The second-to-last episode of Mad Men begins and ends, like so many episodes, with shots of Don Draper alone.
The opening shot of “The Milk and Honey Route,” co-written and directed by series creator Matthew Weiner (in collaboration with Carly Wray), is actually Don’s dream of being found out. He’s driving at night, listening to Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” — a “rebellious” song that sticks up for the status quo — when a cop pulls him over and says, “We’ve been looking for you … you knew we’d catch up with you eventually.” Nobody catches up with Don in that sense. But he does give himself away voluntarily at a Veterans of Foreign Wars* fund-raiser for a man who accidentally burned his own house down (something Don has done, figuratively, over and over), confessing that he accidentally killed his commanding officer while leaving out the part about stealing a dead man’s identity; by the end, he gets punished for something that another man — a young con man — did. There’s a shot in this episode of Don reading Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, a book about the world as seen through the eyes of a criminal. After he finishes it, his two possible replacements (delivered to his hotel room by the young con man) include The Andromeda Strain, about scientists trying to figure out how to stop a potentially apocalyptic plague, and Hawaii, about multiple groups of immigrants settling in Hawaii over the centuries and reinventing themselves. By the end, he’s sitting at a bus stop somewhere in the Midwest while Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” — a song from 13 years earlier, by a man who died young — plays on the soundtrack. As often happens on this series, many of the details in Don’s subplot and others feel as if they have dream-logic significance, even though the events are taking place in something like “reality.”
In the second half of its final season, Mad Men has given a lot of its major character subplots that feel like farewells of a sort: Joan almost fighting the good fight and then taking half her money and leaving to begin a new life with her lover Richard, who’s basically Roger without the drama; Roger realizing that he effectively destroyed the agency by engineering the McCann deal to save it, and embarking on a seemingly satisfying affair with Megan’s mom; Megan taking a payoff from Don and returning his ring. The events of last week might’ve provided a farewell for Peggy: After a period of extended mourning for her life at the old agency, in which she lingers at the former office like a ghost (roller-skating in one scene while Roger does a Phantom of the Opera routine on organ), she reconciles herself to working at McCann and makes a Don Draper–like charismatic burnout entrance, marching into the place hung-over with sunglasses and a cigarette, with an armload of belongings that includes Roger’s gift of a painting of an octopus pleasuring a lady. I’m not saying that was her final scene (I have no inside knowledge of Mad Men plots), nor am I saying this would be the ideal send-off for her — I’d love to find out what happens with Stevie, the guy she nearly went to Paris with, and get some sense of whether she can confound the sexist culture of McCann — only that as parting images go, it’s not a bad one. Pete seems to be getting back together with Trudy and moving her and the kids to Wichita, Kansas, to take a job as an executive at Lear Jet. That closing image of Don at the bus stop — divested now of his job, his apartment, his wife, his suit, and even his car — feels pretty close to a perfect parting glimpse for the show’s main character, though I imagine he’ll have to go back East to deal with Betty (alas, the only major character to get an ending-ending this season — a period rather than a question mark; more on this in a moment) and their children.
The Betty story was heartrending because her terminal cancer diagnosis came just as she seemed to be finding some measure of peace and taking steps toward constructing (that big Mad Men theme) her own identity, apart from the expectations of Henry, Don, her friends, and society. This woman who’d been in and out of therapy and various self-help organizations for years was going back to college to study psychology. But then — and here we go with the dreamy-yet-not-quite-a-dream aspects again — in an episode filled with references to apples (the Pete and Trudy plotline, with their daughter baking pies), Betty falls and breaks, of all things, a rib. This leads to an X-ray, which reveals a rapidly metastasizing cancer that’s going to take her life within a year, less if she forgoes treatment. (The slow zoom into a profile of her face as Henry and the doctor discuss her treatment is one of the show’s finest filmmaking moments.)
Betty’s decision to forgo treatment becomes the locus of action in this subplot. Henry wants Betty to see one or more oncologists, and callously breaks her confidence and tells Sally about the diagnosis, in hopes that the girl will pressure her mother to buckle and say yes to aggressive treatment; she does, but Betty explains that she’s been through enough to know when something is over, and everyone is just going to have to get used to the idea and accept that her decision is, well, final. (When you remember Betty’s prior cancer scare several seasons ago, the cop’s line to Don in the dream seems prophetic: “You knew we’d catch up with you eventually.”) The contrast between Henry’s stridently macho denial and Betty’s nearly serene acceptance is a perfect illustration of classically gendered responses to irrevocable bad news: Henry refuses to accept that nature’s decision is final, and selfishly (and understandably) wants her to treat the cancer so that he and the kids can have a few more months with her, whereas Betty doesn’t see the point of going down a longer road that’s going to deposit her in the same place as a shorter one.
Henry comes into focus in this episode in ways he never quite has before: You see once again why Betty was attracted to him (he’s slightly boring, but a rock; not as exciting as Don but also not duplicitous or volatile) while also clearly sensing his limitations. And these limitations become the source of the tragedy of Henry. Throughout his adult life, he’s been defined (and has defined himself) in proximity to men of great power and influence, but those connections are useless now. “What do you think would happen to Nelson Rockefeller if he got this?” he demands. “He would die!” Betty exclaims, one of the few times this episode where she raises her voice. The scene of Henry visiting Sally at school is devastating on its own, even more so if you see it as a classic Mad Men scene of a man demanding that a woman express emotions he’s been conditioned not to express himself: Henry tells the girl that she can cry if he wants, then breaks down, sobbing inconsolably. (I never expected Henry Francis to destroy me emotionally during a Mad Men episode, but here we are.)
Betty’s letter to Sally is proof that, like so many characters, she has grown in subtle but profound ways. Her initial reaction to Sally’s return home is to coldly walk past her in the doorway, an action reminiscent of Betty’s past denials of death and its implications: See season three’s “The Arrangements,” where she accused her own soon-to-be-deceased father of insensitivity when he tried to discuss funeral details and the disposition of his estate. But later she speaks very frankly to Sally about her reasons for not seeking treatment, then gives her a letter (to be opened posthumously, though Sally of course opens it posthaste) that’s as elegant and restrained as Betty at her very best. She wants to be buried in her favorite dress, the blue chiffon one; these and other requests and observations are conveyed in voice-over, and the episode cuts between Sally reading the letter through tears and Betty climbing the same steps where she’d collapsed earlier in the episode. (January Jones, derided as a weak link during the early years of the show was brilliant here, in what felt like a cumulative confirmation of what Weiner saw in her to begin with.)
The ongoing Don-on-the-road plotline mirrors Betty’s for the first time. One of the recurring viewer complaints about Betty post-divorce was that, absent Don, she wasn’t really connected to the central world of the show anymore, which meant the dispatches from her marriage to Henry Francis felt like scenes in a different series that was tangentially connected to the main action through Don (with Sally serving as conduit). Don’s not really connected to the main action now, either. Nobody is. That’s because Sterling Cooper & Partners (or whatever they were calling it, depending on the season) doesn’t exist anymore.
In this subplot especially, but really throughout the episode, there’s a sense of the center giving way, of things falling apart, and of everyone just dealing with it in their own way. There are multiple instances of actual machines, and in one case, a body-as-machine, breaking down: Don’s car, the TV in his hotel room, the motel owner’s wife’s typewriter, and Betty’s cancer; in that shot of Pete eating pie alone in the kitchen, we’re primed by all the breakdowns to assume than the light turned off by Trudy is a power failure. As is often the case on Mad Men, and as is often the case in life, some people can’t win for losing while others can’t lose for winning.
Don is definitely in the former camp this week: Within the space of a few scenes, he gets stranded in a small town, taken for ten bucks by a young and rather terrible con artist, contemplates the curvy, oiled body of a young woman at poolside only to get cock-blocked by some kids and their dad, gets drunk at the VA fund-raiser and confesses one of his greatest shames, then gets savagely beaten with a phone book by the same men who’d tenderly assured him that he was in a safe space. He leaves town without even trying to explain that he had nothing to do with the theft of the money: He just leaves a bag of cash at the front desk of the motel. As I’ve noted in other season-seven recaps, Don has gotten very comfortable with the idea of accepting indignity, unfairness, and bad news without letting it eat him up, and without feeling the need to go ballistic with rage and denial. He dispenses a fair amount of wisdom in this episode, including the admonition to the young trickster that when you steal something so valuable that its loss would cause an entire community to rise up in outrage, you can’t stick around: You have to become someone else, and that requires submitting to an illusion that’s not as easy to maintain as it probably sounds when you’re young and dumb and filled with fantasies of omnipotence.
Pete, meanwhile, is in the can’t-lose-for-winning column. He’s already got a gig with McCann that assures him a quarter million a year and appears to be shaping himself into a conquering hero, the guy who saved all the old major accounts that mattered (including Joan’s beloved Avon, which might’ve left following her departure). Then Duck Phillips tricks him into the first in a series of job interviews with Lear Jet, which he aces by playing (well, not even playing; he actually means it) hard-to-get. By the end, Pete has generated enough fascination to earn a promise of Lear Jet buying out his contract with McCann via stock options. And his sincerity towards Trudy, along with his unforced sweetness with their daughter, succeeds in winning her back. How ironic that Pete, who for several seasons felt like a younger, inept, wannabe Don Draper, would find himself in this Don Draper–like situation, essentially falling into a big pile of money through no fault or doing of his own, then convincing a woman he’d repeatedly, grievously wronged to give him one more chance to wipe the slate clean. (Here, again, we have a couple of mirrored subplots: Pete succeeds in reinventing himself, where Don spends much of the episode dealing with the fallout of all his reinventions, and cautioning another Don Draper type that this is not as enjoyable a life as he probably thinks.) (Also — and forgive the butted-up parentheses, it’s late! — Duck Phillips’s status as a flamed-out, train-wrecked doppelgänger of Don has never seemed more clear than it does here. He’s a pickled dervish version of Professor Harold Hill, whirling through people’s comparatively placid lives and drawing them into crazed schemes that he just pulled out of his ass ten minutes earlier, but which work out often enough to make people think he’s worth the trouble.)
There’s a lot of talk of morality and socially enforced modes of living in this episode, including Henry’s patriarchal attempts to set the terms of Betty’s response to cancer (he repeatedly thwarts her attempt to control the flow of information and tries to make key decisions for her), as well as discussions of how to think about and respond to various kinds of deception (a nice grace note: One of the men at the VA hall had a drugstore-owner father who was known for cracking down on kids who smoked and drank). It was heartening to watch the serially unfaithful Pete successfully warn his brother against an act of infidelity. During most of the show’s run, Pete reserved his most profound expressions of longing for unattainable “other” women, but in this episode, that look falls upon Trudy and their daughter.
There’s only one episode of Mad Men left, and rather than fret over whether or not the series will stick the landing, I’ve taken to thinking of a line from a song that accompanies the final scene of The Sopranos: “Oh, the movie never ends / It goes on and on and on and on.” If you think of Mad Men less as a very long story than a set of short stories or story-songs with the same characters, moving forward in time in chronological order while not necessarily feeling obligated to sum things up for us in a neat and tidy way, the traditional expectations about endings seem less burdensome. What matters more on a show like this isn’t the ending per se, but the end note: In other words, it’s less about what happens than the mood of it, the way that final note sustains. “The Milk and Honey Route” felt like the second-to-last bar of a song that’s about to fade out rather than end. The characters that are still alive will continue living. The dream will continue but, like Betty, we won’t be around to see it.
* An earlier version of this post mistakenly referred to the Veterans of Foreign Wars as the Veterans Administration.