If New York City is the center of the universe and Los Angeles is its sunnier fun-house mirror, then what, in the world of Mad Men, is everything in between? Aside from isolated trips to woo clients in cities like Detroit, we haven’t seen much of the middle of the country in the show’s seven seasons. But in this week’s “The Milk and Honey Route” — named for sociologist Nels Anderson’s Depression-era “Handbook for Hobos” — both the action and the symbolism of Mad Men shifted quite suddenly to the Midwest.
First, Don finds himself trapped there after his car breaks down. He’s had a dream where a cop pulls him over and tells him, “You know we’d catch up with you eventually.” It’s a painfully obvious metaphor for his lifelong attempt to run from his past — something he’s now doing literally as well as figuratively by spending months wandering the back roads of the United States, looking and drinking quite a bit like Jack Kerouac. (Last week, Don and Dead Bert Cooper agreed to disagree about Kerouac, who would have been around the same age as our antihero but died in late 1969. It’s probably safe to say Cooper’s isn’t the only ghost following Don Draper on his road trip.)
At the motel where Don stays while he awaits his car, everyone is almost suspiciously friendly. The innkeeper is accommodating; his wife Sharon, for whom the place is named, is shyly flirtatious. A teenager who works there, Andy, is eager to procure liquor and paperbacks (The Godfather!). It seems, for a moment, that he too harbors some sexual interest in Don. Really, though, he just sees him as a way to make some fast cash and get the hell out of town.
When he’s not devouring novels or scoping out chicks at the pool (this one is reading The Woman of Rome, an Italian novel from 1947 that features both a prostitute — hi, Don’s Mom! — and an unmoored intellectual), he’s fixing Sharon’s typewriter and the motel’s Coke machine. This is where it becomes clear how Mad Men is using the Midwest, as a place that has remained relatively untouched by the supposedly nationwide social change of the 1960s. From the obsolete technology (the innkeeper doesn’t want a new soda machine — he likes the old one) to the outdated reading material to the 1940s-style burlesque dancer who jumps out of the cake at the American Legion, it’s a part of the country that hasn’t changed since Don Draper was still, well, Dick Whitman.
For a while, this seems like a good thing. Don takes advantage of his hosts’ hospitality to stay for another night, on the house. He’s welcomed with open arms at the Legion, where he allows himself to be (good-naturedly?) swindled into making a big donation, gets incredibly drunk, and divulges his biggest secret: “I killed my CO,” he says. “I dropped my lighter, and I blew him apart, and I got to go home.” Of all the things Don hides from the world, this is clearly the one that haunts him the most — so it’s a powerful moment when the veterans accept what he’s told them.
But later that night, he gets a harsh reminder of what else it means to spend time in such a regressive place: being subject to frontier justice. A few of the men from the Legion burst into his motel room, convinced that he stole their money. As Sharon, who let them in, looks on, they knock him around and steal his car keys, telling him they’ll only return them when they get their donations back. I’ve been largely disappointed with Don’s storylines this season, but it was genuinely difficult — in a good way — to watch him confess his darkest secret, seemingly find acceptance, and then face the kind of violence that confirms he’s still seen as very much an outsider.
Of course, as a lifelong con man of one kind or another, it’s obvious to Don who really took the cash: Andy, who was working at the Legion and obviously always has some kind of hustle going. At this point in the show, from Bob Benson to Diana, we’ve seen so many versions of Don Draper. The doppelgangers are piling up, to the extent that the collective metaphor has transcended the obviousness of any individual comparison. Mad Men is slowly creating a world where any normal-looking person could be a fake or a trickster or just someone hiding a whole mess of terrible secrets.
Andy is yet another, very young Don Draper. After a physical confrontation, Don gives him some haunting advice: “If you keep [the money], you’ll have to become somebody else, and it’s not what you think it is… Wait until you can never come back.” This is the payoff of that nightmare. As we saw at the Legion, when he was afraid to show his face to a fellow Korea vet, people who could potentially catch Don in a lie are literally everywhere. When he drives Andy to the bus station, then throws him the car keys and gets out himself, he’s giving a younger version of himself an option Dick Whitman never had — to get out without stealing someone else’s money or identity.
The question now is, where’s Don going on that bus, with that disarmingly genuine smile on his face? My track record with these kinds of predictions is pretty terrible, so I’ll leave that up to the Mad Men conspiracy theory crew. All I can say is, he seems to have crossed New York, LA, and the middle of the country off his list of possible havens. In some ways, the most depressing decision he could make would be to return to the city and go back inside that McCann elevator.
Weirdly, Don isn’t the only (former) SC&P partner who’s got America’s heartland on the brain in the show’s penultimate episode. For weeks now, Pete has been waxing philosophical, attempting to atone for past mistakes and seemingly getting close to reuniting with Trudy. He’s not a complicated guy, the way Don is, and his quest to become a better man seems genuine. In fact, he’s flourishing at McCann by the time he encounters Duck Phillips in the Elevator o’ Doom.
Duck, of course, has a few tricks up his sleeve: He guilts Pete into a dinner with a fellow Ivy League blue blood who works for Wichita-based Learjet, to apply some pressure on behalf of McCann in favor of Duck’s headhunting work. It’s fairly transparent all along that what Duck is really doing is sending Pete on a job interview. Which he passes with flying colors, advancing to the dinner-with-the-wives round.
It seems impossible that Pete would leave McCann — he does, after all, have seven figures riding on his continued work there. But Duck keeps pushing in increasingly psychotic ways, and the second dinner invitation gives Pete an excuse to make more overtures to Trudy (“I’m jealous of your ability to be sentimental about the past,” she tells him. “I remember things as they were”), and an encounter with his brother just reinforces his belief that he doesn’t want to end up like their dad. And then, in a development that Pete himself calls “supernatural,” he’s got a job offer and an all-expenses-paid escape route from McCann. Suddenly, he’s entirely convinced that he wants to move Trudy and Tammy to — where else? — Kansas, where they can be the kind of wholesome family he finally realizes he wants so badly.
Barring any wholly possible last-minute tragedies, Pete and Trudy’s fate is sealed with a kiss. So, has weaselly Pete Campbell turned out to be an actually good person? I’m not sure if that matters, exactly; he’s turned out to be a person who knows himself, who understands his own limitations, and that kind of stable self-knowledge is both a rare and a valued thing in Mad Men‘s universe. If this is his ending, it sure feels like a happy one.
But not everyone is so lucky. I don’t want to spend much time on Betty’s fate, because I think it’s typical of the cruelty that’s been wantonly inflicted on her character for so many seasons now. Though Mad Men is great at seeing human beings from all angles, Betty has too often been a one-dimensional symbol (desperate housewife, cold mother) or the target of pointless humiliation (Fat Betty). Her cancer diagnosis, made all the more poignant by the fact that her doctors still treat her like a child, confirms for me that she should have just been written off the show two or three seasons ago.
Because what does it do except impose a rushed resolution on a character whose personality was too variable, too dependent on the writers’ whims, for the show to ever quite capture? Now that she’s refused treatment (assuring Sally, “I’ve fought for plenty in my life. That’s how I know it’s over”) and devastated Henry and made peace with her daughter (“I know your life will be an adventure,” she writes, in a letter that Mad Men should really know better than to use as a device), I guess we’re supposed to realize that — for all her self-involvement — Betty is a worthwhile person whose family loved her, and who will be mourned. It seems like an awfully pat end to her story, and I’m unsettled by the idea that the show had to kill her off to access her humanity.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the second-to-last episode of Mad Men was equal parts exhilarating and infuriating, inspiring and uninspired. The quality of its storylines has always varied widely from week to week and character to character. Of course, I hope next week’s finale is at least as satisfying as the show’s best episodes have been. But the fact that it could also be a huge disappointment is kind of the fun thing about Mad Men: no matter how long you’ve been watching, you never know exactly what you’re going to get each time.