The title of last night’s episode of Mad Men, “The Milk and Honey Route,” comes from a handbook for hobos written by Nels Anderson, who himself lived the hobo life in the 1920s before writing his sociological study of the behavior and function of homeless people. In essence, he argued that living homeless is as honorable and worthwhile a way of life as any other, and that’s the kind of life we might very well find Don (Jon Hamm) in by the end of next week’s series finale. Indeed, all the characters in “The Milk and Honey Route” seem to be closely examining how their lives should be lived, whether their death is imminent or the farthest thing from their mind.
For Betty (January Jones), her time left on this Earth becomes finite when she’s diagnosed with aggressive lung cancer, caught while she’s getting a rib injury checked out. Creator Matthew Weiner, who directed and co-wrote the episode, unfurls a series of tremendous scenes revolving around how the diagnosis effects those in the Francis household. There’s a staggering scene where Henry (Christopher Stanley) explains to Betty how they’re going to manage the disease while Betty brushes her hair, which he thinks will cause her rib injury to heal wrong and cause more pain ahead. Weiner frames the central shot of the sequence with Betty looking at herself in the mirror, while Henry angrily goes through pages of options, which subtly underlines his fearful anger and her quiet peace in the face of oblivion. The future is something that Henry is scared of now and still has to think about, more than ever in his mind, but Betty doesn’t, as the specter of death has evaporated the idea of a future.
Regardless, it’s Henry’s plan for the future that causes him to tell Sally (Kiernan Shipka) about her mother’s illness and bring her home in the hopes of convincing Betty to begin radiation treatment. Sally gets her chance, during a late-night heart to heart, and begins by playing on their troubled history, noting that Betty “loves the tragedy.” Sally is crassly linking Betty’s past behavior and vanity to her refusal to fight death, and one could initially argue that she’s right. Betty’s becalmed reaction could seem like a put-on, but when she speaks with Sally, she’s assured and doesn’t play up her fate at all. It’s not the way that Henry or Sally would want to go, but, wrong or right, it’s the way Betty has decided to end her life. It’s not all that different from how she’s lived it, wrapped up wonderfully by Weiner in Betty’s rhetorical question to Henry when returning to school: “Why was I ever doing it?”
Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) must ask himself a similar question in regard to helping Duck Phillips (Mark Moses) convince the head of Lear Jets to hire him as a headhunter. This kind deed seemingly begets a lucrative job deal from Lear, which he seemingly ditches to have dinner and offer some sage advice to his brother, Bud (Rich Hutchman). Weiner gets pretty karmic here, as Pete’s line of good decisions and decent behavior bring him an even bigger offer and the chance to get back with Trudy (Alison Brie). By ignoring his career for once in his life, Pete stumbles into a dream job and back into his marriage, a situation that came about due to a newfound wisdom and, astonishingly enough, his winning personality. That said, there’s no telling what next week’s finale might bring.
The very same could be said about where we find and leave Don, who falls in with a couple of old timers from a local American legion during his stay in a small Oklahoma town. There’s a great symbolic moment when he’s asked to fix up an old Coca-Cola machine, whereas he was on the verge of pitching new designs, slogans, and commercials for Coke a week or so ago. The job he’s offered is to simply keep something running, not change or augment anything, but to assure its utility, and it’s reflective of a philosophy of living life for experience rather than dominance that Don has enjoyed for so many years, but is finally starting to drift away from. His final act before giving it all up to the milk and honey route is to give a young would-be hustler, not unlike his younger self, a leg-up with a newly repaired car, which allows him to chart his own course in life. Meanwhile, Don is left waiting for a bus going to lord knows where, willing to return to and embrace the roaming life of Dick Whitman after years of playing Don Draper.
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