The Milk and Honey Route

 

It’s weird that Don Draper still has nightmares about getting caught, given that the structures once buttressed by his lies–namely, his respective marriages and career security–have long collapsed. As a fugitive, he’s less out-running than just running: studying abroad in Oklahoma instead of Madrid, suit and briefcase traded for a plaid shirt and some paperbacks. Yet as “The Milk and Honey Route” progresses, we see that the point of this dream isn’t, as it has been, his fear of exposure–in part because Don is phasing himself out of that picture entirely, and redirecting his worry toward hopefuls like Sally and the young con. Instead of fear, we get brute acknowledgment that exposure is just one kind of ending. That everything, like a lie, is bound to unravel.

So while the episode initially seems structured by distance–Don driving aimlessly through middle America as the city persists in his wake–its editing sutures one side to the other, such that we’re encouraged to see likeness between: Betty and Henry in the parking lot matched to Don’s tow; Don’s vending machine dinner paired with the remnants of a New York steak. Visually, this pattern calcifies in Betty’s damning X-ray results, the image of which resembles two conjoined, if disparate, halves: her shadowy lungs on the left, and bare white light on the right.

I cried twice watching this episode. First, when Henry (obliquely, through Sally) gives himself permission to cry. When he holds his face and says, Jesus, what am I going to do?, his question is ours. We’re forced to entrust the future to Sally–comforting Henry with her silence, lying to her brothers on Betty’s behalf, and bearing the weight of her mother’s burial instructions on still-narrow shoulders. It’s as rare for me to see such naked grief vocalized as it is, evidently, for Sally.

The second time, Trudy wells up when Pete says precisely what she’s most longed to hear/what she’s protected herself from potentially never hearing again. Their reunion is irrepressibly cheesy–you half-expect Pete to clutch his chest and swear he’s thinking with his heart, not his head–but no less affecting for what it affirms: that things end, or will end, but people try to fix them anyway, and their efforts at repair take similar shapes. As Henry yells for Betty to stop brushing her hair and Don smacks the side of his dead TV, both test the theory that force compels resuscitation.

But in Betty’s case, with one episode remaining, what can be done? Mad Men has long been tough on Betty: highlighting her severity and conservatism, the sharpnesses that her tenures as mother and wife have only honed. Years before Joan namedrops Betty Friedan in the clash with Jim Hobart, Betty Draper struggled with “the problem that has no name” while her husband colluded with her therapist. At her worst, Betty’s been violently judgmental and uncompassionate with friends, lovers, children; no one exceeds her reach.

In this and arguably only this, Betty is scarily yet admirably powerful. Otherwise, she’s a woman disenfranchised by time: raised to desire, pursue, and sacrifice for that which would never fulfill her, but too “old-fashioned” to adapt. Like Don, Betty evokes something that’s kept me with the series in part because it reminds me of my own parents: the way that a person can become so out of step with time, that they simply expire, and it’s not just unfamiliar technologies but contemporary attitudes, fantasies, and aspirations that render the present illegible to you, and you to it.

We think of the “world passing by” as a condition adherent to the elderly, but Betty’s diagnosis on the cusp of her Master’s matriculation is a cruel reminder that it’s never too early to be too late. Linda Williams describes melodramatic cinema as necessarily involving a relay between pathos and action, “a give and take of ‘too late’ and ‘in the nick of time'”–and this is precisely the dialectic at work in “The Milk and Honey Route,” an episode obsessed with the inescapability of transience, on one hand, and our paradoxical resistance to obsolescence, on the other. I’ve been there. It doesn’t last long, says Duck apropos of nearly nothing before looking both ways down the vacant hotel hall. Nothing does–but that doesn’t stop us wanting to repair what we suspect can’t be replaced.

Confronted with the unexpectedly seductive opportunity to leave McCann, Pete looks for guidance from his brother regarding risk assessment: how do you know when a venture is advantageous, is safe? But as the other Campbell attempts to use his night out in the city as a hookup alibi, they continue having parallel but distinct conversations, even after explicitly shifting subjects from business to sex:

Bud Campbell: You really think she knows?
Pete: I think it feels good, and then it doesn’t.

We know from Pete’s predilection for wistful doorway pauses–and especially from his grand play for Peggy in Season 2–that when it comes to reflecting on his life, he tends to narrativize broadly: I’ve never loved anyone else, ever.

But we should also recognize the temptation to endow a single event or decision with the power to legitimate a whole messy life. Sometimes the event comes early, as Don intends his Cadillac to reroute the young man’s life. Or else, like the resolve with which Betty interprets her fate, the moment is an end that casts clarifying light on all that came before. A good morning that changes the long night prior from something suffered to something survived.

±

Thanks to Brenna Casey and Kita Douglas.

Contact
dearbrink@gmail.com