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Mad Men recap: in the next-to-last episode, a time for reconciliation and new beginnings

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Betty (January Jones) has to deal with some bad news on the next-to-last episode of Mad Men.
Betty (January Jones) has to deal with some bad news on the next-to-last episode of Mad Men.
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"The Milk and Honey Route" seems like a downright strange episode of Mad Men until you realize what it's about. It employs a triptych structure, telling three completely separate stories that share a similar theme. This is a structure Mad Men has turned to often, most memorably in season five's lovely "Far Away Places" (the one with Roger's acid trip).

Most often, the show turns to this structure because it wants you to notice a particular idea or theme, something that will be important to the series going forward. And in the case of "The Milk and Honey Route," that theme is reconciliation — with the past, with a loved one, with yourself.

This is an episode where my comparison of Mad Men to Breaking Bad last week starts to feel downright eerie. Like "Granite State," the penultimate episode of that show, "The Milk and Honey Route" is one where the protagonist spends the entire episode several states and thousands of miles away from everybody else.

But where "Granite State" ended with Walter White certain he had to get his revenge, "The Milk and Honey Route" concludes with Don bidding farewell to both his old self (in the form of a Dick Whitman–esque young conman) and his new self (in the form of his Cadillac). He is finally just himself. And he seems happy about it.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Reconciliation 1: Pete and Trudy

Pete and Trudy reconcile on Mad Men.

Pete and Trudy are in love again? Sure.

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Of the three reconciliations in the episode, this was the one I least bought — even if it made me the happiest. Given everything we know about Trudy Campbell, it just doesn't make sense that she would take Pete back with open arms, so they could go live the perfect family life in Wichita, Kansas.

Of all characters on Mad Men, Trudy is the one who seems to see the world with the clearest eyes. She even tells Pete this. She's able to remember the past as it actually was, not as she'd like it to be. Where Pete romanticizes his life with her, telling his brother that you think something will be fun until it's not, Trudy can remember the way he made her feel, the horrible feelings that accompanied the end of their marriage.

And yet if there's a core to Mad Men, it's the idea that even if the characters are unable to change, hope springs eternal for them that someone around them might change. We know Pete well enough to know that he will eventually drift into an endless, bored malaise and end up screwing up everything all over again. We know Trudy well enough to know she might forgive him and might not. And we know the trajectory of Sally Draper well enough to know that Tammy is going to have to piece together a childhood from the shambles of this pair's marriage.

But for now, they're happy. For now, he knows exactly what to say. When Pete leaves his ex-wife — soon, again, to be his wife — to return to the city, it's with the words "Good morning." A new day is here, like it or not, and it's brought some sort of hope with it.

Pete bids Trudy farewell on Mad Men.

"Good morning," Pete says.

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(Worth noting: Don is frequently told in his storyline to eat or drink up, and then the episode cuts to Pete doing just that. Mad Men has always ruminated on how Pete is becoming Don in some ways, and here's another connection — as well as perhaps a subtle hint that Pete is unlikely to change very much.)

Reconciliation 2: Betty and Sally

Betty pays Sally a visit on Mad Men.

Betty is portrayed with almost angelic images throughout the episode. Here, she's an unlikely night visitor to her daughter.

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The relationship between Betty Francis and her firstborn child has always been one of the hardest things to watch on Mad Men. Sally's been cast adrift, stuck with a mother who doesn't quite know how to love her and a father who loves her only sporadically. Both of her parents, stung by relationships with their own parents that were less than ideal, have far too much to work out to notice the young woman growing up right before their very eyes. That's often how it is.

Except now Betty Francis is dying, and that has a tendency to bring these sorts of relationships to a head.

I've seen fans of Mad Men grousing about how Betty's death is a cheap trick, designed to elicit emotion at this late date or, worse, to heap yet another awful thing atop a character who has suffered so much throughout the run of the show. But I think this is a lovely move for the series. Somebody was going to get lung cancer, just because of where we are in history and because of how much everybody smokes. And Betty getting lung cancer oddly crystallizes everything there is to know about her character.

There are two images that nicely highlight how much Betty has changed over the course of this series right in this very episode. In the first, Betty sits and listens as her doctor and her husband talk about how they're going to prolong her life. It's yet another important conversation that Betty is cut out of, even though it's ostensibly about her. But this time, the focus is on Betty, on the part where she's making up her mind.

Betty makes a decision on Mad Men.

Betty makes a decision, as bad news unfolds behind her.

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Yes, she's going to die. She's not going to try to prolong her life. She's going to live as well as she can, as long as she can, but she's going to die. There's nothing to be done. And hopefully, she won't unnecessarily worry her children.

Except Sally.

It's tempting to read the scene where Betty gives her daughter the envelope containing end-of-life instructions as yet another cold moment between the two. Betty doesn't offer Sally any sort of comfort. She doesn't hug her. She doesn't even tell Sally that she loves her. This is another instance when Betty needs to be a good mom and is not up to the task.

But I don't read it that way at all. I think Betty entrusting Sally with these instructions is the ultimate compliment she could pay to her daughter, and the ultimate act of love Sally has been waiting for all this time. By handing Sally that envelope, Betty is saying, "I know you can do this. I trust you to do this. I believe in you to do this. You are strong, maybe even stronger than me." Betty fell apart when her mother died; she knows Sally will not do the same. Sally will be the one who holds steady when Henry and the boys crumble. Sally Draper is Betty's greatest legacy.

Which brings me to that second image.

Betty makes a difficult climb on Mad Men.

Betty climbs the stairs, because it's what she has to do.

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Betty climbs the stairs at her college, ascending slowly but surely, not an angel but as close as she might ever get. Why does she go to school when she knows how little time she has left? Why did she ever go in the first place? She wanted to. She needed to. She has become, in her own way, strong. And that's the greatest example she could set for her daughter.

Reconciliation 3: Donald Draper and Dick Whitman

Don tries to fix a Coke machine on Mad Men.

Don confronts another ghost of his past life.

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If there's a key to this episode, it's on Don's face at the end of the hour. The man who always seems to fret now appears to be virtually carefree. He's sitting at a bus stop, essentially everything he owns packed away in a bag from Sears. He just gave a young grifter his Cadillac, because why not? He descended into the hell of his past and emerged unscathed. He is finally a whole man, one who can return to New York and put to rights what little he has left to put to rights.

What he doesn't know, of course, is that his ex-wife is dying and that he will have to step up and be a father to his three children like never before. What he doesn't know is that some of his most cherished coworkers and friends (who mostly sit out this episode, which only featured five series regulars) are stuck in a horror show. And what he doesn't know is that Duck Phillips is back in town, and that's rarely a good sign.

Now, obviously, Don might never go back to New York. Next episode — the series finale — might end with Don sitting on the beach in Santa Monica, watching the tide come in. It might end with him joining a mission to the moon. Hell, it might end (as some suspect) with him becoming D. B. Cooper.

But I think it ends with him returning to New York, the closest thing he's ever had to a home. Don's arc has always been toward resurrection. He's a living man bearing a dead man's name, and, as such, he's always been slightly stuck between life and death, able to see the spirits of those who've come before. Yet he's so mired in his own past that he can't escape it to truly be reborn.

To be resurrected, though, one has to descend into hell. And that's meant going to McCann and embracing the sort of soulless work he always professed to hate. It's meant throwing all of that away on a whim and running from his problems. And it's meant metaphorically stepping into his past.

Don and his new friends return to the past on Mad Men.

Don slips into the past.

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The moment when Don enters the VFW benefit and sees the room decked out like something out of a World War II–era fundraiser (complete with burlesque dancer) is when I started to feel pretty confident about where this episode was going. History repeats itself endlessly here, horrible stories told over and over.

Don gets drunk with the men, tells his darkest stories, and is eventually "caught" by them. Don's nightmare that opens the episode — wherein a police officer finally catches up with him after chasing him for a good long while — more or less comes true. He is found out, even if the crime he's accused of isn't one he perpetrated.

So he confronts the young drifter who did take the money. And he gives it back to the hotel owner and exits this small town, a place that isn't so far removed from the one where he was raised, and he heads back out into the world, having shed all of himself.

The look on his face as Buddy Holly's immortal "Everyday" plays isn't Dick Whitman, and it's not Don Draper. This is somebody new. Finally.

Don faces an uncertain future with a smile on Mad Men.

Is that a smile on Don's face?

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And if the "one month per episode" calendar is roughly accurate, that places the next episode right around Thanksgiving time. With all of Mad Men's resonances — both within the show and without — is there a more perfect season in which to end this show?

I can't wait.

Let's see smilin' Dick Whitman one last time

Don Draper smiles on Mad Men.

Look at that smile!

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No live chat this week, but comments are open

As I'm traveling on business this week, I won't have time for the live chat. But I've left comments open, and I hope you'll chat amongst yourselves. I'll drop in as I can!

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