by Linda Beail and Lilly Goren
Where and how will Dick Whitman next reinvent himself, with that sly grin on his face, looking out at the horizon, sitting at the bus stop? The “milk and honey route” of this episode’s title is a hobo term for a railroad running through a valley of plenty where hobos were likely to find more food or help, according to 1920s sociologist Nels Anderson. Anderson cautions that what might be a “milk and honey route” for a young kid might be the opposite for another, older hobo, and that is certainly true in this episode. While Pete Campbell is “on a streak,” according to Duck Phillips, and young Andy the Oklahoma grifter ends up with a free Cadillac, other travelers are not so lucky. A bruised and battered Don sits alone at the side of the road, while Betty gets news that her studies and her life are about to be cut short by advanced-stage lung cancer, and Sally weeps over her mother’s parting instructions in her dorm room.
Most of this episode takes place in tertiary locations: at Trudy’s house, at Betty’s house, in doctor’s offices, at the university, at restaurants, and hotels, and motels. Don’s apartment is gone, he has ditched McCann-Erickson, and we learn from Pete that he had to “clean up” after Don left town/left McCann-Erickson. As Pete said to Duck Phillips, upon meeting him on the elevator, “Are you here to hire Don’s replacement” to which Duck responded that he had done it before. Don, apparently, is replaceable. The series is coming to an end and familiar haunts that we know, as an audience, are no longer intact.
This episode was an interesting choice for Mother’s Day. Now we also know why Betty and Henry remained so woven into the narrative of Mad Men, in part because Betty remained the mother of Don’s children, but also because we now know what will happen to Betty, she is going to die, just like her mother did. Leaving Henry bereft, as he weeps in Sally’s dorm room, with three children, none of whom are his biological relatives. In an ironic twist, Don’s children end up much like Don did, living with caretaker parents who are not their blood relatives.
We learn of Betty’s fate after she falls on the staircase going to her class, and turns out to have metastasized lung cancer. As has happened so many times before, she is a bystander even at this crucial moment of her life: the emergency room doctor refuses to tell her what’s wrong until she calls her husband, and a second opinion doctor outlines the prognosis speaking directly to Henry while Betty sits apart from them in the shadows, passively listening to these men debate her fate. However, Betty then claims some agency. When she refuses treatment, Henry claims that it is because she is “stubborn” or “vain,” and Sally thinks it’s because Betty loves the tragedy. But Betty has a different rationale, proving herself a more complicated character than the narcissistic doll they think she is. She tells Sally that she watched her own mother die, and won’t do that to her: “I don’t want you to think I’m a quitter. I fought for plenty in my life. That’s how I know when it’s over. It’s not a weakness. It’s been a gift to me. To know when to move on.” The next morning, Henry wonders why in the world Betty is planning to go off to class as usual. “Why was I ever doing it?,” Betty responds with a smile and a kiss. Perhaps this is a nod to her decision to live her life as fully on her own terms as possible, for as long as possible. But perhaps it is also the show’s nod to how we all live our lives, full of our daily routines and plans, while time ticks away and we are all dying, whether aware of it or not. It may also be a nod to the audience, as Betty is following Don’s cynical comments from the pilot episode, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, when he tells Rachel Menken that “you’re born alone and you die alone and there are a bunch of rules that get dropped on your head. I am living like there is no tomorrow because there isn’t one.” Would we change how we live if we knew our days were so finitely numbered as Betty? And if so – are we truly living them now?
Back as boarding school, Sally opens the letter from her mother and reads the practical instructions for the dress and lipstick Betty wants to be buried in – so very centered on appearances to the end. But Betty also leaves her daughter a parting word of acceptance and affirmation: “I always worried about you because you march to the beat of your own drum. But now I know that’s good. I know your life will be an adventure. I love you.” Their epic mother-daughter struggles are both truncated and healed, as Betty acknowledges and bridges the chasm between them, a gap due both to their idiosyncratic personalities, but also to this decade of changing feminine norms and possibilities. But Betty won’t leave Sally as unmoored as Betty felt when her mother passed away, Sally is on firmer ground even as her home life has become, over the years, far less traditional than was Betty’s.
Through a series of encounters with the headhunting Duck Phillips, Pete Campbell is tricked into what turns out to be a job interview with Learjet. Though Pete is honest in his protests that he isn’t looking for another job, his demurral becomes leverage for negotiating an amazing deal, to rival his package at McCann. Ultimately, Pete takes the position with Learjet, where he will be working with the Connie Hiltons and other members of the country’s actual power elite who remained so elusive to him during much of his time at Sterling Cooper. Learjet is looking for the kind of person who is comfortable among these titans of industry—Pete’s pedigree and quiet charm this time works to his advantage, given that just weeks ago Pete’s family and pedigree were distinct detriments to getting Tammy into the elite Connecticut kindergarten. Pete is also seen being a more involved father to Tammy, soothing a bee sting with toothpaste and promising to take her to Friendly’s for dinner. He reproaches his brother Bud for cheating on his wife, a behavior both brothers learned from their father but now realize they may want to change: “I think it feels good, and then it doesn’t.”
One of the themes of this episode is remembering and forgetting. Pete goes to Trudy’s house at four a.m., begging her to come with him to his new job in Wichita at Learjet so they can be a family again. Early on in the episode, Trudy told a friend that she has been trying to forget things (from her marriage with Pete) so as not to poison their daughter against him, and she revisits this when Pete asks her to come to a client dinner with him for old times’ sake. “I’m jealous of your ability to be sentimental over the past. I’m not able to do that. I remember things as they were,” she tartly replies. Yet when he makes his pre-dawn plea to start over, claiming he has always loved her and that he isn’t dumb enough to take her love for granted anymore, her protest that some things can’t be undone dissolves into passionate kisses and agreement.
Pete seems genuine in his claim that he’s learned to stop always looking for something better or different. But is this truly a happy ending for these two, riding off in the sunrise to Wichita? He promises Trudy that part of the allure of the move is that they’ll have a plane at their disposal, to pick up and go anywhere, anytime they want – so the wanderlust so endemic to the characters in this show is still very present in Pete, as he says in trying to sell Trudy on their reunion, “I want to go everywhere with you.” And when Trudy asks how they will explain their reunion to their daughter, Pete whispers, “Tell her her birthday wish came true.” Is this new beginning simply childish wish fulfillment, the stuff of fairytales and dreams, more than the reality that Trudy knows can’t be fully forgotten or undone? Pete tells Trudy “we are entitled to something new. I want to start over and I know I can.” After all, as he paints the picture of their future, he tells her that “Wichita is beautiful. And wholesome.” Pete finally understood how much he cared for and loved Trudy. And, unlike Don, there is only one version of Pete—he just wants to start over as the better version of himself, and he is persuaded that Wichita, and Trudy and Tammy can help him sustain this recreated, better version of himself.
Yet the other arc of this episode, the Don Draper road trip that has stalled quite near Wichita, in a small Oklahoma-Kansas border town, tugs at the threads of Dick Whitman’s story. And the deceptive, violent locals there disabuse Don – and us – of any sentimental notion of America’s heartland as uniformly beautiful or wholesome. Here Don is straddling the divide between Whitman and Draper, and the deception comes back again in Don’s interactions with these strangers who initially give him “comfort”. Don Draper stands out in Alva, Oklahoma, but Dick Whitman would have fit in much more comfortably. The tension behind Don’s mask comes through when he pointedly keeps his face obscured from the fellow Korean vet at the American Legion dinner, afraid that his deception might be found out. Don, “lighting out for the territories” once again, is toggling between his two identities, not always conscious that the image that he projects is of a wealthy city slicker, even as he may think that he is in familiar terrain among rural, Midwestern Americans.
One after another, the people of Alva, Oklahoma reveal themselves to be untrustworthy. At the motel, young Andy cons Don out of $20 to bring him some whiskey. The motel owner’s wife tells Don his car will get fixed all right, but he will be overcharged. The motel owner admits, “I know we seem like fine people, but I’ve been a little dishonest” after inviting Don to an American Legion event that turns out to be a fundraiser. He wheedles Don into contributing, then pulling out an additional bill. Don is wary throughout the evening, trying to avoid talking about his own service in Korea, but after the vets comment several times about how he hasn’t said anything, they tell him that he’s not allowed to say he doesn’t want to talk about it with them – he is among friends, other soldiers who have seen and done terrible things. After one WWII veteran tells a harrowing story about killing four Germans who were trying to surrender (and presumably eating them, as he and his two fellow soldiers were starving), Don blurts out his own darkest secret: that he killed his commanding officer in Korea. That gives all the drunken vets a moment’s pause, but after explaining how the explosion blew up the real Donald Draper, Don concludes, “And I got to go home.” “That is the name of the game,” one responds, clapping him on the shoulder, and they call for more booze while singing a rousing, drunken rendition of “Over There.” So much is being examined in this scene – patriotism, cowardice, what brave Americans actually fight for in desperate moments of actual warfare, whether this “band of brothers” can be trusted or whether they will cannibalize one another. When these same men break into his motel room later that night, accusing him of stealing the funds raised, beating him in the head and taking his car keys, those bonds of camaraderie seem flimsy and false.
Don realizes that the real thief is the small-time con artist Andy, who works at the motel, and attacks him when he shows up the next day. He tells him to return the money: “If you keep it, you’ll have to become somebody else. And it’s not what you think it is.” Again, echoing the reality that we have learned about Don/Dick throughout the series. Once the money is returned to the surly motel owner, Don heads out of town, but agrees to give his fellow grifter/hobo Andy a ride to the bus stop. When they pull up, Don kills the engine and flips the keys to a stunned Andy with the admonition: “Don’t waste this.” The Cadillac speeds away and the episode ends with Don sitting alone at the bus stop, grinning, as Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” plays. Don passes along a chance at escape and reinvention, and ends up with only his paper bag of possessions, stripped of marriage, family, job, apartment and now even that most American of necessities, a car. Betty told Sally that knowing when to move on is a gift, and Pete’s attempt to move on with Trudy is like a birthday wish coming true. Don is moving on as well – but will his route yield milk and honey?
*The Learjet CEO, Mike Sherman, made mention of Pete’s capacity to rap his ring on the table and essentially announce the arrival of the company. The ring rapping on the table was an interesting reference—since the most proximate ring rapper in our current cultural landscape is Francis Underwood on House of Cards. Perhaps there is a connection to the likes of Pete Campbells of the early 1970s corporate arena with the Frank Underwoods who would dominate in fiction (and perhaps in some form of fact) the political landscape forty years hence.
*In this episode, Pete’s secretary Sarah is played by Matthew Weiner’s wife, Linda Brettler.
*The narrative arc that we have yet to see sewn together at all over the past six episodes is the friendship between Don and Peggy. Peggy arrives at McCann-Erickson, hung-over, at the end of Lost Horizon. But we don’t hear anything from Pete about her work, her accounts, or how she is doing—while we learn about others from Pete in his conversations with Duck. While Peggy’s swaggering arrival at McCann last week might be the last we see of her, the relationship and friendship that she and Don have shared over the course of the decade has been distinctly absent in these final six episodes. There has been much that was unexpected throughout these final episodes (Diana, Betty’s cancer, Diana, the million dollar check, Diana…), the narrative that provided those poignant moments between Don and Peggy—from the interaction between the two of them as they first meet and when we first meet them in Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, to the “all-nighter” in The Suitcase, to “don’t be a stranger” with Peggy’s departure from SCDP, to their dance to Sinatra’s “My Way”—has not really had Don and Peggy share much of a conversation over the course of these final episodes. They have had nominal interactions, and Peggy’s irritation with Don when she wants a real performance review, but little more. Perhaps they won’t have more than that dance as the series draws to a close—where they might reconnect remains amorphous, as the places where they usually encounter each other are changed or gone.
Linda Beail and Lilly Goren are co-editors of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America, Bloomsbury Publishers, March 2015.