The Milk and Honey Route
Review by Slewo
We’re one episode away from the very last episode of Mad Men. But if this episode is anything to go by, it may not be the foreboding affair we’re all planning for. A large part of the season has been spent closing out the stories of many familiar characters, often returning to familiar beats, bringing back old characters from seasons past. This season is no different; the trick is in the different variation of the paths they’re taking. A large part of the season has been in part about people’s actions coming forward to catch up with them, the sins of parents returning to haunt them, but it can also be about forgiveness. While more often than not people can allow the worst parts of their nature to consume them, it can also lead to people allowing themselves to move past their restrictions and ascend like Peggy did at the end of last week’s episode.
The impending sense of finality grows stronger here, which it ought to given that this is the penultimate episode, but it becomes ever more clear with the way people’s stories get endings happy or sad. In this episode some unexpected twists happen along the road. Pete for one gets an ending I never thought he would get, much less deserve. But he’s also a prime example for how people can change throughout their lives. Mad Men takes place over the course of 10 years, and obviously that’s a long period of time. People grow and change. They live and they die. They can fall, or they can ascend. Pete throughout the series has more often than not been the butt of the joke. A would-be Don Draper, but more typically portrayed as a coward, a liar, and eventually just a broken puppet: bereft of attachments both familial and friendly.
As I’ve noted time and again in my previous reviews, a large part of Mad Men’s story centers around the effect parents have upon their children, and in some cases the effects of parents can be dissolved. While Pete’s actions are wholly his own, the impact his parents had cannot be understated. The wakeup call Pete receives is in the form of Duck. While we’ve seen him many times throughout the series, the idea of him serving as a parallel to Don also extends further to Pete here: a washed up account executive turned head hunter and wino looking for the next meal to stay alive. Pete’s life is rapidly approaching the same void Duck’s is twisting inside of, and while Duck does produce results for him with an unwanted job interview with Lear, Pete realizes its devoid both of purpose and of victory with no one to share the fruits of success with. That being said, while the reconciliation Trudy and Pete have may appear to come out of nowhere, it’s actually a long time coming. Pete like Don has been shown clearly craving the trappings of family, something he never desired thanks to the values his father imparted upon him which he discusses with his brother Bud, and having taken a glimpse of the future by looking at Duck, it’s easy to see why he makes an attempt to push back towards Trudy and Tammy. While he may not deserve it, that he realizes what the final cost of his actions may be, as well as giving his family a happier life may ever so slightly redeem him unlike Ken or Harry.
Don’s storyline serves as an interesting parallel. While I know a lot of the internet theories floating around about his fate center on him possibly taking on a new identity, I don’t see that happening. Don seems to be rapidly approaching a place in his life where he’s comfortable with who he is and can forgive himself, both as a man and as a father. The key thing to note in this episode is that he describes himself as someone who “used to be in the advertising business.” It’s minor but key and it informs where he is through the episode. This season has shown Don craving the trappings of family more than he ever has before: milkshakes with his sons, being there at Sally’s side when she needs him, and being a plainly more present figure. The idea being that Don’s paradigm changed after the conversation he had with Betty at the end of season 6 about Sally’s traumas because of their parenting. It’s easy to see how after the incident that happens with Betty during the episode, it’s not a hopeless case that he’d be there for his children at the very end of it. He also gets a rare chance to move past the trauma that changed his life forever with his theft of the real Don Draper’s identity. His comfort in telling the American Legion hosts what happened to him, as well as basically giving a man who may as well be a dead ringer for a young Dick Whitman the chance (and the car) he never had when he was broken and alone. While those are small moments compared to the big ones like crashing a car, or telling Hershey his life story, they stand large in showing how far has Don come from where he was in season 1. It’s to Jon Hamm’s credit that he plays all of this without sweating it, being able to play a man who constantly wears a mask, but who’s now suddenly grown beyond it is more difficult than it actually is watching him.
Speaking of credit, if Kiernan Shipka doesn’t win an Emmy for her performance this season, I’m going to call shenanigans. I’m not alone in this, but Sally Draper has been one of my favorite roles in the show. While it would’ve been too easy to write off Sally as a character, Matthew Weiner’s choice to place her further and further into the fore as the seasons passed was a smart decision. Among all the cast members, she’s had the most noticeable growth: both as a child to an adult, and as an actress. Child actors can have it rough in terms of talent vs the gravity of the role, but Shipka did a great job of proving herself in making Sally a standout, the product of a broken home during a strange period of time for women. While it’s easy to write her off as selfish or conceited, her personality is a byproduct of two broken people who came together to raise a broken child, but also reacting towards an unjust world towards her sexuality and her freedom. That’s why it’s such a treat to see Sally ascend during such a tumultuous time in her life both in the period of upheaval during the Vietnam War, as well as what occurs to her mother.
While the cancer is out of left field as a plot mechanic, it makes perfect sense as a reaction to the life Betty lived as one full of fainting spells, health problems, and mental anguish. But the key is in her reaction. Henry is the one who reacts unable to control his grief and guilt over being unable to truly change things. Betty has finally gotten the life she’s always wanted, and she’s ready to face her end with dignity as opposed to killing herself for just one more day of bodily life with chemo. While it has always been a given parental roles are cyclical and that Sally would in some form replace her mother, having it be a necessity because she’s the only one who can do it, as opposed to something she’s expected to do makes all the difference. Unlike the relationship between her mother and grandmother, Betty has grown to trust and love Betty for who she is, as well as vice versa with Sally. As a whole, the show has been becoming more sentimental in this way, while we may not always get the ending we want, or even the one we deserve, if we can at least settle our accounts and be able to face the end with dignity hope can win out.
5 out of 5 Sentimental Phone Calls