such a complicated relationship with cigarettes.

Instead, it was Betty. In the penultimate episode. I suppose I wasn’t so far off.

Betty’s always been a complicated character. She’s often misunderstood, and frequently unlikable. She’s a victim of the times, a woman whose entire life has been lived with an underlying feeling of anger and unjust. Early on in the series, Betty had to suffer the injustice of her psychiatrist speaking to her husband, not Don. Once again, a doctor had a conversation about her to her husband, rather than with her.

Betty has changed, and a lot of that change has taken place off-screen. She decided to go back to school and study psych, and continued with her classes even after the diagnosis. “Why was I ever doing it,” she told Henry. Because she wanted to. Because she knew she could. Because she was finally taking control of her life, and she won’t stop just because that life is being snatched away from her so early.

Betty still isn’t a warm person. She’s refusing treatment because she doesn’t want her family to suffer through watching her slowly die. She didn’t even want to tell her children. She left very specific instructions on how to handle her death with her teenage daughter, because she knows her husband won’t be able to handle it. She had an opportunity to have a touching moment with Sally, but didn’t take it. Instead, she put her words in the letter, one that was meant to be opened after her death.

“Sally, I always worried about you because you march to the beat of your own drum. But now I know that’s good. Your life will be an adventure. I love you.”

Those four sentences show that Betty grew to understand her daughter better than anyone ever could have imagined. That she came to admire her, even. Poor Sally burst into tears. Sally Draper has never really gotten to be a kid, has she? She’s very much her father’s daughter, but she’s similar to Betty in other ways, too. She can smoke a cigarette exactly like her, sadly.

When they were arguing over her refusal of treatment, Henry told Betty that she’s always had it easy. But she told Sally not to think of her as a quitter, that she simply knows when to believe it’s over. Betty certainly has not had an easy life.

Will we see Betty again next episode? That’s hard to say. This certainly felt like a send-off for her character. A sad, but beautiful and dignified send-off. But I don’t believe we’ve said goodbye to Sally yet.

Now, let’s talk about Pete Campbell. This episode absolutely felt like a send-off for him. One by one, the partners are leaving McCann-Erickson. Joan was first to cash out – she was only mentioned in this episode. I certainly hope we’ll see her in the finale. Then Don made his mysterious exit, leaving a couple million on the table. Roger’s still there, I guess? And Harry, he’ll always be there. I expected Pete to thrive at McCann, but he exceeded even his own expectations by winning a high-powered job with a private jet company.

I’m not surprised. Pete possesses a magic combination of work ethic and privilege. He’s supported by the Old Boys’ Network that constantly screws over people like Peggy or Joan, and even makes it hard for people like Don to get a foot in the door. He’s also always worked harder than someone like Roger, and now he’s reaping the reward. Pete is hitting rewind and starting over with his family, Trudy and Tammy.

Why is Trudy taking him back? Well, the glimpses we’ve seen of her have suggested that single motherhood is difficult. Trudy hasn’t forgotten what Pete did to her, but I think she believes that he’s been miserable without her. I think she believes that in a new environment, he’ll change. Will he? I think he might.

And then there’s Don. There’s so much to unpack here, I’m going to need to watch the episode again. Don is traveling across the country, with a hefty bank account and a paper bag of clothes. He stopped at a very “Bates Motel” vibe place, owned by a war vet and his wife.

Don got roped into attending a fundraising dinner for war vets, and reminisced at the table with men who were all as damaged by war as he was. I was sure, sure, someone was going to recognize him. But no – he got drunk and told stories. Well, half his story. He told them that he dropped his lighter and caused an explosion that killed his C.O. But he didn’t tell them that he stole his C.O.’s identity, let Dick Whitman die instead. Don remains an outsider.

Yes, an outsider. An outsider with a lot of money, which in a town like that can only mean he’s a crook. The motel owners broke into his room that night, accused him of stealing the donations and beat him with a phone book. It had actually been a young man, Andy, who worked at the hotel, and Don demanded the money but didn’t out him. Instead, he knocked some sense into the kid, drove him out of town, and gave him his car.

Don’s connection with Andy, was pretty spelled out.

“This is a big crime, stealing these people’s money. If you keep it, you’ll have to become somebody else. And it’s not what you think it is.”

If Don Draper could go back in time, if he could give Dick Whitman advice, he’d tell him to stay Dick Whitman. Now he’s left his home, left his second wife, left his family, left his job, even left his car. He’s just a guy, sitting at a bus stop, with some clothes and some money. Who will he be now?

Three major characters, each looking back on life. Betty will keep taking her classes even though she has calmly accepted her fate. It doesn’t matter that she found herself so late in life – what matters is that she found herself before it was too late. Pete has taken the opportunity for a second chance, to his rewind and erase his mistakes before it’s too late. But Don, he takes a scorched earth approach. He erases everything and starts from scratch.

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About Jill

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