Sims: Matthew Weiner has always kept his cards close to his chest, but Mad Men is a show that is forever mindful of its history. In its second ever episode, “Ladies Room,” Betty Draper confided in her psychiatrist about the recent loss of her mother months before. In its penultimate episode, Sunday night’s “The Milk and Honey Route,” Betty recalled that trauma in deciding not to get treatment for advanced lung cancer, a shocking development that again harkened back to the series’ earliest episodes.
Perhaps it came off a little too clean, but it was truly powerful, and undoubtedly it’s a story of the generation that smoked in greater numbers than any before or since—because of a booming cigarette industry encouraged by advertising and business interests that kept medical warnings suppressed for as long as possible. Don tried to figure out how to hawk Lucky Strike cigarettes in Mad Men’s pilot episode, and now his chain-smoking ex-wife is dying of cancer—it’s a cruel and hardly subtle twist, but Betty, Henry, and Sally’s reactions all felt very true to their characters.
Betty, citing her mother (who died of an unspecified illness when Betty was in her 20s), decided not to submit to chemotherapy or any other palliative care that would prolong her life, despite Henry’s pleading. Henry went to Sally’s school and surreptitiously recruited her to change Betty’s mind—a scene where Christopher Stanley did very powerful work tapping into Henry’s wretched sadness. Here’s a man of influence who can buy himself out of any situation, and even tries invoking Nelson Rockefeller’s name to get Betty to submit to treatment, but knows deep down there’s nothing he can do. So does Betty—she gave Sally careful instructions on how she wants her body dressed and presented whenever she does die, knowing Henry won’t be able to keep it together.
It was all so very Betty—there’s a closing shot of her slowly ascending the stairs at the college she’s enrolled in, hiding her obvious pain because she’s already afraid of looking too old amongst the teenagers. Over that, her voice-over reminded Sally to get her hair done properly when she passes away (and tells her that she loves her, in her own Betty Draper sort of way). It felt like an especially brutal twist because Betty was just beginning to figure things out—enrolling in school, building a relationship with her daughter, et cetera. But then again, I never would have picked Mad Men to take it easy on its characters as it reached its very end.
Think of Don, beaten up by a bunch of drunken veterans as he camped out in a remote motel in Oklahoma as part of his mysterious journey across America. It’s hard to know what was motivating Don but it’s interesting that his kindest moments came with drifters like himself—the hitchhiker he picked up last week, and in this episode, the local scoundrel who tried to make off with the Veterans Association’s donation jar and frame Don for the crime. There’s no reason for Don to forgive him, but he did anyway, and even gifted him his car, another bizarre act of altruism that left Don waiting by a dirt road like Cary Grant in North by Northwest.
Don’s interactions with the motel owners, and the local veterans, weren’t without vulnerability. He spoke candidly about his experiences in Korea, something that’s only previously been depicted in flashback (Don has never really talked about it). But Don acted like he wanted a clean slate, something he won’t find—and, one imagines, he’ll be compelled to return to his real life with Betty’s news, although it’s hard to figure out just what direction the show will take in its final episode next week. The episode’s title, “The Milk and Honey Route,” refers to a 1930s handbook on being a hobo in America—a lifestyle Don has cultivated since childhood (remember that other season one episode, “The Hobo Code”). But shedding that obsession might be crucial to his final arc.
Another storyline that resolved itself a little too cleanly was Pete’s reunion with Trudy, accomplished with the promise of a new home (in Wichita, working for Learjet) and more existentially, his realization that career advancement won’t provide him with any meaningful happiness. For years, Pete strived to get to the top at Sterling Cooper, but once he did, there was no real satisfaction in it, especially since his marriage was falling apart. Since then, he sought salvation in a move to Los Angeles and a series of younger girlfriends, but this latest gambit is the most audacious—hitting the reset button entirely, bringing his family back together, and taking advantage of Trudy’s obvious frustration with divorcee life in Westchester. Perhaps Pete has found a happy ending—but there’s a hint that for all his optimism, Pete will find himself unfulfilled yet again. Do you agree, Sophie? Or is it unfair that Pete might get to live a nice life while Betty and Sally suffer such tragedy?
Gilbert: I don’t really want to talk about Pete, David, because it’s enormously irksome that in art as in life, the most terrible people seem to get the happiest endings. Pete might have grown up a bit but he’s still essentially a worm, given opportunity after opportunity because he went to the right schools and he comes from the right kind of family—“a real knickerbocker.” Possibly he was chastened by Trudy’s reminder that she remembers things “as they were,” without the luxury of sentimentality, but with a Lear jet and a million dollars and a McMansion in Wichita, how long will Pete really put his family first? This whole move, let’s not forget, is all about him. Still, his dinner with his brother was telling, at least regarding the ennui of infidelity. “Always looking for something better, always looking for something else,” might be another good tagline for Don’s current crisis, as might, “It feels good, and then it doesn’t.”
So much of this season seemed to echo back to the first that I’m thinking it’s time to go back and rewatch all of season one in order to get the most out of the finale. In episode nine, “Shoot,” Jim Hobart from (yes) McCann Erickson pursued Don, with Don eventually using the attention to score himself a contract-free position and a raise at Sterling Cooper, telling Roger that if he were ever to leave, it would be because he was leaving advertising altogether. In “Babylon,” Midge’s friend Roy asked Don how he slept at night, to which Don replied, “On a bed made of money.” In “The Hobo Code,” which you mentioned, David, Don smoked marjiuana at Midge’s house and had flashbacks to the time a hobo came by his parent’s farm, a man on his way from New York. “I had a family once; a wife, a job, a mortgage,” the hobo tells him. “I couldn’t sleep at night, tied to all those things. Now I sleep like a stone.” And in the pilot, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” Don struggled to find a way to sell Lucky Strike cigarettes given the emerging science tying smoking to cancer. “Everybody else’s tobacco is poisonous,” Don tells his colleagues. “Lucky Strike’s? It’s toasted.”
Putting that kind of gloss on the truth might make toxic products cosmetically more appealing, but it doesn’t change their fundamental nature, and Betty is a very stinging reminder of that fact. In some ways, it feels a little obvious to have Betty be the manifestation of the consequences of all the poison Don’s been selling for seven seasons, but if nothing else, it gave her character the opportunity to remind everyone that she’s not necessarily the unfeeling Ice Queen she’s typically interpreted as—she’s just pragmatic. She finds comfort in appearances, brushing her hair religiously before bed while Henry looked on, aghast, and spending 90 percent of her goodbye letter to Sally spelling out exactly what she wants to look like after death—which dress, what kind of makeup. The photo attached wasn’t a memento for Sally: It was a cosmetic guide for the undertaker. Juxtaposed against this kind of steely acceptance, Henry and Sally’s reactions were all the more poignant—Sally covering her ears with her hands as if she could block out the news, and Henry sobbing in a girl’s bedroom, and saying absurd things like, “What would happen if Nelson Rockefeller got this?” “He would die,” shouted Betty in response, quite reasonably.
While Sally’s world was falling apart, Don was in small-town nowheresville, buying whiskey from a hotel employee on the make (talk about a young Don Draper), reading novels (The Godfather, The Andromeda Strain, and Hawaii), fixing Coke machines and typewriters (making himself handy as all good hobos do), and eventually panicking when he saw a man he recognized from Korea. (This also ties back to season one, in the episode “Marriage of Figaro,” when Don’s equilibrium was shaken after a man on the train recognized him as Dick Whitman.) But Don also seemed to have a moment of catharsis in confessing his worst act to the drunken veterans around him. “I killed my CO,” he told them, after a harrowing tale about killing Germans in World War Two. “We were under fire. Fuel was everywhere. And I dropped my lighter and I blew him apart. And I got to go home.”
So what next? Don smiled at the end of the episode, having shed himself of another tangible link to his old life—in this case, his car, which he gifted to the young con man after trying to warn him away from the kind of crime so big that you have to take on a new identity. Is he going home, or heading west still? Is he happier now that he’s divesting himself of his money, and possessions? Was the cross in the sky last episode a reminder of the existence of the Hobo Code, prompting him to get on the road? Can he please go home and take care of Sally? It was nice to see Duck, briefly, and to hear his reminder that being charmed is wonderful, but that it “doesn’t last.” The finale is presumably so tightly under wraps that we were robbed of even one of Matthew Weiner’s fake teasers, full of nonsensical statements out of context. Which way will Don go?
Cruz: It seems that for the characters of Mad Men, fulfillment is—to borrow the words of a different prestige show on a different prestige network—a flat circle. A wife, kids, a home, a car, and a job can tie you down; they’re the shackles stopping you from doing exactly what you want, when you want it, with whomever. But after some time, the very things that symbolize freedom—a car heading out West, endless strings of romantic connections, a bag of money, an ever-shifting identity—turn out to weigh heavily on the soul. So you seek out the life you initially tried to leave behind.
Such was the case with Pete, who believes he can have both: He wants his family back, as well as a private jet he can use as a reminder of the untethered life he can always have again. Escape is never unqualified on Mad Men (as in the real world). Don took off from New York but eventually his car broke down, and as much as he wanted to hide in his motel room, he was forced to interact with other people. Of course, it turned out the simple, country folks that city slickers like to condescendingly (or naively) lift up as emblematic of “good living” aren’t necessarily so pure and terrific either. But rather than turn around and head home, the lesson he took away was that his car was just another a liability, and the less he has, the less he has to lose. So he gave it away.
I saw no signs of Don going back home next episode to be a decent father, ex-husband, friend, colleague, employee. If he doesn’t go back home in the finale, “Person to Person,” it would be a daring move on the show’s part, if not an unexpected one. Think of all the show’s suicide motifs, the death-wish ad campaigns, Don’s habit of just going somewhere without explanation. This road trip had initially seemed like an extended version of his season-one errand to pick up Sally’s birthday cake, which he spent sitting in the car by some train tracks. Or like an extended version of his California trip to see Anna. Or to Palm Springs. But whatever it was, Don always went back. Until (maybe) now.
The storyline at the Francis household, meanwhile, offered some contrast to Don’s aimlessness and irresponsibility. Even when faced with the prospect of certain death, of leaving her family and dreams behind, Betty seemed so quickly at peace. As you noted Sophie, she took the pragmatic, not cold, approach to the situation, working to prepare her family for her absence and consoling her daughter. And remarkably, she kept going to her classes, as if the lack of ambiguity defining the rest of her life provided her the freedom to go on with what was left of it. Her first impulse wasn’t to run off, in crisis-mode, as Don might. It was to plant herself even more firmly in her routines. When an alarmed, bewildered Henry asked Betty why she was still going to school, she responded, “Why was I ever doing it?” As if to say: I was always going to die at some point. Knowing that it’s going to happen sooner doesn’t change the meaningfulness of what I was already doing.
For all the episode’s (and show’s) focus on the perennial dissatisfactions plaguing its characters, it felt fitting that at least one found something akin to true contentment. As someone who found Betty’s arc in season one such a welcome antidote to the more indulgent office storylines, I was grateful for the way “The Milk and Honey Route” promised her a dignified end that came off as far more genuine than Pete’s and Trudy’s. For Betty, there’ll be no desperate attempts to stave off the inevitable, no self-pitying schemes to leave town and reinvent herself in her last days, because Betty knows what a real ending looks like. I’ll be glad to see the series wrap next week with that same kind of maturity and self-awareness.