I have to ask this question: Does Mad Men showrunner Matthew Weiner have some angst against his mother? Did he perversely plan this penultimate episode to land on Mother’s Day, knowing that it would be a gut punch of an episode? Or was it a happy coincidence?
Of course I’m talking about the shocking final fate of none other than Betty Draper. What was interesting about her diagnosis of lung cancer was how she took agency in exactly how she wanted to spend her last days, no matter how much Henry wanted her to fight back; even to the point of dragging Sally into it. On the one hand you could say that she was being irresponsible in not taking care of herself, but on the other hand, given all of the smoking going on throughout the series that someone was going to die from it (you will recall that the very first episode “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” dealt with how Sterling & Cooper dealt with the news that cigarets were just discovered to be carcinogenic). That said, given Betty’s own childhood and how she dealt with (or rather didn’t deal with) the death of her parents, she was trying to do what she could to make sure that her final wishes were honored.
And while it was refesthing to see that she and Henry similar reactions to the news, the episode was all about the presumably final interactions between Sally and her mother. First there was the bedroom scene where Sally dropped a truth bomb (“He doesn’t know you won’t get treatment because you love the tragedy”) and Betty reasserted herself (“I don’t want you to think I’m a quitter. I fought for plenty in my life and that’s how I know when it’s over. It’s not a weakness.”). The climax of the whole storyline was Betty’s letter to Sally in which she explained exactly how she was to be buried and then said the best thing she could have ever said to her daughter: “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.” In a way, it was a great send off for both Sally (who now has to sit in her mother’s chair in her own sad coat taking care of the kids), and Betty (who wants to spend her last days exactly as she wishes and not to the wishes of anyone else). While a downbeat ending, that last shot of Betty limping up the stairs to her classes was a damn empowering one and this episode was a spectacular showcase for Kiernan Shipka and January Jones, who were both on fire in this episode.
Another surprisingly happy ending was had for Pete, and it came from the oddest of sources: the loathsome Duck Washington. On the pretense of getting Learjet to hire him as a corporate headhunter, Duck’s plan backfires (?) and they offer a massive job to Pete, complete with the buyout from McCann and a move to Wichita with signing bonus and new house. Of course, the more Pete waltzes the idea around his head, the more he realizes that there’s one thing missing in his life; and after a revealing conversation with his brother, Pete does the impossible and re-proposes to Trudy. While a true happy ending for any character in Mad Men is never a guarantee, there was a certain satisfaction that Pete is finally getting one. For the entirety of the 1960s Pete has tried to be the next Don Draper, with varying (and often disastrous, if hilarious) results. But through it all, one of his biggest missteps was that in his pursuit of trying to be the new Don Draper was that it alienated him from his wife, and quite frankly neither he nor her are as good as they are when they’re working together; and both were withering in “toxic” New York City and stifling Cos Cob. Thanks to the writing, and to Vincent Kartheiser and Alison Brie’s amazing chemistry and touching performances, it became an earned moment for the characters and the audience.
Meanwhile, while all of this is going on, Don continues on his little walkabout this time ending up outside of Alva, Oklahoma when his beloved Cadillac breaks down and he ends up at the Sharon Motel; the most fucked up hotel this side of the Bates’ family manse. Of course it all goes to hell thanks to a small time grifter making his life hell with a bunch of old veterans (who, after bonding with them and revealing that he accidentally killed his commanding officer – a.k.a. the real Don Draper – by dropping his lighter in a fuel puddle accuse him of stealing and beat him with a phone book). On the one hand, Don really is reverting back to his hobo ways; complete with the final image of the episode being him sitting at a bus stop with just a Sears bag heading who knows where. Oh the other, it’s not hard to see him shedding the last images of his life; from his job (Duck’s crack to Pete about replacing Don before) to his possessions (after schooling Andy on stealing the money, he gave him the keys to the Cadillac). If this is Don in the purgatory of Middle America, then he is due for a reckoning. But where will it take place? And as whom? As the log line for next week’s finale states…
“The stories of Don Draper, his family and his coworkers come to an end in the series finale.”
– Would someone please punch Duck Phillips? And yes I’m still bitter about what he did to his poor dog.
– While I and every right thinking person would love to see Vincent Kartheiser and Alison Brie in a spin off about Pete, Trudy, and Tammy’s adventures in Wichita, the Twitter-sphere was filled with jokes about Betty going all Walter White (which would be awesome).
– While she does get ragged on as an actress, let’s give January Jones credit here because she has been perfect as Betty Hofstadt Draper Francis. While she can be stiff and halting in other works, it’s those same faults that have allowed her to connect with the role. It’s a case of the absolute right actress in the right role.
– Speaking of the right actress in the right role (and I’m going to say this now as we may not see her in the finale), but let us all take the moment to applaud Kiernan Shipka for her fantastic work throughout all seven season as Sally. Watching her blossom in the role (and the writers realizing that they had a major talent on their hands and could give her more challenging material) has been amazing, and Sally has become the poster child for the adults in the 1980s that were messed up by their parents in the 1960s. I can not wait to see what is next for her.
– For a small derelict hotel, there was a lot of good reading going on. I spotted Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, James Michener’s Hawaii, Michael Cricton’s The Andromeda Strain, and Alberto Moravia’s The Woman of Rome.
– No Roger? No Peggy?
– The music choices in this episode were ironic in both case, from Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” to Buddy Holly’s “Everyday.” Even when the veterans sang “Over There” it was an ironic callback to the death of Gene Hofstadt back in Season Three. Speaking of music and Mad Men, be sure to check back on Friday when I have a little surprise for you all.
– The title of the episode is from a landmark study on hobos by American sociologist Nels Anderson in the 1930s. Originally the milk and honey route was a reference to the rail line in Utah where people were friendly to hobos and gave them food and shelter.
– Finally, while I don’t think Matthew Weiner would ever be that obvious, there has been talk that Don’s story ends with him becoming D.B. Cooper.
Photo Credits: AMC Television / Lionsgate Television