For an episode called “The Milk and Honey Route,” the penultimate episode of “Mad Men’s” final season was rather bittersweet. Like Don on his road trip, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get to it.
In the “Mad Men” universe, there are two types of episodes. First, there’s the standard office-ensemble episode — of which last week’s episode was a perfect example. Then there’s a distinct class of daredevil episodes. These episodes often take us out of the walls of the office to examine a few choice storylines in earnest. They might be riskier from a storytelling perspective, but by the same token, these episodes are often more rewarding. This is certainly true of “The Milk and Honey Route,” which took us out of the office to follow Don, Pete and Betty and to foist three major developments upon us:
- Betty has terminal cancer and will most likely die within a year.
- Pete is leaving McCann-Erickson to take new job and relocate to Wichita, Kansas, with his family. Yes, family, because Pete and and his ex-wife Trudy are getting back together.
- Don is still on his road trip and is headed for the Grand Canyon. He shows no sign of returning to Madison Avenue anytime soon.
Here’s the thing about “Mad Men”: These developments (with, perhaps, the exception of Don’s escapist ways) are pretty hefty. They are, for all intents and purposes, total surprises. And yet, they feel entirely inevitable — a fact that betrays just how skilfull the series’ storytelling is.
Throughout this episode, the audience is left thinking, “Of course Betty has terminal lung cancer (and, with the reckless amount of smoking we’ve witnessed over the past seven seasons, it’s a wonder no one else does)! Of course Pete and Trudy are back together! Of course Don is presumably never going back again!”
At this point, there is no guarantee where the season’s 14th and final episode will take us. But even if we don’t return to Manhattan or the hallways of McCann, the other could-be sendoffs we’ve received are pretty satisfactory, too. Of course Peggy marched right into McCann like she owned the place. Of course Joan left once and for all. Somehow we can see how these characters will live out the rest of their lives, even if we never get the chance to see them do so.
With that said, it is unclear how Don, who spent this episode drinkin’ and tinkerin’ in Oklahoma (is this a nod to his rural Dick Whitman roots or what?), will react when he finds out about Betty’s diagnosis. For the sake of his children, my hope is that Don will return to New York — but if this episode taught us anything, it’s that while there’s probably no such thing as the promised land for Don Draper and company, there’s certainly the possibility of closure, which is just as sweet.