This review contains spoilers.
7.13 The Milk And Honey Route
So much for Birdie being allowed a kind exit. The previous episode’s sunny, heart-warming kitchen goodbye felt uncharacteristic for the simple reason that it was a mirage. Betty’s real fate is to be eaten from the inside by every cigarette we’ve watched her light over the past decade. The third of Don’s exes lost to cancer, she should have been the one dreaming the words “you knew we’d catch up with you eventually”.
But The Milk And Honey Route didn’t venture into Betty’s subconscious, instead showing her impassive outward response to learning it was the end. Whether it was shock or Zen acceptance, Betty put up the emotional barriers and made good on the bumper sticker promise that if she was indeed going to die young, she’d leave behind a good-looking corpse. One dressed in blue chiffon and mink. From a woman long taught that her looks were her only measure of self-worth, that emotionless checklist was as wise a response to impending oblivion as any.
Betty giving poor Sally the cold shoulder hardly came as a surprise after all this time. In fact, it made that laconic goodbye and fairy-at-the-christening blessing about Sally’s life being an adventure surprisingly affecting. Betty does love her daughter, as best as that toxic forty-year old child knows how. For all her bad parenting, there was still something admirable in the way Betty faced her fate, climbing the stairs to class, birdie scarf in her hand, knowing like the rest of us that it was all going to end, but carrying on anyway.
Beginnings, not endings, were the subject of Pete and Don’s stories. Both turned back the clock to right past wrongs. Pete’s do-over concerned his own failed marriage to Trudy, now up-and-running again with a new life in beautiful, wholesome, not-the-City Wichita on the horizon.
Don’s do-over was vicarious. He intervened in the life of a younger version of himself, handsome conman Andy, stopping him from having to follow Dick Whitman’s mendacious path in life. The two-shot of Don and Andy standing opposite one and looking so similar another encouraged us to see them as the same person at different stages in their life. Don’s impatience with Andy’s poor grammar was another clue that he saw his younger self in the boy – Andy’s double negatives were an unwelcome reminder of Dick’s own hick past, concealed for years beneath Don Draper’s outward sophistication. Providing Andy with an escape route from having to become someone else was Don’s method of rewriting his past.
It’s a past that needs rewriting if that glimpse into Don’s dream at the top of the episode was anything to go by. Just because his identity-theft is long past being the most interesting thing about Don Draper for Mad Men’s audience, that doesn’t mean the character has made peace with his permanent fear of being discovered. It made for an especially tense moment in the Legion before it was established that Jerry’s time in Korea didn’t overlap with his, and that offer to sit down and have a drink was extended.
This half-season started in Diana’s diner with Don regaling a table of glamorous women with a story about his dirt-poor childhood, and to have it ending with him confessing part of his darkest secret to another table of strangers feels like progress on a scale of the season six finale’s “This is where I grew up”.
Don’s partial confession to the Oklahoma Vets about his time in the service was a fascinating point for the show to return to at this stage. We’ve seen the story in flashback and witnessed the aftermath of Don’s guilt about his deception, but the simple act of sharing it out loud—momentarily at least—seemed monumental for Don. (The beating he later received at those strangers’ hands detracted from the camaraderie of the moment.)
The question of the hour of course, was posed by Sally to her father: “So where next?” Wherever it is, Don’s now willingly divested himself of yet another possession. First this half-season, the wife, then the apartment, then the job, and now the car. Dick Whitman started out with nothing and that’s what he’s returned to. Materialism didn’t bring him peace, will this new asceticism?
We leave Don in yet another glorious final scene that could have served as his last ever moment: him smiling beatifically at the bus-stop, with no more baggage than could fit into a Sears bag, with accompaniment from Buddy Holly. I doubted whether the previous episode’s Space Oddity exit could be topped as a final shot of Don, but The Milk And Honey Route managed it. Having seen the rug pulled out from underneath Betty’s optimistic ending though, the worry is that Mad Men’s finale won’t leave him sitting happily in the sunshine. It all depends on where that bus is heading.
Read Frances’ review of the previous episode, Lost Horizon, here.
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