'Mad Men' Shocker: Nobody Saw This Coming

05/11/2015 04:26 am ET | Updated May 13, 2015
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Do not read on unless you’ve seen “The Milk and Honey Route,” the 13th episode of the final season of "Mad Men."

“I’m not so dumb anymore.” — Pete Campbell

How many of you could write this review for me? A number of folks on Twitter predicted what I’d say — something along the lines of, “Mo! Betty! Can you believe this?!”

And though 140 characters isn’t nearly enough for any of us to truly express ourselves when it comes to “Mad Men,” I knew what people were trying to say. I’ve recently written about how Betty’s such a tangential character that I just don’t see the point of including her. Weiner, you magnificent bastard — you somehow made her the lynchpin of one of the most effective story lines of the show’s denouement. Khaaaan!

I’m not angry, despite my Khan scream — I’m actually impressed. Even at this late date, the show can still surprise me, which is a good thing. I am well known for not having a ton of patience for the character, but when it came to Betty's imminent demise, creator Matthew Weiner played me like a violin.

First, we have to get the massive irony out of the way. I’m not the only one who was expecting a major character on “Mad Men” to die before the end. Speculation about Pete and even Don has been rampant for years, and I wrote last week that I expected Roger to die, given how much he’s abused his body over the years. Weiner even slipped in a reference to Roger’s heart condition last week, and the man’s alcohol consumption hasn’t let up for a minute. Totems of death have dogged other characters for years, the references to the falling man have also been thick on the ground. The misdirection this season has been pretty masterful.

So nobody expected beautiful, put-together Betty to get an unforgiving death sentence; if anyone is experiencing a precipitous fall, it’s her. But before she goes, she got to deliver her own version of “The Wheel’s” famous Carousel pitch.

“Sally, I always worried about you, because you marched to the beat of your own drum. But now I know that’s good. I know your life will be an adventure. I love you, Mom.”

I've got to hand it to Betty. She set a new “Mad Men” record for the length of time it takes a character to make me cry. Don usually requires twice as many sentences as Betty needed.

And I have to hand it to January Jones for her line readings in that letter to Sally. Much of it was a business-like list of demands and requirements, but Jones gave the whole thing an air of vulnerability (there was almost a catch in her throat when she asked Sally to show the funeral-home people the picture of her in the blue dress. It’s terrifying to Betty to contemplate the idea that she won’t be in control of her appearance after she's gone).

Of course, a lot of the reason the scene turned me into jelly was because Sally was a mess; Sally is a great character and it’s awful to see her suffer. But Jones did fine work in this episode, and if this truly is Betty’s final hour on the show, this was an excellent way for her to go out — on the way up (a set of stairs, but she was on an upward trajectory metaphorically as well).

We are really close to the end, and as is so often the case with this show, there are many ways to read this episode and interpret the show as a whole. What has anyone learned? Has anyone progressed toward some kind of self-awareness? Can people change? Can these people change, even a little?

Are they “entitled to something more” and “entitled to something new,” or are they just acting entitled?

Months after the series is over, we’ll probably still be debating these questions, and a lot of our interpretations will be projections. We’ll read into the characters’ actions and endings what we want to see, and as I’ve already admitted in this post on what I want from the ending, I want things to go OK for these people. Unlike Betty, she of the practical lists, I’m a big ol’ sentimentalist. Most of the things I’ve written about the show reflect my desire for people — real ones and fictional ones — to learn how to be more compassionate toward themselves and others. I'm under no illusions about the fact that life isn't usually easy for any of these people, but I still want "Mad Men's" run to end well for Don and Joan and Peggy and the rest. For that to happen, these characters may well have to prove that they aren’t so dumb anymore.

Have the three main characters in this episode — Don, Betty, Pete — learned anything? Have they progressed in any measurable way? Reflecting my bias, I have to say yes, I think so. Though maybe Don appears to have learned the least of the three because… Don. Hey, at least he didn’t sleep with the hot lady at the swimming pool. Baby steps!

Has Betty learned about herself, has she matured? It’d be difficult to think otherwise. Granted, she was quite child-like when the show began, so she had the furthest to travel, and she can still be quite immature when she’s in a rage. Witness the way Betty brushed past a devastated Sally in the kitchen because Betty was angry at Henry for having gone behind her back and told Sally the news. Never mind the kid in emotional turmoil — cranky Betty must storm out of the room dramatically!

Here’s how she’s progressed: She knows herself well enough to know that she won’t really change, and she’s willing to stand up for her choices with more vehemence. In the early days, Betty was fairly easy to manipulate, and though she’s always been kind of passive, at this point, she’s willing to defend that passivity as a weirdly pro-active stance. Her obstinacy is a form of rebellion and even independence. Dying her way may be the only independent act of her life — and she finally thinks she deserves that slice of autonomy.

I think Weiner was going a little too meta when he had Betty defend herself to Sally by saying she has “fought for plenty in [her] life.” Huh? Nope. I don’t buy it. Betty coasted into a marriage with a handsome man who turned out to be a cad, and then she was taken up by another man with a white-knight complex when that first marriage went down the drain. Whatever milieu those men traveled in, she found a way to fit in and yet still get the kind of attention she enjoys. She’s not exactly a go-getter, but I’ve no doubt she would have finished her degree and done well at college. It took her a long time to figure out what she wanted, as opposed to what the men around her wanted, but she finally did, and then that choice got taken away from her. Now she gets to choose; nobody will choose for her.

If Weiner wanted to find the way to redeem the character, the way to do that was to have her final act be selfless — she is determined to spare Sally and her boys the experience of watching their mother suffer through a series of debilitating cancer treatments. For seven seasons, Betty periodically displayed astonishing self-absorption, and Henry and Sally weren’t totally wrong about Betty’s penchant for drama and her tendency toward vanity. But I do believe Betty: She learned from experience that watching a parent die slowly is terrifically scarring to kids, and she wasn’t going to let that happen to her family. If Henry doesn’t like it, too bad. What Sally needs takes precedence, and it that sacrifice doesn’t prove Betty has grown, I don’t know what does.

Betty’s come to terms who she is — just in time to die. But before she died, she let Sally know that she loved and accepted her as she was, which … hey, thanks for making me cry a lot on Mother’s Day, Matt Weiner. Great job!

I mean that as a compliment, honestly. I want my favorite shows to break my heart, and “Mad Men” did that in this episode. One of the saddest sights in the history of the show was also one of the quietest: Sally sat in her mother’s chair and put little Gene on her lap. It won’t be long until Sally is those boys’ sister and a mother of sorts, and Sally has already had to comfort a lost and terrified Henry, who will be in no position to take care of anyone else once Betty dies. We know how strong and smart Sally is, but to become the head of the family before she’s even out of high school — that is a lot for any human being to bear.

I need a bottle over here.

Thank goodness we had the contrast of the Pete storyline, which was much more hopeful.

You could make the argument that Pete is merely returning to the status quo of his past — by the end of the hour, he was once again a rising corporate executive with a smart, socially savvy wife by his side. And let’s be real: Pete, like most characters on “Mad Men,” often resists change. He can be perceptive on certain social and cultural issues, but when it comes to altering his own life, he’s pretty change-averse. He’s still wearing the kind of old-fashioned three-piece suit that even Roger has largely given up, for goodness’ sake.

Still, Pete can adapt. He’s clearly in his element at McCann (unlike most of his former colleagues), but in his personal life, he’s been drifting. Duck Phillips might not be good for much, aside from draining a bottle and racking up expensive dinners, but at least he got Pete to stop being passive about the end of his marriage. Pete certainly deserved his time in the wilderness (and more) for his past transgressions, but if good fortune was falling his way, why not use that mojo to get Trudy back once and for all?

Their reunion certainly didn’t seem arbitrary: Though we haven’t seen them together a ton since they divorced, the actors and the characters have such an easy, familiar connection that their reconciliation scene absolutely worked. When Pete’s voice caught during his speech to Trudy, I almost teared up a little — when Pete’s sitting on a couch being extra-sincere, that is very difficult to resist. If this is Pete’s happy ending — taking Trudy out of sour, cliquish Cos Cob and starting over in Kansas — well, why the hell not? May he find many a MacDonald to punch in the glorious Midwest.

As for the Don storyline, well, sure. Why not spend several days with a would-be grifter and other small-town folk who turn out to be far less folksy than they appear? Who wasn’t dying for an installment of “Don Draper: Typewriter Repair Man”?

My husband’s response to the Don story was, “I’m really kind of over Don spending time with people we’ve never met before.” And I get that, though I didn’t have a serious issue with Don’s hobo jaunt. It’s very clear that “Mad Men” is going to do things on its own timetable and in its own way, and if it supplies great episodes like “Time and Life” and “Lost Horizon” along the way, I’m cool with whatever. Diversions and digressions are to be expected. This week, I wasn’t surprised that Duck was back; I was only surprised that we didn’t get a meaty cameo from Chauncey the dog.

Once again, Don confessed a truth about his past, and at this point, it feels like maybe the only people who don’t know the truth about Don/Dick’s past reside in deepest Siberia? But hey, Don, if you need to unburden again, go ahead and tell the farmers and ranchers the truth about your not-glorious war service. These confessions tend to have less and less impact over time, but if, in the end, they allow him to grow/change/accept himself/blah blah, it’s all good.

Of course, because this is Don Draper, he got beat up in the process of unburdening his soul. We all half-expected that too, right?

That said, in classic “Mad Men” style, the entire episode thrummed with an unsettling energy once Betty fell on the stairs and the ER doctor wore his Concerned Face. All of Don’s scenes were undergirded with the tension that came from wanting to shout, “Don, you nitwit, get home to your children, who are going through or about to go through a tremendous, harrowing crisis! Stop reading books and ogling pool babes and get back to New York! Your kids will soon be as motherless and lost as you were. Stop getting drunk in one-stoplight towns!”

But Draper’s gonna Draper. He took the fall for another guy (just as his commanding officer bit the dust so Dick Whitman could become Don Draper). Progress for Don, perhaps, is in correcting the grammar of a scheming rural con man and helping that young man become a better class of grifter. And then, when his daughter needs him most, Don gives away his car and ends up sitting by a lonely road, in the middle of America, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Mentally and physically, he could not be more checked out of his life. I hope he enjoys the break, because he really needs to bring his A game when he gets back to New York. He may still be rich, but drifting is an option he no longer has.

Speaking of the car, that gift represents a tremendous piece of luck for that kid — but luck only gets you so far. If anything, this episode was a meditation on the following idea: What’s luck got to do with it? Not much, ultimately. Duck’s assertions are the ravings of a drunk and thus not anything to take too seriously. Life is full of good and bad luck — it’s all about what you do with it that matters.

Years of hard work have paid off for Pete, and now he’s gotten a great opportunity that will probably pay off even more handsomely down the road. But his reconciliation with Trudy didn’t just happen — he had to take a chance and try to make it happen. He might just as easily have struck out, but this time, his pitch worked. That wasn’t about luck, that was about, as Joan put it a few weeks ago, going down swinging.

As Henry pointed out, Betty had been tremendously fortunate all her life, but her luck ran out all at once -- but she still found a way to direct and partially control the situation. She put her blue dress in the gold garment bag and she put the correct lipstick in her purse. She knew what her daughter needed to be told, and she knew that she couldn’t control anything else, so she didn’t try to. She remained chilly and distant in her behavior, but her heart and her will had evolved. Sally knew she was loved, and that wasn't by chance.

There’s no way to see what’s happening to Betty and her family as anything but wrenching and sad, but if Sally survives this epic run of bad luck, she’ll be able to survive anything. And if she takes her chances and runs with them, her life will be an adventure. Young Sally will end up making a lot of her own luck, I think.

What chance will Don make for himself going forward? Who knows? I don’t expect the last episode of the show to depict him rolling around Oklahoma like a tumbleweed, but I could be wrong. This show, as I’ve said, loves to zig when we expect it to zag, so the future is as unclear as ever. However, I don’t think Don will end up in California. I predict Pete will line up a Lear jet so that Don can swing over from Oklahoma to Wichita and get back home to his family as quickly as possible.

After that, it’s up to Don. In the end, all I really want before the end is to see him connect in a real way with Sally and Peggy. And to have enough awareness to realize that he’s lucky they’re both in his life.

A penultimate hail of bullets:

  • Don could have worked for Coke at McCann or fixed a Coke machine at a motel. Neither option, in the end, was all that attractive.
  • Something about the mildly catty way Trudy offered her friend an apple amused me. Something something Garden of Eden/tree of life/temptation etc.
  • Maybe the biggest sign of growth for Betty (aside from her calm acceptance of her daughter’s independence) is the fact that she found the “Mrs. Robinson” joke funny. If Betty hadn’t evolved beyond the petulant version of her that we saw in previous seasons, it’s likely she would have been perturbed at someone implying that she was an “older” woman.
  • Once again, men discuss Betty’s life without even talking to her directly, all of which makes it even more understandable that she would make her own decisions without consulting them. If they’re going to ignore her, she can play that game as well — and I don’t blame her for ignoring men who treated her like a broken wind-up doll.
  • The pool babe was reading “The Woman of Rome,” a shout-out to Don and Betty’s trip to that city. Another book in Don’s room: “Hawaii,” a shout-out to his trip to that place with Megan. Maybe his reading of “The Godfather” was a veiled reference to Jim Hobart?
  • No Peggy or Joan or Roger in this episode. I want lots of them next week. And Stan!
  • As Floyd the veteran, that was veteran character actor Max Gail, who was so great as Wojo on “Barney Miller.” Other familiar faces: David Denman of "The Office" as Jerry Fanning and Currie Graham, who I think has guested on 80 percent of the scripted dramas on TV, as the Lear jet guy.
  • I really expected Floyd’s war story to end with an admission of cannibalism. Gail was excellent as Floyd, but it wasn’t a great war story, in the end.
  • “I think it feels good and then it doesn’t.” In nine words, Pete Campbell sums of every the psychological journey of every core character on “Mad Men.”
  • So Pete’s brother is a chick magnet? Um, what? OK.
  • Here’s some info about hobo culture, which gave rise to the title of the episode. The link comes from Fairfield University — which is where Betty was pursuing her degree.
  • Irony alert: Don lectures Sally on the fact that she’s careless with money. AND THEN HE GIVES AWAY A CADILLAC AUTOMOBILE.
  • The date on Betty’s note was Oct. 3, 1970, which means the likely time frame of the finale is November or December. The holidays are always so fun for the Drapers! Anyway, I don’t think “Mad Men” will continue into 1971, unless it’s a very brief New Year’s scene. But what do I know? Not a damn thing. And I can’t believe this is almost over!
  • Ryan McGee and I have discussed recent "Mad Men" episodes on the Talking TV podcast. UPDATE: We discussed "The Milk and Honey Route" with Tom Fitzgerald of TomandLorenzo.com in one of this week's podcasts. You can find it here, on iTunes and below.

Also on HuffPost:

  • 1. Jon Hamm/Don Draper
    "Be slick. Be glib. Be you," Roger Sterling told Don in season four. He forgot "Be an alcoholic, womanising, advertising genius"... but no matter. For the fact remains: 'Mad Men' introduced us to Jon Hamm - and for that, all of womankind will be forever grateful.
  • What do women want, Jon?
  • They want to do this to you.
  • 2. Elisabeth Moss/Peggy Olson
    Using her talent and smarts to rise from humble secretary to copy chief, the driven, complex Peggy is arguably the show's greatest female role model.
  • And who can forget "I'm Peggy Olson and I want to smoke some marijuana"? Not us!
  • Go Peggy!
  • 3. Christina Hendricks/Joan Holloway
    Like Peggy, the sex bomb that is Joan worked her way up the corporate ladder - and words cannot express how much we're going to miss watching Christina Hendricks in action. Not least because she uses her eyes like this...
  • ...like this...
  • ...and like this...
  • ...and leaves a room like this.
  • 4. The fashion
    AMC
    The men's impeccable suits. The women's impeccable party wear. Yes, the coveted clothes in 'Mad Men' have taken us from 1960 to the early 1970s...
  • Via Betty's ice queen, Grace Kelly style...
  • Joan's sassy pencil skirts...
  • ...(and sassy dresses)...
  • And the men's dapper suits and (occasionally bow) ties.
  • Oh, and there's the hats.
  • Never forget the hats.
  • No you don't, Roger. You look like cool advertising guys in hats.
  • 5. The drinking
    The whiskies! The cocktails! The drinking at work! Naturally, we're not going to condone the smoking in 'Mad Men', but the drinking...
  • ...well, that's a little harder to resist.
  • No. No, you're not, Peggy.
  • (Let's allow Roger to explain.)
  • 6. The design
    AMC
    The offices, the homes, the bars... and the furniture in all those offices, homes and bars. Whatever the scene setting, 'Mad Men' just looks so gosh darn wonderful.
  • In fact, the show's attention to detail even evokes nostalgia for orange sofas. Orange sofas!
  • It's amazing, really, that they let Jon Hamm destroy any of it.
  • Careful, Jon!
  • 7. The music
    The music in 'Mad Men' is, as one commentator put it,"true to the story, true to the characters and true to life." From Acker Bilk to Frank Sinatra, 'The Twist' to 'Zou Bisou Bisou', the musical choices are perfect...
  • ...and also a reminder that people really should start dancing like this again.
  • And like this.
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