[This is a review of Mad Men season 7, episode 13. There will be SPOILERS.]
Characters on Mad Men are, in one form or another, always in a state of change. Most of the time, though, they find their way right back to where they are most comfortable. But for a brief moment – maybe a few episodes or less – that liminal state, the state of being in between or in transition is a powerful place for the series to put its characters. It often times results in, if nothing else, a revelation that resonates and lets you see them in a way their previous actions might have prevented.
In the series’ penultimate episode, ‘The Milk and Honey Route’, the show takes to a familiar structure in which it focuses on three key characters – this time Don, Betty, and Pete – as they work their way along a common throughline. This time, the throughline is that liminal state, from which they emerge changed – or seemingly changed – and ready to accept whatever comes next.
Perhaps the most obvious aspect of the episode is the terminal diagnosis Betty receives after taking a fall on the steps of the university she’s attending. Lung cancer puts her in the ultimate liminal state: the one in between life and death, and it is the one Mad Men seems to be most constantly reminding its characters of. Betty’s cancer at first seems like it might be too much – an impending death on the eve of the show’s demise – but looking at it, the diagnosis is fitting beyond the emotional weight it brings to a character who has met with a great deal of adversity on the series already. For one thing, with the amount people on this show smoke, it had to come up sooner or later. But it also opens the door for Betty to make a choice about her own future and to finally find a way to show Sally that, despite their troubled relationship, she really does love her daughter.
What the thread does well is deliver these potentially troublesome and overused devices of illness and reconciliation in a manner that is in line with the show’s handling of pivotal moments. Weiner – who directed and co-wrote the episode with Carly Wray – frames a magnificent shot in which Henry and the doctor discuss Betty’s diagnosis without actually talking with her. And although the dialogue in the scene is entirely from those two, the focus remains on Betty – it’s as though we can see the moment in which she chooses how her life will end. It’s a powerful moment that tells the audience what they need to know about the character without resorting to direct dialogue.
The same can be said for the even trickier proposition of conveying sentiment through a letter being read in voiceover. To stop the action and to rely entirely on words that might have more dramatic impact if they were to be spoken between two people, rather than at just one, can be a challenge. And yet, ‘The Milk and Honey Route’ executes this maneuver almost perfectly, as the subtext of the letter acts as an extension of Betty’s earlier conversation with her daughter, in which she intimated that Sally will have to be strong while everyone else inevitably falls apart. It’s not a burden, its an acknowledgment of her child’s strength, and one that might be the only way Betty can say “I love you” without it sounding weird or forced.
There is resolution in Betty’s letter to Sally, and that idea continues as Pete finds a way to reconcile with Trudy, assuring her that he’s changed. For whatever it’s worth, Pete sounds convincing – or he’s convinced himself. Either way, what’s important is that he believes it, and that his convictions are strong enough he is able to make a dramatic decision that will change the course of his life, and the lives of Trudy and Tammy.
On the opposite side of that, there’s Trudy, who shockingly agrees to move to Wichita with Pete, as he embarks on this new leg of his journey. After their divorce, it would seem unlikely that they would ever get back together. She even tells him that she sees the past clearly, unlike him, who tends to romanticize history and to forget all the bad things that happened. But in a way, therein rests the reason why Trudy might agree to go along with Pete’s proposal: she, like Betty, understands that certain situations simply are what they are. She loves Pete, and even though his history suggests he will become displeased with everything Wichita and his new job has to offer him – and maybe even her and Tammy at some point – she knows that’s just who her soon-to-be husband is. When Pete brought his extramarital affairs into their house, Trudy acknowledged she knew what he was up to, and so long as it didn’t creep into their home life, she could work past it. It was only when he crossed the line that she felt compelled to act. That’s a terribly sad acknowledgement and a horrible fact Trudy has had to live with, but it helps explain why she would go along with this drastic plan of action.
At any rate, Pete and Trudy’s reconciliation ends with Pete telling her, “Good morning.” Pete’s acknowledgment of a new day dawning again hints at the liminal state the characters were in, as their conversation took place in the time when it is no longer night, and not yet morning.
Betty’s pending death creates a situation in which Don might have to cut his trip through America short. But that’s okay, as his misadventures with a small time conman and a bunch of WWII vets in Oklahoma see him emerge from the liminal state he’s been in since the series began. Don may well have to return to New York to become a fulltime father to Sally, Bobby, and Gene, and that would be fitting, now that he seems to have finally shed the last traces of Don Draper and Dick Whitman to become a new man.
The episode begins with Don dreaming he’s been pulled over by a policeman who has been chasing him for quite a while. That resurrection of the fear Don has of being punished for what he did in Korea is key to the character’s entire plot this episode. As with Betty and Pete, there’s a sense of history repeating itself and forcing the characters to look at a familiar situation through more experienced eyes. Don’s fearful of letting a fellow war vet see his face, but under the assurances that men don’t keep their experience to themselves in the VFW (and a healthy application of alcohol) Don tells a version of his story. The next thing you know, he’s being beaten with a telephone book and accused of stealing $500.
In a sense, this is what Don feared: getting caught. But he emerges relatively unscathed and, more importantly, he understands something about who he no longer is. All his earthly possessions are tucked away in a crumpled Sears bag. Are they Don Draper’s or are they Dick Whitman’s? It’s hard to tell. The Cadillac, which has always been a sign of Don’s ascendance, tells us what we need to know. He turns the engine off and throws the keys into the kid’s lap. The Cadillac is not a part of Don’s identity anymore, so he doesn’t need it. It’s not a parting gift so much as it is an unburdening of the self. It is Don’s emergence from the liminal state he’s been in for too long. The smile on his face as he waits for the bus suggests Don is no longer in-between but right where he needs to be.
Mad Men will air the series finale next Sunday with ‘Person to Person’ @10pm on AMC.
Photos: Michael Yarish and Justina Mintz/AMC