I Want to Start Over—Mad Men Season 7, Episode 13—The Milk and Honey Route

Against all odds, Pete Campbell closes in on a happy ending

Against all odds, Pete Campbell closes in on a happy ending

By John Andrew Fraser

            I’ll be interested to see what other critics say about “The Milk and Honey Route.”  While I wouldn’t necessarily call it a bad episode of Mad Men (although to be fair, I don’t think I’d call any episode of Mad Men bad), it does seem like a rather strange way to spend the show’s penultimate hour.  There was no Roger Sterling tonight, no Peggy Olson, and no Joan Holloway.  Instead we got scenes with Don at an American Legion gathering in Kansas with a bunch of characters we’ve never met before.  Yet to be fair, this hour of Mad Men did appear to wrap up a couple storylines—one brutally, and the other with what seems to be a sense of hope. 

            For years, Mad Men fans have speculated that Don, once the ace ad man for big tobacco, would fall victim to some terrible smoking-related illness like lung cancer or emphysema.  This episode is a classic example of the show zigging when we thought it would zag, as we find out early in the hour that Betty has been diagnosed with very aggressive, late-stage lung cancer.  There’s no getting better, and most of the medicine and treatment will be palliative.  Some may argue that this end to Betty’s arc is too melodramatic, however, I found it to be the biggest gut-punch the show has delivered since Lane Pryce’s suicide in season five.  Betty had finally found fulfillment in her life—she had returned to school and was going to pursue a career in psychology—perhaps something she had wanted to do for a long time (she told Don last week, “I’ve always wanted this” as she read Freud at her kitchen table).  This makes her diagnosis that much harder to take, Betty seemed destined for something close to a happy ending, and in the span of an episode, it morphed into a nightmare.  In her final note to Sally, she almost serves as a mouthpiece for the show, stating “sometimes it’s best not to prolong things.  Sometimes you need to accept when things are over.”

            Meanwhile, Duck Phillips makes a surprise return in this episode.  He informs Pete that there’s a great job opportunity at Learjet, but that he’d have to move to Wichita to take it.  At first, Pete balks at the possibility.  Yet, over the course of the hour he channels his inner Don Draper and realizes that Wichita could be a place for him to start over—and he comes to realize that he needs and wants to start over.  He has dinner with his brother, Bud, who mechanically recounts his own philandering ways.  He treats his daughter’s bee sting with some toothpaste, and he seems to remember just why he and Trudy made such a good team.  By the end of the episode, he’s ready to move to Kansas with his wife and daughter.  Not everyone gets a second chance in life, but apparently Pete Campbell does. 

            I’m guessing there will be some discussion as to whether Pete “deserves” this ending (if this is in fact his ending, since we still have one more episode left).  Many fans of the show have long seen Pete as a kind of villain—Full disclosure, I am not one of these people.  For better or worse, Pete has always been one of my favorite characters on the show, and the character with whom I most closely identified.  So in his defense, I would ask—has any character changed as much as Pete Campbell over the course of the show’s run?  Think back to the Pete in season one—the little weasel who tried to blackmail Don, and look at him now.  He had to nearly ruin his life to understand just what he had, but Pete spotted an opportunity to turn things around, and he took it.  That represents progress.  Mad Men, like The Sopranos before it, is fascinated with the question “can people change?” and Pete Campbell has changed.  That’s why it looks like there’s hope for him in the future, and maybe, just maybe, he’s earned it.

            Kansas represents a new and better life for Pete, but what does it represent for Don?  Purgatory?  A different location where he still can’t escape his past?  As has been the case several times this season, many of the scenes involving Don in Kansas take on an almost dreamlike quality—the episode even starts with an actual dream, where Don is pulled over by a policeman who tells him that they’ve finally caught up with him.  He’s pressured into attending a veterans gathering, and my first thought was that these were the kind of people Dick Whitman would’ve been hanging out with if he had never ditched his identity.  But Don isn’t Dick anymore—even though he confesses to the other veterans that he killed the real Don Draper back in Korea—it’s obvious to everyone at the event that he has money and that he doesn’t belong.  When they believe that he’s stolen their money later that night, they break into his hotel room and accuse him of being the imposter that he is.  However, Don didn’t steal the money, a new Don Draper named Andy, the local handy-boy did.  Don realizes this, and tells Andy that if he commits a crime like this he’ll have to be somebody else, and that won’t be what he thinks it is.  Yet despite this advice, the episode ends with Don giving Andy the keys to his car.  He ultimately offers him a way to escape—a way to start over. It’s becoming clear that Don doesn’t want to be Don Draper anymore, but he can’t really go back to being Dick Whitman either.  As he sits alone at the bus stop as the episode ends, we’re left to ask yet again, “who is Don Draper?” At this point it looks like he might disappear completely.

Other Thoughts:

·   Looking back, the show had hinted at Betty’s death several different times.  In the season five episode “Tea Leaves,” she has a benign tumor removed from her throat and she ponders what life would be like without her.  Earlier this season in “A Days Work,” Sally mentions getting Betty in the ground.

·   In season six, Duck Phillips informs Pete that he has a job opportunity for him in Wichita, to which Pete responds, “Anything on planet earth?”  This is a classic Mad Men moment where a small, seemingly insignificant exchange comes back and figures into the plot in a big way.

·   I’ll see everyone next week for the series finale “Person to Person.”  I don’t know what it says about the show, but I still feel like there’s so many different ways this story could end.  I remain confident that Matt Weiner will deliver a satisfying conclusion.

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