‘The Milk and Honey Route’
‘Mad Men’ Episode 13: Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson, more than you will know.
If you’re like me, you read Mad Men recaps because you want to dissect the symbolism. In the pilot episode of “Mad Men,” “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” Don Draper aced a pitch for Lucky Strike cigarettes by sidestepping the established science of lung cancer. “We can say anything we want,” he said, arguing that the best way to deal with the facts was to blow smoke so thick you couldn’t see them. “Everybody else’s tobacco is poisonous.Over the course of Mad Men’s seven seasons, we’ve spent time with many versions of Don Draper: the ad man, the husband, the father, the adulterer, the alcoholic.I wish I knew an obscure series from Uzbekistan available only through pirate websites that I could share, but I usually end up giving the same not-so-thrilling answer: “I really like ‘Mad Men.’” I know.
Heartbreak unfolds insidiously in “Mad Men” — the heartbreak of dreams slowly lost, of marriages slowly decaying, of characters falling into hamster wheel habits that do nothing but wreck their emotional lives.The epitome of tall, dark, and handsome, ad man Don Draper shocked audiences with a very big admission during the AMC series’ second-to-last episode. [Warning: Spoilers] The great Orson Welles once remarked, “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone.On Sunday’s episode of the hit AMC drama, one of the staples of the show, which is currently in its seventh and final season, was rocked with some rather unsettling news.
“It’s been a gift to me, to know when to move on”—so said a surprisingly self-possessed Betty to Sally, as she explained how she’d decided to handle her cancer diagnosis: Not by fighting a losing battle, but by living out her final days on her own terms.Going into the final seven episodes that wrap up this coming Sunday (AMC, 10 p.m.), the network says they had consumed exactly 369 drinks — in the office.
Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.” Mad Men is predicated on said “illusions”—family, martinis, glamour, all in the service of filling the existential vacuum. Henry is ready to fight telling her she is ‘going to be just fine’ but Betty already seems at peace with the idea she will die and is not interested in his treatment options. We won’t ask who at AMC was tasked with watching every episode and counting the drinks, but that kind of attention to detail feels quite in keeping with the show itself. There was just the polluted, carcinogenic soot of the industrial era, made poetic by the warm glow of nostalgia and the long con of advertising. “I don’t care what they say — London Fog is a great name,” Bert Cooper said.
This week’s “The Milk and Honey Route” tackles this dark chapter in Don’s life as he takes an extended pit stop in Wyoming during his impromptu, Kerouac-style trip through the heartland. Amid the handsome orgy of rhythms, hues, and moods, it’s also about the loss of innocence, this oddly deliberate rumination on the follies of man buried in a televised medley of zombies, drug lords, and dragons; an analog show in a digital world. Sunday’s episode was divided into three stories, a Betty story and a Don story and a Pete story, thematically linked yet as neatly compartmentalized as a TV dinner.
From Lucky Strike and London Fog to napalm-hustling Dow Chemical, “Mad Men” has tended to view advertising as an alluring but amoral form of con artistry, with Don as the master of the con’s dark arts. As such, whenever it devolved into melodrama, whether it be errant tractor, euphoric acid trip, or a little soft shoe en route to the great beyond, the punctuation was all the more pointed. Betty’s response to the cancer news encapsulated seven seasons of her character, then at the last minute she faked us all out, going where we had no idea she could.
But no series better illustrates the power of TV’s Second Golden Age or stands as a more perfect example of how television has surpassed cinema as the greater expression of film as art. He makes a good enough impression that the innkeeper invites him to spend the night at the veterans’ Legion, slugging back drinks and swapping stories about their time in the war.
It’s already impossible to say that there is a single “best” television show of all time, but certainly there has never been another show that we can say is better than “Mad Men.” And it all comes to an end Sunday night, as the 92nd and final installment airs at 10 p.m. on AMC. But Betty calmly turns them down, leading Henry to track Sally down at boarding school and beg her to come home and convince her mother to extend her life by another year.
And it’s a dim view of Betty that sees attending to her appearance even in death as vanity; the kinder view is to see it as an attempt to die with dignity—rooted in the same impulse that gets her out of bed and off to class, even if she knows she might not make it to the end of the semester. On the behavior side, 14 punches were thrown, most of them ineffective, and for all the times these characters deserved to get knocked upside the head, we only saw four actual slaps. Not because he thought Sally should know, it turns out, but because he hoped Sally could convince Betty to undergo treatments that Betty had declined. When Don settles in at the Legion, he gradually (and uncharacteristically) opens up to his fellow veterans, sharing the origin story that turned him from Dick Whitman into Don Draper. Sally is forced to play the role of adult once again to the parents in her life — Henry breaks down in front of her, weeping about Betty’s near death and asking Sally, “What am I going to do?” And Betty has little hope that Henry will be able to keep it together enough to see her end-of-life wishes through.
When his Caddy breaks down, he finds himself stuck at a run-down (by his lofty standards) inn, forced to live the simple life: reading old books, eye-fondling housewives by the pool, and sipping plastic cups of cheap booze in his room while focusing on a broken miniature TV. “I killed my CO,” Don says. “We were under fire and fuel was everywhere, and I dropped my lighter, and I blew him apart. The remainder of that letter revealed that, for all her squabbling with Sally over the years, Betty had finally come to appreciate her daughter and her strong-willed ways, and to look forward to the life of adventure Sally will have as a result—a life in which Sally will pursue her dreams (yearbook, Spain) before it’s too late.
Since the very beginning, there’s been a kind of hypocritical reaction to the women in Don’s life: Fans know Don is an awful, womanizing liar, while simultaneously attacking each of his partners for somehow not being good enough for him. It’s one of those rare defining moments in a person’s life (and the single moment that set the Don’s life, and by extension the entire series, into motion). So she gives Sally a letter and tells her daughter to read it only once she’s passed — instructions that Sally quickly ignores upon returning to school. And I got to go home.” The proprietor of the inn is, like Don, a veteran, and invents him to the local American Legion chapter to drown their sorrows in liquor and raise some money for a fellow vet. Betty slapped Sally for cutting her hair — like that was Sally’s worst transgression — and Betty also slapped Glen’s mother, Helen, for suggesting Betty discourage young Glen from further fantasies about Betty.
Mad Men has been especially cruel to its female characters lately: Rachel died, Joan lost her job and a lot of money, Peggy did a badass walk-of-fame right into an office that will probably end up treating her like a secretary. And no more of creator Matthew Weiner and company’s spectacularly crafted episodes, where dialogue, gesture, expression, camerawork, art direction, lighting, music and costume all blend in support of a common dramatic goal.
After giving the money back Don gave him a lift to the bus stop, but decided to give him his car and waited at the bus stop for the next stage of his wandering. What a wonderfully redemptive moment this was for Betty, a character who has suffered a lot—at the hands of her philandering ex-husband, but also, it sometimes felt, at the hands of the series’ writers, who trapped her in that haunted Victorian that Henry picked out, saddled her with a beastly mother-in-law, made her wear a fat suit, and gave her a daughter who often seemed wiser than herself. Some of these developments can be blamed on the fact that the early 1970s wasn’t exactly the most progressive era for women, but it’s hard to blame cancer on the times. Asleep in his hotel room later that night, he’s awoken by the men, who accuse him of stealing money raised to support one of their fellow veterans. “Do you really think I need your spare change?” Don sneers as they beat him with a phone book.
Sally finally cries upon reading the letter, in which Betty makes peace with her daughter, noting that she is happy Sally marches to the beat of her own drummer, and that she hopes Sally’s life is an “adventure.” Betty’s reaction to her diagnosis is one of either complete denial, or complete acceptance. Back at the agency a heavy drinking Duck Phillips showed up and asked Pete for a personal favor, to meet private jet company Learjet and recommend him to fill their marketing vacancy. When Betty collapsed on the stairs on her way to Freud 101, my first thought was: Of course it’s going to be poor Betty who is going to catch the lung cancer that just about every character in this series seems likely to succumb to.
Back at school, Sally opened the instruction letter and we learned that the blue gown Betty wore to a 1968 Republican gala was her favorite dress, so she wanted to be buried in it. Though the veterans are short-sighted and reactionary enough to blame Don for the lost money, Don is smart enough to identify the real culprit: Andy, the money-grubbing schemer who works at the hotel. For many, the height of New Hollywood was “The Godfather,” and “Mad Men” shares with that film an overarching theme about the corruption of the American dream. Pete asked ex-wife Trudy to come along and play the dutiful partner but when she refuses Pete stands up the client for dinner with his brother for advice.
It was hanging in the closet, Betty wrote, “next to the mink.” While Henry was trying to convince her to get treatments, saying she had been lucky all her life, she was brushing the hair that will not fall out because she won’t have chemotherapy. But while Andy gets Don in trouble, he also turns out to be a kindred spirit: an unformed, aspirational dreamer who’s willing to be a conman if it will propel him into the life he truly desires. The duo were building a field hospital when Dick accidentally caused an explosion that killed Draper, and with Draper’s body burned beyond recognition, Tricky Dick switched dog tags and assumed Draper’s identity. Sally spent 14 or 15 years becoming a rebellious teenager and by all indications jettisoned all of it in the 25 seconds it took Henry to tell her about Betty’s cancer. Sally tells her she “won’t get treatment because you love tragedy.” Betty’s strong-willed response to her family — and her impending death — feels like the show’s rebuke to critics who thought less of her.
Don — playing the role that the hobo once played for him — offers hard-won advice: “If you keep [the money], you’ll have to become somebody else, and that’s not what you think it is. Throughout the series, “Mad Men” tells the story of people leading secret lives, rigidly conforming to social expectations on the outside while inwardly raging against the emptiness within. “Mad Men” is set in the advertising business during its Golden Age, the 1960s. One cannot help but notice, however, that right as many of the characters on “Mad Men” seem to be getting what they want, or right as they carve out a new identity, life arrives to stand in their way.
You think this town is bad now, wait ’til you can never come back.” As a parting gift, he gives Andy his Cadillac, sowing the seeds for the possible rise of another proto-Don. Joan believed she was finally in a position of power at a major corporation, but misogyny in the workplace cut that down and left her packing her bags.
Don murdered Draper, a married man about to complete his tour of duty, in order to be rid himself of his brothel-soiled name and begin anew as a man of substance and character. Henry reacts to his wife’s crisis like a stereotypical politician, with bombast, threats and angry rants that cover up anything that might resemble doubt or fear. The protagonist – certainly no hero – is Donald Draper (played by Jon Hamm), the creative director at a small agency and perhaps the most talented Mad man of them all.
To ‘fess up that Don Draper died in Korea 20 years earlier and that this guy who’s been mesmerizing men and women under the name Don Draper since then is really Dick Whitman in a Don Draper mask. He has, like Amazing Amy, faked his own death, escaped the societal strictures weighing him down, and assumed a different identity—that of Dick Whitman.
It seemed significant that our hero came clean about killing his c.o., the darkest element of Don Draper’s origin story, after initially lying about his rank. Don had been on his Nowhere Man Tour, cruising across America with his AM radio picking up tunes like “Okie From Muskogee.” Even the music was subtle. For a while now, neither woman has had the privilege of believing lies because they, unlike the men in their lives, have both had to live with their consequences. When Sally accuses her of refusing treatment because she loves tragedy, Betty calmly tells Sally that she watched her own mother die, and she won’t make Sally go through the same thing. “I fought for plenty in my life,” she says. “That’s how I know it’s over. He spent his early years thriving on balancing frat boys’ ways with the obligations of married life — something he seemed to have settled into based on societal duty alone.
As the episode begins, Don checks in with Sally at school, and they share a casual conversation about field hockey and her upcoming study abroad trip. A few flings and steadies here and there, but, mostly, Pete has been alone — a dedicated ad man trying to make sense of himself as a bachelor in the world.
In any given episode of Mad Men, the only thing more likely to come out of a character’s mouth than the trailing smoke of a Lucky Strike cigarette is a witty one-liner. It needed a new rocker arm, whatever that is, which had to be ordered from Tulsa, which left him sitting in a primitive motel room reading old paperbacks and watching Redd Foxx on TV. Betty’s advice to Sally is so good, you think she might have actually learned something in psychology class: “I’ve learned to trust people when they say it’s over,” she says. “They don’t want to say it. Sleeping around and being unfaithful doesn’t appeal to him anymore — he says to his brother over dinner that such behavior “feels good, and then it doesn’t.” Unlike Don and Roger, Pete did not jump into another marriage, or fall into self-sabotaging habits.
As we enter the final days of Sterling Cooper & Partners, Slate’s TV Club will celebrate the show’s retorts and rejoinders by highlighting a Mad Men Zinger of the Week for Slate Plus. So it’s usually the truth.” Meanwhile, doesn’t it seem so perversely true to form that “Mad Men” kills off Betty on Mother’s Day and then gives perhaps its happiest ending to the show’s most despised regular character? It’s akin to the moment in Breaking Bad’s brilliant episode “Ozymandias” where Walter White permanently crosses over to the dark side, coldly telling Jesse he let Jane die before fighting off his terrified wife and son, kidnapping baby Holly, and speeding off. Peggy knew when to leave her job for another venture, and when to come back. (Hopefully, she understands that it’s time to leave again.) And Trudy… well, poor Trudy never learns.
They drink too much, carry on affairs, live ostentatiously – essentially do what they can to paper over their truths. “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness,” Draper says. “And you know what happiness is? Pete tries to invite Trudy out to a business dinner to serve as his “wife” that night, but she politely declines — “I’m jealous of your ability to be sentimental about the past,” Trudy says to Pete as Pete waxes nostalgic about their past nights arm-in-arm at company functions. “But … Every decision she makes is in line with what we’ve seen Betty evolve into over these seven seasons: her refusal to consider treatment; her obsession with making sure she looks beautiful at her own funeral; her stoicism in the face of news that would drive almost anyone else into a panic; and, above all, her cold appraisal of what each of her family members can handle. You might say that he seemed romantic about the past—the pitfall that Trudy was so wary of when Pete first let on that he might want to rekindle things. But after a World War II vet recounted a particularly gruesome nightmare where the punch line was “you do what you have to do to survive,” Don blurted out a confession.
Julia, Hanna: I’m very eager for your take on the Pete plot, and to hear whether you have high hopes—or any hopes—for the reconstituted Campbell clan. It’s the kind of upheaval that makes a person take stock of their life, and Pete takes the excuse to re-propose to his ex-wife Trudy (Alison Brie.) “I want to start over, and I know I can,” says Pete. “I’m not so dumb anymore.” Trudy, who has so reliably called Pete out on his failings, is eventually swayed by his enthusiasm, and they take their first tentative steps toward reuniting their family again. In the final scene, Don gave Andy his car, told him to take this second chance and sat down at a bus stop, silhouetted against miles of emptiness and waiting for a bus to somewhere.
Starting over sometimes lands you right back where you began, and we’ve seen that a lot this season, as characters make the same mistakes again and again. Pete gets the job because he’s a “real knickerbocker … right schools, right family.” There’s great value in making elite white men feel comfortable. It might seem like a happy ending for Pete — but anyone who has been paying attention knows that none of Pete’s high-minded ideas about rebooting his life are even a little realistic. (“I’ve never loved anyone else. It’s a little hard for me to believe in his epiphany—that he’s recognized in himself his father’s insatiable appetites and decided to reform himself.
The episodes spill over with memorable surprises: Betty (January Jones) shooting at the neighbor’s pigeons, the John Deere incident, Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) performing a swan song just for Don. That his path to betterment is paved by the wonderfully crazy and conniving Duck, and a very rich offer from Lear, suggests to me that as earnest as Pete may have been in that great moment with Trudy, this will prove a passing fancy. But no one there is surprised — this is Don being Don by most people’s estimates, and a level of acceptance over Don’s departure has settled peacefully over people like Pete. That was the moment we knew he would be – even though he was thriving at McCann and was due for a million-dollar payout if he stayed through his entire four-year contract. He sexually assaulted the au pair down the hallway, cheated on Trudy repeatedly, made a grand display of fly-by parenting and distinguished himself for his whiny, selfish, scheming behavior in an office of whiny, selfish schemers.
I have a slightly hard time imagining Pete in Wichita, even if he does have a jet gassed up in the backyard and even if Kansas proves as wholesome as, say, Oklahoma. I always thought Pete and Trudy were kind of perfect for each other—she was an excellent Lady Macbeth during his rise at Sterling Cooper, and they dance a killer Charleston.
But despite the jarring change in scenery, Don still finds himself drawn to the same things he was drawn to back home in NYC, like a moth to the flame. Going into this half season, I don’t think anyone would have predicted that the penultimate episode wouldn’t feature Peggy, Joan, or Roger, or that Don would be entirely disconnected from every other recognizable character in the series. The preview for next week’s series finale didn’t even include any of the customary, inscrutable snapshots of the episode, omitting even the vaguest of hints about how the series might end. Betty’s been plagued by health scares since Season 1, when she sought therapy after suffering repeated numbness in her hands, to the Season 5 weight gain and subsequent lump discovery/cancer scare.
The vets urge Don to share, and finally he says he “killed his CO” and relays the events that led him to adopt his Don Draper identity — all the while not admitting that he conned his way into a new name. While the two polar opposites have butted heads over the years—who can forget the moment Betty almost had her committed after she was caught masturbating at a friend’s house (“She was masturbating, Don! But there’s something exciting about the idea that the antihero of this show, which has been embraced by advertisers for seven seasons (and made auto pitchmen and fashion models of its stars), might reject advertising and New York entirely. As Don tells the receptionist: “Let’s take it one night at a time: I’m an optimist.” A quick note: These recaps are not intended to be exhaustive; that would be exhausting for all of us.
Logan Hill is a journalist who has contributed to The New York Times, New York, Rolling Stone, “This American Life,” Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Wired and others.
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