'Mad Men' recap: The Big C

#MadMen celebrates Mother's Day with a tear-jerking penultimate episode

Happy Mother’s Day, “Mad Men” fans!

On a day celebrating moms the world over -- or at least here in the good ol’ US of A -- Matthew Weiner pulls a “Terms of Endearment” by giving Betty terminal lung cancer.

Setting aside the unfortunate coincidence of timing, “The Milk and Honey Route” is a lovely, empathetic tribute to one of the most polarizing mothers in television, an episode that finds bravery and surprising honesty in a character who’s been attacked, both fairly and unfairly, for any manner of sins. Best of all, “The Milk and Honey Route” does this not by turning Betty into a weepy, self-sacrificing martyr, but by staying true to her fundamental nature. If she’s going to die before the age of 40, she’s going to be buried in her finest blue chiffon with her hair done just so.

In an episode in which nearly everyone, even Sally, operates under false pretenses, Betty stands out for rejecting what she sees as a fraud, a delusion, a sham. Betty has always been about keeping up appearances, but she also has a blunt, matter-of-fact style that can read as harsh and unfeeling, and she opts to deal with her diagnosis in this way. She could seek treatment and perpetuate the illusion that her cancer can be beaten, but she chooses the opposite course. To Betty, accepting and preparing for her certain death is not a cop-out; it’s a courageous embrace of the truth. 

“I've fought for plenty in my life,” she tells Sally, no doubt referring to her marriage to Don, an experience that taught her about living a lie. “That's how I know when it's over.”

Though Sally has become a wise young woman, she is wrong to accuse Betty of declining treatment because she loves tragedy; in truth, Betty approaches her impending death with a remarkable lack of self-pity. (She wallowed a bit more the last time she had a cancer scare in Season 5, perhaps because the outcome wasn’t certain.) Yes, she is scared, and January Jones does a beautiful job conveying this fear. But true to her nature, she doesn’t allow the news to make her sentimental, squishy or demonstrative with her affection. Indeed, Betty only manages to tell Sally she loves her within the confines of the written page. Though, to be fair, she does it quite well: “I always worried about you because you marched to the beat of your own drummer, but now I know that's good. I know your life will be an adventure.”

The heartbreak of Betty’s diagnosis is compounded by the fact that it comes just as she’s finding happiness in her life. After a long and bumpy road, she and Sally have reached a place not just of understanding, but love. And after years spent stagnating in her own ennui -- and chain-smoking the cigarettes that probably hastened her demise -- Betty is clearly thrilled to be back at school, where she’s found a sense of personal contentment that eluded her when she was simply a wife and mother.

When Henry asks why Betty bothers to go to class after her diagnosis, she has the most perfect response: “Why was I ever doing it?” Then, with an immaculate coif and a smile on her face, Betty huffs and puffs her way up the stairs at school. If that’s not enough to make hot tears spring from your eyes, then I worry for you.

As Betty bravely accepts her own mortality, Don is, as ever, grappling with his past while on an extended pit stop in Oklahoma --  the heart of the Dust Bowl, the epitome of the Bible Belt, the very definition of flyover country. Though Don is actually from Pennsylvania, Oklahoma represents everything he escaped when he became Don Draper.

The episode immediately sets us up to expect the worst. In an unsettling dream sequence (is there any other kind on this show?), Don is pulled over by a cop who tells him, “You knew we’d catch up with you eventually." Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” -- a song valorizing small-town American values in the face of a degenerate counterculture -- plays on the radio, establishing an immediate sense of hostility. 

Still, for Don the lure of home is potent. As he wiles away the days at the motel, he slips back into the farm boy he once was, becoming the kind of guy who fixes things with his hands -- not the kind of guy who dreams up commercials for laxatives and lipstick. It's not so hard to understand why he gives in so easily to Del's invitation to stay another night and come to the American Legion. There's still a part of him that's homesick.

But there's a sense of menace about this tableau of roadside Americana, and not only because nothing good has ever happened at an onscreen motel since "Psycho." When another Korea vet shows up at the Legion, we expect the worst: This is it! Don is going to be found out by a long-lost Army buddy! Instead, the boozy barbecue turns into a kind of group therapy session. Don reveals his Deep Dark Secret (or at least part of it), and the other men are entirely unfazed. Maybe he had nothing to run from all those years!

Alas, no. It turns out the wholesome Okies are hustlers just like Don. They’re eager for him to come to the barbecue not because they want to hear his war stories, but because they knew he’s rich. As Del says, “I know we seem like fine people, but I’ve been a little dishonest.”

It’s also ironic that Don is accused of being a con man after he shares his secret, when he is being about as honest as he’s ever been. Can you blame the guy for lying so much? Look what happens when he tells the truth: A grizzled old WWII vet smacks him in the face with a phone book.

But forget about Floyd and the boys: The more important figure in this episode is Andy, the part-time hustler / maintenance man whose ambition, salesmanship and restlessness clearly remind Don of himself. So when he realizes that Andy has stolen the money and framed him for it, he is more disappointed than angry, like a teacher with a gifted but wayward pupil; he even takes the time to correct Andy’s grammar when most other people would have punched his lights out.

Don’s goal is preventing his own history from repeating itself, in keeping Andy a Dick Whitman and not a Don Draper. He warns Andy that if he takes the money, “You'll have to become somebody else … you cannot get off on that foot in this life.” In the end, Don hands over the keys to his Cadillac, offering Andy an escape route he had to travel to Korea to find.

Pete also follows in Don’s footsteps, almost literally, in “The Milk and Honey Route," deciding to take a job with Learjet that will mean a permanent relocation to Wichita, Kansas -- the very state where Don happens to be when we first see him in this episode. A consummate Manhattanite, Pete is going to rebuild his life in the Heartland the same way that Don rebuilt his life in the city.

Pete has always been a foil for Don, at first acting as an adversary, the Kennedy to his Nixon, the entitled young man born to wealth and privilege and who threatened to expose his identity. Somewhere along the way, though, Pete began to morph into Don, following the same sad trajectory of suburbs-infidelity-divorce-depressing bachelor pad.

Now their paths are, somehow, both diverging and overlapping at the same time. As Don loses an ex-wife, Pete gains one, reuniting with Trudy. It’s possible -- maybe even tempting, given Trudy’s admonition about “being sentimental about the past” -- to look at their reconciliation skeptically, but I’m choosing to believe that Pete is a changed man.

Consider how he handles the Learjet situation. Duck lures Pete into an interview with the company under false pretenses -- the theme of the episode -- and aggressively tries to woo him, but Pete resists as long as he can. It seems he has finally come to understand loyalty, in both his personal and professional life. Pete even lectures his philandering brother about the futility of his infidelity: “But why? Always looking for something better, always looking for something else?”

So what does it mean that Pete finally gives in to Duck’s overtures -- to the promise of something better in, of all places, Wichita? Who knows, but at least he won’t have to drive.

Stray thoughts:

-- Assuming Don gets custody of his children, is he suddenly going to be Mr. Mom? If so, that’s a spinoff I’d like to see.

-- Don spots a woman by the pool reading “The Woman From Rome.” Is this a veiled allusion to Betty?

-- Don has a bad history with motels: In Season 3’s “Seven Twenty Three,” he woke up with a bloody nose in a motel room after getting robbed by a pair of young hitchhikers, who took his money but not his car. (The Milk and Honey Route” echoes that episode in many ways, right down to Betty’s fainting; in “Seven Twenty Three,” she bought a fainting couch.)

-- Each episode of this half-season has echoed earlier installments in the series; in this case, “Seven Twenty Three,” but also “The Suitcase” and “The Good News.”

-- I really hope Pete flies his Learjet up to Nova Scotia to see the total eclipse of the sun. Then I’ll finally know who Carly Simon was singing about! Have we ever seen him wear an apricot scarf? Can we make this a conspiracy theory on Reddit?

-- I’m guessing Don probably never formally gave notice at McCann. Poor Meredith must really be freaking out right now!

-- Why is Del obsessed with the old Coke machine? A McCann reference, maybe?

-- Speaking of which: The motel is called the Sharon Motel, named after the owner’s wife. I really hope her last name isn’t Tate.

-- There are (at least) two ways to interpret the title of this episode, “The Milk and Honey Route.” There is of course the biblical reference to the Book of Exodus, where Canaan is described as a “land of milk and honey.” Far less romantically, there is a method of torture known as scaphism, in which victims are fed milk and honey until, well... just read this if you’re curious. Both interpretations seem to apply to this hour, in which the mythical American Heartland -- Canaan, if you will -- turns into a kind of hell for Don.

-- As “Mad Men” winds down, there has been a lot of chatter online about the theory that Don is D.B. Cooper. I don’t buy it, but I don’t think this episode -- with the planes and bags of money -- will do much to silence the believers. (I also think it’s possible, even likely, given how allusive “Mad Men” is, that Don is on some level inspired by D.B. Cooper. That doesn’t mean he literally is him, though.)

 

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