The last Mad Men episode prior to the finale, The Milk & Honey Route depicts three main characters – Don Draper, Pete Campbell, and Betty Draper Francis – pursuing their own personal “land of milk & honey.” Don heads westward to live the dream of shedding his assumed persona and discovering how to be his real self. Pete finds himself offered his dream job in Wichita with Learjet and reunites his family through brilliant persuasion. And after her cancer diagnosis, Betty stalwartly holds onto the “milk & honey” life she already lives – for as long as she’s able. In the process, intense heart-to-heart discussions about death, conflict, and sex – paralleling real-life confrontations with death, conflict, and sexual opportunity – reveal various souls’ efforts at doing good.
We first see Don driving across the Plains states, listening to country music when he’s stopped by a policeman and told, “You knew we would catch up with you eventually.” Although this scene turns out to be a dream sequence, Don is, in fact, haunted by the knowledge that he’s been living his life under a false identity. Now he appears to be traveling in the direction of the house in California he long ago bought for Anna Draper (wife of the dead man whose identity he assumed). This house is the only place where, thanks to Anna’s beautiful, loving spirit, he’s ever felt fully accepted as Dick Whitman, warts and all.
As fate would have it, though, Don’s car breaks down in Oklahoma and he has it towed to a mechanic near the small town of Alva. The tow truck, in turn, drops him off at the Sharon Motel where he checks in with the elderly motel owner and his wife, Sharon. Far from a land of milk and honey, this motel setting is reminiscent of a Hitchcock film.
Things start out well enough. Don negotiates to pay for his room by the night, hoping his car will be fixed in a day or two. Later Don converses with the motel owner, helps Sharon by fixing her manual typewriter, and negotiates with Andy, the young man who serves as the “maid and messenger,” to procure books and booze for him. The following day, once the car is fixed, the motel owner talks Don into staying the night so he can attend a veterans’ event. Reluctantly, Don agrees.
Once there, Don learns that it’s a fundraiser and kicks in $40 (in exchange for a free meal and free drinks). He spends most of the evening drinking and listening to the guys at his table tell war stories and army jokes. Finally, one of the men relates a tragic story about how he and his army buddies killed some German prisoners who had surrendered, basically because they were out of food. The moral they all agreed upon was that they would do anything they needed to do in order to come home. This inspires Don to reveal his own war story in Korea, where he accidentally killed his Lieutenant, Donald Draper, by dropping his lighter where there was fuel all around. Rather than being judged for this, Don is accepted sympathetically by the group.
Unfortunately, some of these small-minded townspeople quickly turn from friend to foe after they discover the $500 raised at the event has been stolen. Very late that night while Don sleeps, the motel owner and his wife, Sharon, along with two vets who were friendly to Don earlier in the evening, enter his motel room as a small posse. They accuse him of stealing the $500 donated by the veterans’ group, twist his arms and beat him up a little, and then keep his car keys until he coughs up the stolen money.
By the next morning as Don holds ice against his swollen face, he’s already figured out who stole the money. When Andy enters the room to clean up, Don closes the door, shoves Andy on the bed, and yells in the manner of an angry father, “You don’t know anything about me. I could kill you right now . . . You have shitty instincts for a con man . . . You’re going to give me that money, pack your bag, and get out of town . . . I know you think you know how to hustle. But this is a big crime, stealing these people’s money. If you keep it, you’ll have to become somebody else, and it’s not what you think it is. You cannot get off on that foot in this life.” Soon, Andy brings Don a paper bag with the money stashed in it, and Don hands it over to the hotel owner without revealing that Andy was the culprit.
It’s interesting that the somewhat dishonest motel owner and posse have a distorted view of who Don is, based on their very limited understanding of human motivations and relative wealth. Yet despite their menacing behavior due to their mistaken views, their objective is to right a wrong. Meanwhile, Don projects onto Andy his own life story of pretending to be someone else, whether or not that’s Andy’s plan, and his goal is to right that potential wrong.
In the end, Don agrees to give Andy a ride to the bus stop where, upon arrival, Don suddenly tosses the car keys into Andy’s lap and gets out of the car to wait for the bus himself. A very surprised Andy drives off.
Don’s gift serves two purposes: it unburdens him of the expensive car that reminds him of his former life, and it allows him to pay forward the lucky break that life gave him when he was young and was given the chance (through a con) to invent a new life script for himself. After all the tough talk he gives Andy, Don sees him as a younger version of himself and wants him to have a better life.
Pete’s victory in this episode is only partly of his own making. His unlikely benefactor is none other than Duck Philips, the heavy drinker who, a few years earlier, pivoted from ad executive at McCann to headhunter for ad executives after McCann dumped him.
Meeting Pete by chance in a McCann elevator, Duck schmoozes his way into Pete’s office and proceeds to con Pete into having dinner with a Learjet executive, Mike Sherman. He tells Pete he just wants him to make a recommendation to the interviewer on Duck’s behalf. Pete agrees and enjoys the dinner with Mike that evening. Eventually, though, their conversation leads him to realize that Duck has tricked him into a job interview, while Mike realizes that Duck has lied to him, too. Pete and Mike proceed to enjoy a brandy at Duck’s expense, and Pete tells Mike he’s quite happy at McCann.
The next night, Pete arranges to have dinner with his older brother, Bud. Pete asks Bud how to tell when an opportunity is worth pursuing. Bud thinks Pete is referring to sexual opportunities, and then explains that he’s clueless about how to assess business opportunities: “In banking, there’s a road and you just stay on it.” So it was at that time in history, anyway.
Pete quickly pivots the conversation to risk assessment in Bud’s extramarital affairs, and he informs Bud that his wife, Judy, already knows he’s screwing around. Pete’s line of questioning leads them both to conclude that they seek extramarital sex because their dad did it. Bud then decides to cancel his booty call for the evening. By contrast, Pete gains insight, which somehow seems to empower him.
Meanwhile, Pete has blown off the next dinner Duck arranged for him with Mike Sherman, since he’s not interested in job hunting. According to Duck, Mike is upset at being stood up, but Duck tells Mike that Pete didn’t show because he was insulted by the offer. Thanks to Duck’s con, Mike is now ready to promise Pete upwards of $100,000 with major benefits.
What’s interesting here is that, throughout most of the episode, Pete dismisses Duck as a drunk and disregards his con-filled headhunting efforts. Yet Duck eventually succeeds in moving Pete to the new job, both to make himself enough commission to get through the winter and to help Pete avoid the same fate at McCann that he himself experienced. As he tells Pete at one point, “I’ve been there [at McCann]. It doesn’t last long.” Understanding this reality, Pete finally takes Duck’s proposition seriously, and Duck, however flawed, is revealed as a well-meaning soul.
When it finally sinks in that he’s received an incredible job offer with Learjet, Pete visits Trudy late at night. Here’s where Pete shows tremendous growth: he actually out-argues and “out-sells” the indomitable Trudy, answering every one of her strong objections with truths and optimism and inspiration as he persuades her to remarry him and start over as a family in Wichita.
Finally, there’s Betty. We first see her climbing the staircase at her graduate school program, where she smiles flirtatiously at a young co-ed and then falls on the stairs, too weak to get up. At the hospital she learns that she not only has a broken rib from the fall, but also has lung cancer. Henry goes off the rails, threatening to sue the hospital and “quack” doctor who “scared” her, to look into their funding, and to call his political ally, “Rocky” Rockefeller, as if he could help. Seeing that Henry is deeply confused, Betty shuts down emotionally and tries to take charge, asking Henry, “What happens to my car?” and telling him, “I want to go home.”
During their next visit to the hospital, Betty and Henry learn the extent of the cancer and hear that she has maybe 9 months to live, but that there are some treatments that could possibly extend her life for a few months. Henry desperately wants Betty to live as long as possible, partly because he believes life is good and partly because it would allow him to put off facing the dilemma of living without her. However, Betty wants to live a normal life during the time she has left. This includes continuing to brush her hair 300 strokes, broken rib or not; attending graduate classes as if nothing were wrong; and behaving like a normal mother to her children for as long as possible.
Determined to persuade Betty to his viewpoint, Henry visits Sally at her boarding school and, against Betty’s wishes, informs Sally of Betty’s illness. He tells Sally that he wants her to talk her mother into undergoing the treatments, but Sally responds, “I wouldn’t know what to say.” Then Henry advises Sally, “It’s okay for you to cry, honey,” after which Henry himself breaks down sobbing. Startled, Sally manages to pat him on the back to console him.
The upshot is that, as an emotionally strong girl, Sally begins to fill Betty’s shoes in the family. Sally holds her baby brother and kisses him, just as she’s seen her mother do. She also lies to her brother Bobby to shield him from the truth when he asks why she’s suddenly at home. Betty may not see herself in Sally, since Sally “marches to her own drumbeat,” but Sally exhibits the kind of strength to carry on that she grew up witnessing in her mom.
As long as Betty is alive, though, she controls Sally with an iron fist. Although Sally wants to stay with her, Betty insists that she must return to her boarding school the next day. In an effort to save Sally from her own bad fate, she explains, “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.” Betty asserts that her acceptance of death isn’t a weakness, but rather, “It’s been a gift to me, to know when to move on.” What’s unusual is that, instead of experiencing the five stages of death and dying (and grief) according to author/expert Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, as Henry is doing, Betty goes straight to the final stage, acceptance, as soon as she hears the doctor’s prognosis.
Realizing that Henry is weak and won’t be able to handle the funeral, Betty hands Sally a letter with explicit instructions about how to handle the funeral arrangements. Specifically, she gives Sally a picture of herself in her favorite blue gown and instructs Sally to make sure she’ll be buried in that gown, with her hair fixed the way she likes it. As in life, Betty’s beautiful appearance even in the coffin is highly meaningful to her. It seems to represent her heartfelt belief in her own goodness.
How will it all end? Don’t miss the Mad Men series finale – this Sunday night, 10/9c on AMC.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00XCW1BS8,B00M6X9ZTG]