War Stories: ‘Mad Men’ Inches Toward its End (‘The Milk and Honey Route’)

betty1All I want is just one more time.

One more time to watch Don shit in the chair of his own life and wipe his ass with every tepid attempt at a contract that he’s ever been muscled into signing.

One more time to see Betty, the finest punching bag ever to escape the Main Line, receive the worst possible news at the worst possible time because life is just that way.

One more time to chill with Roger as he drinks vermouth and plays the organ instead of going to work.

One more revealing bull session with Peggy, in which we determine that, yes, she’s capable of performing her new job while a cunnilingus-performing octopus watches, and that maybe it’s even better that way.

One more Pete Campbell “let’s get back together” speech, with one more inevitable eff you from Trudy–

Hold up.

Okay, I know that we do, yes, we do technically have one more time. We have one more episode, one more hour and change to savor to its last soul-crushing moments. But after that one more I’m going to want one more more. And if Matt Weiner suddenly stood up and decided that he couldn’t keep living without making vague “next week on” bumps, and that as a consequence Mad Men would run for another seven seasons with options for three more after that, I would be like, “And then what?” Because I want more. I want more Mad Men than Mad Men can ever give me.

I didn’t write about last week’s episode, and if you asked me why I would’ve run through a predictable list of excuses. I caught a cold; I started a summer class; I was very drunk when the episode aired and needed to watch it more than once to have any idea about what happened. And while those things are true, they’re only peripherally true. The real reason I couldn’t write last week was because I finally began to realize just how definite this ending was to be. Each time I sat down to the keyboard, I wrote around the episode instead of through it. I wrote five hundred words about Moby-Dick, trying to make some point about Jim Hobart’s “white whale” reference in “Lost Horizon” that would have done precious little to illuminate the antepenultimate episode of one of the most important television shows ever. Even now I’m writing around the issue, because that’s how we react to knowing the exact date when something is going to end: we focus on what we’re going to miss instead of enjoying the experience while we have it.

To that end, Betty’s terrifying diagnosis–lung cancer, advanced and aggressive, less than a year to live–is the first incident to put a fine point on it that, no shit, this is the end. Distracting ourselves from the inevitable is no longer possible. We must accept that none of these characters has more than hour to live. In the latest (last?) exhibit of her quickly-advancing maturity, Betty offered some wisdom not only to her worried husband and eldest child, but to Mad Men fans as well. She’s learned to accept when it’s the end. She can’t spend the rest of her limited time on Earth going through treatments, trying to buy a month here or a year there, because even as those treatments extend life they also constantly remind the patient that she is dying. There can be no enjoyment of life when the whole of your energy is focused on extending it by tiny increments. Henry asks Betty why she still wants to go to class, but what is the alternative? Listening to Henry make panicked phone calls to expensive specialists? Sitting around and thinking about whether she’d rather die in spring or in fall? Spending the precious hours of an expiring life in cars and hospitals and support groups?

Henry’s reaction is understandable; what would you do if it were the one you love? Still, there’s a detectable amount of dick-swinging involved in his bullheaded refusal to accept the truth. I was reminded of a so-so movie called Love and Other Drugs. A Viagra-pushing jackass played by Jake Gyllenhaal falls for a pot-smoking, Liz Phair-digging artist played by Anne Hathaway, but their union is complicated by the artist’s diagnosis of early-onset Parkinson’s disease. A good chunk of the movie has Gyllenhaal shuttling Hathaway by land and air to various hospitals and clinics in a desperate search for experimental treatments. Hathaway, of course, hates all this business and just wants to get back to her life. But the idea of saving her becomes a point of pride for Gyllenhaal; his love for her is superseded by his need to fix the situation to his liking. Gyllenhaal’s situation is exacerbated by the fact that Hathaway will require long term care (Betty, alas, will not) but both his character and Henry are running from the same thing: the responsibility of loving a doomed person. The instinct for chivalry in frightening situations comes at the expense of what these women really need, which is a continuation of the love and comfort and support that they received pre-diagnosis. The certainty of death and disease puts blinders on our loved ones. Henry complains to the doctors, in an accusatory tone, that he doesn’t understand what they’re saying. Of course he doesn’t. Understanding the news requires that we remain in love while accepting the tragedy of love’s end.

pete and trudy!If the writers of Mad Men were in the Epic Finale business, they would end the series with Betty’s funeral–a convenient way to get everyone together one last time, ending the show on a somber note while not sacrificing any of the four generally-accepted “leads.” And while that would be satisfying in an icing-on-the-cake sort of way, it doesn’t feel like the Mad Men we know and love. Our Mad Men sidesteps big moments, eschewing revelations and reversals in favor of dread and apprehension. Big News comes after the fact, by phone, secondhand. Mad Men doesn’t “wrap things up”; for all we know, Don will never learn of Betty’s illness before those final credits roll next Sunday. (And that might even be the best option. Recall Don’s last words to Betty in “Lost Horizon”: “Knock ’em dead, Birdy.” Could you ask for a better final moment between them?)

Well okay, maybe the Mad Men crew does wrap up some things. Pete finally taking the needle and thread to his relationship with Trudy–and she opening her arms to him for the first time in years–felt only slightly like a curveball. We know Pete has wanted back into Trudy and Tammy’s lives ever since he was booted from them, but he’d never been able to square it with his business ambitions and general dickishness. He was a good husband only for brief flickers of time in-between misguided affairs and chip-n-dip returns. So why does his most recent overture toward Trudy actually feel genuine? It can’t just be that we want him to be happy; indeed, the box of Raisin Bran on his desk during one scene in “The Milk and Honey Route” was a sly reminder of just how much fun it is when Pete Campbell is super miserable. Closer to the truth is that Pete has finally been freed of his self-applied need to emulate Don Draper. In forsaking McCann to work for Learjet, Pete’s made his first career move in a decade that doesn’t involve following Don. Better yet, it doesn’t involve following anyone; thanks to everybody’s favorite headhunter, Pete can accept the job offer without having to so much as point old Duck Phillips in the direction of an elevator. He’s finally free, which means he can finally be himself. Why do we always want more?, he asks his brother, Bud. Because dad was that way, he says. By jumping off the path of emulating those who came before him, Pete Campbell can finally be redeemed. He might not deserve Trudy, but he deserves a chance to start over, unencumbered by the pressures of who he used to be.

Right smack in the middle of these United States lies an 82,000 square mile pancake called Kansas. Don begins the episode here, and by the end we find that Pete is bound for Wichita himself, courtesy of Learjet. Is this symbolic of a great compromise, of a “meeting in the middle” between the twin temptation havens of New York and L.A.? Maybe so for Pete; his Manhattanite upbringing always seemed more of a hindrance than an asset, and anyway how poetic is it to think about the Campbells starting over as an isolated unit, with no familiar business partners muddying the newly cleansed waters? Our more curious Great Plains drifter is Don, who set his sights on the Grand Canyon but only got as far as the Kansas-Oklahoma border. Outside Alva, OK, his Caddy breaks down, forcing him to kill time at a motel run by the guy who used to manage the Wonders. You could tell the episode was directed by Matt Weiner; the cultural symbolism bait arrived by the truckload in “The Milk and Honey Route.” Weiner gives Don a stack of paperbacks to read (The Godfather, The Andromeda Strain, Hawaii) but more interesting is the book read by the shapely woman by the pool: The Woman of Rome by Alberto Moravia. Angela pointed out that Don and Betty once traveled to Rome together, on a business trip for Hilton. That was in season three, not long before Betty found out about Don’s secret past, so the trip to Rome was likely the last time the two were happy together. Knowing what we know now about Betty, this might have been a premature encounter with her ghost.

Of course it’s important that Don, for the first time in the history of the series, shares the truth of his escape from Korea. His face crimson with drink, he stated, plainly: “I killed my CO.” but more important is the fact we’ve known all along: nobody cares. Dick Whitman has been an open secret ever since Pete opened the Adam box, but the desertion and secret identity have only occasionally been used as leverage–to get Don to sign a contract, or agree to reasonable terms of divorce. Bert Cooper openly chided, “Who cares?” at the giddily blackmailing Pete. The writers like to dangle the Dick/Don history out there to give the audience a reason to be held in suspense, but the secret history was only ever meant to function as an existential metaphor. That’s why when the vets burst in and pummel Don, we know it’s not for his desertion, or for the unintentional murder of Lt. Draper. It’s for some unrelated crime, so unrelated that Don isn’t even guilty of it. That’s just how it works with Teflon Don: they’ll nail him for everything but that which he actually done.

Maybe after the series is over, Don morphs into Robert Forster’s character in Breaking Bad, because he sure loves giving strangers a new start. His offer of advice and a free Cadillac to fund-stealing Andy is an echo of his encounter with Danny Farrell in season three. The brother of Sally’s teacher and Draper tryst #779, Suzanne Farrell, Danny suffered from epilepsy, and the resulting seizures made it impossible for him to keep a job. When he confided in Don that he intended to set out on his own, Don gave him his card and a wad of cash. “I want you to call me,” he said. “If you ever need to.” Don feels a sort of kinship with people who aren’t happy with where they are and just need to start over. Because he knows what it’s like to hide, to be ever suspicious, to look over your shoulder. Or maybe, divorced from his old job (“I used to be in advertising,” he says to Andy), Don just needs to feel like an expert in something. Maybe he’s no better than Henry Francis, trying to save those who can’t be saved.

That call from Danny Farrell never came. He might have died on the road. He might be calling up the old Draper residence right now. But alas, Draper doesn’t live there anymore.

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