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Mad Men: “The Milk And Honey Route”

You’ll have to become somebody else

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Mad Men

"The Milk And Honey Route"

Season 7 , Episode 13

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A cop walks up to the car window and asks Don for identification. “You knew we’d catch up with you eventually,” he says, shining a flashlight on Don’s face. Don jerks awake and gets his bearings in a motel room. He’s in an unfamiliar bed, experiencing a familiar fear. Don has long anticipated the moment when the authorities would hold him to account for his desertion of duty in Korea. It’s one reason that he’s always inclined to run away—whenever he stood still, he could feel his past catching up to him.

Now he’s on the road for good, and as he rattles off the latest segments of his endless travelogue, Sally rolls her eyes in boredom. “I feel like I’m sitting right next to you,” she says, but they’re half a country apart. The conversation emphasizes both their familial closeness and their distance. Don, holed up in Kansas for a night or two, chides Sally for quitting the field hockey team after he already bought her a stick and cleats: “You have no idea about money.” He shakes his head and laughs, bemused at her recklessness. The reaction is a bit rich coming from a man who ditched McCann and left behind two million dollars, which would buy a lot of field hockey sticks. But despite lecturing Sally in “The Forecast” about how much she takes after her parents, Don doesn’t appear to see the parallel. It’s a sign of how much he’s isolated himself.

As his family life fades from his horizon, other parts of Don’s past surface into view. His lodgings in Oklahoma are, in many ways, a picture of the homey Americana that Don used to peddle in his ads. The motel is named after the proprietor’s wife. She invites Don to have some leftover roast for dinner, which he declines. There’s even an old Coke machine out front, and if Don can fix it up, the owner offers to let him stay an extra night. It’s essentially the same proposition Don got at McCann: Why don’t you stick around and work your magic on Coca-Cola? He glowers at the machine, seeing in it the sort of entanglement he intended to avoid.

Not all reminders of his past fill Don with dread. When he sees a shapely sunbather by the motel pool with a copy of The Woman Of Rome on her midriff, Don lapses into slack-jawed fantasy (until the illusion is shattered by the arrival of the woman’s husband and family). The book cover evokes Don’s trip to the city on Conrad Hilton’s behalf. In Italy, he and Betty were intoxicated by the otherworldly air, reconnecting in a moment of mutual escape. It’s one of a few references to European escapism in “The Milk And Honey Route.” Another is Don’s remark to Sally that he’d like to go to Spain. And the most colorful instance comes from Del, the motel owner, who tells Don at Legion night, “I didn’t break the real commandments ’til I was in Europe.” The usual authorities—the strictest commandments—don’t have jurisdiction across the Atlantic. In that light, you can see why the place holds a heightened allure for Don.

Don visits the Legion hall against his instincts, because mingling with war veterans brings him too close to the most fearsome part of his history. Every new question demands that he part with another morsel of information—one more bread crumb that could unravel his grand deception. Del asks him his rank, and Don grimaces as he answers “lieutenant,” a designation he lifted off a corpse. His discomfort escalates to near panic when Jerry Fandango, a fellow Korea vet, is called over to the table. As Jerry hovers over him like the cop in his dream, Don tries to hide his face from the glare of Jerry’s gaze. You can see the erstwhile Dick Whitman relax when he realizes that Jerry’s tour of duty came later in the war than his own. The lie hasn’t caught up with him yet.

By the end of the night, Don manages to achieve some kinship despite himself. He’s unmoved at first by the Legionnaires’ insistence that he’s “among friends,” but his resolve weakens after he hears from Floyd, who left some portion of his soul in the Hürtgen Forest. Floyd recalls how the survivors of his unit killed four starving, surrendering Germans, and he concludes by saying, “You know, they all got blue eyes”—conjuring the humanity he saw in the enemies’ faces before they perished.

Likewise, Don sees something on Floyd’s face as the spectacled vet stares into the distance: He sees another tortured soul eager to escape his past. Lonely and sensing a kindred spirit, Don shares his Korea story with these strangers. “I killed my CO,” he begins, proceeding to recount the explosion that claimed the real Don Draper. “That is the name…” Jerry says afterward, and in that lingering beat before he adds “…of the game,” it sounds like he’s unwittingly speaking Don’s deepest truth. But he isn’t. Instead, Jerry’s reaction highlights the fact that Don only shared half of his story—the portion that happened by accident, and not the part where he took his dead CO’s name. In contrast to Floyd, Don can’t share the atrocity that he committed by choice. The obligatory omission makes for an unsatisfying catharsis, leaving Don alienated as ever.

Maybe on some level, the Legionnaires can sense that Don was holding back, because when their money jar is raided, they’re quick to turn on the man who, hours earlier, joined them in a rousing chorus of “Over There.” Jerry bristles with disgust as he says, “You threw all that money around because you knew you could get it back.” Anyone who shows up in this town with that much cash must be some sort of con artist, they figure, and they’re not altogether wrong. Don argues with them, but he also regards their attacks with some resignation, as if he feels he deserves the punishment on some level. His face wears the same expression of defeat in this scene as it does in the dream that opens the episode. Don knew they’d catch up to him eventually.

The angry vets take Don’s car as collateral, and Floyd sneers that it’s “probably stolen.” This is true in the sense that all of Don’s life is stolen from the officer he killed with the drop of a lighter. His original theft has doomed Don to a life tainted by falseness—an existence where any desire to connect with another human being has to compete against Don’s greater need to conceal himself.

Having lived in that fearful limbo for decades now, Don is adamant when he tells Andy, “This is a big crime, stealing these people’s money. If you keep it, you’ll have to become somebody else.” And such a life, Don says from experience, is “not what you think it is.” From the moment that Andy reveals his hustling ways—by wheedling an extra sawbuck out of Don for a bottle of booze—Don sees himself in the kid. He makes awkward fatherly gestures, correcting Andy’s grammar on a couple of occasions. He doesn’t exactly like Andy, but he wants to make him better, and that’s about how Don feels about Don, too. In an episode and a season where he has encountered so many ghosts from his life as Don Draper, it’s fitting that he finally comes face-to-face with an avatar of his former self, before the lies began. His advice is to choose a different route.

In this episode’s other storylines (which I’ll cover shortly), the notion of being “scared” comes up a lot. Henry complains about the doctor scaring Betty with a cancer diagnosis. Betty apologizes to Sally for Henry’s behavior, saying he shouldn’t have told her that she’d soon be motherless. And when Pete shows up on her doorstep in the middle of the night with big news, Trudy says, “You’re scaring me. Please, what is it?” In each case, these characters are scared by news of their future.

Don stands apart: He is scared by what came before. He deplores his past but is doomed to be the product of it. So he’s progressively erasing himself. He’s already left his marriage, his family, his home, his job. Now he gives his car keys to Andy, because the encounter with the surly Legionnaires demonstrated that the car, despite its promise of liberation, just provides another way for him to be tied down. The final shot shows Don alone on the roadside with nothing but cash and a bag of clothes. He smiles with relief. His disappearing act is nearly complete. All that remains to vanish is himself. Then they’ll never catch up to him.

While Don Draper methodically removes himself from the picture, Betty Francis also chooses to let herself fade to black. We first see Betty in “The Milk And Honey Route” pausing amid a difficult climb up the stairs to reassure a college kid that she is indeed a student. Her face lights up with youthful pride as she says it. With her psychology studies, Betty is taking another crack at her own youth to see what might have happened if she had made different choices. But she can’t even make it to the top of the stairwell, an ominous indication that life isn’t going to give her that second chance.

Betty’s story turns from optimism to darkness with alarming speed. It feels like one minute she’s ensconced in a glow of rejuvenation, and the next she’s being called Mrs. Robinson by a bunch of college kids who can see her age. Then comes the cancer verdict. Betty bypasses the cliched stages of grief, skipping straight to acceptance. She even reaches for her cigarettes outside the hospital, a tacit admission that her lungs are a lost cause.

Henry snatches the pack away from her. He rages against the prognosis, frantically calculating which strings he can pull to cheat Betty’s death for as long as possible. One doctor characterizes Betty’s metastatic tumors as “aggressive and advanced,” language that Henry echoes later after he finds a surgeon in Bethesda whose approach is “very aggressive.” Betty isn’t interested in spending her final days as the battlefield for a futile war, which only upsets Henry further. He has amassed formidable political power, and he wants to put it to good use, because in his calculus, the powerful don’t accept mortality. “What do you think would happen if Nelson Rockefeller got this?” he asks her. “He would die!” she says, and she’s right. They’re dealing with fate, a force more potent than any Rockefeller.

Henry shocks Sally at school with news of her mother’s diagnosis, and he says he’s there to enlist her help in convincing Betty to seek treatment. That’s true, but there may be a another, subconscious motive at work. When Sally first hears that Betty is sick, she clamps her hands over her ears, which is practically the same thing Henry has been doing. You can imagine that he’s relieved to share his pain with someone who reacts the same way he does—it alleviates his loneliness as he identifies with Sally’s dismay. “It’s okay for you to cry, honey,” Henry says, and he breaks into sobs.

Sally pats Henry’s back as he weeps, offering some of the comfort that Betty would have provided if she weren’t at the center of this tragedy. Sally also steps into Betty’s role at home: Upon arriving back at the Francis residence, she deftly conceals the truth from her confused brothers and reassures them by taking a place at the head of the dinner table. Visually, the effect is to make Sally the new woman of the household, a transition that Betty makes explicit when she proffers an envelope with instructions for the day she dies. Sally tries to refuse. It’s all moving too fast for her. But that’s just it, Betty insists: “Things happen very quickly when people die. Henry’s not going to be able to handle things.” Sally always wanted to grow up in a hurry. Now she will.

This is the most intimate conversation we’ve ever seen between these two, and Sally seems to reach a new understanding of her mother. When Sally says that Betty is refusing treatment “because you love the tragedy,” she’s venting her pain, but she’s also working from the cynical conception of Betty that she’s developed in her adolescence. It’s the kind of remark that would have made Betty react with pique years ago, but she’s calm now. “I don’t want you to think I’m a quitter. I’ve fought for plenty in my life,” she tells Sally, who’s still in shock yet manages to listen.

Indeed, Betty’s marriage to Don is one case that illustrates her point, as she fought for that relationship after less determined women would have cut their losses. Such experiences have been a gift, Betty explains, because they taught her when to move on. Taking the lesson from past instances where she held on too long, Betty refuses to make the same mistake this time, when life isn’t giving her a choice in the matter anyway. As a result, she’s content with her imminent farewell, just like her first husband thousands of miles away.

Sally, too, will find her peace after the tears. Her letter from Betty ends with a profound reassurance: “Sally, I always worried about you because you march to the beat of your own drum. But now I know that’s good. Your life will be an adventure. I love you.” Those brief sentences bridge a divide between the two women. Sally, headstrong even for a teenager, had come to believe that Betty didn’t understand her—she perceived such a distance that she even called her mom by her first name. The letter shows Sally how Betty saw her, and not only is Betty’s vision perceptive, it’s admiring as well. As Sally cries, we see Betty climbing the stairs to her psychology classes: With months left in her existence, Betty is marching to her own drum at last. Sally found her beat earlier in life than Betty did, which fills her mother with a pride that transcends death.

Duck Phillips, the account man turned headhunter, claims that he’s going to McCann’s 28th floor to talk about finding a replacement for Don. “I’ve done it before,” he observes. Yet the elevator doors open, and Duck instead finds his way to Pete Campbell’s office—and to Pete Campbell’s liquor stores. Duck presents himself as a pathetic drunk who needs one big placement to make his rent, and with a sad-sack act, he convinces Pete to push Duck’s services at dinner with the head of Learjet.

It’s impossible to tell which parts of Duck’s sell are the truth and which are pure manipulation. Did Duck even have a meeting about Don’s successor, or was that just a cover to get him into Pete’s door? Is he really in such dire straits, or was he playing Pete’s sympathies to make the dinner meeting happen? Whatever the case, Duck has an extrasensory intuition for how his scheme will play out. (Pete will later refer to Duck’s intervention as “supernatural.”) Duck knows, for example, that Pete (Dartmouth ’56) will form an Ivy League bond with Learjet honcho Mike Sherman (Princeton ’52). “Don’t pretend like you’re not gonna jack each other off,” Duck says, and that’s pretty much what happens at dinner, although not in such graphic fashion.

After duping both Pete and Sherman into what proves to be a job interview, Duck’s scheming only intensifies. He entices Pete to consider another dinner (“with wives”) with talk of a sky kingdom: “You know the corporate royalty in those planes?” Duck asks, rhetorically. The line harks back to a moment in “Signal 30” when a prostitute lured Pete into bed with the come-on, “You’re my king.” Pete has long aspired to join the rulers of the business world, and he believes that he’s put in the hard work to deserve it. Duck knows this, and he exploits it. In their first conversation of this episode, Duck observes that Pete is a veritable “mayor” at McCann. Now he dangles the promise of an office that’s loftier in more ways than one.

Tempted in spite of his objections, Pete asks Trudy to join him for the second meal with Learjet’s Sherman, appealing to her based on their shared history together. “You used to love” these business dinners, he recalls. And he cajoles her by saying that nobody else but her has ever really understood his business. Finally, he expresses his pitch in the barest terms: “How about for old times’ sake?” It’s still no use. “You know, I’m jealous of your ability to be sentimental about the past,” Trudy says, “I’m not able to do that. I remember things as they were.”

Her cutting conversation-ender shows why Pete was taking a woefully misguided tack with his estranged wife. Pete’s fantasy was to put their marriage back the way it was for one evening. But that vision holds no appeal for Trudy. When they were together, she had to pretend things were better than they were. Now she operates under no such obligation. “For old times’ sake”? The old times for Trudy were the worst of all.

Trudy’s sad reflection is still ringing in Pete’s head when he has dinner with his banker brother, Bud, who has little advice to offer as Pete considers a new opportunity. “I don’t buy or sell anything. I just distribute, and it’s never up to me,” Bud says, and he’s equally matter-of-fact when he discusses his philandering ways. Pete asks why Bud sleeps around on his wife, and Bud answers, “Because Dad was like that.” His complacency is so profound, it spans generations. Pete’s distaste for his stuck-in-the-mud sibling is palpable.

It’s not as if Pete is immune to that spirit of idle satisfaction, though. He’s so unwilling to diverge from his current, plodding career path at McCann that he’s been trying to shoo Duck away like a mosquito. Yet Pete’s advice on extramarital affairs—“I think it feels good, and then it doesn’t”—manages to jar Bud out of his rut, at least for the time being, and this small breakthrough helps inspire Pete to consider a divergence from his own established narrative. Maybe he, too, can find another path. Maybe he’s supposed to!

Duck, ever the manic operator, doesn’t leave Pete much say in the matter. He bursts into Pete’s hotel room raving about Pete’s impossible good fortune. Duck managed to negotiate a plum compensation package, and he even took the liberty of consulting with McCann chief Jim Hobart, to Pete’s chagrin. “Listen to me, you’re on a streak,” Duck says, “You’re on one of those magic—we used to call it a trend. You know, because of the graph where the line just goes up!” And isn’t that exactly what Pete always wanted? For his entire career he’s patiently, grudgingly put one foot in front of the other, a slow plod toward so-called success. Now, Duck insists with a finger extended to the sky, Pete has found his moment to take off and ascend. He’s stumbled on his milk and honey route. “I’ve been there,” Duck says with cautionary awe. “It doesn’t last long.”

This whirlwind of fresh possibility deposits Pete at Trudy’s house once more, and he shifts tactics this time. No longer does he attempt to ply Trudy with soft-focus glimpses of their troubled past. Instead, he turns the perspective around to pitch her on a brighter future. “We’re entitled to something new,” he says, and the thrill of the new—along with his belated declarations of loyalty—proves to be too much for her to resist. She places her faith in the redeeming power of Wichita’s wholesome paradise. It’s hard to say whether their happiness will last, but it’s clear in this moment that Pete intends to see it through. His freshly minted identity—the man who can change—depends on it.

“We’re going to have dinner on Saturday night,” an ebullient Pete tells Trudy after she accepts his proposal. “The three of us. Like it was the first time.” Pete is emulating Don’s trick. He’s starting over. The difference between him and Don is that Pete manages to bring his past along with him. He gets a new beginning without having to first write an ending for himself, a twist that the creative genius of Sterling Cooper could never manage. Pete’s ascent is well underway; it’s already elevated him out of Don Draper’s shadow.

Stray observations

  • This is the final version of tonight’s Mad Men review, barring minor tweaks or corrections. Because our readers are always eager to read about and discuss the show after it airs, each week I’ll post a review that examines the main storyline of the episode (probably Don’s), and then throughout the night I’ll update the review with analysis of the rest of the show, screenshots, and more stray observations from my notes. In that way, I hope I can split the difference between posting a timely take and conducting the closer analysis that this show deserves.
  • Betty: “I’ve learned to believe people when they say it’s over. They don’t want to say it, so it’s usually the truth.” Not only is this a poignant observation, but it also shows what a talented psychology student Betty might have been—she already has a deceptively keen grasp on human nature.
  • Betty’s letter to Sally is dated October 3, 1970.
  • Both Don and Pete mention Kansas, although Don leaves just before Pete is about to start a new life there. He always ends up following Don one way or another.
  • The episode’s title comes from a bit of early 20th-century hobo lingo: A “milk and honey route” was a train route that offered plenty of food for a scavenging wanderer of the American countryside. In a 1930 book that was also named for the term (which is surely getting renewed attention this week as Mad Men fans Google it), author Nels Anderson writes, “Any railroad running through a valley of plenty may be called a milk and honey line. But this is a transient term; what may be a milk and honey route to one hobo may not be so to another.” Indeed, the route rejected by Don ends up bestowing a rich bounty on Pete.
  • Floyd’s World War II horror story took place during the cold, brutal, and long Battle Of Hürtgen Forest.
  • Pete promises to take Tammy to Friendly’s. I always liked a Friendly’s trip as a kid, too. The peanut butter cup sundae in the huge ice cream snifter was the best.