BY RYAN BYRNES
The last voice you hear during the second-to-last episode of “Mad Men” is that of rock legend Buddy Holly, whose song “Everyday” plays as credits roll. Holly died in a plane crash in 1959, a tragedy that would later be memorialized by singer Don McLean as “the day the music died.” “Mad Men” too is nearing its final moments, and as Pete sits alone eating American Pie and Don sings with good old military boys drinking whiskey, the audience is left wondering – much like it has done with McLean’s song itself – how to interpret the many details this penultimate episode provides.
Fans have put forth many dark theories about the show’s possible conclusion, and for those looking for ominous signs, “The Milk and the Honey Route” provides plenty. The bell tolls for Betty as she ascends the staircase at Fairfield University, shortly before she is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Pete takes a job at a company that had one of its luxury jets crash just months earlier, and convinces his wife to move to Wichita the same weekend that city was also connected to an airline crash. Don is set up by an aspiring con man, jumped by a group of angry veterans, and ends up at a bus stop left with nothing but a bag from Sears. At every turn, there is a feeling of finality. “I know when it’s over,” Betty tells Sally. “It’s been a gift to me – to know when to move on.”
Yet by the end of the episode, Don is smiling, the Campbells are embracing, and Betty is telling her daughter that she loves her. Even Holly’s lyrics are optimistic (“Love like yours will surely come my way.”). It is a testament to this excellent episode that it is not so simply categorized as happy or dark, as uplifting or depressing. It is one, like many in its rear-view, that moves the viewer in a multitude of ways, that looks at life from both sides now. It is an hour that suggests that, even as the end approaches, individuals can evolve, that lessons can be passed on, and that – perhaps – you can in fact go home again.
Betty’s response to her diagnosis is the centerpiece of the episode – a wrenching possible farewell for one of the series’ most polarizing figures – and it demonstrates how far she has come in a decade. She spends much of Season 1 struggling with the recent loss of her own mother, and when her father tries to review his will and funeral arrangements with her in Season 3, she dismisses it as morbid. “I’m your little girl,” she responds then. “Can’t you keep it to yourself?”
But after a doctor tells Henry she has less than a year to live, Betty responds better than most people could be expected to. “I’ve learned to believe people when they tell you it’s over,” she says. “They don’t want to say it, so it’s usually the truth.” Like Anna Draper and Rachel Menken before her, Betty will succumb to cancer, but not before passing to Sally – on letterhead bearing her initials – instructions on how to behave when things happen quickly after she dies. For the reluctant housewife who once scolded her plastic bag-wearing daughter for potentially ruining her clothes, and for an impulsive mother who once fired the maid on the eve of a trip to Disneyland, Betty’s mature and measured (perhaps) final performance is a triumphant moment for her character and a suggestion that people can be at their best even when all else is at its worst. Sally also demonstrates great maturity, and it is noteworthy that when she sits with her brothers at the kitchen table, she sits in Betty’s seat.
After a life of inherited privilege and (apparently) predetermined promiscuity, Pete temporarily fights off Duck’s professional advances before realizing he has arrived at the crossroads of midtown and the Midwest. “How do you know when something is truly an opportunity?” he asks his brother, before they discuss how their constant desire for more may have been something passed on to them by their father. Duck first proposed the Lear-Jet marketing job to Pete during Season 6, but Pete – ever the Manhattanite (he chose to be with the city rather than his family during the Cuban Missile Crisis in Season 2) – was dismissive at the time (“Anything back here on Earth?” he retorted.). Duck’s advice then to a professionally-spiraling Pete was to spend more time at home. “One day,” says the recovering alcoholic Duck, “I looked in the mirror and realized I had regrets because I didn’t understand the wellspring of my confidence: my family.”
Pete’s journey has been the most fascinating example of the different values family can have. It is his mother’s family name (Dyckman) that saves him from being fired in Season 1, and he uses his relationship with his father-in-law as a bargaining chip throughout the series. He and Trudy struggle to build their own family, and he never recovers from her kicking him out of their home in Cos Cob. “I hate even the word ‘family,’” he tells Peggy in a Burger Chef during Season 7. “It’s vague.” But after a life of using family as a means to an end, the stars align for Peter Dyckman Campbell (“You are charmed, my friend,” Duck says) to relocate, restart and ask Trudy and Tammy to be his family again. “Because its origins were supernatural, I realize that its benefits may be as well,” he tells Trudy. Is it possible that the Dartmouth alum will have learned his most important lesson from an alcoholic, that the Manhattan elitist will only find true happiness living in Kansas, and that the woman he wants to go everywhere with is the one he has been running from since he spent the night with Peggy in the pilot episode? As Pete asks Trudy, who says things can’t be undone?
As Pete finds happiness in going home, Don too reverts back to his roots, rambling through the heartland and living the life of a hobo (albeit one who has a million dollars in the bank). He has been adept at reading people since his family’s farmhouse was visited by a traveler in Season 1’s “The Hobo Code,” one who informed a young Dick Whitman that his father was “a dishonest man.” So when Don enters the fundraiser and is warned by Dell that he’s “been a little dishonest” in explaining the purpose of the event, Don is already aware. He knows why the Sharon Motel conspired to keep “Don From New York” around long enough for their fundraiser, and he tells Andy he has poor instincts for a con man. During a season where Don has often reflected on his life not lived, he is faced with many examples of what his life may have been like if Dick Whitman had simply stayed out west, a hobo on that milk and honey route.
For better or for worse, Dick Whitman became Don Draper, though Don conveniently leaves that detail out when admitting to the fellow veterans that he killed his commanding officer in Korea. Don knows that living a lie is not a recommended path; he tells Andy that becoming somebody else isn’t what you think it is. “You cannot get off on that foot in this life,” Don tells him, shortly after correcting his English (twice) and shortly before giving him a Cadillac and an opportunity (“Don’t waste this.”). But Dick Whitman’s decision was one made out of necessity; as one veteran summarized, “You just do what you have to do to come home.”
The central question remaining is whether Don does in fact go to wherever he believes to be home. Does he return to California, where he has always seemed to be at his truest self? Does he return to his children, upon presumably learning of Betty’s diagnosis? Much like Don McLean’s song and Matthew Weiner’s series, the question is open to interpretation, and one the audience hopes to learn the answer to during the series finale. Until then, we are left with Don in Oklahoma, thinking of a man he admired most – the recent visit of Bert Cooper’s ghost – hopping on the next bus (but toward which coast?) the day, the music, died.
- The airlines have played a pivotal role in the relationship of Pete and Duck. Pete’s father died in an airline crash in Season 2’s “Flight 1.” Duck uses the tragedy as an opportunity to convince Sterling Cooper to pursue American Airlines – and Pete joins him in that ultimately unsuccessful pursuit. Here, Duck – now a corporate recruiter (he helped SC&P hire Lou Avery when Don was put on leave) – sneakily convinces Pete to take an in-house job at a luxury jet company by, among other things, using a private jet as a perk and by telling Pete he is on a streak where the line “just goes up.”
- Don and the other veterans sing the military song “Over There” during an episode where Betty instructs Sally how to plan for her funeral. “Over There” also played during the end credits in Season 3’s “The Arrangements,” the episode when Betty’s father – a World War I veteran – passes away and plans are made for his funeral. This is the third consecutive week where a song has been reused from a past episode (“Stranger on the Shore” and “Lipstick”).
- Betty’s cancer diagnosis is preceded by the nurse calling her Mrs. Robinson, a joke and one presumably in reference to “The Graduate” film and the Simon & Garfunkel song. Interestingly, the episode that last featured a former-Mrs. Draper passing away from cancer (Anna Draper in Season 4’s “The Suitcase”) ended with the song “Bleecker Street” – by Simon & Garfunkel.
- A number of paperback novels are seen during Don’s time at the motel. James A. Michener’s “Hawaii” is on his nightstand, and Alberto Moravia’s “The Woman of Rome” is on the lap of the woman by the pool. Don vacationed with Megan in Hawaii in the Season 6 premiere “The Doorway,” and Don and Betty spent the final romantic moments of their marriage in Rome in Season 3’s “Souvenir.” Don also reads Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather,” and his Season 4 date Dr. Faye Miller suggested to Don that her father had mafia ties. Additionally, “The Woman of Rome” – another example of existentialist literature – focuses on a main character who, like Don, is the child of a prostitute.
- Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” plays on the radio during the opening Don dream sequence. Haggard’s band was called the Strangers. During the previous episode, the ghost of Bert Cooper tells Don “You like to play The Stranger.”
- In Season 3’s “Seven Twenty Three,” Don is knocked out in a motel room by a hitchhiker who is heading to Niagara Falls to avoid having to serve in Vietnam. The hitchhiker and his girlfriend steal Don’s money, but leave his car. Here, Don is accosted in a motel room by a group that presumably fulfilled their military service. They smack him – twice – with a phonebook and steal his car until he returns to them money he didn’t steal.
- When on the phone with Sally, Don encourages her to sell her field hockey equipment, telling her “You have no idea about money.” It is similar, though not identical, to what Betty said to Don when she learns about his true past in Season 3’s “The Gypsy and The Hobo.” “I knew you were poor,” she says then. “I see how you are with money, you don’t understand it.”
- In his Kansas motel, Don makes sure to drink Coors beer rather than Miller, the brand discussed in the meeting he walked out of during the previous episode. “I was in the advertising business,” he says, with significance placed on the past tense. However, even half-way across the country, he can’t escape the machine of McCann. He carries a Sears bag (the agency has that account) and he is tasked with fixing a Coke machine. It is the fourth consecutive week where Coca-Cola has been referenced in some capacity.
- Pete tells Trudy that he loves her and that he hasn’t loved anyone else. However, during the Season 2 finale “Meditations In An Emergency,” Pete tells Peggy that he loves her. That is, of course, just before she tells him that she could have had him in her life if she wanted to and that she had given birth to his child – and given it away.
- Trudy tells Pete: “I’m jealous of your ability to be sentimental about the past. I’m not able to do that. I remember things as they were.” The series has always placed importance on how characters choose to view their pasts. After Peggy gave birth to Pete’s child, Don famously told her to forget it and to move forward. “It will shock you how much this never happened,” he says. Just last week, Roger suggested to Peggy how great the times were in the SC&P office, and Peggy more realistically points out that the good old days weren’t always good. Don’s most legendary pitch (for Kodak, in the Series 1 finale “The Wheel) relies on this power of nostalgia. In perhaps a preview of the series finale, Don pitches that nostalgia is “a twinge in your heart far more powerful that memory alone…it takes us to a place where we ache to go again…around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”