Monday, May 11, 2015

"Mad Men" Review: "The Milk and Honey Route" (Season 7 Episode 13) - "You knew we'd catch up with you eventually..."

The final season of Mad Men nears the home stretch tonight with the series' penultimate episode, "The Milk and Honey Route,” and as always, I have an in-depth review and analysis of the hour. My second-to-last one ever. Sigh. I don’t ever want this show to go.

Anyway, you know the drill – to do the episode justice, this review contains spoilers, so as always, do not read unless you have seen the episode.

Spoilers for “The Milk and Honey Route” after the jump…

I have been spending the last few weeks journeying through Mad Men’s greatest hits in preparation for the finale, and one thing that has struck me is seeing just how crucial a part of the series’ tapestry Betty Draper has often been over the life of this great show. Various sects of fandom like to badmouth the character, or January Jones’ performance, and while it is true that Matthew Weiner and company have not always known how to use Betty post-Season 3 – after she divorced Don and thus became increasingly marginal to the main action of the series – I would fiercely argue that the character was essential to those first three seasons, oftentimes compelling afterwards, and always played wonderfully by Jones when called upon to deliver significant moments. It’s easy to praise Jon Hamm, or Elizabeth Moss, or Christina Hendricks, or John Slattery, or any of the other main cast members giving obviously stupendous performances week in and week out. It’s harder to recognize exactly what Jones has always done well on this show, because it is, by design, a more internalized and abrasive performance. But I look at an episode like “Shoot,” or “Red in the Face,” or “The Wheel,” or “Meditations in an Emergency,” or “Souvenir,” or “The Gypsy and the Hobo,” all of which rank amongst the best and most memorable outings Mad Men ever delivered, and I think about how central Betty is to each of those hours, and how spectacularly Jones plays some extraordinarily difficult material, and I am honestly in awe. Betty haters make no sense to me, and January Jones haters even less so.

With this in mind, I do not begrudge Matthew Weiner the decision to build a large portion of the series’ final episode, “The Milk and Honey Route,” around Betty Francis – especially when the material (which I suspect is the character’s send-off) is so beautifully and thoughtfully written, so poignantly representative of everything this character has ever been. Betty is a person – loathe as some viewers are to remember it – shaped by a life and social structure that was set in stone long before she was ever born, emotionally abused by a husband who was only in love with the idea of her, forced to forego her individual talents and interests in favor of the domestic life she always thought she was supposed to have. The early days of Mad Men are peppered with moments of heartbreak involving the distance between the life Betty dreamed for herself and the one she actually has, and it feels entirely apropos, here at the end, to see her fall victim to lung cancer (not coincidentally a product of another ingrained cultural habit).

Moreover, it feels weirdly inspiring, all things considered, to see Betty refuse to let this get her down, even when so much of the rest of her life has been a disappointment. One can debate how ‘well’ Betty handled pretty much any moment in tonight’s episode – primarily her interactions with Sally – but she handled them exactly the way the Betty we have been following for the past eight years would follow them, and there is something powerfully tragic and noble about seeing Betty be so utterly herself when cancer rears its ugly head. I watched the last exchange between Betty and Sally, and I found my eyes brimming with tears, because this felt like such an immensely honest moment in the life of the series, a character facing her end in a way that calls all the way back to the very beginning of the show, and reflects the decade of screentime that passed in the interim. It is a stupendous piece of writing, and one worthy of further analysis:

Sally: “He doesn’t know you won’t get treatment because you will love the tragedy.”

Betty: “Sally, I’ve learned to believe people when they tell you it’s over. They don’t want to say it, so it’s usually the truth.”

Sally: “ … I’ll be with you. I won’t let you give up.”

Betty: “I know that. 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. I know when it’s over. It’s not a weakness. It’s been a gift to me. To know when to move on.”

Betty referencing her mother particularly got to me. It was her mother’s death that initiated Betty’s existential crisis in the first season of the show, and if you go back and look at episodes like “Shoot” and “The Wheel,” so much of Betty’s frustration (apart from the absentee, cheating husband) comes from struggling to comprehend who her mother was, and whether or not she was living the life her mother wanted or one she had chosen for herself. 10 years later, Betty isn’t confused about that anymore. She has chosen, over the course of time, to be her own woman, and that means dying in whatever way makes sense to her, rather than imitating a parent who, in many ways, hurt her. Betty’s right – she isn’t a quitter. She has made plenty of mistakes, and been a variably supportive mother to her own children over the years (Sally isn’t wrong, necessarily, in calling Betty on her ‘tragic’ instincts), but she has tried to live a life she found meaningful within the tremendously restrictive social structure that has been pathologically ingrained in her since childhood. That has made her admirable at times (as in the eponymous conclusion of “Shoot”), and monstrous at others (pretty much all of her abusive behavior towards Sally in the fourth season), but I look at this little monologue she gives Sally, and I feel only truth in it. In that moment, Sally probably needs something much more outwardly affectionate from her mother; but what she gets is honest, and I suspect, in time, she will come to realize this too. Betty isn’t leaving her daughter with much, but in her own unique way, she is telling Sally what she has learned from this life. And one day, I think Sally is going to appreciate that very, very much.

The letter Betty leaves Sally is even more characteristically Betty, primarily concerned with outward appearance and adherence to social ritual (though her desire to be buried with her family, rather than in a plot of significance to either of her two husbands, is another small but important claim on her own identity). But even before Sally reaches the final line, I was tearing up again; the gentle cross-cutting between Sally reading the letter and Betty struggling up the stairs at school, determined to live out this life she has chosen for herself – “Why was I ever doing it?” she tells Henry on her way out the door – is among the most powerfully simple visual statements Mad Men has ever made. And when Sally does reach that last line? Well…just take a look for yourself, and let me know if you can imagine a better possible closing sentiment from this particular character:

“Sally, I always worried about you, because you marched to the beat of your own drum. But now I know that’s good. I hope your life will be an adventure. I love you. Mom.”

Waterworks. And while the January Jones haters of the world will sadly never be silenced, the work Jones did tonight in illustrating the conflicting sides of Betty’s personality, and the quiet dignity she musters in the face of tragedy, was simply marvelous. That no Mad Men actor has ever won an Emmy for their work on this show is ludicrous; that we don’t usually include January Jones in those conversations is equally silly, because she was as deserving as anyone else on this great show.

I assume this is the last we’ll be seeing of Betty on Mad Men, given how compelling and appropriate a send-off this hour was for her, and the content of Pete’s story has me thinking the same thing for him – and retroactively worrying that last week’s major moments for Joan, Peggy, and Roger were their respective curtain calls, too. I’m really not sure how I feel about that at this point – a Mad Men finale without co-lead Peggy Olsen isn’t a Mad Men finale, as far as I’m concerned – but it’s clear that, whether this is the absolute end for any of these characters or not, these last two episodes have been all about tying off the threads of everyone whose name isn’t Don Draper.

For Joan, Peggy, Roger, and Betty, that was done rather wonderfully. For Pete Campbell, I am slightly less certain. If this is indeed it for Pete, then he essentially gets a happy ending in this week’s episode – reunited with his family, given a dream job that gets him away from advertising, and likely gives him a chance to be a better man – and while I don’t think that is inherently a mistake, I do wonder if Weiner and company really put in the work to get us to this point.

Pete Campbell is, after all, a deeply flawed human being. He has been cruel and manipulative towards all his friends, loved ones, and coworkers at one point or another; been unfaithful and emotionally abusive towards his awesome wife (what other word is there to describe Trudy?); either coerced an au pair into sleeping with him or simply raped her, depending on your perspective (in the Betty-centric “Souvenir,” coincidentally enough); and was the primary manipulator in the partners’ prostitution of Joan in “The Other Woman.” Pete has a whole lot of figurative blood on his hands, and I can completely understand the school of thought that believes him to be beyond redemption.

But here’s the thing: Even with all that in mind, I think Pete is one of the most intensely human character creations on a show that has more deeply human characters than any of the great 21st-century TV dramas. Pete has often been a snake, but he has also, often, been incredibly funny – between “Not great, Bob!” and “The King ordered it!”, he is responsible for at least two of the great Mad Men one-liners – and for every moment of monstrosity, Pete’s behavior is tempered with a certain amount of sympathy. I find it interesting that Weiner would thematically pair Pete and Betty for this episode, because I have always seen a lot of parallels between them. Betty is the show’s symbol of conservative 1960s femininity, a woman whose heart and personality made her suited for many other paths, but whose sense of social roles and gender strata told her to be a mother and housewife. Pete, meanwhile, is a guy who often had progressive instincts – he is the only person at Sterling Cooper, in the first season, to recognize the significance of John F. Kennedy – and a genuine sensitive sign, but who repressed all of that within himself out of a desire to chase the conservative 1960s masculine ideal. The corner office, the doting wife, the affairs…Pete lashed out at Don Draper in the show’s early days because he thought he was supposed to be Don Draper, and I think much of what drives Pete’s character is that distance between who he is inside, and the masculine image he feels he needs to craft. Does that make me forgive Pete when he does awful things? No, but I also feel he is more than the sum of his sins, as all of us are. In truth, he is one of television’s most wonderfully complex characters (that Vincent Kartheiser has somehow never even been nominated for an Emmy will always be black mark on that organization).

With all of that in mind, I can absolutely accept the idea of Pete eventually earning a happy ending. A part of him did always love Trudy – not just as an object, but as a person – and I can easily envision a circumstance in which Pete gets his act together, accepts the things that make him great and minimizes that which makes him monstrous, and earns his wife’s trust once again. I don’t think that storyline is out of the question.

Whether or not tonight’s episode actually earned that ending, though, is another matter. The biggest victim of AMC’s asinine scheduling of this final season has undoubtedly been Pete, who has had amusing moments throughout both halves, but less of a clear arc than Don, Peggy, Joan, or even, ultimately, Betty. If this final half-season had more episodes to play with, I imagine Weiner would have devoted at least one earlier hour to exploring Pete’s emotions at work and his sense of loss for how things were left between himself and Trudy, both of which would have nicely set up Pete’s storyline tonight. As it stands, Pete choosing to get out of advertising, move from New York to the Midwest, and passionately say to Trudy everything he should have said two years ago, feels at least partially unmotivated, and that’s a shame.

As a result, the material with Duck Phillips feels somewhat unmoored. Duck’s manipulations feel like nothing more than mind-games for much of the hour, with Pete lacking a clear motivation for going along with them (such as an actual, obvious desire to go after this job and leave his old life behind). When the moment of revelation comes – that Duck is actually being somewhat altruistic, and genuinely thinks this would be a better road for Pete (“I’ve been there. It doesn’t last long,” Duck tells him of life at the top) – it makes sense for Duck, an account man who ruined his personal life, watched his professional life collapse several times over (at least twice in the proximity of Sterling Cooper), and could, as a result, conceivably see Pete walking down the same highway to hell. Whether Pete would so immediately pounce on this offer when he realizes its sincerity makes less sense to me, because it simply isn’t a fully recognizable pay-off of early character material.

I feel similarly conflicted about Pete’s final scene with Trudy. It is a beautifully written and staged moment, first and foremost, and on the surface, it feels about as swooningly romantic a moment as Mad Men has ever done (“I want to go everywhere with you” is maybe the most purely romantic thing a man has ever said to a woman on this show). But I don’t think the legwork has been done for a full Pete/Trudy reconciliation – this was all hinted at in “Time & Life,” of course, but there needed to be more than that for me – and with so little Pete material these last two half-seasons, I don’t know if I can believe Pete so fully turning the corner this quickly. Who knows? With some time to rewatch the episode and process its place in this final season, perhaps my thoughts will change. In the moment, I am conflicted.

That being said, if Pete saying “Good morning” as he walks out the door, after making amends and settling on plans for a new life, is indeed the last time we see Vincent Kartheiser on this show? Well, there is simply something that feels right about that, and as Mad Men wraps up, that is about all I can ask for.

Finally, I think I have to once again push off a full analysis of Don’s storyline to next week, because this is clearly one Mad Men plot that is destination oriented, and I will need to see Don’s ultimate destination before I can pass judgement on anything that happens to him in this week’s episode. Certainly, there is something disappointing, on the surface, to seeing our main character stuck in a hotel in the penultimate episode of the series, interacting almost exclusively with people we have never seen before. Much as I believe Don would be content to wander at this point in his life – and I absolutely do – there is a part of me that instinctively wants to see Jon Hamm playing off of Elizabeth Moss or Christina Hendricks or Roger Slattery this close to the end, to see him at work and doing things of more outward consequence.

But I suspect that is exactly the point. Where everyone else on this series is finding a modicum of solace as the world falls down around them – reuniting with loved ones, pushing on through terminal illness, going on a righteous feminist tirade, skating while a coworker plays the organ, etc. – Don Draper has ceded any and all efforts to find a destination. And as we see in the final scene, he is overjoyed to be doing so. With only the clothes on his back and the contents of a small bag, Don Draper gives us a bigger smile than he ever did with the successful career or material abundance, and as with so much of these last two episodes, something about that feels very, very honest indeed.

It is also, by design, an unsettling thing to consider, because with the specter of Betty’s looming death hanging over this episode, all I could think, throughout each of Don’s scenes tonight, was just how much he is needed back home. And if we are interested in making predictions, I still think that is where he shall be going in the finale, because while Don Draper is many, many things, I do not think he is the kind of man who would outright abandon his children on the precipice of their mother’s passing. As we see here, Sally and Bobby and Gene are his only existing connection to New York, to the life he has very clearly chosen to live behind (notice how he tells the grifter “I was in advertising,” strictly in the past tense); even during his long, wandering road trip, he makes time to call them, and is still clearly actively interested in their lives.

The question here, as it almost always is on Mad Men, is what kind of man Don Draper wants to be. He feels shame, clearly, to be the man who ran from his old life; he tries to stop the young grifter from doing the same thing he once did, running away and finding a new identity, and even warns him that, while he may think this town is bad now, “wait until you can never come back.” Don laments what he did during the war, as seen when he confesses about killing his old CO to the other veterans (something he has never, to my knowledge, told another living person about apart from Anna Draper). And even when the other veterans wrongly accuse him of stealing, he cannot really feel angry at them, because he knows why they would look at him that way. He is, deep down, a thief. Don is running from a great many things right now, but most of all, I think he is running from himself, just as he once did when first taking this name, and just as he has done many times over the life of this series.

Don wants to find his own sense of internal peace; for now, he is happy going hobo, and shirking all responsibilities, and travelling without possessions or direction. But as I wrote last week, I have long sensed that, if Don is destined for any form of redemption, I do think it will come in the form of his children. He has always been on the verge of being a good father, always come close to realizing just how much his kids mean to him and fully embracing them as central to his life, but so many things have gotten in the way. His job. His past. His misplaced sense of masculinity, and many self-destructive habits. But I wonder if, having consciously tried to shed all that during this long dark teatime of the soul, Don might be ready to take responsibility when his children need them most – and, in so doing, find a sense of peace there that he never found anywhere else.

Does the finale need to go down a road anything like this to make me happy? No. I trust Mad Men pretty implicitly at this point, and all I need from this series next week is one last great episode of television, one that feels, above all else, honest, to what this show and these characters have been. A final scene between Don and Sally, as I have long said I wanted, could fulfill that, but so could a dozen unforeseen directions. Mad Men is my favorite show of all time, and while “The Milk and Honey Route” was an imperfect and transitory episode, it still made me laugh, it still made me cry, and it still held me in rapt attention as it pondered the lives of these incredible characters.

In eight years, Mad Men has never lost a beat. I cannot imagine it will next week – and like Don Draper, sitting at the bus stop and smiling at the end of this week’s episode, I am fully on board for wherever this wandering journey may take us.

Other Thoughts

  • Of course Trudy has a literal bushel of apples in her house. Of course she does.
  • Pete: “I’m Dartmouth, 56!” Duck: “I know that. Don’t pretend that you’re not going to jack each other off.” Oh Mad Men. You’re the best.
  • I talked last week about how much I loved the rotating track shot of Peggy skating while Roger played the organ, and there was at least one image this week that hit me just as hard. It’s when Betty is in the Doctor’s office, staring at the X-ray, and the camera slowly zooms in on her face, while the background – in which Henry and the Doctor argue – grows increasingly out of focus. Just a gorgeous, heartbreaking, beautifully expressive image, in an image that was generally very well directed by Mr. Weiner himself.
  • Don is reading The Godfather at the hotel. Because of course he is. In an episode that is thematically tied by thoughts of parents, children, and generational turnover, what other book would Don Draper be reading?
  • I have never particularly liked Henry Francis – he is mostly a good and decent man, but a bit of a tool nevertheless – yet I found myself pretty emotional when he breaks down in Sally’s room. Just a great, effortlessly humanizing moment for a character who has never had much humanity.
  • And speaking of Sally, good God was Kiernan Shipka great tonight. My favorite Sally moment was probably when she arrives home, and Betty angrily storms out of the room, and Sally chooses to the Big Sister for her little brothers and comfort them. “I got in trouble at school again,” she says, before inviting Gene to come sit on her lap. A lovely little moment, and another that had me feeling rather choked up.
  • Has Mad Men ever ended with a Buddy Holly song before? I don’t recall it, but either way, I liked hearing him here; there may have been less obvious or popular Holly songs to use, but the resonance of closing this episode with a piece by a rock star who died before Mad Men even started – 1959 – certainly complements the conflicted emotions of Don’s aimless journey perfectly.
  • A random observation that has nothing to do with this week’s episode: In addition to watching lots of old Mad Men episodes this weekend in preparation for some upcoming articles (more on that in a moment), I’ve been slowly making my way through Gilmore Girls on Netflix for the first time (yes, my tastes are all over the map). Last night, I arrived at the fifth episode of the third season, “Eight O’Clock at the Oasis,” and to my great and enthusiastic surprise, there was Jon Hamm himself in a small guest spot as a one-off date of Lorelai’s. Admitting my unrestrained joy and excitement at this discovery is slightly embarrassing, but I’m pretty sure I was grinning like an idiot for the entire episode, just at the thought of Don Draper hitting on Lorelai Gilmore. That Hamm’s character loved David Bowie and drove a Jaguar felt like Gilmore Girls magically trolling us all five years before Mad Men ever existed. And I also now feel a twinge of sadness that, while Alexis Bledel had a pretty major role in Mad Men’s fifth season (as Pete’s clinically depressed love affair), Lauren Graham never showed up to make this bizarre intertextual connection a fully two-way street. Oh well. There’s always the finale, right?

And finally, I have a brief programming note. While I will have my usual weekly review up a few hours after the finale airs next week, that will not be the last of my Mad Men coverage. The entire following week here at the site will be devoted to Mad Men retrospective pieces, the bulk of which will be a four-part series looking back at the show’s Top 20 episodes. The first of those will go up Monday afternoon, with one following every day thereafter. And on Friday, there will be at least one more piece with other rankings and reflections, and maybe another final statement on the series as a whole a few days later. I suspect plenty of other sites will be running their retrospectives starting this coming week, leading up the finale, but I want to wait until the series has fully wrapped up, both so I can consider Mad Men in its totality when looking back on it, but also to give myself the time to do these final pieces justice (I have been watching a lot of classic Mad Men lately). So that’s the plan, and for now, I’ll see you all back here next week for my final episode review of this all-time great show. 

Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.

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