Mad Men's penultimate episode was a master class in the short story form.
Just think about that episode for a moment. Just break it down into its individual parts.
A man, who has left his successful career and millions of dollars behind, winds up at a motel in Kansas when his car breaks down. He is invited to a fundraiser at the local VFW Hall where he gets drunk and shares war stories with the men. After the event, he is woken up, accused of stealing the fundraiser money and beaten with a phone book. The next day he realizes the housekeeping boy at the motel framed him. The man makes the boy return the money, gives the boy a ride to the bus station and then hands him the keys to his car so he can continue his wandering lifestyle.
A beautiful, twice-married mother is diagnosed with aggressive lung cancer. She refuses treatment, which angers her husband. In a last ditch effort to save his wife, her husband fetches the woman’s independent and rebellious daughter from boarding school because he knows his wife will listen to her. When the girl returns home, the mother knows exactly what her husband is trying to do and refuses to go along with his plan. The woman explains to her daughter that she is choosing to give up the fight on her terms, which is a virtue she has learned over time: after watching her own mother die, after fighting through a failed first marriage. She leaves her daughter a letter. The daughter is to read the letter upon her mother’s death. The daughter reads the letter as soon as she returns to school sees how much her mother has grown to love and respect her and cries.
A divorced, overly ambitious man with an excellent job at a prestigious company is approached by an old business associate who needs a favor. The business associate wants the ambitious man to have dinner with a potential client. At the dinner, both the ambitious man and the potential client realize that the business associate has lied to them about the arrangement. They bond and the potential client offers the ambitious man a job. The ambitious man is unsure. Finally, at the pleading of his old business associate, he decides to take the new position and all of the perks that have been added due to the ambitious man playing hard to get. The ambitious man runs to his ex-wife’s home and finally confesses his undying love for her and his regret at ever treating her poorly. The ex-wife, after years of keeping him at a distance and refusing to look back, relents to his newfound vulnerability. The two kiss. The man tells his wife that he wants to have dinner with his wife and their young daughter that weekend as a family. He leaves the house telling his wife, “Good morning.”
Please take that all in for a moment. Each of those plotlines in “The Milk and Honey Route” would have made an amazing short story—and they were all tied seamlessly together in one FREAKING episode. Seriously, just think about that for a moment and remember that Mad Men is ending next week. There will be no greater show.
Reducing each story to its bare essentials obviously takes away all of the added emotional weight and depth that was on display in last night’s episode; emotional weight and depth that have been added and accrued over our years of investment in these characters*. We mourn for Betty because even though she was a difficult character to embrace, very often a bad mother, and emotionally cold; she was also a complex woman who did fight to make her life a certain way—to be treated the way she believed she deserved to be treated. Was she spoiled? Yes. Was she raised by a mother who had an extremely restrictive idea of what a woman could and should be? Yes. Was she prone to drama? Yes. Did she become a devoted mother and supportive wife during her second marriage? Yes. Did she have to endure the inexplicable whims and emotional tyranny of her first husband? Yes. When a woman like that is diagnosed with lung cancer, you cry. You cry because maybe, just maybe, things could have been different for her; she could have lived longer, continued to improve—or maybe, just maybe, if she had been raised differently she could have become an entirely different woman all together. But that’s not the way things go, is it?
*Duck’s role in “The Milk and Honey Route” was a perfect example of Mad Men’s mastery over its own history. Duck was rendered as a full, rich and complex character in his limited screen time. We’ve only seen him at sporadic moments since Season 2, but we know him incredibly well. We detest him, but we are never told to detest him by the author. He is presented objectively and is open to be hated and also empathized with. His confused look back and forth down the hotel hallway after Pete threw him out of his room, was an astonishing detail—a detail that no other show would pull off. Yes, not even The Wire.
Likewise, Pete has been an easy character to hate. He’s entitled, unctuous and spiteful. Yet, he’s always been good at his work, devoted to his company and constantly forward-thinking. He is perhaps one of the best drawn characters in the history of television as well as in fiction of the past fifty years. I am willing to make that claim. Just thinking about the way Pete has grown, yet stayed true to his core characteristics over the years, makes me insanely jealous. To have a staff of writers (and, of course, a showrunner) that understood how to remain true to a character the way they did for Pete, that is what writing and creating fiction is all about.
And I do believe Pete telling Trudy, “Good morning,” is the last we’ll see of him on Mad Men. However, I don’t see his story as a “happy ending” as many people seem to believe. I see his new life with Trudy failing just as his old one did. Pete will try to change, but I don’t think he can just completely alter who he is. Life in Wichita will eventually become mundane; he’ll feel trapped. Pete did finally realize what he gave up when he cheated on Trudy, but there is a certain thrill in reconciliation that runs dry. The declarations of undying love that he and Trudy made for each other moved me, because I have done the same thing. Not to a woman to whom I was married or had created a child with, but I experienced that openness of stating that you never stopped loving someone and that pretending you did was the hardest thing you’d ever had to do. But after that moment, neither the girl nor I were chemically altered by some alchemy of true love—we were both the same stubborn, ambitious and flawed people. And so is Pete Campbell. And so is Trudy Campbell.
But let’s give Trudy her due. Though she was off-screen far more often than she was onscreen during the past three or four seasons, Trudy was perhaps the best female character on Mad Men. She always stood up for herself, knew how to put Pete in his place and never settled for anything less than the human dignity she treated other with and respected to be treated the same way. Sure, her father spoiled her and, at times, she was a master of manipulating the matrimonial puppet strings, but overall she was a strong and principled woman. She just happened to fall in love with Pete.
Then, of course, as always, there is Don. The man who likes to play the stranger returned completely to his Hobo Code roots. As Margaret Lyons pointed out on Vulture earlier this week, “The Milk and Honey Route” was full of direct allusions to the sixth episode of Season One. When I ruminated about Don traveling to California in my recap last week, I really should have been thinking about “The Hobo Code.” Of course Matthew Weiner would reach back to the themes and signposts he laid out—quite literally in the case of the hobo in Don’s flashback from that episode—and return them to front and center.
In “The Hobo Code,” the hobo tells Young Don Draper, “What's at home? I had a family once: a wife, a job, a mortgage. I couldn't sleep at night tied to all those things. ... Now I sleep like a stone: sometimes under the stars, the rain, the roof of a barn. But I sleep like a stone.” Don’s smile at the end of “The Milk and Honey Route” suggests that he is happy now that he has stripped himself of all of his possessions: his wife, his job, his home and even his car. However, how long can the road and a life without identity last? We all believe we can strip ourselves of our egos, that its possible to be a true non-entity in this world—to simply exist and see where fate takes us. John Lennon tried it during the height of the Beatles when he famously took so much acid that he lost his ego. He then had to build his ego back up piece by piece.
What I am trying to say is that we inevitably falter. We want to be good, humble people and not care about our stance or position in the universe; to just be a part of time and its infinite passing. But we are humans. We are born into the material world and we toil in the material world, losing ourselves in objects, passions, addictions and our own identities. Don is attempting to strip himself of all those trappings, but something tells me that he’ll eventually have to return home.
He imparted wisdom onto Andy, another would-be hobo; another would be “Don Draper.” He divulged one of his most important secrets—about killing his CO—to the men at the VFW Hall. He’s already explained his upbringing in a whorehouse at the Hershey pitch meeting. He has tried to improve himself, to try and find who he really is. He is not Dick Whitman, nor is he Don Draper anymore. Like most of us, he now is trying to build an identity that comes solely out of searching within yourself, searching your soul for what you really want; not what it seems like you should want. Not what the world advertises to you as an acceptable or desirable identity—whether that’s a successful Ad-man, a beatnik, a hippy, or a politician.
Don, like the rest of us, is trying to build an identity for himself the hard way. Part of that building comes with understanding your place within your family; with accepting your family for whom and what they are. Something tells me we’re going to see Don do that in the series finale.
But, like everyone else, I have no idea what’s going to happen. And that is the beauty of Mad Men. Anything could happen. Nothing could happen. Either way, it would be an artistic depiction of the truth.