“It feels good, and then it doesn’t.”
That’s Pete talking about infidelity, but the same can be said for any number of transgressions we’ve seen on Mad Men. Eventually, you get what’s coming to you, and that message rang loud and clear in “The Milk and Honey Route,” the series’ penultimate episode.
The most obvious (but still, somehow, shocking) example of this was Betty’s terminal cancer diagnosis. After she falls on her way to class and breaks a rib, the doctor finds lung cancer that has spread and gives her a nine-month expiration date. It makes sense when you consider just how many cigarettes we’ve seen her smoke over the course of the series. They feel good, and then, finally, when your husband is ripping them out of your hands in the car after you’ve just found out you’re about to die, they don’t.
Matt Weiner showed us all his cards on this one years ago, with Betty’s cancer scare in season five. Last season, Sally made a joke that she’d stay at school until 1975 if it meant she could “get Betty in the ground.” Even last week, when Betty was complaining of soreness and attributed it to the fact that she had carried a bunch of schoolbooks—another sign that something wasn’t right. We should have always known. And when Betty receives the diagnosis, she’s oddly peaceful about the whole thing; maybe deep down she always knew she wouldn’t make it too far into the ‘70s. She refuses treatment, telling a heartbroken Sally that she watched her mother die and she won’t do that to her. Instead she hands her handwritten instructions for when she dies that we hear via voiceover as we watch Betty ascend the stairs to her classroom in a particularly gut-wrenching scene. She starts off by making sure Sally knows how to help her leave behind the prettiest corpse possible—by grabbing her favorite blue chiffon dress from the closet and making sure her hair and makeup are done just right—but then she closes with “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.”
What makes this all so moving—besides the obvious olive branch being extended by one of TV’s most horrific mothers—is the fact that Betty is, in many ways, a victim of her times—and not just in the literal sense that she grew up in an era where everyone smoked because they didn’t know any better. As she reminds Sally, “I’ve fought for plenty in my life,” and even though she had recently seen the light about marching to the beat of your own drum and was trying to fight for her own identity by going back to school, Betty Draper is destined to be a relic of a bygone era. The times are a-changin’, but Betty’s fight to change with them was ultimately a losing battle, and she gets the ending that was always coming to her—reduced, once again, to nothing more than a beautiful body.
Don remains unaware of Betty’s diagnosis, but he gets his own comeuppance this week as well. Like the cop who pulls him over in his dream says early on in the episode, “You knew we’d catch up with you eventually.” Finally, decades after the fact, Don finds himself paying for stealing the real Don Draper’s identity. Car trouble causes him to spend a few days in Oklahoma, where he meets Andy, a hotel employee/aspiring con artist and gets friendly with the hotel owners and finds himself being roped into attending a veterans’ fundraiser. They get to drinking and telling war stories, and for the first time on Mad Men we hear Don fully admit what happened in Korea: “I killed my CO.” The other vets are sympathetic at first, but when they later notice that their money has gone missing, they assume Don took it and beat him with a phonebook. It is, perhaps, the universe’s way of getting Don what was coming his way for being a deserter—punishment from a bunch of veterans. Don knows it was Andy who took the money, and he makes him return it, warning him that “This is a big crime, stealing these people’s money. If you keep it, you’ll have to become somebody else.” And no one knows this better than Don Draper. The money, the lies…they feel good, and then they don’t.
Still, probably because he sees himself in Andy, he helps him out, giving him a ride to the bus stop only to surprise him by giving him his Cadillac and staying put at the bus stop, with only some cash and his measly bag of clothes. Given that he’s already talking about his advertising career in the past tense, it’s probably safe to assume that Don’s trying to restart his life once again. He’s The Man With No Name, his destination unknown—it’s Korea all over again, only this time his circumstances are different. This time, he’s got people who love him, including a daughter at home who has just received the most awful news of her life. Can Don really run away from that?
Meanwhile, Pete’s story ends with him seemingly pulling off a reverse-Dick Whitman. Unlike Don, Pete’s going backwards, and he’s happy about it. After Duck Phillips (another figure from Sterling Cooper’s past) finds him a job as an in-house marketing executive for Learjet, he sees it as an opportunity to rekindle things with Trudy. He’s come to see the errors of his ways, and he wants nothing more than a fresh start with his family. The move from New York to Wichita is the opposite of Don’s Midwest-to-Manhattan journey, but it’s the right one for Pete. Everything he thought he wanted has turned out to be unfulfilling to him (big surprise there, huh?) and he’s come to see that a loving home life means more to him than four more years at McCann. That cabin in the country that he fantasizes about with Peggy in season two might just be his after all—only the woman with the skillet waiting for him is the one who’s been right under his nose all along.
“The Milk and Honey Route” was a powerful episode of Mad Men, one that upheld its core principles—the fresh start and the idea that the best things in life are free—and served as a fitting final chapter for several major characters. Now that we have some closure for Betty and Pete, it’s time to see if Peggy, Roger and Joan will also get what they deserve. Of course, we still need to see where Don will wind up, whether he’ll ditch his family in its time of need to start over again or realize that escape only feels good until it doesn’t.
—Interesting how Pete’s father died in a plane crash years ago and now his salvation is a job at an aviation company.
—The woman at the hotel Don stared at was reading The Woman of Rome. Could this be another Betty reference, alluding to the memorable trip to Rome she had with Don, where she was at her most sophisticated?
— “I feel like I’m sitting right next to you.” Don, seriously, do not leave Sally to deal with Betty’s death alone.
—Being told you’re dying of cancer is bad enough, but that “Mrs. Robinson” joke was just adding insult to injury. Poor Betty can’t catch a break.
— “I’m jealous about your ability to be sentimental about the past.”
—That scene where Henry told Sally it was okay to cry and then broke down sobbing himself was pretty brutal. And speaking of tears, has Betty shed a single one over her impending death? Stiff upper lip until the very end.
—That was Roy from The Office as Jerry Fandango, the Korean War vet.
— “You stupid wino, you’re going to destroy everything.”
— “We’re entitled to move. Entitled to something new.”
— “You have shitty instincts for a con man.” It seems like Don wasn’t necessarily mad that Andy is a con man, just that he’s a lousy one. It’s like he saw himself in him and wanted him to succeed, hence the correcting of his grammar and the eventual free Cadillac.
—Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” was an eerie way to end an episode about how these characters are unable to escape their eventual fates: “Everyday it’s a-gettin’ closer” sounds almost like a warning in this context.
—Pretty brutal Mother’s Day episode, huh?