Mad Men: The Milk and Honey Route, or Doing What You Have to Do to Get Home

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Hey, it’s Mother’s Day.  I have an idea.  Let’s kill Mom.  After all, she’s been a pretty terrible TV Mother: more self-centered and spoiled than her own kids.  But once she gets a death sentence we realize she matured while we weren’t looking.

I’ll pay ten bucks to anyone who can prove they saw THAT coming.  Mad Men fans have been obsessed with how the show will end and a great deal of speculation has centered around who will die, with Don’s suicide, Roger’s heart attack and Megan’s murder at the top of the list.  But no one thought it would be Betty, even though the logic is irrefutable.  From the very first scene of the series, back in the pilot, smoking has been a core theme of the show.  Its omnipresence has been a signifier that these are very different times (imagine – people used to smoke on airplanes!)  But cigarette advertising on Mad Men also came to symbolize capitalism at its worst – by the 1960s everyone knew that smoking killed people but ad agencies still scrambled to develop the most effective way to sell the product. In the series pilot Don saves the Lucky Strike account with the inspiration that they should claim their tobacco is “toasted” and from then on a major preoccupation of SC&P is how to court or eventually, how to reject, cigarette advertisers.

In retrospect, it was inevitable that one of the characters would die of lung cancer, but we always thought it would be Don, who has coughed his way through many an episode.  Instead, it’s poor Betty — and just as she’s getting her act together too.

“The Milk and Honey Route” is an episode with three stories about three people on their life journeys.  One’s at the beginning of a journey, one’s at the end, and one’s still lost in the middle.

Betty’s the character at the end of her journey.  Last week Don’s parting words to her were “Knock ‘em dead Birdie.” I don’t think he expected that the one to be dead would be Birdie herself.    Yet here she is collapsing at college, where she’s pursuing a Master’s in psychology (and didn’t she tell Don last week that she was tired from carrying her books?  It obviously wasn’t the books that were tiring her out.)

Betty still looks good enough to be called “Mrs. Robinson” (The MILF from “The Graduate”) but she cracks a rib when she falls on the stairs and the x-rays detect that she has lung cancer that has spread to her bones.  The male doctor won’t give her the news until her husband is present, and when Henry arrives he reacts in typical man-in-charge fashion, first going into denial and threatening to cut off the hospital’s funding, then researching treatment options, then telling her to stop wasting time being in shock and finally bringing Sally back from school to talk some sense into her mother, who’s refusing to get seek the aggressive treatments that might extend her life by a few more months.

For once, Betty’s the wise one. She has her priorities straight, worrying about the impact on her children, and refusing to put them through the agony of watching her die slowly (which makes me wonder if she’s going to seek out Dr. Kevorkian to expedite matters.  She was very specific about what she wants to look like in her coffin, like she’s not planning to waste away.)

Mad Men is occasionally a very sad and depressing show, but I almost never cry.  This time, however, I came close twice: when Henry told Sally the news and she covered her ears and then when she read Betty’s note about her funeral instructions.  Betty’s closing paragraph came close to Nicholas Sparks territory but it was still a legitimate weepie: “Sally, I always worried about you because you marched to the beat of your own drum, and now I know that’s good.  I know your life will be an adventure.” (Jeez, I’m getting a little misty just typing that. Those words of support were a great Mother’s Day gift after all.)

And with that message, it becomes apparent that Betty has finally evolved from the brittle, insecure housewife of Season One to a reasonably content and occasionally wise middle-aged woman.  She says one of the most perceptive things in the episode: “I learned to believe people when they tell you it’s over.  They don’t want to say it so it’s usually the truth.”    And while Henry is losing his mind – focusing only on his own loss – Betty is the one who retains her dignity by choosing acceptance.

The character who’s at the beginning of a journey is Pete and we are presented with the discouraging but true-to-life fact that the three characters on the show most likely to have happy send-offs (Lou Avery, Jim Cutler, and Pete) are the three most undeserving.   Pete has always been whiny, unsatisfied and entitled.  In fact, he argues to Trudy that they should get back together again because “We’re entitled to more.”  And yet even Pete, like Betty, has matured.  When he says he wants more, it’s not simply more money (he’s already loaded and living in the Carlyle hotel, for cripes sake) but the less tangible satisfaction that comes from being a good husband and father.

When we see Duck Philips we should know something is up.  Duck is Mad Men’s Zelig: it was Don’s decision to hire Duck as head of accounts over Pete that precipitated Pete ratting out to Bert Cooper that Don was an imposter; it was Duck who was having an afternoon tryst (yuck) with Peggy when JFK was shot; it was Duck who beat up Don in the bathroom during the famous “Suitcase” episode (and then took a dump on Roger’s desk thinking it was Don’s); and it was Duck who brought Lou Avery to replace Don on Thanksgiving Day at the end of Season Six.

Despite being an alcoholic Duck manages to be a pretty decent head-hunter and he tricks Pete into meeting with the CEO of Lear Jet, not telling him it’s actually a job interview.  Pete is everything Mr. Lear Jet wants in a Chief Marketing Officer – he’s Ivy League, a “knickerbocker” (i.e., from old money), and smart.  His strategy is sound – seek corporate clients, not celebrities with pets. His advice that Lear needs a marketing executive who’s comfortable with board room leaders who see Lear Jet as a tool, not as a frivolous extravagance basically seals the deal.

By inadvertently playing hard-to-get for once instead of displaying his usual obsequiousness, Pete increases his attractiveness.  And that gets him to thinking about reconciling with Trudy.  After all in the previous episode, she inadvertently increased her own attractiveness by telling him that all the Greenwich husbands were chasing her (it’s human nature to want what others want or what we can’t have.)

Like Don and Roger, Pete has consistently been preoccupied with the question of happiness.  If you have everything you think you want, why aren’t you happy?  As he says to his Romeo brother “Why are we always looking for something better – always looking for something else?”

Presented with the opportunity to begin again – he convinces Trudy to start over.  She’s stuck in a rut too, but she initially dismisses him, remembering their relationship without the cloud of nostalgia, but in the end, she opts for reconciliation. In a way, they really are meant for each other; Pete and Trudy have tremendous chemistry together and they share an affinity for their privileges.  Wichita might seem like The Sticks but they’re be royalty there – and having a jet at their disposal will help them remain cosmopolitan.  Sounds like a sweet deal to me.

The character who’s still in the middle of his journey is, of course, Don.   He is literally wandering all over the country.  We last saw him headed to St. Paul and since then, he tells Sally, he’s been in Wyoming and Kansas.  He’s on his way to the Grand Canyon when his car breaks down in Alva, Oklahoma, and he’s forced to hole up in a $6/night motel drinking Rye and reading paperbacks that other guests have left behind.

The good people of Alva seem to fit the cliché of honest down-to-earth Americans and Don even finds a measure of satisfaction in fixing the proprietress’ typewriter and Coke machine (there’s that Coke again!).  But there’s something a little fishy about Andy the housekeeper, who’s a con man like Don, making him pay twice for a bottle of Rye.

Don’s duped into attending a fundraiser at the local American Legion, just like Pete was tricked into dinner with Mr. Lear Jet (there’s a lot of canny editing between the Pete and Don scenes in this episode, switching between them at dinner or drinking).   Don’s treated like a respected compatriot, being a veteran himself.  We’re so accustomed to the conventions of cheesy TV shows that I certainly wasn’t the only viewer who cringed when he was introduced to another Korean War vet (Hey, that’s Pam’s old boyfriend from “The Office”); I fully expected him to point an accusatory finger and bellow, “You’re not Don Draper: You’re Dick Whitman!!!!  But that’s not the kind of show Mad Men is, where obvious coincidences advance the plot.

Instead of a confrontation, the guys drink some more, enjoy an extremely seedy striptease, and end up telling war stories.  Telling these stories is supposed to exorcise the pain, but it doesn’t really seem to be doing the trick.  We hear a grisly story about how during the winter of 1944 a small platoon of G.I’s coldly murdered another small platoon of surrendering Germans.  This is obviously a well-polished story but the teller is still miserable and broken.  So much for talk therapy.

But the safe and welcoming environment of the American Legion hall gives Don a chance to finally tell his story about accidentally killing his commanding officer.  The other veterans are accepting of each other’s war-time atrocities, rationalizing that “you just do what you have to do to get home.”  And “home” is the key word of the episode.  Don says he killed his CO and got to go home.  But of course Don has no home.

Later is transpires that the yokels of Alva Oklahoma are not exactly Norman Rockwell figures.  When the money from the American Legion fundraiser goes missing, they immediately suspect Don, the outsider.  They rough him up and grab his car keys so he can’t leave until he pays them back.  But Don knows that Andy the housekeeper is the culprit and forces him to return the stolen $500.  Lecturing him, but really lecturing himself, he tells Andy that if he takes the money and runs, “you’ll have to become somebody else.  And that’s not what you think it is.”  In another reference to home he says “You think this town is bad now.  Wait until you can never come back.”

Don gets his car back and impetuously gives it to Andy, perhaps recognizing him as a kindred spirit. “Don’t waste this,” Don says, in the final line of the show.  Don’t waste the opportunity to start a new life.  And don’t waste your life either.  And in the final scene, we see Don waiting at the bus stop in the middle of nowhereville  Oklahoma, as lonely and homeless as he ever was.

But that’s just for show I think.  The series finale can go one of two ways: 1) with Don vanishing into the great hinterlands,throwing off his identity and becoming Dick Whitman again; or 2) Doubling down on home and realizing that his home is with his soon-to-be-motherless children.  Personally, I think it’s impossible that Don would let his children become orphans.  I think the ending that we never saw coming is that Don will find acceptance and home by finally becoming a real father.  Which would be a more shocking ending than anyone has ever proposed.

Some other thoughts:

  • This episode takes place from Sunday September 27, 1970, when Pete takes Tammy apple picking on his visitation day, to Sunday October 4, the day after the American Legion fundraiser.  This can be dated by the Redd Foxx appearance on the Flip Wilson show, which Don is watching in his hotel room and which occurred on Thursday October 1.

  • The closing song – Buddy Holly’s “Every Day” – is the second time this half season that Matt Weiner has closed with a song from the 1950’s (the previous being Dean Martin’s “Money Burns a Hole in My Pocket”).  It’s possible that the rights to these songs are cheaper than songs from 1970, or maybe Weiner’s trying to demonstrate a continuity between the Fifties and the Seventies.    In this episode, there’s a geographical connection because Don’s in Oklahoma and Holly was from neighboring Texas.  But the opening line is a bit haunting considering that so much of the episode is taken up with admonitions not to waste your life: “Every day, it’s a getting closer/Faster than a roller coaster.”  The song is about love coming closer but in this context, you also sense that Death itself is coming faster than a roller coaster.

  • Buddy Holly, of course, was killed in a plane crash and there was feverish speculation this week about Don turning into D.B. Cooper, who famously hijacked and then jumped out of a plane in 1970. I doubt the Buddy Holly song was made in direct response to this theory, but there is another aviation reference with Lear Jet, so who knows.
  • The title of the episode was “Milk and Honey Route” — a term defined by hobo sociologist Nels Anderson  in his book “The Milk and Honey Route: a Handbook for Hobos.”  This is the third episode in the series with a title explicitly alluding to hobos.  There’s also “The Hobo Code” from Season One and “The Gypsy and the Hobo” from Season Three.  In Mad Men, the hobo is one aspect of the American character on steroids.  There’s a long strain of rootlessness in American culture, from the cowboy constantly moving on to another place in the west to the beatniks in “On The Road,” which was mentioned in last week’s episode.  But the hobo, who is constantly on the move and constantly begging is an extreme example of that, and Don has never really thrown off his feeling of being a hobo.  Regarding the Milk and Homey Route itself, here’s what Anderson himself says: “The road the real hobo follows is never ending. It is always heading into the sunset of promise but it never fully keeps its promise. Thus the road the hobo roams always beckons him on, much as does the undealt card in a game of stud. Every new bend of the road is disillusioning but never disappointing, so that once you get the spirit of the hobo you never reach the stone wall of utter disillusionment. You follow on hopefully from one bend of the road to another, until in the end you step off the cliff.”

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  •  That was a very sad scene with Henry and the doctor discussing Betty’s prognosis right in front of her, as if she wasn’t there.  The men will handle this dear.
  • Matt Weiner, a child of the Seventies, has consistently said that Mad Men is the story of how his parent’s generation screwed things up and left a tornado of divorce, emotional ruin, and sexual permissiveness for his own generation to handle, and we can see that with Sally.  A 16-year-old girl being forced to comfort her grieving step-father, plan her mother’s funeral and be a second mother to her brothers, all the while trying to stay sane after growing up with a self-destructive father and a narcissistic mother.   That’s a heavy burden for poor Sally Draper.
  • Wise words: When Henry angrily asks Betty what would Nelson Rockefeller do if he had this disease, she yells back, “He would die.”  And he would too.
  • Pete takes Tammy apple-picking at Lyman Orchards, a real place in Middletown CT.  I’ve actually picked apples there with my own son when he was young.  I wonder if Pete and Tammy where there with Tammy’s little boy.  They would have been about the right age.
  • This episode features two obvious callbacks to Alfred Hitchcock movies.  First the motel where Don is staying reminds us of The Bates Motel from “Psycho.”  Second, that closing scene of Don at the bus stop looks a lot like Cary Grant out in the middle of nowhere in “North By Northwest.”

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  • Not a lot of humor in this episode, but there was the scene where Duck tells Pete he’ll get along fine with Mr. Lear Jet because he’s Princeton ’52.  Pete is all huffy  because he’s Dartmouth ’56.  Duck: “I know that.  Don’t pretend that you’re not going to jack each other off.” Which resulted in this response on Twitter:  “@popinattic I always knew that was what happens when people from Ivy League schools get together!”
  • Of all the ridiculous excuses for having an affair, the one Pete’s brother comes up is the worst: my wife likes it that women are attracted to me.  As if!!
  • Oh how I wish we could have had more Alison Brie during this series.  Trudy is indomitable and no one’s patsy.  She’s privileged and thinks it’s her right, but she’s always charming enough to bring it off.

Not seen in this episode: Peggy, Joan, Roger.  My guess is that we’ve seen the last of Pete and possibly the last of Joan, but we still need to wrap up Peggy and Roger’s story.  And of course, there’s that burning issue of what happens to Don.  There were no coming attractions so we can’t be sure what characters will be seen next week.  All I know is that according to my DVR, next week’s show is an hour and 15 minutes.

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4 comments
  1. Colby said:

    It is strange that Betty is going out with dignity, considering how much we’ve been trained to dislike her. I like how the the scene and letter was written. It made you think Betty was not going to say anything motherly to her own daughter except how she wants to look in a coffin. In my book, Pete has slowly redeemed himself. I don’t know, but I’ve been rooting for him since the whole “Not great, Bob!” elevator scene. I hope they do more with Peggy, but if they don’t, at least we have that great scene of her walking into McCann as a send off.

    • Yes, the genius of the show is how the characters have evolved over ten years without fundamentally changing personalities. I’m willing to believe in Pete’s transformation. Not because he’s a better person but because he has a better idea what he wants. And I didn’t realize that Betty had also matured until she got cancer and recalled that she hadn’t done anything too terrible over the past year. She’s still brittle and obsessed with her image. That’s why I think she will kill herself before she wastes away and loses her beauty.

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