Mad Men Weekly Review - The Milk and Honey Route

"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.” –Betty

Betty has been a problematic character on “Mad Men” over the second half of the series’ run. Once she and Don divorced at the end of the third season, her necessity to the series became questionable aside from as a connection between Don and their children and the show seemed to struggle to keep her relevant.

Through many seasons, she became a villain, firing her children's nanny for a petty slight or telling Sally about Don’s first wife Anna in order to cause a rift in Don and Megan’s marriage. All of the characters on "Mad Man" have flaws, but for Don or Pete or Peggy, we could see them be good at their job, so there was a balance. Betty usually doesn't have that balance.

Betty finally had an opportunity to get out her shell by pursuing a master’s degree in psychology and last week’s episode was maybe the happiest we’ve seen her as she’s reading Freud when Don walks in. “I’ve always wanted to do this,” she tells him with a giant smile on her face.

That ultimately makes it such a gut punch then after she is diagnosed in "The Milk and Honey Route" with terminal lung cancer, which has metastasized throughout the rest of her body, leaving her with, at best, a year to live.

The episode is arguably the best showcase January Jones has had in years, from her stoically sitting in profile as the doctor tells Henry (and not her) about the gravity of the situation, to her giving Sally the letter containing her last wishes. She’s also fantastic in voiceover as Sally reads the letter and breaks down crying in her dorm room.

Betty has dealt with her own mortality before in the fifth season when she gained weight and a doctor found a lump on her thyroid. She reacted badly in that situation and at first she seems to have a similarly petulant reaction here. But what at first appears to be stubborn denial, is revealed to actually be mature acceptance after her speech to Sally that the above quote is taken from. If the last time we see Betty is her slowly but defiantly climbing those steps to her class, it's a fantastic final image for the character to go out on.

Sally, and Kiernan Shipka in playing her, has grown from a cute little girl with a lisp to one of the show’s most interesting characters. She’s had to experience unpleasant things and grow up a lot faster than normal, but it’s made her a stronger person. She initially covers her ears like a little child when Henry first tells her about her mother, but she also comforts him when he breaks down crying and later she slips into the woman of the house role she'll need to take over when she pulls Gene onto her lap in the Francis kitchen. It's always seemed Betty has a fundamental misunderstanding of her daughter, but it's clear that's not true when she closes her letter to Sally by saying, "I always worried about you, because you marched 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, Mom."

The weight of Betty’s diagnosis and it’s implications for the future, make Don’s adventures finding himself across America seem almost trivial in comparison. After apparently dropping off the hitchhiker he picked up last week in Minnesota, Don finds himself stranded in rural Oklahoma waiting for his broken-down Cadillac to be fixed, biding his time reading paperback copies of "The Godfather" and "The Andromeda Strain" while sitting by the pool.

Placing Don in a new setting with a set of entirely new characters feels like a problematic choice for the penultimate episode of the series. It’s not that the scenes don’t carry weight and importance, but it’s a curious diversion when there is so little time remaining.

Don doesn’t like talking about his time in Korea and being reminded of what he did while he was over there, but after talking with the other veterans at the American Legion fundraiser, he realizes they all are living with demons. When one of them tells him, “You just do what you have to do to come home,” it spurs Don to recount his fateful experience in Korea that got him home (conveniently leaving out the identity theft) and when he joins in as they drunkenly sing "Over There," maybe he finally feels he's with people who understand him.

Of course, it can't last when the same men barge into his motel room and accuse him of stealing the fundraiser money. Don didn't do it and knows right away it's Andy, the junior Don Draper, the motel housekeeper who has been getting Don paperbacks and whiskey while he's in town. Don has the benefit of experience when he tells him, “You’ll have to become somebody else. And it’s not what you think it is,” but that advice probably wouldn’t have worked on him 20 years ago and it won’t work on Andy, so Don gives him the keys to his Caddy and he’s left waiting on the bus stop with a smile on his face, shed of nearly all his belongings as Buddy Holly sings offscreen.

 Don’s likely headed back to New York, but what’s waiting for him there? He’s not going to be welcomed back at McCann Erickson and he’s likely lost out on the millions of dollars he would’ve been owed from his contract. But for whatever disaster he’s once again made of his professional life, he still has plenty of money and now he’s going to have three children who need their father more than ever. He’s made a mess of much of his life, but hopefully part of next week’s final episode is him realizing the one positive in his life is his kids and he can build from that revelation.

Meanwhile back in New York City, Pete gets a visit from Duck, who has fallen of the wagon (again) and manipulates Pete into interviewing for a marketing position with Learjet in Wichita to help his head hunting business. Pete has unsuccessfully chased after a new start before, relocating to California when he Trudy divorced him, and when he skips out on a second dinner with Learjet to meet with his brother Bud (who I don’t think we’ve seen since maybe the second season) he questions their compulsion to always need something better (it comes from their jackass father. Shocker).

Pete doesn’t think he wants to keep chasing after something better, but then a drunken Duck visits his
suite with news that Pete’s no-show caused Learjet to up its offer and he tells Pete that “he’s on a streak, but it doesn’t last long.”

The realization he has a slight window for a second chance leads to his middle-of-the-night visit to Cos Cob and Trudy, where he tries to fix the past while also moving toward the future.

On a different show, Pete’s speech to win back Trudy would be a music-swelling happy ending, but it’s bittersweet because we know Pete. He believes he can start over with Trudy and Tammy in Wichita, but if the show had more than one episode left we’d probably see him just as unhappy as he’s always been. Maybe he can make it work this time around, but “Mad Men” is a show that doesn’t necessarily believe people can change.

Some other notes:
  • Before things got really dark with her cancer news, we got a pretty funny joke when the nurse tells Betty the students who brought her in to the hospital said her name was Mrs. Robinson. Glen Bishop would agree with that moniker.

  • The whole sequence at the American Legion fundraiser kind of reminded me of "The Deer Hunter," which makes sense since that 1978 film focuses on coming to grips with the horrors of war. Fortunately the episode didn't culminate in a game of Russian Roulette.

  • Like Tammy Campbell, I was not aware that toothpaste is an effective remedy for bee stings. Good to know for future reference.

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