Mad Men, Season 7: Episode 13 – “The Milk and Honey Route”
Written by Carly Wray and Matthew Weiner
Directed by Matthew Weiner
Airs Sunday nights at 10 on AMC
A couple years ago, Stephen King cited why he doesn’t watch Mad Men: it’s a “soap opera.” While that term doesn’t have to be taken in a pejorative way, critics of the series will often go in that direction to highlight structure of the series’ storytelling. Most of the time, Mad Men is not, in fact, a soap opera (though it looks like one). When it is a soap opera, it’s generally using those tropes in organic ways. “The Milk and Honey Route” is one of those episodes that plays off the formula, but delivers meaningful scenes that gain importance from the years of work Mad Men has put into these characters. Don, Betty, Pete and Trudy (former couples) all find their lives dangling in front of them, their personal histories circling like vultures behind them. But all these characters are in the fortunate position of being able to decide for themselves how they want to continue to live–or not live.
The biggest part of “The Milk and Honey Route,” story-wise, is Betty’s cancer. It’s hard to call it an arc, since there’s only one episode left, but what Matthew Weiner does here is nothing remotely similar to the cheap narrative propulsion that soap operas bring in diseases for. At a time when Betty is finally going to school, her cancer forces her to consider how to approach the remaining months of her life. Rather than being dramatic, her decision fits her character progression across Mad Men: as someone trying to be independent in a world that hardly allows for it, she wants to die on her own terms and live out the rest of her time as normally as possible. Betty’s matter-of-fact discussions with Henry and Sally are not surprising in the slightest, but the effect of her impending death on those two characters is moving. “It’s okay for you to cry, honey,” Henry tells Sally. But it’s Henry who breaks down, knowing how helpless he is (and how helpless Betty expects him to be once she’s gone). Henry isn’t a three-dimensional character in Mad Men to the same extent much of its supporting cast is (not in the last few seasons, in any case), so his reaction is mostly there to highlight how strong a presence Betty has built for herself far away from the hustle and bustle of Mad Men‘s office settings. It has been a consistent sore spot for viewers who don’t think Betty’s story post-divorce fits well with what the show does, but “The Milk and Honey Route” convincingly shows that Betty matters to certain characters, if no one else.
Sally receives similar reactionary treatment to Betty’s cancer. Their relationship has been tumultuous at best, but part of Betty’s struggles in raising Sally has been jealousy (or envy). Sally represents an ideal to Betty that she wishes she could live for herself, but now that living is off the table, she writes to Sally in a letter that Sally reads before she’s supposed to how much Betty respects her for following the beat of her own drum. Sally will be fine, even if she needs her mother more than she realizes.
Also in the vein of soap opera technique, Pete and Trudy rekindle a lost love. Trudy’s presence in this last half season has hinted at something like this, because she’s been defined by her connection to Pete in Mad Men, so while this isn’t a total surprise, how it plays out is similarly quick (in the sense of not being drawn out). Certainly, for some, the whole situation may come seemingly out of nowhere, but Pete’s infidelity felt less like a genuine step towards the path of Don Draper and more like step in that direction just for the sake of it–because Pete felt like he needed to be that kind of person, or that he wanted that image for himself. It’s been meandering since then for Pete, who has only found happiness in being good at his job. The resolution might be abrupt, but enough of “The Milk and Honey Route” is devoted to illustrating how unhappy Trudy and Pete are separately. Pete, like most of the major characters in Mad Men, has no real future at McCann Erickson, so using Duck as a way out for him to live a different, more fulfilling life makes sense. It’s strange seeing the characters be intimate with one another, but Allison Brie sells the hell out of it–that Trudy really has been feeling this at her core, even though it has been suppressed and held out at a distance. “Say yes with your voice, not just your eyes,” Pete says. But more is communicated in Trudy’s facial expression and quivering lip than could be communicated in any amount of words. This is both of their (probably final) chances at attaining the lives the originally wanted to have together.
Don, finally, has fully checked out. What happens when Don Draper doesn’t want to be Don Draper anymore? The ad. man has been so good at selling things, that he’s made his personality his most lucrative product. But Don Draper is catching up with him, whether that’s in the form of nightmares about being found by the police or in a veteran drinking night in which he reveals part of the shocking truth of his discharge. The final image of Don sitting at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere, having just given his car away, is one of desolation. Even this close to the end, it’s not entirely clear where Don is supposed to conclude his Mad Men story. The idea of the falling man is certainly being lived out, but death–literal or metaphorical–is not necessarily the endpoint. Re-birth implies death, but even that seems inadequate, since whatever Don Draper becomes after this has to live life in contrast to what came before. Epiphany, then, might be the right word for it, as his realizations are intense and cause drastic shifts in consciousness–ones that don’t allow for the creation of a clean slate, but ones that can lead Don onto a different path. That, really, may be the most optimistic fate he has as his options.
– Sean Colletti
The Drawing Board:
– Don’s dream, though, is rather worrisome. Weiner’s said a few things about how he envisions the conclusion of Mad Men, but I wouldn’t trust that guy in any kind of situation. Don’s conclusion is up in the air, as far as I’m concerned.
– Don is finally reading about the real Don–Don Vito in The Godfather. Huzzah!
– Don’s advice to the would-be hustler parallels Roger’s advice to Peggy last week, trying to rectify some of his own mistakes. Don’t start life off on the wrong foot and try to be someone else. Unfortunate wisdom through unfortunate experience right there.
– Is Betty’s letter to Sally the first time she’s said “I love you” to her daughter? Because it really feels like that, making it much more poignant.