11th May2015

‘Mad Men 7×13: The Milk and Honey Route’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“You think this town is bad?  Wait until you can never come back here.”

You can never go home again.  Not because there’s a shadow on the X-ray, not because your husband broke your family, but because the past is a house that doesn’t exist.  It folded up into nonbeing when the door closed behind you.  Ahead is the future, and in its tracklessness, its unpredictability there is potential for both beauty and grief.

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For all her flaws, Betty has won from life an intense and unforgiving self-possession.  She knows her diagnosis for what it is as soon as the words are out of the oncologist’s mouth, and when Sally and Henry try to convince her to put herself through the crucible of radiation, she holds her ground.  Denial would buy her nine months, a year, and it would steal her looks, her energy, her image of herself.  She’s also deeply conscious of what seeing her die over that protracted period would be like for her children, so instead she goes straight to acceptance and carries on living her life with what poise remains to her.  Betty is unafraid of her future and unmoved by the idea of clinging to life for its own sake; she uses her time to make sure her death reflects her personality, to pass her responsibilities on to Sally, and to finally try to mend the broken bridges between her and her daughter.

It’s a common complaint among critics that the characters on Mad Men don’t really change, but that idea doesn’t hold water.  Betty may still possess the frigidity and vanity that have shaped her life so strongly, but she’s fought for herself and her family, abused and damaged that same family, and tried to make good for her trespasses.  She’s also become a keen observer of finality.  “I’ve learned to believe people when they say it’s over,” she tells Sally in the course of a late-night talk.  “They don’t want to say it, so it’s usually the truth.”  Nobody wants to give up, nobody wants to move on; of the three stories told in ‘The Milk and Honey Route’, Betty’s is the one that deals most directly with accepting the inevitability of fate.

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Don, too, is radically changed from his first appearance as a man who once dreamed of escaping his family, of putting them aside so that he could be free again.  Now he’s careful to keep Sally up to date on where he is and what he’s doing, maintaining their family connection reliably and with warmth.  He’s learned how to be, in his own imperfect way, a father to his children.  What he hasn’t done is stop running from the shadow of his former life.  He lives out his days in a dead man’s skin, wearing a dead man’s name, dreaming of faceless state troopers who’ve been chasing him for a long, long time.

That anxiety, which has driven Don West for weeks on end, nearly boils over when, marooned in a one-horse town, he finds himself invited to an American Legion fundraiser.  The small-town vets give him a good-natured shakedown to help out one of their own, then welcome him into the fold with open arms and open bottles.  Don stiffens noticeable when another veteran of the Korean War is invited over by his drinking buddies, but although the man’s approach mirrors that of the trooper from Don’s dream, they’ve never met.  Dick Whitman remains safe behind his disguise, so safe that Don divulges for the first time that it was his carelessness that killed his commanding officer.  “I blew him to pieces,” he says, “and I got to go home.”  That’s the exegesis of Don’s life, coming home under a false name while another man’s body fills a coffin meant for you.  He doesn’t share that part, perhaps motivated by instinctive distrust, and the episode takes a strong stance on the distrust, violence, and dysfunction engendered by war.  There is no glorious brotherhood, there is no lifelong camaraderie, there’s only a room full of men as dead inside as the real Don and eager to turn on a handsome, silent stranger.

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While Don languishes in purgatory, Pete finds himself visited by Duck Phillips, messenger of the divine.  Duck, flim-flamming his way through life, cons Pete into a job interview at Learjet which an initially befuddled and irritated Pete slowly begins to regard with interest.  Pete Campbell has done things from which there is no moral return, but people don’t stop living just because their pasts are marred and ugly.  Moved by Duck’s serendipitous appearance and by his illuminating dinner with Bud, his complacent, philandering, inert-in-life brother, Pete tries to reconnect with his ex-wife Trudy, a woman who once threatened to “destroy him” if he “so much as open[ed] his zipper with a 50-mile radius” of their home.

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“We’re entitled to something new,” he tells her.  It’s the same kind of wishful thinking that drove Ted to California and Don out the doors of McCann, but Pete’s words aren’t empty.  He has two days a week with his daughter and it looks like he’s making the most of them, setting time aside for a child he used to neglect, tending to her bee stings and eating her first efforts at baking.  Trudy battles with her inability to forget the past she shared with Peter, his tantrums, deceits, and infidelities.  “You know,” she tells Pete when he tries to drag her into a business dinner with an appeal to old times, “I’m jealous of your ability to be sentimental about the past.  I’m not able to do that.  I remember things as they were.”  In the end she has to believe not that the past doesn’t matter, but that the future will be better.

Don’s chance to confront his past comes when he finds himself framed for the theft of the Legion fundraiser’s proceeds.  The culprit is Andy, the glib, rebellious maid at the hotel where Don spends his week, and when Don confronts the kid it’s clear he seems himself staring back at him across time.  The boy is seething with resentment toward the world, bitterly proud at having stolen from men he considers drunks and bullies.  He needs the money to get out, to get his start, to make of himself what Don did: the image of a man triumphant.  What he doesn’t know is what it’ll cost him to put on that mask.

“You think you can hustle,” Don tells hims with menace, “but this is a big crime, stealing these people’s money.  If you do it, you’ll have to become somebody else.”  He’s speaking from bitter experience, and as the cocoon that is Don Draper flies apart and is taken by the wind, he sees a new road open up ahead of him, and ahead of his young, sneering reincarnation.  They can let go.  They can give it all up, the money and the lies and the looking over their shoulders.  “I used to be in advertising,” he says earlier in the episode.  Used to.  The only pitch he makes in ‘The Milk and Honey Route’ is a heartfelt warning against living a lie, and when he gives Andy the keys to his car and tells him “Don’t waste this,” it’s clear he’s had his fill of running, too.

Behind Don is a messy, murky, inescapable past, ahead a country road running through nowhere and heading on.

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Mad Men ends next Sunday.  I hope you’ll join me for my last review of this beautiful piece of television.

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