If you’re like me, you read Mad Men recaps because you want to dissect the symbolism. You want to look at the woman lying by the pool at Don’s motel, see that she’s reading The Woman of Rome, and think, Huh. Wasn’t Rome where Don and Betty took their last big vacation together? You want to look at that fundraiser for a man whose house burned down, and think about the house that burned down in Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?,” a song that has come to symbolize Don’s disillusionment.
Well, normally I’d write that kind of recap. But not tonight. Because, people, Betty Draper is going to die. And I spent the end of this week’s episode crying over a character I never thought I’d care about again.
Betty’s cancer diagnosis almost felt like a personal attack. I’ll admit that I was angry at first. Mad Men has been especially cruel to its female characters lately: Rachel died, Joan lost her job and a lot of money, Peggy did a badass walk-of-fame right into an office that will probably end up treating her like a secretary. Some of these developments can be blamed on the fact that the early 1970s wasn’t exactly the most progressive era for women, but it’s hard to blame cancer on the times. And the fact that Betty got a terminal diagnosis on Mothers Day just felt cold-blooded. This is a character who was already doomed to mainline whipped cream, have sex with a washing machine, and face the wrath of fans. Hasn’t she suffered enough indignities?
Watching Betty with Sally toward the end, though, I realized that I was wrong. She’s not the victim here. Maybe Mad Men‘s writers are defending Betty from those who’ve always hated her. They’re finally giving her a moment when she can be strong and selfless and proud. They’re saying, We’re all gonna die, but Betty Draper’s gonna go out like a Rockefeller. When Sally accuses her of refusing treatment because she loves tragedy, Betty calmly tells Sally that she watched her own mother die, and she won’t make Sally go through the same thing. “I fought for plenty in my life,” she says. “That’s how I know it’s over. It’s not a weakness. It’s a gift to me: knowing when to move on.”
That’s a gift that many women on Mad Men share. Joan knew when to take her money and run. Megan knew when to tell Don not to return to California. Peggy knew when to leave her job for another venture, and when to come back. (Hopefully, she understands that it’s time to leave again.) And Trudy… well, poor Trudy never learns. The men of Mad Men are different. They refuse to accept that endings aren’t just beginnings in disguise. Think of Don running from one failed relationship to the next. Think of Duck forever returning to the Sterling Draper crew, refusing to believe that his relationship with them is over. Think of Pete busting into Trudy’s place at 4 a.m., certain that they can forge a brand new life together.
Starting over sometimes lands you right back where you began, and we’ve seen that a lot this season, as characters make the same mistakes again and again. When Pete meets with his brother to discuss his job prospects, he finds that both of them have inherited the same tragic flaws their father did, including cheating on their wives. “Why?” Pete wonders. “Always looking for something better. Always looking for something else.” “Because dad was like that,” explains Bud. And things didn’t end well for their dad. He died in a plane crash. Suddenly, Pete’s future with Learjet doesn’t look so bright.
NEXT: Don’s final confession
Don is also headed right back where he started, to the life he first discovered as Dick Whitman in “The Hobo Code.” Remember what the hobo told him back then? “For me, every day is brand-new,” he said. “Every day’s a brand-new place, people, what have you. What’s at home? I had a family once, wife, job, a mortgage. I couldn’t sleep at night tied to all those things. And then Death came to find me… So one morning, I freed myself, with the clothes on my back. Goodbye. Now I sleep like a stone.”
That sounds a lot like what’s happened to Don this season. Just as he cuts loose from his job and his family, his car breaks down in Oklahoma. Stuck in a motel with nothing to do, he ends up attending a fundraiser for a local Okie, gets drunk with some war veterans, and ends up admitting that he killed the real Don Draper. It’s the last big confession Don needs before he can be honest about who he really is. So when Andy, a local handyboy, tries to steal the fundraiser money and blame it on Don, Don doesn’t get mad. He just hands over his car keys, knowing that Andy will get more out of the open road than he will.
The title of tonight’s episode, “The Milk and Honey Route,” refers to what hobos called the railroad tracks during the 1930s, when many of them rode out to California for farm work in warmer climates. It’s also the title of a book by Neels Anderson, who went under a pseudonym, just like Don. “What may be a milk and honey route to one hobo may not be so to another,” Anderson wrote under the name Dean Stiff. “A hobo may fare well on a route one time and another time fare ill. Again, it may be milk and honey for a road kid but not for an old timer.” It’s weird to think that Andy’s the road kid in that equation. Don’s the old-timer now.
If the milk and honey route doesn’t offer much for Don anymore, then where is he headed? I think that war veteran at the fundraiser gave us a hint: “You just do what you have to do to come home.” That’s true for so many characters this week, as Pete goes back to Trudy, Sally returns to Betty, and Don has to sit on a bench in the middle of nowhere just to figure out where home really is. Is he headed to California, his spiritual home? Will he continue toward the Grand Canyon, as he suggested to Sally? Or will he return to New York, to be with Betty one last time? With no job and no wife, he’s free to go wherever he chooses. It’s a new beginning. But beginnings look a lot like endings. Only one episode left.