Recap Digest: Mad Men 7.13, "The Milk and Honey Route"

May 11, 2015 by Alex Castle

Out of all the predictions and guesses about how Matthew Weiner would end Mad Men, I don’t think anyone imagined that a happy ending for Pete Campbell would be a part of it. I certainly didn’t. But with the amusing return of Duck Phillips, now a corporate headhunter and still an unrepentant drunk, Pete is swept off his feet into a new job as head of marketing for Learjet, where he’ll have access to his own plane to go anywhere he wants anytime he wants, in addition to a generous signing bonus and his full negotiated settlement with McCann. Best of all, he takes the opportunity to put his family back together and bring them with him to Learjet’s hometown, Wichita, Kansas, showing that he may actually have learned something and grown over the course of this series.

Betty, likewise, is not someone anyone expected to see a lot of personal growth from. And if there have been a lot of predictions of death for the end of the series, most money was on Roger Sterling, or Don. But it seems that her years of being Mad Men’s most prolific smoker of menthol 100s have caught up with her: she’s got terminal lung cancer and a year to live at best, if she submits to aggressive treatment. (The way the doctor delivers the news to Henry, with Betty in the room, as though Betty were a dog at the vet’s office, said a lot about both the times and the character.) But she refuses, showing remarkable strength and poise in reassuring both Henry and Sally. “I don’t want you to think of me as a quitter,” she tells her daughter. “I’ve fought for a lot in my life, that’s how I know when it’s over.” Even for a character as disliked as Betty, this was heartbreaking stuff. And even knowing she probably won’t make it to finals, she keeps going to her psychology classes, finally doing exactly what she wants, rather than what the men around her tell her to do.

Don is still not aware of Betty’s diagnosis, as he is still on walkabout around the interior U.S. in his big fancy Cadillac. When the Caddy throws a rod somewhere in Kansas, Don holes up at a motel for a few days with a paperback of “The Godfather” and a still-active fetish for brunettes. But he’s not totally off the grid: he’s been calling his children regularly and trying his hand at a whole new business called “parenting.” Long-distance parenting, but still. The motel owner persuades Don to stay an extra night and join him at the VFW hall, where he’s clearly terrified he might run into someone who knew the real Don Draper, or knew Dick Whitman, in Korea. But a night of camaraderie (and whiskey) loosens his tongue enough to reveal how he got out of the war, except for the whole stolen-identity part. But it turns out that the young man doing odd jobs at the motel and busing tables at the VFW has ripped off the donation jar, Don is blamed for it, and he has to confront this younger version of himself to get the money back, and advise him to take a different path. He even gives him his Cadillac to make sure he makes good time.

Clearly Don Draper is not going back to advertising. The last big question remaining is how he will respond to Betty’s situation. Will he take the kids and raise them himself? Will they stay with Henry? Is he going to become a maintenance man or something like that? The one thing we know for sure is that he is not going to jump out the window of an ad agency.

The A.V. Club’s John Teti sees a possible next chapter for Don in the encounter by the pool:

Not all reminders of his past fill Don with dread. When he sees a shapely sunbather by the motel pool with a copy of The Woman Of Rome on her midriff, Don lapses into slack-jawed fantasy (until the illusion is shattered by the arrival of the woman’s husband and family). The book cover evokes Don’s trip to the city on Conrad Hilton’s behalf. In Italy, he and Betty were intoxicated by the otherworldly air, reconnecting in a moment of mutual escape. It’s one of a few references to European escapism in “The Milk And Honey Route.” Another is Don’s remark to Sally that he’d like to go to Spain. And the most colorful instance comes from Del, the motel owner, who tells Don at Legion night, “I didn’t break the real commandments ’til I was in Europe.” The usual authorities—the strictest commandments—don’t have jurisdiction across the Atlantic. In that light, you can see why the place holds a heightened allure for Don.

Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz points out how “the main plot” isn’t really a thing anymore:

The ongoing Don-on-the-road plotline mirrors Betty’s for the first time. One of the recurring viewer complaints about Betty post-divorce was that, absent Don, she wasn’t really connected to the central world of the show anymore, which meant the dispatches from her marriage to Henry Francis felt like scenes in a different series that was tangentially connected to the main action through Don (with Sally serving as conduit). Don’s not really connected to the main action now, either. Nobody is. That’s because Sterling Cooper & Partners (or whatever they were calling it, depending on the season) doesn’t exist anymore.

In this subplot especially, but really throughout the episode, there’s a sense of the center giving way, of things falling apart, and of everyone just dealing with it in their own way. There are multiple instances of actual machines, and in one case, a body-as-machine, breaking down: Don’s car, the TV in his hotel room, the motel owner’s wife’s typewriter, and Betty’s cancer; in that shot of Pete eating pie alone in the kitchen, we’re primed by all the breakdowns to assume than the light turned off by Trudy is a power failure. As is often the case on Mad Men, and as is often the case in life, some people can’t win for losing while others can’t lose for winning.

Don is definitely in the former camp this week: Within the space of a few scenes, he gets stranded in a small town, taken for ten bucks by a young and rather terrible con artist, contemplates the curvy, oiled body of a young woman at poolside only to get cock-blocked by some kids and their dad, gets drunk at the VA fund-raiser and confesses one of his greatest shames, then gets savagely beaten with a phone book by the same men who’d tenderly assured him that he was in a safe space. He leaves town without even trying to explain that he had nothing to do with the theft of the money: He just leaves a bag of cash at the front desk of the motel. As I’ve noted in other season-seven recaps, Don has gotten very comfortable with the idea of accepting indignity, unfairness, and bad news without letting it eat him up, and without feeling the need to go ballistic with rage and denial. He dispenses a fair amount of wisdom in this episode, including the admonition to the young trickster that when you steal something so valuable that its loss would cause an entire community to rise up in outrage, you can’t stick around: You have to become someone else, and that requires submitting to an illusion that’s not as easy to maintain as it probably sounds when you’re young and dumb and filled with fantasies of omnipotence.

Slate’s John Swansburg saw the end of Betty’s story as a redemption:

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. 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. But in killing her off, the writers finally found a way to make Betty likeable, to give her a chance to be more of a rock than Henry (who approaches the diagnosis as if it’s a problem that can be solved with a few calls to well-connected bureaucrats) and one step ahead of her world-weary daughter, who, it turns out, doesn’t yet know it all. Happy Mother’s Day, Betty Francis.

Tom and Lorenzo see Pete Campbell’s new beginning as the best we could have hoped for for the character:

Similarly, Pete’s turn toward introspection and his realizations about all the many ways he’s screwed up his life is a wonderful thing to see. There was no line more indicative of the massive shift this character made than the very last one he uttered in this episode, one full of uncharacteristic optimism and good will: “Good morning.” Like Betty’s final sob-worthy “I love you. Mom” it was a line that summed up all the growth this character has made. He’s always been sour, petulant and rudely entitled, but now he’s realized the truly important things in life. This change has been coming and building slowly for some time, but it’s extremely true to Pete’s nature that what finally prompted him to make this leap was a dream job offer, loaded with money, perqs, and the kind of respect he always felt was his due. Remember when he couldn’t get it up for a hooker until she called him her king? He couldn’t have asked for Trudy back without someone else confirming his worth to him at this level. Had he stayed a Vice-President at McCann, he would have fulfilled Don’s pilot episode prediction that in ten years he’d be nothing more than a mid-level executive with a corner office and “a little bit of hair, who women go home with out of pity.” Now he’s free to become the person and live the life that will make him happiest: Pete and Trudy Campbell, King and Queen of Wichita.

As an aside, it’s interesting to note how much financial success is playing into the final stories of all these characters. Don’s got more money than he knows what to do with, Joan exited her career a millionaire, Peggy’s on track to quadruple her salary in a few years, and Pete landed a job that’s destined to make him a very wealthy man. This too seems inevitable. After all, what is advertising but the religion of capitalism? These characters have been praying at that altar for years. And while there are plenty of disappointments in the way this story is ending, that’s one area where everyone’s prayers seemingly got answered.

It remains to be seen what Don’s going to become; what lessons he’s learned and how he’s going to apply them to whatever the next stage is in his life. Once again, he got punished for telling his deepest secret. Betty left him when she found out how he really was. The partners all but fired him. And now, his fellow soldiers beat him with a phone book, after he opened up to them, once again reinforcing the idea to Don that it’s better to just not tell people the truth. But has he changed? When he stopped to take in that brunette with the book sunning herself poolside, it seemed like a moment where he may have realized his own patterns and weaknesses, just as the grifter kid made him realize the high cost he paid for cutting himself off from his own past and name. We’ll make no predictions as to where he’s heading and what is ultimate end in this story to be, but we’ve never seen a grin like the one on his face when he sat at that bus stop and realized he was truly free. Whatever else happens with Don, his journey has been long and hard, but it’s clear to us that he’s come to a form of self-acceptance that didn’t seem possible even a few years ago. Granted, that’s all about to come crashing down when he finds out he’ll have to be the sole parent to his children, but that’s the great tension heading into the finale. Don’s happy and where he wants to be, but life clearly has other plans for him. Who’s going to respond to the call? Will Dick Whitman hit the road or will Don Draper come home and be a father to his children?

And The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman looks ahead to next week’s series finale:

You could say that the finale’s title, “Person to Person,” suggest that might take place over the phone – and it could, but I would hope not – as Don settles in California (or, in a shocker, Texas?). I’d bank on the time jump.

What this episode gave us was more of the feeling that Don doesn’t care about money. (Though, as I suggested earlier, it might be helpful to know how much he has left – either not much or a lot, it would seem; the suggestion is he left two or three million on the table when he left M-E, but it’s not clear how much he actually has left.) He’s shedding himself of success and possessions as well as responsibility. He’s going where he needs to go for whatever rebirth or enlightenment is coming his way. (I’m still betting on California, though less sure seeing him on that remote Oklahoma bus stop bench.)

An argument could be made that Peggy’s story as well as Pete’s story (and, most clearly, Betty’s story), has been told. Roger’s story is that he’s with Marie and he’s all too aware that he’s been phased out at M-E, but he’s got his money so there’s no worries there except over happiness and contentment, which just might come harder for Roger than Don, if you think about it. (Although, if you absolutely need someone to jump/fall out of a window, he’s your guy.)

But logic suggests that the finale would get Don to whatever mostly-westward location he’s headed and then time-jump him to New York to deal with loose ends and characters (especially his family) that need to be addressed. Weiner has been cleverly pushing these final seven episodes ahead by roughly one month each time we see them (it’s currently early October of 1970), but that doesn’t mean the finale will continue the pattern. Anything could happen. We could see Don back at that bus stop in the middle of nowhere or we could see him in California and then New York and, conceivably, see him in an entirely different year.

But what “The Milk and Honey Route” effectively conveyed is that Weiner is going to tell the rest of this story as he pleases, at a pace which he finds perfectly acceptable to the story at hand. We viewers can’t wish anything onto that and expect change. The decision made in this penultimate episode – particularly the no Peggy, Joan and Roger element – suggest that we might not get the airtight resolution some hope for and will instead get hints about what may be – a well-executed vagueness that allows for interpretation.

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