Thursday, May 14, 2015

Mad Men Season 7, Episode 13, “The Milk and Honey Route”

The penultimate episode of Mad Men features Don, Pete, and Betty each reaching epiphanies of sorts, as each comes to a realization about their lives or the lives of their families. I was somewhat surprised to find myself most interested in Pete’s story this week. Pete’s happiness in “Lost Horizon” reveals itself to be rather genuine here. As he tells Duck – who makes what is likely his final appearance as one of the longest running and most frequently recurring characters on the show – he’s contented with McCann’s hospitality, and the importance he’s been accorded. However, despite his own protests to the contrary, Pete is too self-aware to know it will last.

For a long time now, Pete’s character arc has seemed to involve his becoming a poor man’s Don Draper. Like Don, he grew restless in his marriage to a beautiful woman and life in the suburbs, had a string of affairs, slept with his neighbor’s wife, and got divorced. At the office, he tried to devastate his secretaries with emotional outbursts. And in tonight’s episode, we discover Pete is living in a hotel (and likely has been since he returned from Los Angeles), just as Don has been since he moved out of his apartment. However, Pete was never as effective as Don at most of this: his affairs were clumsy and risky; he got found out by Trudy rather quickly, and was fairly miserable in divorce, especially considering that Trudy handily won all of their passive-aggressive (or just plain aggressive) confrontations. At the office, Pete’s secretaries simply reacted - correctly - to his outbursts as though they were the temper tantrums of a spoiled child.

Pete’s failure to successfully model his behavior on Don is partly a product of Pete’s sociopathic tendencies, which have always been one of the more distinct differences between them. However, tonight’s episode emphasized another strong difference: Pete has become a far more self-aware character, especially given Don’s behavior both in season 6 and in this final stretch of episodes. In some ways, Pete is the person Don described to Dow Chemical, the person for whom happiness is only that you experience before wanting more happiness. For Pete, contentment is a fleeting sensation, one that quickly leads to wanting more, and he knows it. Right now, his status at McCann is “a temporary bandage on a permanent wound,” which is how Pete described his life with his family in the season 5 finale. He seemed to reach an epiphany back then, realizing that he’s always been broken and that his attempts to fix himself have been only stopgap measures, and throughout this week’s episode, we see him try to work out how to heal that wound rather than cover it up with temporary bandages.

We see it in his dinner with his brother, for instance, where he asks about how to assess whether a risk is really an opportunity or a mistake (a distinction Pete has often had trouble making in his personal life), and he wonders about why he always wants more. We also see it when Duck finally reaches through to Pete regarding McCann, warning him that contentment there doesn’t last long. Duck’s parting words cut through Pete’s resistance, and help him connect the dots between his conversation with his brother and his relationship with Trudy. He comes to another epiphany, one he rushes to share with Trudy late at night: He wants to take the Learjet job, remarry her, and move to Wichita.

It’s a beautiful scene, not only for Pete's eloquence (he's always had a way with words when he's feeling strong emotions), but also because his plan is a wonderful solution to his malaise. Like Trudy, Learjet is perfect for him. Learjet caters to CEOs all over the country, and thus working for them would be a chance for Pete to glad-hand some of the most powerful businessmen in the world, giving his ego far more room to play than working at an ad agency could. Moreover, we already saw how starting over again in California temporarily rejuvenated Pete at the start of season 7. Now, as Pete tells Trudy, with his own private jet at his disposal he can start over again all the time, wherever and whenever he wants, and he can do it while taking his family with him. Pete finally does Don one better in his attempts to follow in Don’s footsteps: he gets to start over not by erasing his past, but by bringing his past and his family with him, and he gets to keep doing it over and over again on a nearly infinite basis.

This development has the potential to finally sate Pete’s desire for more, but even better, his reconnection with Trudy also makes sense from an emotional standpoint. It was set up when Trudy tested the waters with Pete two weeks ago, and again here when she tells her friend Sherry why she doesn’t poison their daughter against him. Moreover, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, Pete and Trudy always made a great team, and have remained well-matched to each other even in their divorce (a divorce Trudy wasn’t even serious about at first, but something she put on the table only as punishment for Pete's misbehavior).

When Pete reciprocates Trudy’s testing the waters by asking her to pose as his wife for dinner with Learjet, he tells her, “You understand my business. No one else ever really has.” Pete’s talking about meeting with clients, but this sentiment is easily applicable to all walks of Pete’s life. Trudy knows Pete better than any other romantic prospect ever has (although she never really had any notable competition other than Peggy and Bonnie, Pete’s girlfriend from the first half of the season). Pete threw away his marriage with his carelessness and his discontentment, but even in their dealings since, Trudy has always known Pete’s heart and mind, even when she was rightfully contemptuous of it. It's why she was always able to get the better of him in recent years. Thus it felt right for Trudy to welcome Pete back into her and Tammy’s lives with equal parts exasperation and relief. It was a very nicely-played scene by both Vincent Kartheiser and Allison Brie.

As for Don, this episode has him dealing with his original sin: his accidentally killing the real Don Draper and stealing his identity. Not only do we see it in his first scene of the episode, where Don’s guilt gives him nightmares about finally facing repercussions for his past actions, but we also see it both in his interaction with Andy the fledgling con man, and in his dealings with the veterans of the small town where he spends the episode.*

*It’s easy to imagine that this is a recurring nightmare, given the way Don wakes up from this dream: I recall Don frequently waking from sleep with this same bewildered, disoriented look on his face over the years. 

It’s easy to understand Don’s reluctance to join the veterans at their fundraiser. His guilt and his shame over his actions in the war are worse than even his former embarrassment over his upbringing in a brothel, and being around other veterans will only serve to remind him of these things. Moreover, fielding requests for war stories is counterproductive for keeping his closely guarded secrets: who he once was, and what he did to become who he is now. Being around veterans also increases the risk of him running into someone who used to know him as Dick Whitman, or someone who knew the real Don Draper.

Nevertheless, Don acquiesces and joins the veterans for their fundraiser, and of course, his fears nearly become a reality when he comes close to being recognized by another veteran, Jerry Fandango. When Jerry introduces himself, Don’s reaction clearly indicates that he either knows Jerry from the service, or knows that Jerry knew the real Don. However, this is as bad - or nearly as bad - as it gets for Don in this episode. Jerry ultimately doesn’t recognize Don, and Don relaxes a bit.

Later, Don reaps benefits from attending the fundraiser. Another veteran shares a self-mortifying story about killing a group of German soldiers who were trying to surrender, just so he wouldn’t have to feed them. It’s a horrible story, but a watershed moment for Don, who seems to realize that everyone has baggage from serving in a war, and that sharing stories with sympathetic ears deprives them of the power they acquire when kept secret. Don gives the other veterans the broad outlines of his Korea horror story, and in telling it, he finds acceptance, and is finally able to let go of some of the guilt he still carries with him. At least, he’s able to let it go for an evening. Don faces an indirect comeuppance for his years of lying about his identity when the veterans discover that the money from the fundraiser is missing, and assume Don lied about who he is in order to steal it.

Of course, it wasn’t Don, but Andy the fledgling con man. Don clearly sees himself in Andy. Early on, he appears to appreciate Andy’s hustle, and even corrects Andy’s grammar, as if to give him a pointer. When Don confronts him over stealing the veterans’ money, Don speaks to him like someone with years of experience conning people, and might as well be trying to reach back in time to warn himself not to take Don Draper’s identity: “I know you think you know how to hustle, but this is a big crime…. 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.” This is as close as Don has ever come to directly acknowledging that the root of many of his problems stems from his having to pretend to be someone he’s not. In a way, it’s a sort of epiphany to match Pete’s: becoming Don Draper was never the answer to Dick Whitman’s problems, and he’s telling Andy what he wishes someone had told him that back when he returned from the war. Don seeing himself in Andy is also why he gives Andy his car at the end of the episode; it’s the sort of leg up in the world Don wished someone would have given him when he needed it, the kind of thing that might have prevented him from becoming Don Draper in the first place.

Now, to Betty. Matthew Weiner has been giving us lots of endings over the course of this half season: the end of Don and Peggy’s arc together; the end of SC&P; the end of Joan’s tenure as an accounts woman, and now, the imminent end of Betty Francis’s life. Given my antipathy toward Betty over the past four seasons, and my general disinterest in her character arc (the one notable exception being her appearance in season 6’s “The Better Half”), I’m somewhat surprised to find myself saddened by the decision to give her terminal cancer as the series concludes.

She’s been a difficult character to like, and plots that focused solely on her character development were often a chore, as they distracted from the far more interesting things happening at Don’s agency. However, over the past four seasons, she’s also been used effectively, most often as a foil for Don and Sally, like in season 4’s “All the Beautiful Girls,” or season 5’s “Dark Shadows,” and in this last half-season, she’s also seemed to come to a sort of peace with Don and Sally. She and Don enjoyed their détente last week (a product of the wisdom and maturity she first demonstrated in “The Better Half”), and she was even almost able to appreciate Sally’s joke about being pregnant a few weeks ago. Thus it’s a shame her life will end just when she finally seemed to be achieving some harmony in it.

Just as in seasons past, developments with Betty are most interesting for the effect they have on other characters. Here, her cancer diagnosis yields dramatic dividends for Sally, who gets a nice series of scenes where she deals with the news. I enjoyed the scene between Sally and Henry because it showed how lost he is, as well as Sally’s maturity: He needed to talk to someone, and Sally is the person he turned to even though doing so was against Betty’s wishes. This in turn leads to the wonderful moment when Sally returns home, and Betty knows Henry told Sally just by looking at her. Sally moves to hug her, but Betty brushes past her and out of the room, at which point Sally sits down at the kitchen table, just where Betty always sits. The implication is clear: now Sally will be the family matriarch.

Later, Betty actually speaks with Sally, who seems to have settled on trying to sarcastically goad Betty into getting treatment, accusing her of loving the tragedy of it. It's appropriate, given how sisterly they behave toward each other. Betty doesn’t take the bait though, cutting through Sally’s bullshit and tells her why she won’t get treatment: she doesn’t want to put Sally through it, and she’s decided that it’s time to move on. Sally’s imminent matriarchy is further underscored when Betty makes Sally the executor of her last wishes.

Like Pete and Don, Betty also seems to have come to an epiphany, as indicated in the letter she writes to Sally. While she doesn’t acknowledge what an awful mother she’s been, she does seem to realize that it’s okay for her daughter to have different values than her, telling her, “now I know that’s good. I know your life will be an adventure.” It’s as close as Betty has ever come to praising Sally’s life choices and independent spirit, and it moves Sally to tears. If the last we see of Betty is that shot of her climbing the stairs at college, it'll be a nice note for her to go out on.

Other thoughts:

- No Peggy, Joan, or Roger this week. This might be the first time three principal characters have been entirely absent from an episode.

- I was relieved to see that Don hadn't gone full-on Dick Whitman. His phone conversation with Sally implies that he regularly makes phone calls to her and his boys, and thus he hasn’t outright abandoned his former life. Later, the episode also hints that he’s formally severed ties with McCann, rather than just disappearing. Also note that he uses the past tense to describe his profession when he tells Andy he was in advertising. Perhaps he’s done not just with McCann, but with advertising altogether.

- It’s somewhat ironic that Don tells Sally she has “no idea about money” when we learn that he left millions of dollars on the table when he left McCann, and where we see him give away his expensive Cadillac to Andy.

- Duck reveals himself to be rather savvy in his job as a headhunter, tricking Pete into meeting with Learjet not only by lying about the nature of the meeting, but also by implying that he’s once again at the end of his rope. He uses his alcoholism to his advantage by letting Pete think the worst of him.

- The college kids who bring Betty to the hospital check her in as Mrs. Robinson. Clever.

- Some nice direction in the scene where Betty sees the specialist. Three shots: one of the X-ray, and two of Betty, one of which features Henry and the doctor out of focus in the background.

- Not quite sure what to make of that moment where Don contemplates the attractive woman in the bathing suit by pool at his hotel. Perhaps he reminds her of the life he’s left behind in New York. Or perhaps it’s just a moment for him to luxuriate in his own fantasies before they are dispelled when her husband and children dash into the frame, another reminder of the path not taken.

- I laughed at Duck looking back and forth in Pete’s hotel hallway, unsure of which direction he came from. A fitting final moment for a character who only barely keeps it together.

- In telling his brother that his wife knows about his brother’s affairs but only pretends not to, Pete recalls Trudy’s earlier revelation that she had always known about Pete’s affairs as well, but put up with them.

- Well, this is it, folks. Only one more episode left, and then my favorite drama of this new golden age is over. It's been a great ride, and I look forward to seeing how it will end.

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