As we approach the end of the season, end of the series – game, set, and match -- I move that we keep in mind that a “terminal” is a noun as well as an adjective, a bus depot and therefore a place of origin as well as a destination and an end. It’s like the bus stop in the middle of no place where we see Don at episode’s end. You almost expect him to be ready to run across cornfield while a crop-duster attacks, like Cary Grant in North by Northwest, another handsome urban advertising man in a perfectly tailored suit.
Betty is, alas, terminal in the nasty sense of the word. There will be no new beginnings for her. Joan has lost her job and maybe her career in advertising. But Joan is nothing if not resourceful, and her talents, too good for the paleolithic types at McCann Erickson (ME for short), are such that she may re-launch herself spectacularly. But Betty is through. Lung cancer. Betty will die because of the product that Don’s firm used to service. And oddly enough, Betty – a tireless complainer and natural plaintiff – is OK with the dire forecast. Almost serene. Maybe it’s because of the Freud she’s been reading. Or maybe she is a belated convert to stoicism.
Pete is an apparent convert to Boy Scout ethics and he seems so boyishly earnest it looks like he’ll get the fabled American second-chance to make a go of it with Trudy. The pair and their toddler will uproot themselves to go where Pete’s new job takes them: Wichita, Kansas. The job comes with great perks – a company jet! – but still. For those of us who cannot forget the disgraceful, or conceited, or bullying, or malignant, or just clueless and gauche way he has behaved, Wichita may seem like punishment enough. The bars close early in Wichita, Pete, and they don’t measure up to the places you’re accustomed to, where you can close a deal over martinis and shrimp cocktails, moving your finger in a circle to signal to the tuxedo-clad waiter that it’s time for another round. “Wichita is beautiful – and wholesome.” Indeed. But this wholesome new life isn’t necessarily terminal. Would you bet on the marriage of Trudy and Pete in the heart of Kansas?
Henry, in denial over the death sentence Betty accepts, is not a convert to anything. He remains as sweetly loyal as a retriever and must have something going for him beyond his steadfast attachment to Betty, whom he sincerely worships. He remains an adviser on Rocky’s staff – that’s the governor of New York we’re talking about, and the most consequential man to hold the post in the last century. Henry has influence. He is not stupid. He can see right through Lindsay, who was able to walk through Harlem with his head held high and an amiable grin when other cities (Newark, Detroit) were hosting riots, because he, Lindsay, had had the foresight to bribe certain demagogues. Yet Henry has never had my sympathy, and I cringe a little when he is front and center. I think it’s because he is really so fundamentally different from Don, Sally, even Betty. I have read poems that lampoon Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid in Casablanca) because he is too virtuous. I feel that way about Henry and am not terribly curious about which bus he will board at the terminal when he enters his widower years.
Who else hasn’t changed?
Duck (whose real name is Herman) is still drunk, still scheming, still making pie-in-the-sky deals.
Trudy is still vulnerable to sweet talk and the illusion that Dartmouth-educated (class of ’56) rich-boy Pete can change.
Don is still the enigmatic, self-assured stranger who can’t keep his eyes off a likely lady but whose natural state is that of the loner. He is in Kansas, the very state of Pete’s second chance, but life is anything but idyllic. In his motel room waiting for his car to be repaired, he is reading the novel everyone read that year, The Godfather, two years before the movie. With a bunch of vets who drink too much and are as mean drunk as they appear friendly sober, Don makes the astonishing admission that he killed his C.O. (commanding officer) in Korea. That is not what happened. He may be guilty of impersonating an officer and, well, identity theft. But the real Don Draper died in the same enemy explosion that Dick Whitman survived. Does self-aggrandizement or guilt or some combination of the two stand behind Don’s lie? The Vets turn ugly, resentful, which seems to be middle America’s response to “Don Draper” in his custom-tailored Madison Avenue suit. Don is still as vulnerable to a sucker punch as he was when he was cruising his Ossining neighborhood in search of Suzanne Farrell – remember her? the idealistic teacher with the same name as the great Ballenchine ballerina -- and picked up a couple of hitchhikers who got him stoned unconscious in a motel room and stolen his cash.
Somebody did steal the cash that the Vets had raised – a theft that cost the wrongly accused Don dearly. Don apprehends the thief and makes him fess up. But he doesn’t take revenge, despite the beating he has endured. On the contrary: Don gives his car to the con artist. Could it be he recognizes something of himself in the younger man? I don’t think he is renouncing property and material values in line with the thirst for radical social change then becoming fashionable. Don never was and never will be an ideologue. If he knows anything it’s that he known nothing for sure. Aside from daughter Sally, whom he faithfully phones, he maintains his distance from everyone, keeps his options open. He is the embodiment of the great male invention of that period, to whom so many names and so much study were given. Dangling man. Irrational man. L’etranger. Alienated man, without direction or affiliation. The anti-type of the organization man, in rebellion against the codes of the one-dimensional man. He’s the guy at the bus depot who would buy a ticket to anywhere – or would if he had no car.
But Don is still behind the wheel, still the figure in his own dream who is pulled over by a state trooper.
“What were you doing?” The cop asks.
“Driving,” Don says.
The cop is unamused. “You knew we’d catch up with you eventually.”
Don’s rejoinder (“driving”) is not just a wisecrack. Driving is like drifting -- albeit with an apparent purpose. And “driving” is as good a word as any for what most of us are doing at any given time in our lives.
That’s my take as we prepare for the finale this coming Sunday.
One of the closing observations in your blog text this week is “Driving is like drifting...” Exactly so. Don has been on the road for weeks now, without a clear destination, propelled into some kind of pilgrimage of self-reinvention. This episode's title “The Milk and Honey Route” is apparently a phrase from hobo slang, dating perhaps from the teens, 1920s and ‘30s. According to the internet, “Often hobos speak of a railroad as a ‘milk and honey route’. . . Any railroad running through a valley of plenty may be called a milk and honey line.” Specifically, the phrase appears in writing by and about a guy named Nels Anderson (aka Dean Stiff, what a great nom de drift) who lived the “bummery” life for years before reinventing himself and attending the University of Chicago. He published a study of hobos, tramps, migratory workers, etc., based on his first-hand experience, entitled “The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man.” Hexagram 56 in the I Ching is called “The Wanderer.” The text says in part, “A wanderer has no fixed abode; his home is the road. Therefore he must take care to remain upright and steadfast, so that he sojourns only [in] the proper places, associating with good people. Then he has good fortune and can go his way unmolested.” I will try to beam this fine ancient advice to Don Draper, via time travel ESP, though I know, whatever his fate, it is already sealed, and will be broadcast, for good or ill, tomorrow night. He's not sitting at the deserted rural bus stop in the middle of nowheresville, grinning, any longer.
Lots of people are of course speculating about what the last episode will contain, what the final scenes will be, which characters we will get to glimpse again, what music will play under the last shot, sending us off into a Mad Men-bereft world. Will we see Betty’s funeral? Will Peggy be reunited with the child she gave away? Will more Sterling Cooper employees who were sucked up into the typhoon of the McCann Erikson merger extricate themselves? I was moved by Betty's instructions-to-be-read-after-my-death. Penned on blue monogrammed stationary, she handed them to Sally in the middle of night, slipping into Sally's room with her characteristic mix of grace and brusqueness, asking “Are you awake?” Of course Sally, who'd been told out of the blue that morning that her mother was ill and going to die, was wide awake. Electrified. Of course Sally doesn't wait, but opens the envelope almost immediately. Most of what Betty wrote had to do with how she wished to be buried, in what dress, with what hairdo, even including a color snapshot to indicate the gown and coiff. Exactly in character. Gorgeous Betty, always so perfectly dressed and made up, always so careful about her appearance, with a wide streak of complicated narcissism. She manages a lovely morsel of motherly wisdom for Sally, telling her at the end of the letter that while she'd always had a hard time with Sally’s fiery independence, she’d lately come to realize that it was a good thing. Betty sends her daughter off into her future with this blessing, “I know your life will be an adventure.” I loved Sally’s reaction to being told by Henry during his visit to her boarding school dorm room that her mother was dying. Her face crumpled and she covered her ears. I loved that Henry gave her permission to cry, and immediately began to weep himself, while Sally remained dry-eyed, her hand hovering for a moment above her stepfather’s slumped back, before she could bring herself to touch, to comfort him.
Other tiny details that stirred me this episode: Pete fingerpainting toothpaste on his little daughter Tammy’s knee as the go-to home remedy for her bee sting. The fucking doctor refusing to give Betty her diagosis, insisting on having her phone Henry so the diagnosis could be given to her husband. As though she were a child or a moron. As you note, David, Betty seems to make her peace with this stunning blow fairly quickly. Henry is panicking, wrecked, heartbroken, of course. I liked Don watching Red Foxx and Flip Wilson on the grainy TV in his crummy hotel room just before the TV went on the fritz. I cannot say that I enjoyed hearing the snippet of Merle Haggard's infamous Okie from Muskogee on Don's car radio, possibly one of the most hideous songs ever penned, but it was deeply appropriate in terms of plot and context. I just learned Haggard wrote it when he was newly out of prison! He said, of the inspiration for writing the song:
“When I was in prison, I knew what it was like to have freedom taken away. Freedom is everything. During Vietnam, there were all kinds of protests. Here were these [servicemen] going over there and dying for a cause — we don’t even know what it was really all about. And here are these young kids, that were free, b—-ing about it. There’s something wrong with that and with [disparaging] those poor guys. We were in a wonderful time in America and music was in a wonderful place. America was at its peak and what the hell did these kids have to complain about? These soldiers were giving up their freedom and lives to make sure others could stay free. I wrote the song to support those soldiers.” So it’s perfect for Don to hear, when he is sprung (whether temporarily or permanently, we don’t yet know) from his former job and life, and hits the road, seeking the holy grail of himself.
A spatula-wielding Betty pulling cookies out of the oven just as Sally arrives home (after having been enlisted by Henry to try to talk her mother into getting treatment) was a nice touch. Pete’s man-to-man chat with his brother at the fancy restaurant about infidelity, opportunity, risk-taking, what wives do and don't know was interesting. Vincent Kartheiser rocks. Betty's strength and quiet dignity when Henry confronts her the morning after her diagnosis, as she’s setting off for school, moved me. “Why are you doing this?” he asks incredulously (or some such expostulation.) He is amazed she’s toting her books, ready to attend class as though nothing has happened. “Why was I ever doing it?” She asks softly, continuing on her way. She seems both matter of fact and wistful, resigned and determined. I take her remark to mean that she was always just going back to school for herself, it was something she'd personally longed for, an end in itself. Maybe she felt a little foolish doing it initially. Maybe when she learned she likely had a few months to live at most, she felt even more sheepish. And yet...what else is she supposed to do? Her plan seems to be to maintain a facade of normalcy for her two younger children for as long as that's possible. Is this a good plan? Unfair? Is she perpetuating a falsehood that will ultimately rob her two small sons of the opportunity to say goodbye? These are unanswerable questions. That's all for me this week.
Till the final, dear David!