Don Draper has been shedding quite a few things this season. His marriage and his hot girlfriends, his home and household possessions, a large part of his wealth, his illusions about his profession.
So it makes sense that he ends the penultimate episode in the epic novel for television that is Mad Men sitting alone on a bus stop in Oklahoma, heading west.
Spoilers, naturally, follow.
But, with Don on his way to a possible future as a Zen beachcomber in California, something big happens back in New York.
Events are coming full circle. In the great pilot episode of Mad Men, "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," we learn that our heroes aren't necessarily the good guys. One amusing signifier was Roger Sterling saying, as 1960 gets underway, that the agency has a great chance to make a difference in the presidential race that year because he's sure they can help America learn to love a good-looking Navy hero like ... Dick Nixon. Not the expected JFK.
The other, deeper signifier, is that Don spends most of the episode coaxing his mind into coming up with a solution to a desperate marketing problem: How to sell the product of their key client, a cigarette company, now that the federal government has banned any claims of healthful use.
And he does come up with the solution. "It's toasted." A brilliant, dodging non sequitur.
Now the wife that we learned, rather to our surprise at the pilot's end, that he had is dying. Of lung cancer.
Betty Draper Francis is, I think unfairly, a pretty unpopular character with those who insist on viewing the show through a soap opera lens. Much as I enjoy and not infrequently, well, not so much defend as explain Don Draper, he is the main reason why Betty became such a miserable, er, person in the first place.
After all, he tok a very beautiful, multilingual Bryn Mawr honors graduate and, mindful only of the beautiful part, exiled her to the suburbs as an odd combination of trophy wife to be trotted out on special occasions and suburban mom stuck on her own with a couple of spoiled kids. If Don had been more involved with the kids, she'd have resented them less. If she'd been more involved with helping his career, as she repeatedly requested, she'd have felt more fulfilled. (This being a period, the early '60s, in which her own career was unlikely.) As someone who's known a Betty or two, my sympathies here are decidedly not with Don.
We saw what could have been when Don and Betty went to Rome to hang with Conrad Hilton. Betty's cool social command, in fluent Italian, of all scenes there dazzled Hilton and made him even more interested in Don as his protege. But Don -- who would go on to blow his opportunity with the eccentric but obviously visionary Hilton -- couldn't or wouldn't see what an asset Betty could be in a much bigger future in global business for both of them. And the Rome sojourn turned, literally, into a bittersweet charm on Betty's charm bracelet, per Don's boneheaded gift to her.
Now Betty is dying. Or lung cancer. "It's toasted." Right, Don?
On her way to a grad school class -- she's decided to become a psychologist with the kids heading into college years -- Betty has an accident, then learns that she hasn't just hurt herself in the fall. Without treatment, she is dead in less than a year. With treatment she has ... longer.
Betty makes what I think, and I know there's a lot of controversy here, is absolutely the right choice both for her, and for her family in the long run. Not that they see it that way.
She refuses treatment.
Death from cancer in America, as those who've gone through it with parents and others know, can be a drawn out, draining, expensive and dispiriting experience. Betty went through an extended departure with her own mother. She doesn't want that for herself. She wants to leave much as she was before she was stricken, a youthful woman in the flower of beauty.
Henry Francis, her good second husband, is beside himself with Betty's decision not to fight her cancer to gain a modicum of an altered life. What would Nelson Rockefeller do in her place, he cries? He'd die, she replies.
Betty's found at least some of what she'd hoped for in being a partner in Don's career in her life with Henry, a top aide to Governor Rockefeller and Mayor John Lindsay who's been elected to the New York State Senate with an eye on the state attorney generalship. Which would make a good jumping off point for a gubernatorial run of his own.
With Henry, Betty has become part of the Rockefeller circle of moderate and liberal Republicans who at times in those days looked like the wave of the future in American politics and today, with the ascendance of the right wing, look like moderate Democrats. It's too bad the show hasn't had the time to show Betty in this element.
The distraught Henry goes to Sally in her dorm room to discuss her mother's decision and breaks down sobbing.
This leads to great encounters in the long troubled mother-daughter relationship, with Sally rightly telling Betty that what Henry doesn't understand is that Betty also loves the tragic drama of her position.
Betty doesn't really deny this, since it's true. Her psychological pursuits have given her a lot more insight into herself and others.
She pays Sally the great compliment of treating her as a grown-up, saying that she rather than Henry will have to take charge of arrangements around her passing. She leaves Sally with a sealed letter with some specifics. Naturally, Sally opens the letter early. It contains a lovely photo of Betty in a perfect blue chiffon dress, taken with Henry at the Republican Winter Gala. This is not only the outfit in which she wants to be buried, it is how she wants to be remembered. And she has some thoughts for Sally about her life to come -- all this in voice-over by January Jones as Kiernan Shipka reads and reacts to the text -- which you see below.
"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'm not sure who had a dry eye after this scene.
Don, meanwhile, in his own adventure, seems to have left the world of New York behind. So much so that the nefarious (or is he?) Duck Phillips, resurfaced to deviously headhunt Pete Campbell for a dream gig with a little company called Lear Jet, wonders if Don really has left several million dollars on the table back at McCann Erickson.
Pete, the young villain of the piece early in the series, has grown as time has passed. Here he finds redemption, a million bucks, the woman of his dreams and the family he wants, but only after making the pitch of his life to the estimable Trudy, the ex-wife he foolishly lost in his bid to emulate Don, not to mention his general dick-ishness of the time.
It's a wonderful grace note for a creative, and frequently difficult, character in Pete too often denigrated, as well as a welcome callback for another character, Trudy, I wish we'd seen much more of.
On his rather Buddhist journey of enlightenment, though the term is not used, Don breaks down somewhere in Oklahoma, en route to the Grand Canyon. While the Caddy's being fixed, he checks into a motel, checks out its poolside scene (he's not becoming a monk) and ends up at a gathering of veterans in an American Legion hall. Creator Matt Weiner gets the American Legion scene right.
It's a kind of informal support group. And there Don, who says he "was in advertising," who already this season turned his once humiliating secret childhood poverty into a kind of shtick, at last tells the story of how he accidentally blew up his commanding officer in the Korean War. Not revealing the identity theft, of course, but more than enough to make him look very bad.
And, you know, it's all right. His fellow vets understand. They've been there. Shit happens in war.
Later, though, after a young con man working at the motel steals a pot of funds to which Don's contributed to help out a needy vet, a few of the guys mistakenly think the outsider must have done it and rough Don up.
After Don gets the kid to turn over the stolen money to him, he returns it to the vets, then gives the kid his Caddy, pink slip in the glove box and tells him to make something of his fresh start. I doubt he will; it seems more a way for Don to be sitting in his shades on that bus stop in the Oklahoma sun, looking pretty darn happy for all that.
He's shed the possessions and social signifiers which have defined him and entangled him.
What comes next?
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