Mad Men‘s penultimate episode, The Milk and Honey Route, is staggering. I cried at least twice, and we are going to talk about that, I promise. But first, hat’s off to the best cameo this show has ever had. Pete’s secretary, Sarah, seen briefly being told to remind him about a donation to Lincoln Center, was played by Linda Brettler, the inestimable wife of Matthew Weiner. Hi, Linda!
For the past six episodes, Mr. Brettler Matthew Weiner has been wrapping up each character’s story line in ways that are surprising, inevitable, or both. In seeing these stories come to beautiful or crazy or baffling or thrilling conclusions, we can start to see the individual character arcs as isolated. But these episodes are still being delivered with deep thematic resonance. So, Lost Horizon gave us Peggy discovering her bad-assery (post coming on that one, I promise!), and Joan taking a buy-out, while Roger plays the organ. All of these are character denouements, but the episode also had something to say about the promises and limitations of Shangri-La (another post coming, I promise!).
Those character moments were fulfilling in a way that gave this week’s script the freedom to move past them. We didn’t even see Peggy, Joan, or Roger in The Milk and Honey Route. We didn’t need to. We needed to tell the stories still remaining to be told.
I take notes while watching Mad Men. It’s not the best way to enjoy an episode, but it’s the only way to get the recap done afterwards. When Betty was at the doctor’s office, my notes read “WHAT wtf wtf”. Yeah, about like that.
Is this crazy? Left field? I kept saying, “Why is he doing this?”, which is to say, I kept trying to peek past Betty’s life and look at Matt Weiner’s intention. In the end, though, I think it’s about Betty’s life.
Betty’s mother died when she was only 28, and we were never told the cause of death. Cancer can run in families, and Betty is a heavy smoker. When looked at this way, we’re not seeing an insane story from out of nowhere, we’re seeing a road that Betty has been walking.
The Milk and Honey Route is about knowing when it’s over, and knowing when to start over. I didn’t write down every quote I loved yet, so I don’t have Betty’s exact words about how, when they tell you it’s over it’s probably true, because people hate to say that, and then “It’s been a gift to know when to move on.” But that was one part of what it meant, wasn’t it? The other part was Pete and Trudy:
Trudy: We both know things can’t be undone.
Pete: Says who?
Sometimes things can continue, they can heal, you can go back, you can begin again. Sometimes you know you’re done. It can be a gift to know when it’s over, and equally a gift to know when you can go back.
It’s funny, when Trudy said “You know, I’m jealous of your ability to be sentimental about the past. I’m not able to do that, I remember things as they were”, I wrote in my notes, “She’s wrong, they had a good connection.” When he says to her that she understands his work, he’s saying this; that they are connected in their joint ambitions. When I interviewed Alison Brie, years back, she talked about ambition as what joins these two, and I think that still holds. They understand the world of striving and achieving.
Pete cheated, and was miserable, and will probably continue to be miserable, because Pete loves to wallow and that won’t change, but that isn’t about the marriage, that’s just who Pete is. Trudy has been viciously angry, but sometimes you keep yourself stiff with anger as a discipline, to make sure you don’t falter back into tenderness.
It helps that they are living through one of the worst periods of New York City history. Pete, a lifelong Manhattanite, thought moving to Cos Cobb was a death sentence. I’ve written that the basic incompatibility of city versus suburbs had a lot to do with Pete and Trudy’s split. But in 1970, Manhattan is a dirty and miserable place that doesn’t much resemble the city Pete grew up in. He’s willing to leave regardless.
So, Betty’s is a story about endings, and Pete’s is a story about renewals, and Don’s is a story about both. Don doesn’t know what his story is.
Don has well and truly run away. He’s been gone for a month, and may or may not have formally resigned, forgoing the rest of his payoff. He’s keeping in touch with family; the phone call with Sally indicates that he’s not “missing,” his road trip isn’t entirely running away, at least not from his children. On the other hand, his dreams are still of getting caught. He uses the name Don Draper, and maybe that’s because he simply is Don Draper after all this time, and/or because his driver’s license and money are in that name. But maybe it’s because there’s still a part of his that’s running and hiding.
At the Legionnaire’s Club, Don breaks into a sweat when introduced to another Korean War vet, only relaxing when he realized their time there didn’t overlap. Eventually, he tells the story he’s never told, but his heart is still with the kid who wants and needs to leave town.
Way back in Season 3, Don helped Suzanne’s brother. A lot of people thought that the brother would come back (although our own B. Cooper recognized it as a red herring). I never understood that story, but now I do. Don sees himself in ever ne’er-do-well who wants to run away. Suzanne’s brother is Andy the thief is young Dick Whitman.
So his story is stuck. He is neither Betty, ready to come to a close, nor quite Pete, ready to be reborn. I think Betty will bring him back. Since the beginning of the episode showed Don on the phone with Sally, we have established his ability to hear about Betty’s cancer. I think when he hears the news, he’ll turn around and head east, for Betty as well as for his children.
There’s also the eternal way in which Pete is the Anti-Don. While Don escapes McCann, Pete tries desperately to stay at McCann, fighting Duck’s offered escape route. While Don’s first wife is dying, Pete returns to his own first wife.
Do people change? Yes and no. Betty has found some wisdom, and is determined to continue school even though she’s dying, but she still makes sure that her hair and makeup will be done properly at her funeral. Priorities. I could cite other examples, but I don’t need to. That’s exactly how people both change and do not.
Bullets! I have them!
- As miserable as the characters of Mad Men often are, Matthew Weiner is a happily married man (Hi, Linda!) and he has always wanted to show us that marriages can be happy as well as unhappy. Pete and Trudy have always been a good couple, and their separation made us unhappy. Now we see their capacity for a happy future. Henry and Betty were happy; Betty saying she knew when to move on was partially her saying that this marriage was so much better. Henry, for his part, doesn’t know what he’ll do without her; they’ve had only a few years, but she fills his heart.
- It was good to see Duck in the credits, and amazing to see his complex performance, pulling in the entire past of this character: Both drunk and competent, both desperate and combative, he’s aged into a kind of Duck quintessence. Did you notice his irritation that Pete referred Peggy to a different headhunter? As if she’d use her ex!
- So, yeah. I cried. I cried when Henry cried. I cried again when Pete and Trudy kissed. And I cried again when Sally read the letter. I am a sap.
- That was Max Gail as the World War II vet with the horror story about starving Germans. Barney Miller is my all-time favorite sitcom. I love seeing him.
- No contest for quote of the week: I killed my CO. We were under fire, and fuel was everywhere, and I dropped my lighter, and I blew him apart, and I got to go home.