The penultimate episode of the series was as great as one could hope, and in some ways felt like a suitable finale. Three of the main characters—Don (Jon Hamm), Peter (Vincent Kartheiser), Peggy (January Jones)—got final scenes that worked as farewells, but what struck me most about "The Milk & Honey Route" is how well the writers wrong-footed fans convinced the show's near-obsession with mortality was a portent of Don Draper's demise... when it was actually his ex-wife Betty's life that's drawing to a premature end.
Yes, poor Betty Francis. Finally at peace with her ex-husband and enjoying life, with a teenage daughter about to fly the nest, and an honourable desire to re-educate herself as a mature student, her world came crashing down with a chance diagnosis of lung cancer after an x-ray. Her reaction was also surprisingly mature—although there was, as Sally (Kiernan Shipka) theorised, the chance she just loves the tragedy of it all. I'm not sure if Bett's putting on a brave face, resigned to her fate, or simply aware she's done everything she ever wanted to do in life... so the fact it's ending doesn't feel as painful and cruel as it might've done years ago. Sally's role in the story was also very interesting, as there were scenes hinting at her own maturity (consoling her stepdad, who broke down in tears), and the likelihood she'll essentially replace her mother (the kitchen scene where she mother-henned her younger brothers, sat at the head of the family table).
More upbeat was Pete Campbell's subplot, where he was persuaded by old acquaintance Duck Phillips (Mark Moses) to repay an old favour by persuading a boss of Learjet to hire him as their headhunter for their new senior marketing executive. Through Pete's dealings with Learjet, he almost accidentally wound up finding a better job at Wichita (which pays enough to forgo the $1m contingent on him staying at McCann-Erickson for four years), and, even better, enabled him to act on his deeper feelings for ex-wife Trudy (Alison Brie) and try to rekindle their relationship. And, lo and behold, it actually worked, so the Campbell's are back together and leaving the city for a better life. While Pete has never been a favourite character of mine, because he's usually portrayed as quite a snide person, this moment was surprisingly heartfelt and worked very well. Pete has clearly learned from past mistakes, recognises his marriage was a highpoint of his own life (not the millions he's made in his career), and is pursuing a happily ever after.
Similarly upbeat, but in a very different way, was Don's storyline. Still on his road trip (which seems to be a complete break from his advertising career now), Don's car broke down and resulted in him spending a few days at the Sharon Motel—where he met war veteran Del (Chris Ellis) and his wife Sharon (Meagan Fay), who seemed like a very hospitable and friendly couple. More unnerving was the motel room service boy, Andy (Carter Jenkins), who recognised Don's a wealthy man and kept trying to extort him for simple errands he could run. These characters actually had a big effect on Don—first with Del taking him to the Legion Hall fundraiser, to mix with other war veterans, where the atmosphere and booze resulted in Don actually regaling his table about his darkest secret (his role in killing his C.O), which he's never told anyone before; and secondly, with Andy stealing the fundraiser's donations and pinning the blame on Don, which earned him a late-night beating before he could fix things. And not only that, but, seeing some of himself in Andy, Don was unexpectedly gracious in giving the boy his fancy Cadillac and instead getting the bus out of town. The episode, not for the first time this half-season, ending on a shot with Don alone in the frame—only now there wasn't such a depressing tone to it.
Overall, I really loved this episode. Some of it felt a little forced (like Don's beating and his connection to Andy), but most of it was perfectly judged. The way the doctors discussed Betty's cancer so indirectly, with her husband brought in before they'd go into details, was also very eyeopening. I love it when Mad Men reveals just how different its era was, and it's scary to realise this was all only 40 years ago.
It's the finale next week, which will undoubtedly be a bittersweet moment, seeing as Mad Men is such a flagship for the so-called Golden Age of TV we've been enjoying for the past decade. How will Don react to news of Betty's illness? Will the show jump forward in time, so we get to see Betty's final days? And is Don headed back to the city and his old job now, having come to some kind of peace out on the road? Will all the other characters be able to get a defining, conclusive moment, in just an hour of television? I'm thinking primarily about Joan, Peggy and Roger.
written by Carly Wray & Matthew Weiner • directed by Matthew Weiner • 14 May 2015 • Sky Atlantic