“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.”
Mad Men is not a show that does sentimentality. Emphatically not. However much you the audience may come to like these well-rounded but flawed characters, in the words of Game of Thrones, “if you’re hoping for a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention”. You might want things to turn out all right for the gang of misfits you’ve unwillingly come to love, but it ain’t gonna happen. First sign of a happy ending, and reality is going to jump up like a schoolyard bully and brutally beat them around the face until it all collapses into despair.
After the tragic events that befell Joan last week, that was never more evident than in this penultimate episode of the most compellingly subtle drama in a decade. With an ever-increasing feel of finality, Carly Wray and Matthew Weiner’s script focused primarily on three plotlines, and for a wonder, the only one that seemed to end well was Pete Campbell’s. With one episode to go, though, I’m fairly sure that Pete (aka “the Anti-Don”) is going to have the promise of a bright future whisked right out from under him. It’s just what happens to Pete. It’s a measure of the scripting and Vincent Kartheiser’s acting, though, that however loathsome he often is, you can’t help feeling sorry for him when it inevitably happens.
With Don having decamped from McCann, and most of the former SC&P employees’ plotlines seemingly at an end, Pete’s was the only plot thread this week that actually had to do with the advertising business. Caught up in a convoluted scheme by the unexpected return of Don’s nemesis, corporate headhunter Duck Phillips, Pete found a real possibility of a happy ending on the horizon – in Wichita, of all places. And to cap it all, he might even be getting his family back.
I’ve mentioned often how much I love Alison Brie as Pete’s status-conscious ex-wife Trudy; it was marvellous to see her get a centre stage role this week. Along with, of course, Pete, who hasn’t had much to do since the show’s mid-season return. Their scenes together, being cordial for the sake of daughter Tammy, fairly bristled with tension throughout, and never more so than when an optimistic Pete asked Trudy to pretend to be his wife again for the sake of his career. The look of contempt on her face was searing.
And yet, when the mad-eyed Pete turned up on her doorstep at 4am with promises of an idyllic future involving cheap housing in Kansas with unlimited private jets, the cynic in me was unsurprised that she so easily accepted his offer to rekindle the spark of their love. The sad thing is that Pete seemed absolutely sincere when he told her he’d never loved anyone else. To the outside observer though, it was never in doubt that when Pete offered Trudy a bright, and above all prosperous, future, that she’d come back to him at the drop of a hat.
As with many of the plotlines throughout, Pete and Trudy’s unexpected reconciliation was expertly framed in some clever two shots from director Matthew Weiner (who else?). He made a virtue of the technique throughout, with many two-handed scenes visually framed in medium to long shot featuring the two characters concerned. We’re used to two shots, of course; but framing them from such a distance is eye-catchingly weird, and really grabs the attention.
There was plenty more of them in the ep’s most upsetting plotline, the unexpectedly tragic fate of Betty Draper. I said last week that it felt like Betty’s character arc was over, ending on a positive, hopeful note; but this being Mad Men, that couldn’t be allowed to happen. Oh no. So this week, she got diagnosed with a rapidly terminal illness. And given the 60s lifestyles the show has portrayed with pain staking accuracy, it wasn’t overly surprising that the illness in question was lung cancer.
In the past, Mad Men has been accused of glamorising the highly unhealthy lifestyles of the 60s. But I’d say Roger Sterling’s heart attack and Don’s struggles with chronic alcoholism have given it some balance. Now for the first time, we saw the potential consequences of the other pastime in which the characters constantly indulge – smoking.
The script was cleverly coy about revealing precisely what bad news the college doctor had to impart, though Henry’s furious screwing up of a cigarette pack that Betty was about to draw from was a pretty big giveaway. But probably the most notable (and still subtle) aspect of the plot was how Betty herself was virtually excluded from the discussion about her illness. The doctor refused to divulge his diagnosis until she’d called her husband; later, when discussing possible treatments, it was Henry he was talking to while Betty sat passively but significantly framed in the foreground. And even later, as Henry disclosed her condition to a shocked Sally, his dialogue was all about how this would impact him. “What am I going to do?” he sobbed, having previously told Sally, “it’s OK to cry”.
Sally, another one whose arc I thought had reached a natural end, was heartrendingly strong this week, contrasted neatly with her stepfather’s helplessness. Kiernan Sjipka was again superb; I loved Sally’s first reaction to the news being to clap her hands to her ears so she couldn’t hear any more. And after her always fractious relationship with Betty, it was desperately sad but also a little affirming as she read Betty’s letter to her. As someone who’s had a parent die of cancer, I was actually tearing up at that point.
And of course, kudos to January Jones, imbuing Betty with a stoic strength we never suspected she had; “I’ve fought for plenty in my life, and that’s how I know it’s over”. She’s going to go out on her own terms, continuing her studies as long as she can rather than subjecting herself to gruelling and likely unsuccessful treatment regimens, much to Henry’s bafflement. After seeing how much of the situation had excluded her from making the decisions about herself, her quiet defiance in rejecting that was as close to a punch the air moment as Mad Men gets.
For real punching, we had to wait for the Don parts of the ep. Trudy’s earlier remark about remembering things “the way they were” was key to the theme of the ep, and this plotline in particular. Don’s continuing wanderings around middle America were as much a journey into his own past as they were an attempt to imitate Jack Kerouac.
Stranded by car troubles in the no-place of Alva, Oklahoma, he found himself confronted by several aspects of his earlier self all at once. The farm belt was a reminder of his dirt poor childhood, while the all too welcoming Veterans Association recalled the military service that led him to steal another man’s identity. And most obviously, conniving (but sexy!) young opportunist Andy reminded him of the Don who conned Roger Sterling into giving him a job.
All of this flew together into a plotline akin to something out of Twin Peaks. As the drunken veterans, having regaled Don with tales of reluctant cannibalism at the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, they heard the man himself confess – for possibly the first time to anyone other than Anna Draper – that he’d accidentally killed his own CO in Korea. That whole scene at the VA was nailbitingly tense, heavy with the possibility that one of the other vets might recognise Don for who he truly was.
That it was young Andy responsible for the theft the vets blamed on Don wasn’t a particular surprise. What was a surprise was Don’s atypical selflessness in firstly not shopping him to them, and then then basically giving him (in the form of his car) the opportunity for a whole new life. It felt like he was trying to vicariously alter his own past as he advised Andy, “if you keep that money, you’ll have to become somebody else; and it’s not what you think it is”.
In another superbly expansive ending shot, we were left with Don on his own in the American wilderness, waiting for a bus that might never come. He may indeed be turning into Kerouac; but the episode’s title was a more apposite reference. The Milk and Honey Route was a 1931 treatise by noted sociologist Nels Anderson, about the lifestyle of the American hobo – exactly what Don seems determined to become.
Nothing of any great significance this week, but oodles of pop culture references. The stranded Don, unable to go very far from the motel without a car, was first to be seen reading Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel The Godfather, still yet to become one of the most critically acclaimed films of all time:
Later Andy brought him more reading material to kill the time, including Michael Crichton’s excellent sci-fi novel The Andromeda Strain and James A Michener’s giant slab of an airport novel, Hawaii:
More significant was the book being read by the glamorous sunbathing mom at the motel pool. As Wikipedia puts it, “The Woman from Rome (Italian: La romana) is a 1947 novel by Alberto Moravia about the intersecting lives of many characters, chief among them a prostitute (whose mother is also a prostitute) and an idealistic intellectual who… becomes completely disillusioned about everything. (It)… explores the themes of existentialism, morality, and alienation”. Sounds oddly like this show…
Back in NYC, Pete’s meeting with the Learjet exec revealed the celeb clients they liked to boast about – Elizabeth Taylor and Danny Kaye. The legendary Taylor was at that point halfway through the first of her two tempestuous marriages to equally legendary Welsh hellraiser Richard Burton; stalwart comic leading man Kaye at this point had moved away from film into TV variety shows and Broadway. Taylor’s an obvious name to drop, but Kaye was definitely a bit more left field.
Don’s car featured heavily again, though we presumably saw the last of it as lucky Andy drove it off into the distance:
Before that though, we had a nice shot of the motel parking lot, with two other classics. The blue one to the left is a 1960 Oldsmobile Super 88, already an ageing model in this time period; and the cool muscle car is a first generation Pontiac GTO. Maybe they’re meant to represent different aspects of Don’s psyche; or perhaps Matthew Weiner just thought they looked cool.
Dedicated Followers of Fashion
Not too many flamboyant fashions on display this week – even Pete’s Checked Sport Coat was less Eye-Burningly Hideous than previous ones:
Trudy got some nice looks though, in both daywear and nightwear:
While Betty’s fashion sense is still impressive, but (along with her immaculate bouffant) looks increasingly dated for 1970:
Don still managed to pull off looking effortlessly cool at the wheel of the Caddy. You couldn’t help feeling a bit of schadenfreude that it broke down just after this shot:
And Duck Phillips, another contender for the Jack Lemmon part in Glengarry Glen Ross, proved his obsolescence by being the only man left in this show who still wears a hat:
“You just do what you have to do to come home,” sozzled veteran (and former cannibal) Floyd sagely imparted to Don. For Don at least, that’s what this ep was all about; and in line with Trudy’s inability to be sentimental, coming home to the past was every bit as unpleasant as he remembered it. Directed in a surreal, almost dreamlike fashion by Matthew Weiner himself, it showed that even with only one ep left, the show’s resident enigma can still intrigue as well as annoy.
But the heart of the ep – with maybe a tiny bit of sentiment – was the unexpected fate of Betty, and the tantalising possibility of a happy ending for Pete Campbell. And the moment is looming when we have to finally say goodbye to the lot of them. Unlike Betty Draper, I don’t feel like I’m ready; but if the series finale is as good as this one, it’ll be something to remember.