It’s the penultimate episode of Mad Men, and it’s heartbreaking and strange. We have a lot to say, so let’s get straight to “The Milk and Honey Route” as Team Mad Men assembles for the second-to-last time.
Look up “mixed feelings” in the dictionary, and there’s a screenshot of the Mad Men opening credits listing both Alison Brie and Mark Moses. We get Trudy Campbell, but that comes with a side of Duck. (Nothing against Moses, of course. I think he does a great job, but it’s impossible not to shake one’s fist at Duck whenever he starts talking.)
After the heavy focus on the transition last week, it was jarring to spend so little time at The Agency Formerly Known as SC&P. If IMDB is to believed, this is only the fourth episode in the history of the show in which Peggy doesn’t appear. This week, we only see Pete’s office, a hallway, and (of course) an elevator. After Peggy and Joan’s big episode last week, it felt weird not to see any hint of them, but with the agency becoming less important to most of the cast, it makes sense.
Like Pete, I should have known better than to take Duck at face value. The guy can’t even be honest about why he lined up a meeting for you. Which is pathological, really. In his business, he needs his clients to trust him and ambush meetings aren’t the way to do that. Why Duck Phillips isn’t homeless is one of the biggest unanswered questions of this show. Still, there’s nothing that placates Pete quite like the possibility of somebody liking him, which is why he ends up considering leaving the agency and foregoing his partnership share.
I love Pete meeting up with his brother (who’s looking to score an alibi). Both of these guys cheated / are cheating on their wives, just like their father. You know, the father who died in a plane crash. And now Pete’s leaving for a job with Learjet. This has never really been a show about men’s relationships with their fathers, but Pete’s psyche is a snakepit in this regard. Heck, the Campbell boys talk about how their father was always “looking for something better” before Pete decides on that career change. I like seeing them together again – there’s something about the way they talk to one another that really shows the difference between “brothers” and “friends” in a way that TV doesn’t often get.
I genuinely don’t know how I feel about the idea of Pete and Trudy getting back together. I’ve written before about how I want that Better Call Trudy spinoff about being a single mother in the seventies. And the scene where she finally stands up for herself and throws Pete out is legitimately one of my favorite TV moments of the last five years. And anything that places higher involves either a smoke monster or Batman looking into the cameras and promising to the viewers that he’ll always be there for them.
Of course, it’s not a foregone conclusion that this is going to work out. There’s still one episode to go. But in that moment, I wanted Trudy to toss him out all over again. Earlier in the show, she said what is kind of a mission statement for this series. “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.” There are always going to be the people who see Mad Men and focus on how great the outfits looked and what fun it must have been to drink at the office, but that’s never been what it’s about.
I’m just stalling because I still can’t decide how to feel about Pete and Trudy. I have watched this scene over and over, and while there’s a part of me that wants Trudy to stay away from that sinking ship, I’m beginning to soften. It helps that Vincent Kartheiser and Alison Brie are really good at this whole acting thing, because it’s a tough scene. One wrong note, and either one of them could come off as opportunistic, but they both seem completely sincere here.
In the early season of the show, they were kind of a dreadful society couple who had to be seen in the right places above all else. But I don’t see a trace of that here. They’ve both grown in the ten years that have passed since we met them in 1960. Pete never once mentions money when making his pitch, and she admits that she never stopped loving him before he talks about having access to a jet. And they’re talking Wichita, so it’s not about social climbing. I think they both honestly want this. I don’t know if it’s for the best, but I feel like Pete’s at least going to try this time. He seemed a little disgusted with his brother for cheating, and I wonder if maybe that’s out of his system now. I hope so. I really need this to be the right move because I am rooting for Trudy so much. It would be nice if Mad Men allows for the fact that, yes, you can’t erase the past. But just maybe, you can make amends and move forward.
And you have to admit, it’s going to be hilarious when McCann Erickson finds out they’re losing another asset from SC&P. They basically acquired Peggy, Stan, Harry Crane, and an obscene print of an octopus.
Myndi’s handling Don this week, but I just wanted to mention a few things. I am absolutely fascinated that Don still dreams about being discovered. We’ve only seen him actively worry about this a few times (when Pete tried to expose him in Season One, the military account in Season Four), but it makes sense that on some level, he’s always looking over his shoulder. He could lose everything at any moment, and not just “everything” in the way that he’s lost marriages and businesses. There is always the chance that he could go to jail for the rest of his life, and it’s nice to be reminded that he can never get complacent. I also liked the way he opened up to the vets – we’ve seen him open up about his past, but he’s never really talked about that. And for just a moment, they give him the absolution that he desperately needs. It doesn’t last long, but I don’t want to get in Myndi’s way.
The episode’s title “The Milk and Honey Route” comes from the hobos. It refers to railroad tracks, especially those on the route to California. It’s an allusion to all those biblical references to the “land of milk and honey”. I almost want to call it “Hobo Code” just to draw a parallel to that episode, but Hobo Code and Hobo Slang are two different things. Like last week’s title, “Lost Horizon”, it’s also a book. Specifically, one billed as “a handbook for hobos”. It was written in 1930 by Nels Anderson, writing under the name “Dean Stiff”. (I point this out only because that’s an amazing pseudonym.) A little bit of Google comes up with this line from the book – “What may be a milk and honey route to one hobo may not be so to another”. Basically, what works for one won’t work for another, and in this episode both Don and Andy are both old school hobos. Don started out in a dilapidated farmhouse where a dishonorable man lived (per the Hobo Code etchings) and became a millionaire. That sounds like a milk and honey route to me, but I guess it’s all a matter of where he ends up.
Finally, you know I have to get into all the books that appear in the episode. The attractive lady by the pool is reading The Woman of Rome, a novel about alienation told partly from the point of view of a prostitute who grew up in a brothel. Probably more importantly, Rome was the last big trip that Don and Betty took. Throughout the episode, Don picks up paperback copies of The Godfather, The Andromeda Strain, and James Michener’s Hawaii. I don’t think there’s any real significance other than that these books were all popular at the time and just the sort of thing vacationers might leave behind in a motel. It would be really weird if he found a loose copy of John Dos Passos or Meditations on an Emergency, you know?
I’m not ready for this weekend’s finale, and yet I want to watch it right now at this very second.
Since EJ started the Don Draper discussion, let’s pick up that thread first. While Don is still on the open road (all the way in Oklahoma), he’s in touch with both Sally at school and the boys at Betty’s house. He hasn’t completely abandoned his life, but it absolutely appears as if he’s done with advertising. Then again, he could just decide to wander back into McCann like he took a really long lunch and it’s no big thing that he was completely incommunicado for weeks. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s pulled a stunt like that, would it?
He spends the episode trying on Middle America on for size and while parts of it work, he’s also done and seen too much at this point to really fit in with the lives these folks lead. Case in point: he’s way overdressed for a Saturday night at the American Legion. But, on the other hand, he’s got an aptitude for fixing Coke machines (a far cry from creating their advertising, as Jim Hobart promised he would) and he’s a crack typist. He’s also a car enthusiast, and correctly diagnosed why his own broke down. Don Draper could totally get by in this world; he might even be happier here. One thing he knows for sure: assuming the identity of Don Draper, and all the money, success and women that came with that, never completed him. Aside from his children, who he struggles to maintain relationships with, he has nothing left keeping him in New York. Not really.
But these are all assumptions I’m making based on his choices in this hour. The fact that he’s still driving west, that he confesses to killing his CO at the Legion, that he didn’t turn in the room cleaner/small time hustler Andy, and even went so far as to give him his car; these things all indicate that he’s considering ditching his entire persona to start completely from scratch. Matthew Weiner has always said he’s known the last line of the series from the beginning. Could that be something like, “I’m Dick Whitman.”? Has everything been leading up to the iconic quote from that time he helped Peggy recover from the stress of her surprise pregnancy and childbirth? “This never happened. You’ll be shocked how much this never happened.”
There’s one wrinkle, though, or rather, there are three. Don has three kids, and as I mentioned above, he has been in touch so they know he’s away, but expect him to come back as well as hear from him regularly. When he calls next, will Sally be telling him that her mother is sick or that she’s died?
I’m not sure how to feel about Betty’s cancer diagnosis. While some fans seem to be coming out to defend Betty as a character and wonder out loud why she has to suffer such a cruel demise just as she was getting her life together, I feel like this is a perfect way to end Betty’s life. She’s a martyr above all else; someone, as Sally said, who “loves the tragedy”. Someone had to get lung cancer to serve as an example for all the bad that could come of the massive amount of smoking done on this show and in this era. What’s truly awful here is how the bad news is administered by the doctors. They insist Betty get Henry to come to the hospital and then when they tell the couple what they found, they’ve actually pulled Henry to the side to give him the scoop on his wife’s terminal cancer, ignoring her completely as she sits a few feet away, staring at a wall. It’s really offensive. And it’s scary to think this is the way things were handled only a few decades ago.
Henry all but tells her how she’s to face her treatment and doesn’t even want to give her time to be sad and come to terms with her fate. He’ll be a wreck when she goes, and one has to wonder how he’ll fare raising the boys on his own. Or if he will. Won’t Don do right by his kids if and when they lose their mom? They’re his only real shot at redemption right now. And just like we’ll likely never see Sally as an adult, neither will her mother. But at least it seems as if they’ve reached an understanding, in writing anyway. The scenes shared between Kiernan Shipka and January Jones here were some the best work either has done. And Sally’s breakdown while reading her mother’s farewell letter was gut wrenching.
I’m with EJ; I don’t want this show to end, but the finale and the resolution we hope it brings us for all these people can’t come soon enough.