“The Milk and Honey Route,” Mad Men’s penultimate episode, found new ways to break viewers’ hearts. Yet looking at each plot development, none betrays the show’s central themes, nor the characters This is the story creator Matthew Weiner and writers have been telling all long: The story is the journey, and some journeys are shorter than others. Some of us get second chances, new beginnings; some of us don’t. Some of us know when to move on; some of us don’t.
The big shock this episode, written by Weiner and Carly Wray and directed by Weiner, is the fate of Betty. Her having terminal lung cancer feels cruel, but cancer is cruel. (Perhaps more cruel was airing this on Mother’s Day, AMC.) This isn’t a judgment of the ’50s/’60s culture of smoking with abandon, or on smoking in general; this — cancer — is a tragedy that increasingly permeates our lives. True, Betty’s is a direct result of her actions, but that result can happen today as well. Her being the unlucky one who gets cancer out of all of them may seem unfair to fans from a story perspective, but it’s not. Cancer is unfair; some escape it, and some can’t. Betty having it reflects that; it reflects life.
Perhaps Betty’s cancer doesn’t feel like a punishment because she handled the news of her death sentence with such stoicism. In true Betty fashion, her behavior, especially to Sally, felt cold at first glance, but Betty is still very much a product of her environment and upbringing. If anyone is going to grin and bear it, it’s Betty. She’s facing the news with a newfound wisdom, a sense of peace about her life and certainly about Sally; she’s no longer fighting fruitless battles waged on old-fashioned premises stamped into her by her own mother. “I’ve learned to believe people when they tell you it’s over,” she tells Sally, who at first echoes Henry in her pleas for Betty to try and fight the disease and live as long as possible. “I’ll be with you — I won’t let you give up,” Sally tells her. “I know that,” Betty says. But I watched my mother die. I won’t do that to you. And I don’t want you to think I’m a quitter. I’ve 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.”
Pete knows his first life reboot is over and wants to move on by going back — back to Trudy, to Tammy, to the life he never should have squandered. It took him losing it to know he really wanted it, a message he relayed to his brother, Bud. Pete’s not exactly repulsed by Bud’s cavalierness about cheating on his wife, but he also isn’t anymore the smarmy co-conspirator who winks at the cheater and tells him to have fun. He’s contemplative about the type of risks one takes in life, and why. Duck, back on the sauce, has been buzzing around, trying to get him to leave McCann and work for a private aviation company, and that combined with his growing longing to be back with Trudy and Tammy have him wondering what it is that drives people to look for something new. Pete tells Bud his wife knows Bud is cheating, and he asks how he feels knowing that. Bud says he’s always been attractive to women, and his wife likes him for it — “I’m just supposed to turn that off?” “You’re not supposed to act on it,” Pete says. “But I always have,” Bud replies. “That’s just the way we are.” “But why?,” Pete asks. “Always looking for something better, always looking for something else.” “Because Dad was like that,” Bud replies. “… You really think she knows?” “I think it feels good,” Pete says, “and then it doesn’t.”
Trudy refuses to overlook the past and Pete’s actions — and truly, Pete has at times been the ultimate little shit — but she’s swayed by the prospect that he’s changed. He boldly visits her in the middle of the night and asks her to remarry him and move to Wichita, Kansas, where they’ll start over as he works for the aviation company.
Trudy: “Peter. I’m not dismissing you. I’m saying with respect to whatever is happening in your eyes right now, we both know things can’t be undone.”
Pete: “Says who? We’re not even through half our lives. And even if we are, we’re entitled to more.
T: “Of what?”
P: “Then we’re entitled to something new. I want to start over. And I know I can. I’m not so dumb anymore. I’m not ignoring the fact that I could actually lose your love.”
T: “You never lost it, but I will never allow you to hurt me again.
P: “I love you, too. I always have. I’ve never loved anyone else, ever.”
T: “You think you can come in here when I’m all disoriented and say the things I wanted you to say to me two years ago and make me run away with you?”
P: “I said it to you 10 years ago and I’ll say it again: I do. Wichita is beautiful, and wholesome, and not the city, and not Cos Cob. … I want to go everywhere with you. Say yes with your voice, not just your eyes.”
T: “How will I explain this to Tammy?”
P: “Tell her her birthday wish came true. … The three of us. Like it was the first time.”
To tell her goodbye, he says “Good morning.” It’s a new day. Has he really changed? Are they kidding themselves? Your cynicism mileage may vary. But they aren’t ready to give up, not yet.
This is an interesting continuation on one of the series themes of doing what is expected of you versus doing what you want, the lesson being that following one’s wants isn’t always the best route to happiness. It’s often best to break from the mold, but people also often mistake carelessness for independence. This is echoed in Betty’s heartbreaking letter to Sally, her list of instructions Sally should follow when Betty dies: “Sally, 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.”
Don calls to check in with Sally while on the road somewhere in Kansas. (He tells her he’s taking I-35 to I-40, which means he passed through Wichita. Is this where the second coming will be or something?) It’s been about a month since McCann officially absorbed SC&P, and weeks since Don left and never came back. Even Duck knows Don walked away from a couple million dollars, and he’s working to find his replacement for the agency. Don is busying dreaming about being on the run, getting pulled over by law enforcement as Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” plays on, the sheriff deputy telling him “You knew we’d catch up with you eventually.” Don’s not acting like he’s a wanted man; he’s in full Draper cruise mode, with a Sears bag for a suitcase and a road map as his guide. When his car breaks down and he’s stuck in middle-of-nowhere Alva, Oklahoma (way off his original route of heading toward I-40, which I-35 crosses in Oklahoma City), he checks into a motel and is all politeness with the locals. He’s even calm when shaken down for extra cash by the motel delivery boy Andy who brought him booze. He sees himself in Andy, a dumb kid looking to escape his small-town life but not knowing the best, or honest, way how.
“You just do what you gotta do to come home,” says one of the vets at a fundraiser Don is talked into attending there, after one vet shares a horrifying story of his time in World War II when he and his brothers in arms, starving, killed several others so there’d be fewer mouths to feed. (Was he hinting at cannibalism? Wait — I’d rather not know.) You do what you have to do to come, not leave it. After Don is attacked by the drunken vets later that night, them thinking he stole the fundraising money, he turns to Andy, whom he knows is the real culprit. Andy says he needs the money to get out of town. “If you keep it,” Don says, “you’ll have to become somebody else, and it’s not what you think it is. … You think this town is bad now? Wait until you can never come back.” Don, with his car now fixed, drives Andy to the bus stop. There, he decides to give him the Cadillac — “Pink slip’s in the glove box. Don’t waste this.” As Andy drives away, Don sits down on the bus stop bench and waits.
As a University of Chicago graduate student, Nels Anderson authored the study “The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man” in 1923, considered an influential work in the field of “participant observation.” His peers thought he only immersed himself in hobo life to better write about it, and he let them think that. But he revealed in the introduction to the 1961 edition of “The Hobo,” which Laura Browder details in her work “Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities,” that his method was to the contrary: He used to be a hobo. “Rather than passing as a hobo,” Browder writes, “he had instead passed as a middle-class graduated student: ‘I did not descend into the pit, assume a role there, and later ascend to brush off the dust. I was in the process of moving out of the hobo world. … The role was familiar before the research began. In the realm of sociology and university life I was moving into a new role.’ ”
“The tramp is an American product,” Anderson wrote in “The Hobo,” which was seen as helping to dispel stereotypes about the homeless. And Don Draper — Dick Whitman — is a tramp. He’s spent most of his adulthood passing himself off as someone else, but inside, he’s still Dick, a man without a home. He’s like Anderson in many ways, and when he opens up, he does shed light on what it is like to grow up poor and without love. He divulges a slice of his past to the vets that night, telling them he killed his C.O. (the real Don) and in doing so, got to go home. That’s true, but he returned to a different home and to a different life. It’s unclear what he’s returning to now, but perhaps it is the act of returning until you can’t return any longer that matters.
Later, growing cynical of the subject, “unable to live down ‘The Hobo,’ ” Anderson penned in 1931 a parody of his book titled “The Milk and Honey Route” under the name Dean Stiff. “Often the hobos speak of a railroad as a ‘milk and honey route,’” he wrote. “… Any railroad running through a valley of plenty may be called a milk and honey line. But this is a transient term; what may be a milk and honey route to one hobo may not be so to another. A hobo may fare well on a route one time and another time fare ill. Again, it may be milk and honey for a road kid but not for an old timer. …
“The road the real hobo follows is never ending. It is always heading into the sunset of promise but it never fully keeps its promise. Thus the road the hobo roams always beckons him on, much as does the undealt card in a game of stud. Every new bend of the road is disillusioning but never disappointing, so that once you get the spirit of the hobo you never reach the stone wall of utter disillusionment. You follow on hopefully from one bend of the road to another, until in the end you step off the cliff.”
As Betty leaves the house for school, books in hand, Henry asks her, “Why are you doing that?” She replies, “Why was I ever doing it?” Try as long as you can; pass along what you know; and keep going until you can’t anymore.
Sarah Carlson is Television Editor for Pajiba. You can find her on Twitter.