Watching last night’s episode of Mad Men – the penultimate episode – I found myself shaking my head sympathetically, murmuring, “Poor Don…Poor Betty…Poor Sally…” “The Milk and Honey Route” is another devastating episode, following last week episode that had Joan quit McCann-Erickson after being sexually harassed. Well, this week, McCann loses another former Sterling Cooper staffer, this time Don. Don left last week, just simply cut out, enraging Hobart, who was seeing his empire threatened and challenged by spoiled brats of Sterling Cooper.
Because Don left, he doesn’t get $2 million, which gives us a clue of just how much money he still has. Leaving McCann makes complete sense because Don helped built up Sterling Cooper – he used his charm, intelligence, talent as well as his assumed identity to help make Sterling Cooper one of the most in-demand boutique ad agencies in Manhattan. When McCann ate it up, Don’s place disintegrated, and suddenly he wasn’t one of the core players anymore. He was one of many suited men in the office (albeit with a lot more money).
When the episode opens, Don’s being pulled over. Suddenly he knows that the jig is up – the years of stealing a dead man’s identity has finally caught up with him. But quickly we see that Don’s actually in a roadside motel, and was dreaming. Interestingly enough, we rarely got the guilt, or should I say the existential guilt and angst of being another person. We got earlier notes of how Don’s secret identity was difficult to keep up sometimes, only in how it related to his relationships with other people – namely Betty and his coworkers. All of this is Don looking at the outward consequences of his deception. But Don isn’t especially introspective, nor does he like to examine his feelings (he tends to runaway from sincere emotion, especially when it gets ugly). It’s great that he finally has time to think about what it means to be someone he’s not – it’s an almost-queer storyline, one which gives him a lot in common with Sal (remember him?).
So Don’s in Oklahoma in a roadside motel. His car is busted and he’s waiting to get it fixed. In the meantime, he’s charmed the proprietors, so much that he’s invited to a Legion night with other war vets. Don’s worried that his past may catch up with him finally, when among the WWII veterans, a fellow Korean war vet appears (Roy from The Office!). Despite Don’s initial reluctance to pal around with these guys, he lets his guard down and the men drunkenly share recollections of the war. Don tells the story of how the real Don Draper died. This is after an old timer goes into detail about how his unit killed surrendering German soldiers. The story is intentionally disturbing, and the vet’s recollection of how blue the Germans’ eyes were is indicative of how at the core of all war, the players are all too human. None of the men express regret, but the rah-rah jingoism from earlier in the night has muted into a bleary-eyed rueful detachment.
Though Don was embraced by the fellow vets, he’s an outsider, and as such, he’s the primes suspect when the Legion’s coffee can of donation money goes missing. The real culprit is the weird kid working at the motel – the kid who sees Don as an aspirational role model. Don gets the tar kicked out of him, and he leaves, the genial spell broken. He takes the thieving kid along, who sees Oklahoma as quicksand, drowning him in mediocrity. He lectures the kid on “starting over” as someone new, almost acting like a father figure (though his terse grammar lessons were kind of irritating), seeing the kid’s hustling as a dead end. Don should know about dead end hustling, as he discovered that despite his money and success, even his meticulous planning resulted in him ending up in a roadside motel in Oklahoma.
In the episode’s other major story, Betty finds out she has lung cancer, which has spread, leaving her prognosis grim. Mad Men fans will remember that a few years back Don was battling a consultant who was warning Sterling Cooper about the ruinous health effects of smoking; at the time, Don and the others thought it would be best to downplay the potential problems of cigarette smoking in order to produce enticing ads. That Betty – a smoker who was perennially puffing away at a cigarette – is slammed down with cancer seems cruel – and to be frank, unnecessary.
Before I go on, I have to say Betty wasn’t a favorite of mine. January Jones did a solid job, but the writers failed the character after she left Don and married Henry. In the firs few seasons, Betty was one of the most compelling – if villainous – characters on Mad Men. There were glimmers of hope, though in the past two seasons, when Betty started to shed some of that outrage.
But this is Betty we’re talking about, so her reaction to her diagnosis: petulant impatience and angry resignation is no surprise. Betty has always wanted things on her own terms, even death. Henry approaches her diagnosis like a political campaign – call in favors, pull resources, and get high profile friends on the job. When Betty tries to knock some sense into him, he responds by breaking her trust and going to Sally.
I understand Henry’s impulse, but it’s a lot to put on Sally’s shoulders, given the contentious relationship she has with her mother. As he breaks down in sobs in her dorm room, Sally offers a tentative pat on his back, unused to being sympathetic. When she comes home, Betty greets her with hostility and no one should be surprised. Later on, Betty finally opens up to her daughter, resulting in some of the best television Mad Men ever presented.
The reason why Sally and Betty are always fighting is because the two women are too similar, and there is little-to-no balance to soften their relationship. Betty’s life has always been about presenting a perfect image of motherhood, wifedom, beauty, and womanhood. Despite the fact that her personal life was rife with disappointment, she was a master at putting a high sheen of gloss (except for the weird season when she put on all that weight).
Sally, on the other hand, is an eccentric, despite having two utlra-cool parents who are obsessed with image. Sally was rarely concerned with how people would react to what she said or did. Even during her tete-a-tete with Betty last night, Sally couldn’t resist dismissing her mother’s resignation as a “love of the tragedy.”
And though Sally is preternaturally astute, she’s dead wrong about Betty’s glacial reaction to her dying. She warns Sally that it isn’t quitting. She rightly points out that she’s had to fight her whole life for her decisions. She wants to die on her own terms, unlike her parents. Because she knows Henry’s essentially unprepared for any of this, she writes a long letter to Sally with instructions on her death. There’s a great line: “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.” In that one line, we understand that Betty finally got Sally and all of her strangeness. The two never got along, but neither is disappointed in the other, either. Sally’s no Bobby, pining for the kind of warm, demonstrative mother that doesn’t exist.
What makes Sally’s reading all the more poignant is that while she’s reading the letter, Betty’s back at school. Her determination, despite being in obvious pain isn’t that of a two-dimensional martyr or someone who is being brave. Instead, it’s the behavior of a headstrong woman who refuses to let anything – including cancer – dictate how she lives her life. She insists that her ability to deal with her impending death is a blessing: “It’s been a gift to me, to know when to move on.” Like the fictional Virginia Woolf in The Hours, Betty has a hard-earned appreciation for life, as well as, a definite awareness of when it’s time to accept an ending. Again, this isn’t brave nobility, but simply Betty-ness. Ultimately it’s always been about appearance to Betty, so quitting school would be an admission that she doesn’t get to call the shots, something that she’s not willing to do. This isn’t delusional nor iis it sad – instead it’s very Betty. As I wrote earlier, I don’t think this was a necessary plot, and in fact having Betty figure her shit out and go back to school, only to have it all cruelly snatched away by cancer feels a bit like a stunt. Thankfully, the writing and acting manage to transcend any ghoulishness – Jones does herself proud, holding her own against the always-brilliant Kiernan Shipka.
Because Don and Betty were gifted with such momentous and dramatic storylines, it’s easy to ignore Pete’s plot, which has him tolerating Duck Phillips, who tricks Pete into a job interview with an exec from Lear. Not only is Pete wooed, but Lear Jet wants to buy him out of his contract and send him to Wichita. The always-weclome Alison Brie makes a return as Trudy, Pete’s brilliant wife. Sporting Marlo Thomas hair, Trudy has settled into single motherhood, taking the small slights of her tiny community. Unlike Pete, she refuses to wax poetically about their marriage. When Pete’s offered the job, he takes his growing friendship with Trudy as a moment of reconciliation and asks her to move with him. In the episode’s only truly false note, she agrees, thereby undoing all of the sharp characterization of Trudy Campbell in one scene. What made Trudy so great was her clear-eyed view of the world: despite being a spoiled and pampered princess, rich and privileged, she was always aware of how the world worked – she never fooled herself into thinking that the world wasn’t a series of negotiations. Trudy would’ve made a fantastic businesswoman (her instincts were often much sharper than Pete’s).
Some random thoughts:
- No Peggy
- No Joan – I guess last week was Mrs. Harris’ swan song
- Unintended irony: Don chiding Sally about her lack of financial responsibility, while he blithely walks away from $2 million
- I was soooooooo scared that the shapely brunette Don was ogling at the pool was our least favorite morose diner waitress Diane
- Is it just me or is Pete not sad enough that both Joan and Don are gone?