Mad Men, “The Milk and Honey Route”

This week’s episode sets forth the real beginning of the end – the journey to a Promised Land for all our Mad Men characters, whether good or bad, more likely things that fit the promised “destiny” of our beloved ensemble. Last week, we observed how some of our other SC&P favorites came to their destinies. For Joan, the Promised Land – her destiny – was not to be found in McCann, but in a buy out where she may, presumably, at least enjoy a life of luxury with the money she’s walking away with and start over to rediscover herself unseen with the new man of her dreams. Roger, though this is sad if last week was really his goodybe (and it appears to be), has accepted that he is not the leader he wanted to be, and is now once again a part of the cog of McCann. And Peggy’s entry into McCann signaled what could be for her a new path, a path where she’s starting fresh on her own terms. Maybe she’ll be the one to rise above, considering her entrance into McCann was so epic. This week, we focus on three characters only, and it’s sort of fitting that these three are coming together. Pete, Betty, and Don have battled with identity and reinvention in their own ways across the series. Pete’s battle with identity has always been defined by this inner competition with Don, especially since he was one of the few who knew Don’s secret at the onset. Without Don, Pete has been able to carve out a new path and a new identity in this episode. Let’s start with him.

Though the ending for Pete is a little too-good-to-be-true and maybe fantastical, it does sort of close his story in a way that can actually allow him to finally embrace the true potential of his person. Always having lived in the shadow, and accepting of the status quo, Pete found his place just fine in McCann, and the incentive of the money after four years time sure doesn’t hurt, either. But, as luck has it, Duck Phillips bumps into Pete and courts him into an opportunity that ultimately Pete can’t turn away. The amazing thing here is how highly valued Pete is of his own accord. Duck was able to make the sell on Pete to a new company as their go-to marketing man without much more smoke and mirrors other than Pete’s own merit. He’s not the weasel here (well, he’s entertaining the idea behind McCann’s back, but is self-aware) – he’s the desired guy. Even though he is eventually just pushed into the decision (Duck manipulates the situation when Pete stands up the guy and even gets McCann to sign off), it’s the one time luck is pushed into Pete’s favor. He even consults his brother on whether or not he’s walking away from a better opportunity, a better life. Ironically, the path for Pete to start over and essentially become the man Don cannot, the man Don no longer wants to be, is to move out into the middle of the country nowhere, too. Pete re-embraces being the family man, having once again become a fixture in Trudy and Tammy’s life (and Trudy even admits Tammy has respect and love for her father). Pete approaches Trudy when he announces that he accepts the offer in the middle of the night, and asks her to start over with him, to leave behind the dark, steamy life of the ad man world. If they walk away from this life, maybe they can finally be a family again. And Trudy actually says yes, having seen Pete come back into her life. It’s a sort of happy ending. You can tell it’ll probably continue to be complicated, but at least Pete has a destiny carved for him that he’s taking, and that’s one where he could maybe not live in the shadow and become his own man. Pete may have Don to thank for that down the line.

Betty kind of has the most epic ending to her journey, and this is one of the most beautiful portrayals of her character and the most realized in the series. It’s an excellent, quiet, but brimming with emotion type of performance from January Jones. Betty was a character that maybe wasn’t taken so seriously for a while, and I hope this changes the vision of Betty when we look back on the series. Throughout the whole show, Betty has struggled with emerging in her own identity. Having tacitly accepted the role of the housewife, she’s put herself in a position of being silenced, in a bit. A position where speaking up and being your own person was, especially during the culture in the beginning of the series, looked down upon. She was someone that didn’t garner enough respect or was taken seriously enough, except from a select few. In the first half of this final season, we see something awaken in her – this realization that she is not fulfilled by just being the quiet one on the sidelines. She tries to assert her own positions and views, be her own person, but is either shut down by insecurities or everyone else around her. Her enrollment in school to study psychology – and boy, does someone like her really need that – becomes this reawakening. But, as most tragic hero stories go – it is at this moment of realization that she comes to meet her true destiny: the end. The sound design here is great when we introduce her in this episode – she’s walking up to class, and you start to hear the hints of labored breath. It’s odd to see someone of her appearance clearly, physically, audibly struggle to walk up a set of stairs, set against the sprightly youth running up and down past her. She finally totally loses her breath, slips, and falls in front of a pretty hot to trot young student. The school nurse reveals that there’s something more serious at work, and that her ribs are affected. Henry Francis comes to pick her up and very quickly we discover Betty has, surprise surprise, developed lung cancer (also, amazing symbolism here: for a show that started on glorifying the cigarette, we end with imminent death, the very thing Don tried to ignore and sell people against to keep their tobacco client) Betty remains stoic through the rest of the episode, almost in this state of peace, which she explains to Sally after Henry enlists her to come home and convince Betty to undergo treatment (at which point there probably were serious limitations and were probably way more intense and aggressive than the options now)

It’s a rare moment to find Sally and Betty come together and get along – they have had a very divisive relationship through the run of the show. But in this moment of realization and death, in Betty’s coming of her own person and maturity, she reveals that she knows what’s to come, has accepted it, and wants to just live the rest of her days as she would normally. Though it sounds really like she’s just giving up and the fight is gone, it takes a lot for a woman like Betty to explain it with such profundity. Betty has otherwise resisted such change in her body, in her self – I mean, she battled with her weight and did not let that fight die. But finally, knowing she’s done so much, seen so much, and began to live the life she wanted to live, she is once again in a place of accepting the cards handed to her. But at least she’s not accepting with reluctance or resistance, or resentment as she has of her position in the past. She’s not desiring more. She’s actually just accepting of her coming place in life. It’s a tragic full circle of her character that will forever shape Sally in an unexpected way, especially given how much Sally had rejected Betty. And, I’ll add, watching Shiernan Kipka has Sally contend with the reality of death has also provided one of the best performances for Sally (although Sally has had numerous amazing moments on this show) – watching Sally read that letter (and this is stylistically an anomaly for Mad Men to have voiceover) was incredibly sad and a real growing up / coming to your own person moment for Sally, more than her realization of losing her friend to the war a few episodes back.

Don’s road trip to self discovery has clearly emerged into a metaphor for his whole life’s path. It’s incredible to start with, again, a vision, a dream of Don’s, driving in the night, the darkness (the end?), only to be pulled over by a cop who mysteriously states that they’ve been looking for him and that “they” were going to catch up to him one day. Clearly a reference to his constant state of running away, the fact that he’s taken another man’s identity for his own, Don emerges awake at a hotel somewhere in middle America. He has a sweet phone call with Sally describing the current state of his journey, clearly not a care in the world about the fact that he straight up walked away from his job, the man he was. He has nothing to go back to in New York – he can’t be Don Draper at McCann, he doesn’t even have really a swanky apartment (his secretary hinted at trying to redecorate but he clearly does not embrace this as his home). Whatever he is out there to rediscover (perhaps he’s really attempting a homecoming based on where he is geographically), he is going forth confidently and as a new man, no longer concerned with the things of the past. He is seeking the Promised Land, that land of milk and honey, if it can even exist for him in the way he would want it to. His destiny still unseen, his car breaks down in a town. And thus begins a series of events of Don stuck in a particular place, caught in a limbo in space and time. This is the first in a series of broken things that need to be fixed – if that isn’t a metaphor for what Don’s person is, I don’t know what is. Don is left to his own devices to quietly read the few books that are around, with few vices to escape to (he can’t even go to the closest restaurant or bar because it’s far enough away to go without a car). He happens upon a mildly intrusive housekeeping man, who offers Don to buy him alcohol and quickly reveals himself to be a small-time hustler. Don proceeds to show his abilities to mend some things, fixing a broken typewriter, and goes for a swim in the pool after the temptation of another woman is disrupted by the reality of her own family. Truly, Don is a man on his own. Once his car is finally fixed, the owner of the hotel offers him another night’s stay to come join him at a veteran’s dinner, so long as he fixes the broken Coke machine (ironic coincidence here since Don also walked away from a big Coke account in NY). At the dinner, Don sort of repeats the mistake of the Hershey account by allowing himself to sort of be himself and admit one of the darkest of his secrets in person – he was able to go home from the War, but not without accidentally killing his commanding officer. The dinner was a fundraiser, and the hustler manages to steal the money and somehow blame it on the new guy in town, for which Don gets punished and beaten until he returns the money. Though Don gets the kid to admit it and return the money, he doesn’t say a word when he turns it in. He also warns the kid that after he does something stupid like that (not quite akin to his wartime mistake but, you know, just as destructive), the last thing the kid has left to do is run away and start over, but it’s not as easy as you think. This temporary stay is a total mirror for the life Don has already led as an ad man in New York, happening upon a place that luckily gave him a chance, took him in, he won the hearts of some clients, started to make a home for himself, but of no real fault of his own, somehow messes it up. Is Don just meant to be this wandering vagabond? Is the reality that Don can never reveal his true self, and must always live in this secrecy? Will he just become this drifter who can never be in one place for too long, for danger of stirring up more trouble than is needed? Who knows. But in a surprising act of really stripping away his old self, when he ostensibly drops off the hustler at the bus stop, he tosses over the keys and takes a seat at the bust stop, waiting alone for the next ride to come along.

It seems like, with our quiet goodbyes to every other person, we’re just working our way toward a totally Don-centric final chapter. There’s lots of talk of fan theories about Don trying to assume a new identity again, fulfilling another moment in history by re-emerging as D.B. Cooper and then disappearing off into nowhere again and for good, but after this week’s episode, I don’t know that that’s necessarily where Don’s heading. I think he’s clearly seen how much reinvention and assuming other identities can be damaging, and that it’s escape is so temporary and unsatisfying. Don is looking for the Promised Land, his homecoming. It’s not New York, and probably won’t be L.A. either. Will his end finally come in accepting his past, and really embracing it, as opposed to exposing it in these forced moments of desperation for acceptance? Will Don become Dick again? He’s already admitted as much to his children, and perhaps Sally understands this is where he’s going. But is that where Don will end up? It’ll be an interesting end to this saga next week, and we may finally come full circle to the big question that opened the series: who is Don Draper?

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