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This is a Spoiled Bastard deconstruction of Mad Men. It contains spoilers. That’s the point. If you haven’t watched the current episode, come back when you have.
When you get to this point in a series that matters the way that Mad Men matters in the stratosphere of television, the penultimate episode often lets you know that whatever you might guess, whatever you might want, what your predictions are for the future — they’re all pointless compared to the vision of the creator. He or she will end it like they want to end it, and if, in that penultimate episode, you’re unhappy or confused about the direction, it’s as good a point as any to realize it doesn’t matter what you think or want. It only matters — in this case specifically — what Matt Weiner wants.
As it should be.
See, this is where viewers often get caught being selfish — there’s only an hour (or an hour and 11 minutes) left in one of their favorite shows that they’ve invested in since 2007, and they are no doubt put off by what could be considered meandering or an emphasis on something that doesn’t provide maximum disclosure. But that’s where everyone needs to step back and remember that if you trust someone — in this case Weiner — to tell you a story so magnetic that you can’t get enough of it, then you need to let him end it with the same creative flourish that started it. What he gives you may not be what you wanted, but it’s his story.
So, in the penultimate episode we get two major stories and one very slow-churning story that probably annoyed a great deal of viewers but was, in the end, a thing of real beauty (and don’t forget we’ll probably have some kind of time jump next week in the series finale).
First and foremost, Weiner gave us the Betty (January Jones) story — she’s dying of cancer. It’s spreading maliciously and she’s not interested in any procedure that will give her another year of life/also make her miserable (and look awful). In the immortal words of Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) to her mother about Henry’s (Christopher Stanley) insistence that Betty grab on to any lifeline available: “He doesn’t know you won’t get treatment because you love the tragedy.”
It’s such a great line — both true in sentiment and as something that Sally would say, but also it sets up beleaguered Betty to find a truth that doesn’t make the audience roll its eyes and believe she’s just dumb and misguided: She tells Sally that contrary to what her daughter thinks, she’s a fighter, but more importantly she’s a realist who knows the fight is over. It can’t be won. All that can be done now is to go out on the terms you set. That scene gives Betty an all-too-rare bit of gravitas (same as in the scene where Henry, distraught and unable to channel how much he loves Betty, is mad at her for not seeking treatment; he asks what would happen if Nelson Rockefeller got cancer and Betty tells him the stark truth — “He would die!”). Her acceptance of the future, bleak as it will surely be, is the most grown-up thing she’s ever done.
Betty is going to die — her diagnosis is nine months to a year. Sally, who has been so frustrated with her mother (and with good reason), is saddled with the funeral arrangements, and that in itself is a great scene because it’s heartbreaking to her and so real to so many people who have been/will be put in that situation. Our families are often a web of screwed up interactions we’d rather not deal with because they’re not clean or easy. Weiner has always written Mad Men as true to real life with very little escapist dreaming.
The second story is Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) reconciling with Trudy (Alison Brie), something I predicted earlier and I’m happy to see happen (of course, there’s still an episode left and it could all go to hell, as could Pete leaving McCann-Erickson for a cushy job with that Lear Jet startup company).
“I want to start over,” Pete tells Trudy. “I know I can. I’m not so dumb anymore.” There was so much of this that screamed out for reconciliation and, given both of their situations, it makes sense (mostly because Trudy is willing, ultimately, to forgive if not forget).
This episode also gave us the return of Duck Phillips (Mark Moses), desperately manipulating the career change of Mr. Pete Campbell. What was notable about that, of course, is that Duck is still drinking, still an alcoholic, still battling his demons and trying to stay one step ahead of them. In Weiner’s world, people don’t really change. And believe me, that’s a modus operandi that’s been hanging over Don’s On the Road travels, and even before them in episodes where he exhibited all manner of change. Will it all be a ruse? Will it all end as badly as it could?
The episode, titled “The Milk and Honey Route” was a reference to Nels Anderson’s work, The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man, which is precisely what Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is right now. In fact, this episode ended brilliantly, with Don on a bus stop in a very, very remote part of Oklahoma, having given up his Caddy (“The pink slip is in the glove box”) to a low-rent, bad-at-it con man who Don is trying to set straight (or save, if you will) before said con man has to change his name and live another life. “You’ll have to become someone else. It’s not what you think it is.”
Before getting into exactly what it means to leave your main character on a desolate bench in Oklahoma waiting for a bus when there’s only an hour left, how about Don’s continued road trip out west? We’ve been here before — Don in peril in some motel where he shouldn’t be. Don getting worked over by people he probably shouldn’t have been dealing with in the first place, car problems or no. You’ve got your drinking, your bad decisions, your phone books.
But this was the first time that Mad Men has let Don admit publicly that he accidentally killed his commanding officer in Korea (and then got to go home). It was a weirdly exhausting scene that Weiner put into motion earlier by having Don on the road, fleeing the shackles of McCann-Erickson, going west to try to find the happiness and contentment that has eluded him in the east, as generations of men and women have done before and since.
But by the standards of traditional storytelling, Weiner gave us something important, while simultaneously getting a good portion of his audience worked up with anxiety about closure and loose ends. “The Milk and Honey Route” was basically an hour of change showing Don on the road, traveling from Kansas to Oklahoma (in a route he described to Sally that will take him to the Grand Canyon and then, as expected, to California — more on the probability of that shortly). But the episode, which featured a dream sequence of Don’s Dick Whitman secret being found out (by a faceless cop who pulls him over), seems mostly to be constructed for the sole purpose of Don being able to tell other war veterans that he killed his commanding officer in Korea, and in doing so he was able to go home. Although he didn’t specifically say that he stole the man’s identity (there are limits to a confession if you have a brain and you’re worried about a secret you’ve been hiding for decades), Don does at least come clean in an environment where that truth could have caused him harm. Instead, the other vets all agree that doing what you need to do to survive, where getting home is all the matters. In many ways, it’s an albatross of a confession that Don needs to make in that specific environment, and one that he needs to be absolved of before stating whatever new life awaits him. Essentially, that’s the episode.
But a minor twist lets him be accused of stealing money that was meant to help another vet who burned down his own house and needs support — of course the money was taken by the male “maid” who works at Don’s motel and who tries a con that allows Don to give him a short morality lesson in making mistakes you’ll regret. It’s an interesting construct (maybe others will find it more maddening than interesting) in the second to last episode. It’s essentially saying, hey kid, I’ve been down that road. It’s not one you want to take.
The absolution element was important and the lecture/advice element was in there to basically confirm that bad choices have ramifications that you’ll have nightmares about decades later. But what was most interesting about this episode was Weiner’s execution (he wrote and directed the episode).
By that I mean that leaving Don at a bus stop so remote that it doesn’t even have a shelter attached to it is pretty daring when you have to move him either to California (or Texas, maybe), and then probably time-jump back to New York to tie up loose ends if tying up loose ends is even a thing.
I wrote earlier this week that the previous episode may have been the last time we’ll ever see Don/Jon Hamm interact face-to-face with other fan-favorite characters. And it could be. Having him at that remote bus stop certainly doesn’t build confidence that he’ll be back in New York any time soon when he isn’t even in California yet.
(But what if he doesn’t end up on California? He’s in Oklahoma right now, sitting right on top of Texas and the episode ended with the wholly out-of-sync use of Buddy Holly‘s “Everyday” song as an episode closer. Not only is the song not in the same era as the series — it was released in 1957, three years prior to the start of Mad Men — it has no real “tell” to the lyrics except if you’re willing to accept the refrain “Everyday, it’s a gettin‘ closer” as some kind of nod to the series finale, which seems both resoundingly pointless and stupid but also too simple to accept. (Mad Men has occasionally, but rarely, used music that wasn’t era-specific and, arguably, never effectively other than to shock the viewer for a brief moment; but it has been impressively consistent for most of its run, particularly the last few seasons, which comprise a lot of episodes. Maybe the song is a hint that Don isn’t going to California at all, but just one state over to Texas — Holly being born there in Lubbock. Either way, it raises an eyebrow.)
But we shouldn’t lose track of the fact that, as I wrote last week, the finale will almost assuredly use a time jump to finish its story. What that story will be and who will be involved, however, is the secret of the hour. This episode had no Peggy, no Joan, no Roger. It essentially concluded stories about Betty and Pete (though we’re likely to get some more snippets of confirmation about each). It gave Sally some closure with Betty (again, more to follow most likely) and showed her bonding, via phone, with Don. What we didn’t get was what is probably likely in the finale — having Don in the same room and dealing with both Peggy and Sally face to face, for no other reason than those seem the most necessary scenes that have so far gone unseen, and that matter the most to die hard viewers.
You could say that the finale’s title, “Person to Person,” suggest that might take place over the phone — and it could, but I would hope not — as Don settles in California (or, in a shocker, Texas?). I’d bank on the time jump.
What this episode gave us was more of the feeling that Don doesn’t care about money. (Though, as I suggested earlier, it might be helpful to know how much he has left — either not much or a lot, it would seem; the suggestion is he left two or three million on the table when he left M-E, but it’s not clear how much he actually has left.) He’s shedding himself of success and possessions as well as responsibility. He’s going where he needs to go for whatever rebirth or enlightenment is coming his way. (I’m still betting on California, though less sure seeing him on that remote Oklahoma bus stop bench.)
An argument could be made that Peggy’s story as well as Pete’s story (and, most clearly, Betty’s story), has been told. Roger’s story is that he’s with Marie and he’s all too aware that he’s been phased out at M-E, but he’s got his money so there’s no worries there except over happiness and contentment, which just might come harder for Roger than Don, if you think about it. (Although, if you absolutely need someone to jump/fall out of a window, he’s your guy.)
But logic suggests that the finale would get Don to whatever mostly-westward location he’s headed and then time-jump him to New York to deal with loose ends and characters (especially his family) that need to be addressed. Weiner has been cleverly pushing these final seven episodes ahead by roughly one month each time we see them (it’s currently early October of 1970), but that doesn’t mean the finale will continue the pattern. Anything could happen. We could see Don back at that bus stop in the middle of nowhere or we could see him in California and then New York and, conceivably, see him in an entirely different year.
But what “The Milk and Honey Route” effectively conveyed is that Weiner is going to tell the rest of this story as he pleases, at a pace which he finds perfectly acceptable to the story at hand. We viewers can’t wish anything onto that and expect change. The decision made in this penultimate episode — particularly the no Peggy, Joan and Roger element — suggest that we might not get the airtight resolution some hope for and will instead get hints about what may be — a well-executed vagueness that allows for interpretation.
I’d be fine with that. I have no hopes for anything other than a great story. And I believe I’ll get it, because Weiner has delivered for the last eight years.
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