Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Thirteen, "The Milk and Honey Route"
What an utterly sad Mother's Day episode! Since "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," our introduction to this series, presents advertisers' work to persuade smokers that cigarettes will make them happy, despite the news reports of links to lung cancer, and since we have watched Don, Betty, and numerous other characters smoke like chimneys over seven seasons, I shouldn't be surprised that at the end, someone receives a lung cancer diagnosis. But, I was not expecting this conclusion to Betty's story. To me, she has been at times a compelling character, but at other times a frustrating or infuriating one. I've found the writing of her screen time to have been uneven: they developed her as a richer character when married to Don, and less so after their divorce. But, she has always been beautiful and almost always graceful. She was brought up to be a lady and to conform to what society and her mother expect of her, though she tells Sally that she has fought for things in her life, and we have seen her do that. Since the title of tonight's story refers to a 1931 book with the subtitle "A Handbook for Hobos," I went back to my writing about the other episode about hobos, Season Three's "The Gypsy and the Hobo." It features an empowered Betty who confronts Don about his identity after discovering his box of Dick Whitman papers and mementos. When a lawyer she consults tells her just to go home and work it out, she handles it her way, and later does fight for a divorce and marriage to the new man she loves. She was capable of going against society's dictates to stay married no matter what.
My favorite image of her is still the one of her standing in the yard in her housecoat, cigarette hanging out of her mouth, rifle at her shoulder as she shoots at her neighbor's birds. She could be a fighter, but this time when Henry and Sally urge her to fight, she declines. Is she--as they think--giving in too easily? Is she just being the "good girl" her mother taught her to be, accepting her fate too willingly? Or is she being wise and much more accepting of the inevitability of death than most Americans? She displays an existentialist's awareness that one can't avoid dying and vital self-knowledge that she does not want an extra six to nine months if they come at the price of painful and debilitating treatment. She tells Sally, "I've learned to believe people when they tell you it's over. . . . I don't want you to think I'm a quitter. I've fought for things in my life. It's not a weakness. It's a gift to me. To know when to move on." She's moving on with grace. And not ceasing to live until it's really time to go. While Henry sees no reason for her to continue going to class, asking her "Why are you doing that?" she responds with "Why was I ever doing it?" I was feeling so sad for her, thinking how unfair it is that now she's finally doing what she told Don she'd always wanted to do, this happens. But, life is unfair; she was going to school because she wanted to learn and grow. So, until she can no longer do that, she's determinedly going to keep learning and growing. Bravo to her! And while she won't give Sally the fight she wants and won't let her take care of her ("I watched my mother die; I won't do that to you"), she gives Sally the beautiful gift of the letter: "I always worried about you because you marched to the beat of your own drum. Now I know that's good. I know your life will be an adventure." Sally and Betty have had their battles over the years; some of them featured Betty trying to make Sally be like her. But, as she's preparing to die, Betty gives her daughter the gift of letting her know that it's okay to be herself. And, that she loves her for it. Our final glimpse of her is her struggle to climb the stairs at the college. She doesn't fit in, hasn't tried to look more hip like the kids. But, she's there, fighting in her own way. Marching to HER own drum.
I'd like just to stop there, as this is Betty's episode, but should make a couple of other brief observations:
--Don, we discover, has chosen the hobo life for now, charting out his next stretch of the journey over the phone with Sally, consulting the map on his hotel room bed. His wanderings must stop for a week when his car breaks down in Kansas. At the urging of the man who runs the small hotel, he attends a VFW event and after too many drinks, tells the other men the story of accidentally killing his CO in Korea. They all understand that "you just do what you have to do to come home." This seems to be another catharsis for Don, though the next day finds him getting beaten by the men when they think he, the hobo, has stolen their money. This stretch of road is no longer the "milk and honey route." He offers advice to the young man who actually did steal the money: that since he's committed a big crime, "if you keep [the money], you'll have to become somebody else. And that's not what you think it is. You think this town is bad now. Wait 'til you can't come back." Through his words, we continue to see some of his thinking about his own position. There's been some fan speculation about him pulling another identity shift to escape, but he neither wants nor needs to do that again. He is free to live the life of a hobo for as long as he chooses. He doesn't need a new identity to do that and has no horrible family from whom he wants so badly to get away that he'd "die" to do it. He ends up with no car, smiling on a bench waiting for a bus, with his one small bag beside him. But, for how long will that smile last? He'd promised Sally he'd call her again in a week, so he's about due to talk to her again and receive some sad news. Don has had to deal with Anna's death and more recently with Rachel's. These have shaken him greatly. What will he do when he finds out Betty is dying? The "Land of Milk and Honey" might not be long in front of him.
--And then there's Pete, who finally figures out--after talking with his brother about it--that he is the way he is with women because his father was that way. Has he really learned something? Will he change? He tells Trudy that he's "not so dumb anymore." So, it looks like he'll be moving into the Kansas that Don is vacating. Will it be a "Land of Milk and Honey" for the Campbells? This story arc conclusion felt a bit too pat, but I've never liked or trusted Pete. Trudy seems wary too. Who knows? "Mad Men" isn't Victorian fiction with its reward of virtue with marriage and punishment for sexual promiscuity with death, and it shows particularly strongly tonight when someone who has transgressed against so many in such arrogant and contemptuous ways seems to be granted the happy ending of remarriage, and Betty Francis--no saint, but nowhere near the sinner Pete is--is fated to die in her early 40s.
One more week to see what is in store for Don, his soon-to-be motherless children, and Peggy.