In which you just do what you have to do to come home.
“I’m jealous of your ability to be sentimental about the past.” -Trudy
In a recent NPR interview with Terri Gross, Matt Weiner discussed/confirmed how so much of Mad Men’s final season has focused on Don Draper undergoing a reckoning with his life, with the cost of his long game of alienation and, to once again borrow a Fitzgeraldian conceit, the foul dust that floated in the wake of his dreams. But in total, this sense of reckoning has extended to so many of the other characters as well. It’s a natural plot development for a narrative entering its final days. It’s also, as I’ve discussed here before, a keen parallel with the end of the ‘60s cultural reckoning that’s going on around them.
Which makes “The Milk and Honey Route” such a pleasure in the way that it offers what might be a final point of reckoning for three of the prickliest characters in the show’s history. The title of the episode is taken from sociologist Nels Anderson’s famed treatise on the hobo lifestyle, specifically in regards to the train routes that provide the most welcoming conditions. Anderson emphasizes how even in the hobo community, the definition of such a path can be wildly subjective. So too do the characters in this episode navigate the often diffuse path to happiness that opportunity presents them.
If you’ve read any of my essays on teaching Season 1 of Mad Men (and if you haven’t, get on it it pal! You can start here), you’ll remember my extensive discussions of the much-maligned Betty Draper/January Jones axis of suburban ennui and disaffection. Or, to put it more bluntly, the genesis of what would become one of the more loathed characters on the show. It’s so strange looking back today and seeing how much of a victim Betty was in that first season, so far has she seemingly traveled from that point of audience empathy. But her path from those first appearances is key to grasping the weight and impact of her final destination.
This episode’s revelation that Betty has inoperable lung cancer is quite possibly the cruelest fate to be visited upon any of the characters in the show’s run. In a season that has echoed storylines and developments from the past, this once again takes the audience back to “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, the pilot episode that was so focused around the encroaching health concerns of cigarettes. Like many of the plights that befall people in this fictional universe, there’s not really any buildup or obvious predicating factor for Betty’s cancer (other than a typical for the time smoking habit.) And her death sentence is signed at a time when she seems to finally be achieving a state of fulfillment, returning to college to study psychology, and having reached a peaceful equilibrium with Don.
As I mentioned in those previous Mad Men essays, much speculation has surrounded the state of January Jones in her long run as Betty. Rumors circulated that she was difficult to work with, that the result of said difficulty was the gradual fading of her screen time and coarsening of her character, that her (possibly) unexpected pregnancy before Season 5 led to Betty’s fat period. And who knows, some of these rumors might have validity. But foregrounding them ignores the greater issue at hand: the complexity that Matt Weiner and his writing staff bring to the show’s female characters. Dramatic convention (and, in many ways, 20th century western dramatic convention) dictates that a character like Betty be portrayed as a sympathetic victim or one who eventually overcomes her oppressors to achieve a moral victory. But real life doesn’t always work that way, and Weiner has always been more interested in building real people, not stock conventions. Allowing Betty to transform into an icier, less likeable person, or for Peggy to give up her child in the name of her career, or for Megan to be both sympathetic and codependent in her marriage to Don…it can be easy to frown on some of these developments, especially in our post-post-feminist society. Mad Men’s focus, though, has been on an ensemble of characters that are always realistically difficult to pin down, who all struggle to reach any kind of existential progress in their lives. Having the guts to develop female characters in this way, in an environment so laced with misogyny, is a commendable act of dramatic honesty.
And it’s this dramatic honesty and willingness to trust the audience to continue investing in thorny characters that makes Betty’s cancer diagnosis so sad. We as an audience have lived with her for six plus seasons, have seen her devastation at finally coming to terms with Don’s infidelity, have seen her desperate grab for happiness with other people (while too often ignoring happiness with herself.) So when she’s given the fatal news here, the collective weight of those six years of dramatic companionship fell crushing, even if some of her more easily empathic moments seem so distant. Her decision to carry on with life in the face of impending death is emblematic of the complexity of her character, a mixture of denial and acceptance. But her final reckoning with Sally, her acceptance of her daughter’s adventurous ways, is a powerful moment of confirmation that, indeed, Betty isn’t just a shrew.
In many ways, Pete Campbell has always been Betty’s doppleganger, even if they’ve only shared minimal screen time. Two people descended from well-monied lineages (that fall apart following the death of their patriarchs), they both suffer from trying to simultaneously fulfill and transcend those legacies. Pete’s East Coast Ivy League upbringing is as much of a burden as Betty’s schooling in being a proper WASP housewife. Long-time readers are well-versed in my staunch defense of Pete as a character, and the journey that Vincent Kartheiser has charted throughout the show’s history is a fascinating one. The guy who started as an antagonist figure for Don is Season 1 has grown into one of the more forward thinking characters in the ensemble, while also still being somewhat of an entitled prick. But the deeper emotional beats along the way have told the real story of Pete. Think back to his doomed romance with Beth Dawes in Season 5, especially the scene in “The Phantom” where he covertly confesses his pained love for her in the aftermath of her shock therapy (even though she no longer remembers him.)
Like Betty, it’s the accumulation of our shared life experience with Pete that makes his climactic reunion with Trudy so emotionally powerful. “The Milk and Honey Route” portrays him as finally standing at the edge of his dreams, Don’s departure from McCann-Erickson giving him unprecedented clout and the ability to be the major domo he’s always wanted to be. But the pitch from Duck Phillips, of all people, to jump to Learjet triggers his own grand reckoning with himself. In his dinner conversation with brother Bud (always the favored of the two Campbell boys), he finally realizes that their eternal dissatisfaction with what they already have reaches back to their father’s malign influence. And that realization is what drives him back to Trudy, the one woman who has always understood him the most. The way that his voice briefly cracks as he tries to convince her to come back with him, to start their marriage over is so affecting. Most other shows would give him a huge breakdown here, but the manner in which Weiner and co. have finely crafted Pete for all these years make that small crack in his voice just as gut-wrenching as a traditional moment of catharsis. After chasing the New York dream for so long (all the way back to Season 1’s “New Amsterdam”), he’s finally happy to relocate to Wichita if it means being with the woman he loves and their child.
Joining Betty and Pete in this episode’s pantheon of prickly characters is, of course, Duck Phillips. who has unexpected stuck around the sidelines of the narrative following his unceremonious flameout at the conclusion of Season 2. I’m an unabashed fan of Mark Moses’s work as Duck. Much like Vincent Kartheiser, he’s not afraid to completely embrace the sleazier aspects of the character (his beeline for the liquor inside the globe in Pete’s office here is priceless). His continuing presence on the fringes of the action marks him as the ultimate opportunist, a headhunter extraordinaire but also an increasingly inveterate drunk. But that’s the beauty of Duck: as in real life, it’s often the slightly slimy, disreputable people who offer us some of the most important things. And so it is that his unexpected (and completely self-interest-laden) intervention leads to Pete’s reconciliation with Trudy, and a stab at happiness for the Campbells. It’s so strange, but I’m really going to miss Duck (even though his dalliances with Peggy still make me want to throw up.) I’ve reached the point that when Moses’s name pops up in the credits of other shows (notable The Killing and Homeland), I get really excited, knowing that he’s probably playing another sleazebag.
That triumvirate of prickly characters might take precedence in this episode, but Don is still the beating heart of the narrative. And with one episode to go before his story reaches its end, he’s seemingly in a good place: gone from McCann, wandering the open road, finally trying to live life (as he predicted he would in Season 1, when Roger Sterling told him that he’d probably die in the middle of a pitch.) His sojourn in the Oklahoma motel seems to have all the hallmarks of the idyllic Kerouacian existence to which he alluded in “Lost Horizon.” But dropping out of being Don Draper isn’t as easy as abandoning Dick Whitman all those years ago. When he spots a stunning, leggy brunette at the motel pool, his gaze establishes the pattern of suave seduction that we’ve seen so many times before…until her children and overweight husband shatter his daydream. His attempts at anonymity also quickly fall apart. He’s too entrenched in being Don to pose as an itinerant drifter, too good at his established lifestyle to fool the local denizens into ignoring his obvious wealth. There’s a bit of sadness to his predicament here; after years of wanderlust-driven aspirations, the reality of his existence on the road only brings him the attention of a youthful scammer and a nasty assault by the drunk veterans who he shared stories with hours before.
When he gives the young scam artist his car at episode’s end, leaving himself to wait on a bus to somewhere, it’s the penultimate step of his own season-long reckoning, and one of the final acts of stripping away his material signifiers. No matter how far away he removes himself from the trappings of his Madison Avenue life, Don will, at heart, still always be Don. He’s invested too much in that life for it to disappear. Whether that realization leads him back to New York, or to Diana Bauer (who’s seemingly vanished from the story), or to somewhere else entirely, is unknown. The opening dream sequence, in which a policeman finally catches up with him for some unknown offense, seemed to bode ill for our man in the suit. But one thing is clear in those final shots of this episode: Don Draper is happy. And for the first time in his life, he’s close to being whole.