Mad Men 7×13 ‘The Milk and Honey Route’: Moving on

Mad Men 7x13 Cover

Does a desire to change mean that change will happen to you?  Yes and no.  Sure, in wanting to change, there’s an incremental change that will happen.  Maybe it’ll be something as miniscule as eating less red meat or spending more time with the kids, but there is a small behavior change that will certainly happen if you spend your energy on desiring to change.  But as for long-term change, the kind of big life changes that we all dream of, those are harder to accomplish.  And it’s not because we don’t have the willpower to accomplish them.  It’s that our past is a giant weight, one that we can’t entirely get rid of, and he have to hope that its weight isn’t enough to bring us down.  Because we can only hold up so much before we cave under the pressure.

Under this lens, “The Milk and Honey Route” confronts us with one undeniable fact: the fate of these characters is contingent on their pasts, and more importantly, their age.  Characters like Roger are resigned to the fate of being an old executive with no real power.  Characters like Joan, while tough, are resigned to celebrating small victories while the young (like Sally) are certainly going to have more opportunities in life.  People can only push against the world so much before they’re only pushing against a brick wall.  In reality, institutions like gender, socioeconomic status, and family/educational pedigree decide what your range of opportunities are.  You can only have so much control over your life, and you likely have less control than you think you do.

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Source: AMC

“The Milk and Honey Route” focuses on Don, Betty, and Pete, offering conclusions to two of their stories while placing a question mark on another.  Those conclusions absolutely mirror the amount of privilege they have in the world, as we see an unlikely character getting away with a happy ending: Pete.  Pete, after meeting with Duck about helping to hire a new marketing director for a start up Lear jet company, realizes that he is actually a candidate himself.  After dodging some of the meetings with the Lear executive, he’s actually offered the job along with a signing bonus that would make up what he lost at McCann.  He initially doesn’t want to take the offer, but later sees it as a sign to start anew, to pack up with Trudy and his daughter and move to Wichita, to rebuild his family.  And Trudy takes him up on the offer, seeing his desire as genuine.

Mad Men 7x13-4

Source: AMC

It all seems like a sweet ending, but there’s a thick layer of entitlement and privilege underneath it all.  Pete gets the Lear job not because he’s the best man for it (even though he is a more than competent advertising man), but because the Lear executive wanted somebody with a good family name and school.  Pete was highly considered for the job because of the Campbell name.  And Pete got Trudy the same way.  He wasn’t necessarily lying, but he sold Trudy what he wanted.  He realized that hurting Trudy hurts himself, and his desire to move forward comes from wanting more, even though he finds himself asking why he always wants more.  His admission of love came from less of an epiphany and more of a deluded sense of entitlement.  He got the perfect job.  He got a massive signing bonus.  Why shouldn’t he have his family back?  He tells Trudy that they’re entitled to more, to something new, and that means that neither of them have to atone for their wrongdoings.  They can just move on, blind to what’s wrong with them, all because they have the name and the money to do so.  The past doesn’t have to catch up with them.  Not yet.

Mad Men 7x13-1

Source: AMC

Betty wasn’t quite as lucky.  She has fought tooth and nail to make her life more fulfilling.  Her marriage to Don made her unhappy, so she married another man who she thought would make her feel whole.  But it didn’t.  Looking for completion in men has done nothing but isolate Betty even further.  Henry, even though he loves her very much, still often wants her to shut up so he can have a pretty wife to show off for his work functions.  So when Betty decided to go back to college, she was finally giving herself some sort of agency.  She could become smarter and give herself another set of skills to make her a more whole person.  But her past caught up with her, and she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, given only nine months to live, only a few more if she received treatment.

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Source: AMC

It’s not that her low status in society necessarily caused her downfall, but there is a sense of inevitability to it.  Betty smokes when she’s stressed out, as she does after she comes out of her appointment.  She has gone through an insane amount of stress in her life, frustrated that she could never successfully push to become her own person.  Not only that, but even after the diagnosis, her decision to forego treatment is met with the assumption that she’s “being stubborn” or “being tragic”.  Everybody has always looked at Betty like a child, and even though she has a pattern of acting like a child, it’s because she has spent so much of her life conforming to the standards of others that she never really grew up.  But, in “The Milk and Honey Route”, we see Betty at her most mature.  When Henry tries to manipulate Sally into making her mother get treatment, Betty sees right through it.  When Sally berates her mother for not getting treatment, she doesn’t lash back and instead tells Sally what to do when she dies.  And even though she’s terminally ill, even though it hurts to walk, Betty still goes back to school.  This isn’t to say that she has achieved complete authority over herself.  In Sally’s note, Betty just tells her what she wants to wear, what hairstyle to give her.  Betty can try as hard as she can, but there are some facets of her identity that society has dictated for her.  And that is the real tragedy of Betty’s character.

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Source: AMC

Don, on the other hand, isn’t given a conclusion.  Not yet.  While Pete is given a chance at reinvention and Betty is robbed of her chance at reinvention, Don is forced to confront his reinvention.  He ends up in Wyoming, where he has his car fixed after it breaks down.  This episode has many things around Don breaking down, from his car to the typewriter to the Coca Cola machine.  He can fix the typewriter, but he can’t fix the Coca Cola machine, the reminder of his past in advertising.  He tells everybody that he “was” in advertising, and it goes to show that he’s absolutely left that part of his life behind.  When he goes to a VFW fundraiser with the man who owns the hotel, he meets a man who tells the story of the horrors he faced at the war, and it pushes Don to tell a story of his own.  In what was probably the most revelatory moment in the episode, Don tells everybody of the time that he accidentally killed his commanding officer in Korea.  He might be drunk while he’s telling it, but he’s coming to terms with his past, accepting who he is and what he’s done.  He even saves a boy who steals money from the VFW, forcing him to give the money back so he doesn’t have to eventually reinvent himself as well.  Don has learned what that does to a person’s life, that it shatters you to the point that you can’t pick up the pieces.  And when he gives that boy his car, it shows that he really does want to help, that he really wants to leave Don Draper behind.

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Source: AMC

But while the episode has Don confronting and accepting who he is, it doesn’t seem as hopeful as it makes itself out to be.  In trying to become Dick Whitman again, he would have to shed his past as Don Draper.  He’s essentially attempting to reinvent himself by shedding his reinvention, and that simply isn’t going to work.  He’s spent so many years of his life as Don Draper, he’s had three children as Don Draper, and now that Betty is dying, he may be forced to confront his own family as a man who has learned who he is.  But if Don wants to escape entirely from Don Draper, he isn’t going to be successful.  Because it is still a part of who he is.  Just as he told the veterans about accidentally killing his commanding officer, he told the owner of the hotel that he “was in the advertising business”.  They’re both facets of his identity, and as he learned over the course of the series, he can’t just push them away.

And that’s what the finale, “Person to Person”, has to contend with.  Can Don handle learning this final lesson, that his identity can’t be something to put off and take off like a coat?  He is Dick Whitman.  He is Don Draper.  And he has to live in the world, a world that requires him to do more than abandon those close to him because he wants to run away.  Eventually, you have to stop running and really confront who you are and what you’ve done.  And, in “Person to Person”, either he’ll have that final confrontation or he’ll keep running, still committed to the delusion that he’s going to find some physical thing to make him whole.

So what do you think is going to happen in the finale, “Person to Person”?  Will Don finally confront who he really is?  Let me know in the comments!

Michael St. Charles

is just a Michigan State University grad who loves a good story. If he’s not off teaching the young ones how to solve quadratic functions or to write an expository essay, he’s watching old-school HBO shows, indie horror movies, or he’s playing Resident Evil 4.

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