Review: ‘Mad Men’ – ‘The Milk and Honey Route’: For old times’ sake

A review of last night's “Mad Men” coming up just as soon as I'm the quick brown fox…

“We both know things can't be undone.” -Trudy
“Says who?” -Pete

“Mad Men” has chronicled a period of enormous social change (and taken place in a time of enormous change in television), yet it's often seemed agnostic on whether individual change is possible. Over the course of the series, fashions shifted and opportunities rose for women and minorities, but were the “Mad Men” characters themselves really changing with the times? Peggy has certainly grown, yet we've seen Don and Roger and Joan and others have epiphany after epiphany, only to eventually lean back on their old habits. (And even Peggy hasn't been immune to stagnation in her personal life, even as she's evolved professionally.) If anything, Don's frequent backsliding has been one of the most common complaints I've heard about the series' second half; the more recent seasons have been more complex and stylistically ambitious, but too many people seemed tired of watching Don make the same damn mistakes year after year.

Man's struggle to change his fundamental nature is a familiar theme of literature, and television – including everything from Matthew Weiner's previous gig at “The Sopranos” to something more traditional like “House” – and if “Mad Men” were to ultimately turn out to be a series about a group of people unable to transform even as the world around them was doing nothing but, it would seem a reasonable approach to the era.

But this final half-season – and in particular, a spectacular episode like “The Milk and Honey Route” – has revealed that Weiner's intention is more complicated than that. He's showing us how even as patterns repeat in our lives, his characters are genuinely able to learn from their personal history and do something different the next time.

Take Betty, whose story is the most tragic of the episode's three, yet somehow as optimistic as the other two. After a fall on the way to one of her psychology classes, she's diagnosed with advanced, incurable lung cancer(*), which could maybe give her a year to live. (Someone on this show had to pay the piper for all the smoking; I just didn't expect it to be Betty.) When the series began, Betty was still reeling from her mother's death from cancer; a few years later, when her father tried preparing her for his own death, she whined, “I'm your little girl” and asked him to keep all of this to himself. Here, she has the most mature response to the terrible news of anyone. Where Henry rages, then cries(**), while Sally tries to cover her ears to it all – she is, again, her mother's daughter, however much it would pain her to acknowledge that – Betty recognizes the futility of doing anything but simply going on with her life, in however much time it has left. Now she's the dying parent giving her child instructions for the arrangements, and she can articulate to Sally exactly why she's acting this way: not (as Henry suggests) out of vanity or stubbornness, nor (as Sally suggests) because she's forever a drama queen, but simply because she's become wise enough to recognize what can be fought and what can't, and to appreciate the gift she got of nearly 40 years on this Earth and as mother to these kids.

(*) Terminal cancer is a pattern that repeats itself in Don Draper's life as well, since Betty joins Anna and Rachel Menken as women he loved who have suffered from it.

(**) “Mad Men” hasn't generally asked Christopher Stanley to do more than seem confident and stable, but his performance as Henry broke down in Sally's dorm room – letting the enormity of his impending loss finally consume him – was wonderful.

Weiner's giving Betty a sad ending, but also a kind one. She's long been the most divisive “Mad Men” character, and there have been plenty of times over the years where it was easy to take the side of Don (even though his behavior in the marriage was unforgivable) or Sally (who has acted the spoiled brat as well) against her. Similarly, it's often seemed easy to blame January Jones' performance for the stilted way Betty often speaks and acts. But in episodes like this one, or last week's Don/Betty kitchen scene, we've been reminded that both the woman and the actress who play her are more complicated and capable than either has been given credit for. Betty's story ends next week no matter what, so her death is essentially no different than the happier fate Weiner assigns to Pete in this episode – if we get a glimpse of Pete and Trudy in Wichita, it'll be brief at best, and then they'll be gone from our lives as well – and she gets to exit putting her very best self on display. To quote another “Mad Men” character who died very well, bravo.

Pete's story is also loaded with nods to moments in history that can't be altered, even as it promises a future that may be genuinely different. Duck returns, again drunk, again helping an ad agency find a replacement for Don Draper, and again meddling in Pete's career in a way that Pete didn't ask for. But where Pete has so often been the boy who wanted everything, then wasn't happy enough when he got it, the offer from Learjet finally lets him recognize how happy he should have been – and still could be – with Trudy and Tammy, and gives him a chance to have everything he's ever wanted and finally appreciate it for once. He can't undo the things he did to hurt Trudy – the cheating, ratting out her father for sleeping with prostitutes – but we've seen him grow and mature in the time since she kicked him out of the house in Cos Cob.

There have been times when Pete's best self was only on display for Peggy to see – though he treated her awfully much of the time, that he saw something in Peggy (and vice versa) was Pete's most redeeming feature early in the series – but his conversations with his brother Bud and then with Trudy present a Peter Campbell who finally understands what matters in his life and what doesn't. Pete and Trudy are older and smarter, and if there can never be the pure innocence from the early days of their marriage (which, given Peggy, was never really innocent on his part), a version of their partnership that both enter into with eyes wide open seems like it would be far more satisfying for all involved. Back when he was the creep who resented Don and tried to crush Peggy's spirit, it was hard to imagine wanting Pete to end the series so well, yet here we are, and it absolutely works.

As for Don, this hobo journey across the heartland could feel like a rehash of runaway stunts he's done before, but it doesn't. He has no intention of returning to McCann, or to advertising. (When Andy from the motel asks how Don made his fortune, he says – past tense – “I was in the advertising business.”) He's still communicating with the kids, but for once he isn't so much running away from something as running towards something, even if he has no idea what that may be.

The episode opens with Don having a nightmare about the cops finally catching up to him for one of his past sins, and when he winds up at an American Legion hall, it seems for a moment like he'll finally be busted for the original sin of stealing the real Don Draper's identity. Instead, the only other veteran of his war came to Korea long after the Dick/Don switcheroo, and as the evening passes, the drinks flow, and the other vets tell stories of shameful things they did Over There, Don finally finds the courage to tell part of the story. He leaves out the identity theft, but Anna Draper long ago absolved him of that part, and the other veterans here do the same for the accident that killed the real Draper.

Yet his time among the veterans of Alva, Oklahoma ends unhappily, because Don gets blamed for the crime of a desperate young hustler very much in the mold of the Dick Whitman who went to Korea to escape the whorehouse. Having given up or simply lost so many of the trappings of the life he stole – the wives, the apartment, the career – Don's able to finally recognize how fundamentally rotten his existence has been since that moment. He can't go back in time to avoid switching the dog tags (much less to avoid dropping the lighter), but he can prevent a younger version of himself from making the same mistake, in part by giving Andy the car, and thus divesting himself of yet another symbol of his old life. He lets Andy escape without having to give up himself in the way that Dick Whitman once did.

And now that he's been relieved of the weight of Don Draper's death, as well as his apartment, job, car, and anything else besides that bag from Sears (plus whatever money he has left after giving so much away to Megan and Jim Hobart), maybe he can finally see himself and his life clearly enough to figure out what he wants to do next. He's never been a particularly good father, but since he's still calling Sally and the boys, maybe learning of Betty's illness will let him recognize that this is the part of his life he can still make right. Or maybe he'll decide that the kids are better off with Henry, and the series will end with him disappearing into a life we won't get to see, but that he hopes will be more fulfilling than the one we've watched.

As happened last week with the gradual dismantling of the SC&P office, “The Milk and Honey Route” had the air of a show knowing that the end of getting damn near. Betty tells Sally about how she's learned to believe people when they say it's over. The lights turn off prematurely while Pete is enjoying some of the pie Tammy made for him, just as the TV in Don's room blacks out while he's in the middle of watching it. And this entire half-season has systematically stripped away everything that once seemed to matter to Don.

That leaves us in a very interesting position as we approach Sunday's series finale. You could argue that the story every character but Don has already wrapped up, sometimes well (Pete gets a dream job and his family back), sometimes badly (Betty will die of cancer, Joan gets forced out of the job she loves), sometimes ambiguously (Peggy may walk all over those jerks at McCann, or they may grind her into paste), but we're at a point where if the finale didn't feature anyone from the agency – or even Sally or Betty or anyone from Don's family – I wouldn't feel cheated out of a proper ending for them. (In Peggy's case, that final image of her with the sunglasses and cigarette was so perfect that I'm almost afraid to return to the reality of her life at McCann, even though I wish we could have one last Don/Peggy scene.) But would Weiner actually do a finale that was only Don?

The “Mad Men” opening credits present a silhouette of Don in his office before the wall, the floors and all the other accoutrements are stripped away, sending him falling through the air and past all these symbols of his career in advertising. The sequence ends, though, with him seated safely and confidently in a chair, still clad in his power suit, a cigarette still dangling from his finger. He loses everything, and falls, yet winds up in seemingly the same place as before. I don't expect or require Weiner to show extreme fidelity to that piece of animation, but given how this season has played out, I wonder if this all ends with Don living some new version of his life that's only slightly different from the one he walked away from, or if he turns into someone very much apart from that guy in the suit. A few years ago, I might have assumed that Don would always be Don. Lately, though, “Mad Men” has been suggesting hope for something else

Some other thoughts:

* Don quits McCann, but he still gets to work with Coca-Cola! Given how at peace he seemed in “The Mountain King” when he was talking cars with the California gearhead, and how much this episode worked to remind us that Don is good with tools, I wonder if his future might involve something more mechanical in nature.

* The episode's title is taken from a familiar phrase from hobo lore (it was even used as the name of a 1931 book on the subject) referring to railroad lines that offered better food options for men on the move.

* An impressive collection of Hey, It's That Guy!s at the American Legion hall, starting with Chris Ellis as Don's guide for the night, Larry Cedar from “Deadwood” as Wayne, Max Gail (Wojo from “Barney Miller”) as Floyd, and David Denman (Roy from “The Office”) as Jerry.

* Guest-casting that may interest only me: Carter Jenkins, who played Andy, has been acting since he was a kid, including one of the lead roles on NBC's short-lived “Lost” knock-off “Surface,” which also starred “Mad Men”s own Jay R. Ferguson, plus Lake Bell. Does this mean that Bell will be in the “Mad Men” finale? Also, the exec from Lear Jet was played by Currie Graham, who was Sipowicz's boss in the final season of “NYPD Blue.”

* “Mad Men” in pop culture: The episode opens with Don (in his dream) listening to Merle Haggard's “Okie From Muskogee” and closes with Buddy Holly's “Everyday.” Meanwhile, Don's motel reading options include two recent novels in Mario Puzo's “The Godfather” and Michael Crichton's “The Andromeda Strain,” plus an older one in James A. Michener's “Hawaii,” which would have been much more in demand back when the series was starting. And on TV, Don watches a Redd Foxx appearance on an early episode of “The Flip Wilson Show” (which would place the episode in October of 1970), while Pete is watching “Mannix.”

* Don warns Sally that she doesn't understand money, yet we've seen him just give up millions of dollars in pretty cavalier fashion this season.

* Pete's brother is popular with the ladies? Who knew?

* Because I was returning from Norway (spoiler: fjords are pretty) when the episode aired, I put up a talkback post last night, and at the moment I write this, it's closing in on 200 comments. Feel free to keep discussing the episode there, or migrate the conversation here. Whatever works.

And with that, we're almost done with “Mad Men.” Later today, look for a post where Fienberg and I pick the show's best episodes, and I'll obviously have a review of the series finale sometime late Sunday night. It's unclear whether Weiner will be doing a usual round of post-finale interviews, but we'll have plenty of time to talk about the end either way.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at