Mad Men‘s penultimate episode, “The Milk and Honey Route,” kept its focus narrow and deep. There was death and rebirth, and somewhere in the middle, there was Don, who might be experiencing a little bit of both. Over the second half of this season, we’ve seen Don shedding his old apartment, his furniture, his second wife, and his position and freedom within SC&P. That last part was what made him realize, why stop there? He essentially went AWOL on McCann, and by the end of “The Milk and Honey Route,” had given away everything except a small bag of necessities. And for once, he actually seemed happy.
Another major tie to his past (as Don) was severed too with the revelation that Betty is dying. Though sudden, that ending for her feels right. She summed it all up to Sally, saying that she’s fought plenty of battles and has never been a quitter, which is how she knows this is really the end. But even more telling were the instructions she left for Sally, related not to the instructions for her sons or for Sally to really help Henry, but to be sure she was buried in her favorite dress with her hair and makeup done exactly as she desired (even adding a second time, “will you be sure to show them to the picture?”)
It was such an incredibly telling moment, to have Betty focused on something so vain, and yet, she can’t be faulted for it in the least. She is completely within her rights to want to have that last little bit of control. But Betty has always been about appearances, and her choice to not get treatment for her cancer reflects that to a certain degree. She wants to stay beautiful as long as she can (the students even referred to her as Mrs. Robinson), and be happy in the time she has left. Her studying and going to school has been one of the few times we’ve see a deeper part of Betty, of who she really is — or who she could have been if the importance of looks and appearances hadn’t been so deeply ingrained within her.
Betty’s arc towards her end was in direct contrast to Pete’s life, which suddenly was turned on its head by Duck getting him a job he didn’t know he wanted, and a chance to re-start a life he’s been lamenting that he lost. Pete and Trudy have always been one of Mad Men‘s most oddly enduring (and endearing) couples even in their separation and divorce. And despite both of their quirks (and Pete’s faults in particular), and the show has not had a more romantic moment than Pete re-proposing to Trudy, and asking her to let them start their lives over again in Wichita. Wichita!
The McCann absorption of SC&P is falling apart incredibly fast, or changing in unexpected ways. Joan’s departure last week was kind of like Betty’s in this episode, where the battles hard fought are eventually, tragically lost. But there were other triumphs, and still something to be said for their decisions about what they will and will not accept moving forward. They are holding on to their agency, and exercising it as best they can. Peggy is restarting her career at McCann as a badass, so it would appear, just as Pete is collecting himself to go elsewhere (which is also interesting given the short scene the two shared a few episodes ago that harkened back to their long-ago coupling and connection).
Back to Don, it feels like he’s shedding his Don layers to find his inner Dick Whitman. His car troubles lead him to a small town that was surely not unlike the unhappy one he wanted to flee after becoming Don in the war. He admits to what happened in Korea to the guys of the VA, but his halcyon days hanging around the pool (looking at, but ultimately leaving the hot mama alone) and cracking wise with fellow vets didn’t last for long, after the group accused him of thievery and beat him up for it. The magic of small town life fell away as he realized his outsider status and the wrongheaded notions of the denizens there, but Don wasn’t done with it all just yet. He gave his car to Andy, the wannabe con man, and sat alone at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere, smiling.
There are a few ways to read Don’s development over these last few episodes. One is suicide, but it doesn’t seem to fit his character at all at this point. And what about Sally? Or perhaps is Don going to turn into D.B. Cooper? There’s also the idea that many fans have bandied about for years — that Don Draper has to die so Dick Whitman can live. Don’s rogue journey to end the show, and his happiness after giving away what amounts to almost his last possession, seems to speak to his desire to get rid of this persona he built (which has not brought him any happiness), and to reconnect to the person he’s been trying to run away from for so long. Him admitting his past started off as threats from others (Pete, I think, being the first), but now it’s turned into him telling his family and co-workers, and even strangers at bars. Is this all Don coming to terms with himself? He was still skittish when he heard there was another Korea vet at the hall, and didn’t feel comfortable until he knew for sure they were strangers. He’s still afraid of being revealed or found out, and yet, did those final moments of this episode suggest he’s ready to really be free?
Much of Mad Men‘s seventh season has had a hopeful air, and it feels like maybe Don will get — if not a happy ending, per say — at least the chance at a new start. For several of Mad Men‘s seasons, Pete has acted as a foil for Don, wanting to be like him, even as he resents him. And, their lives have paralleled in several ways, despite their vastly different backgrounds). In this hour, Pete talks with his brother about no longer wanting to be the kind of person who is always chasing the next thing, and maybe it’s time for Don to take a page from Pete’s book for a change. And further, maybe he too can have a new start, but with an old name.
Episode Rating: ★★★★ Very good
Musings and Miscellanea:
— Betty’s note to Sally dates the episode around October 3rd, 1970.
— The return of Duck! Drunk as a skunk. But what about Chauncey?
— “You’re drunk, and you’re being very menacing right now” – Pete.
— “He doesn’t know you won’t get treatment because you love the tragedy” – Sally.
— So happy Betty finally gave Sally some positive words of encouragement. The whole story — with Henry and Sally especially — was really affecting!
— Duck: “He’s Princeton ’52, so I’m sure you have a lot to talk about.” Pete: “I’m Dartmouth ’56!” Duck: “I know that, and don’t pretend you aren’t going to jerk each other off.”
— Oh man, the books Don is reading … The Godfather, and one of my personal favorites, The Andromeda Strain!
— “I said it to you ten years ago and I’ll say it again: I do” – Pete.
— “You knew we’d catch up with you eventually” – Don’s dream.