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Not even the Mad Men characters are immune to the effects of cigarette smoking

Betty and Henry talk about her wish to not have treatments that will prolong her life.
Betty and Henry talk about her wish to not have treatments that will prolong her life.
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the previous episode of Mad Men over the course of that week. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by education reporter Libby Nelson and foreign policy writer Amanda Taub. Keep checking in all week long for new entries.

Libby Nelson: Well, that was emotional.

Here I thought Betty returning to college was as close as the character was going to get to a happy ending — and instead, she ends up with fast-moving, terminal lung cancer. (On Mother's Day, no less.) It turns out that not everyone is going to make it out alive.

To me, this felt at first like a last, sudden injection of melodrama, if only because Betty has felt so disconnected from Mad Men's more central plots since her marriage to Henry. But I realize it shouldn't have. As you said in your recap, Todd, somebody was bound to get lung cancer. The fact that Mad Men prides itself on being a show where Chekhov's gun doesn't always go off doesn't mean its characters are immune to cause and effect.

Lung cancer has stalked Mad Men since its earliest days, the looming specter of the coming consequences of all that smoking. The very first episode, "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," was about how you sell cigarettes in a world that's waking up to the idea that they have serious health consequences. If you'd told me then that someone would end up with terminal lung cancer by late 1970, it wouldn't have been shocking. It was the logical conclusion.

That Betty's diagnosis could still surprise me speaks to one of Mad Men's strengths: it's made its characters and this world so real that we sometimes respond as if we are living in it, too. Cause and effect is easy to see at the distance of decades — of course 15 years or so of chain-smoking is going to give somebody lung cancer — but harder to see from up close, when consequences to actions don't always follow immediately. When we've discussed Sally's relationship with her parents, we have never considered that one of them might die and leave her to become an adult much earlier than she'd thought.

And it's clear that it never occurred to Sally, either. She's long had a complicated, tumultuous relationship with her mother. Even her first reaction to Henry telling her that Betty wouldn't seek treatment was laced with disdain. But when you're a teenager, you take for granted that your parents will always be around to drive you crazy. Betty became an adult when her mother died, and she could barely cope; now it's Sally's turn.

Mad Men has always been preoccupied by the question of whether people can change. Matthew Weiner used to insist that it's a show about how they can't. But maybe whether people can change is the wrong question. No one lives in a vacuum. Times change, and circumstances change with them. Fundamentally, you might be the same person you've always been. But if the way you're treating the people around you changes, does that really matter?

Don Draper is still going on the lam, but now he's calling his kids from the road. Pete, all evidence in the contrary, still believes in the myth of a fresh start, but he's finally waking up to what he lost when his marriage to Trudy dissolved. And Betty is still brittle and vain, but she's realizing that the same qualities that make Sally difficult to parent — her independence, her unconcern with her mother's opinion — also mean that she's raised a daughter who will eventually be just fine without her.

There's so much else to discuss — I haven't even touched on Don's adventures in Oklahoma, or Pete and Trudy's reconciliation — but Todd and Amanda, I'll leave those to you. Has Don come to terms with his past? Are Pete and Trudy really going to live happily ever after in Wichita? Was it really necessary to spend our precious, waning Mad Men minutes with, of all people, Duck Phillips?

Read the recap, and come back tomorrow for thoughts from Todd and Amanda.

Previous episode's discussion

Next: Todd has a finale prediction