When I envisioned the final episodes of Mad Men, “The Milk and Honey Route” was exactly what I had in mind. There was no Diana, no McCann, and absolutely no wasted moments. In the penultimate episode of the series, Mad Men returned to the main characters that we were introduced to in the first episode: Don, Betty, and Pete. All in different places in their lives, and all much different from where we met them, tonight we zeroed in on these familiar faces once again, with the past looming large, to see how their chapters will be closed.
And for Betty, that chapter may be closing sooner than expected. The biggest bombshell of the episode, and really this whole half season, was the reveal that Betty is suffering from aggressive lung cancer that is rapidly spreading through her body. With about a year to live, Betty rejects Henry’s proposals to seek treatment, preferring instead to notice and accept when it’s the end.
Smoking has always been a large part of this show, and it has always been in the back of my mind that one character would eventually face its hazardous effects. The decision to end Betty’s life prematurely is a bold, but a wise one. As a character, she’s always been emotionally detached, so who better to stare death down without flinching. When Betty wanders into Sally’s room late at night to talk, I instantly believed we’d finally see a vulnerable mother-daughter moment, but was quickly disproven.
Staying true to the character, Betty is firm, not emotional with her daughter, leaving only a letter to be read once she has passed. Sally questions her mother’s decision not to seek treatment, even getting in a final barb, saying “you love the tragedy,” but Betty insists that she’s being realistic, saying “I believe people when they say that it’s over.” Even though we have another week left, this is likely to be the hardest goodbye, as witnessed when Sally prematurely reads her mother’s letter, with its strict instructions, but its parting praise of Sally’s individualism. She may not have been a perfect mother, always the ice queen, but her love of her children was real. Betty was always Mad Men’s tragic character from the start, so its fitting she receives the bitterest of goodbyes.
Meanwhile, Don continued his adventures in Kansas, where he’s surrounded by recollections of the lives he left behind. While staying at a motel, he notices happy families like the couple who own the business and a beautiful mother at the pool with her schlubby husband and loud children. They symbolize the life Don gave up with Betty, the domestic life that he so desperately wanted but couldn’t possible live out. Then, Don is reminded of his wartime as Dick Whitman when he’s strong-armed into attending an event at the American Legion. There, he reluctantly is prodded to speak about that tragic time he accidently killed his commanding officer. The last ghost of Don’s past lives comes in the form of a puckish, twangy teenage age con man that shares a lot in common with Dick Whitman.
The kid ends up setting Don up for a robbery, which results in Don getting walloped with the yellow pages. Don instantly knows who is actually responsible, and first roughs up, then solicits advice about the dangers of dishonesty that comes from experience. The kid gives back the money, and Don agrees to give the kid a ride to the bus stop, and then some. Perhaps seeing as much of himself in the kid as the viewers do, Don hands over the keys to his car and allows the kid to drive off, giving a parting piece of wisdom by saying “don’t waste this.” Afterward, Don sits at the bus stop sporting the most genuine smile we’ve seen on his face in quite some time.
Finally, Pete receives a visit from an old ghost, but not the metaphorical kind that graced Don. Duck Phillips, a character I certainly didn’t expect to see again, comes with an offer for Pete to join Lear Jet. Knowing that he’s sitting pretty, and that Duck is the last person to trust, Pete refutes his offers repeatedly. But after the deal sweetens and a visit with his brother reminds him that maybe a successful career can’t supplement a fulfilling family life, Pete decides to take the deal, but only if Trudy will come along with him and give their marriage a second shot. Though I don’t believe that Pete deserves Trudy, he makes a compelling argument and apology, and the two patch things up. It looks like, of all people, that Pete Campbell will get the happy ending.
Making predictions for Mad Men is futile. This show is constantly surprising me and subverting my expectations. I go into next week’s series finale anxious and knowing that just about anything could happen. All I know is that if Pete is going to get a storybook ending, please let Don end his tale with the same smile we saw him wear at the end of this phenomenal episode.