In the ending of Douglas Sirk’s 1959 masterpiece Imitation of Life, the character Annie Johnson uses her entire life savings for her grandiose funeral. Although Annie has endured many ordeals as an African-American woman, and wears the shroud of a typical mammy stereotype, her funeral is in many ways her only and final attempt at exercising agenc. I was reminded of this scene in “The Milk and Honey Route,” the penultimate episode of Mad Men, for Betty’s refusal to treat the cancer in her lungs and gracefully accept her fate is her form of agency.
Betty’s cancer diagnosis in “The Milk and Honey Route” is a shocking development that many did not see coming, but it is also a predictable chain-of-events considering how much smoking plays into the lives of these characters. Someone was bound to fall victim to the product that Don and company have exploited and peddled to the masses. Yet, remember when Don wrote “Why I’m Quitting Tobacco” and had it published in the New York Times, he understood the perils of tobacco. To be fair, that little tobacco stick was never going to leave his lips. He only did it to save his business. Yet, Bert still chastised Don as he says, “Tobacco put a roof over your head and it fed your children.” Part of us sides with Bert because to bite the hand that feeds you is a very dishonest move, no matter how clever it is. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to recognize the irony. When once American Tobacco fed and sheltered the Drapers, it has now inevitably finished off what Don started, and that is sever the family. Although divorced, we see that Don and Betty’s relationship has finally matured to the point that they can treat each other with respect and share the workload in the parenting department.
Once again, the past has returned to haunt them. More specifically, Don. One cannot underestimate the impact this will have Don. Remember, he has been responsible for the death of three people in his life. First, he dropped his lighter and blew up his lieutenant to kingdom come because he was scared. Second, he turned his back on his younger half-brother, who was desperately reaching out for family. Adam Whitman later hung himself and returned all the money Don gave him. Then of course, we have Lane Pryce. Although Don made the safest business move and allow Lane to resign without controversy, he also lacked empathy. If Don weren’t so busy saving face for the company, then maybe he could have related to Lane’s desperation. Imagine his consternation when he found out Lane followed in the footsteps of Adam and hung himself in his office.
Now we get to Betty. Despite their differences and mistakes, her death will undoubtedly alter Don’s landscape. We must also keep in mind that she is not the only person that fell victim to cancer. Don’s first wife, Anna Draper, had cancer in her legs. While it was never romantic, Don got to be Dick Whitman when he was around her. She was the only one who knew the truth about him. The same truth that became the final straw for Betty as she sought a divorce. Don is literally not the man she first fell in love with. After Anna’s death in “The Suitcase,” Although Megan and Peggy became a surrogate of Anna, Don was never the same again. To further rub salt on the wound, Don had no say in Anna’s affairs because he is not technically family. However, this is not the case for Betty’s death. His road trip across the United States will be cut short because in 1970 in New York, Henry would not have been able to get custody of Sally, Bobby, and baby Gene. That falls on Don.
This final season has been about Don confronting and cleansing his past. It culminated in “The Milk and Honey Route” as Don confessed for killing his lieutenant to the war veterans. (Although, the part about the identity theft remained a secret.) Nevertheless, you can see how liberated he was on the bus bench after giving his car away to some young con man who is 1/8 Comanche.
While everyone right now is speculating about plot points, D.B. Cooper, and Don’s future in advertising, they are neglecting something fundamental, and that is Don’s position in the upper echelons of wealth and society. I think in the final episode, Don will have to answer for his capitalistic drive. The notion of the American Dream and the pioneering spirit will be questiond. In many ways, Dn has been answering for it this entire season. Don gave up millions for not showing up to work. With this “On the Road” phase, he is spending more than he is bringing in. He lost a million dollars to Megan in the divorce settlement after he felt guilty for ruining her career. And I don’t even want to know how much a million dollars in 1970 is worth today. On top of all this, his daughter Sally doesn’t appreciate the value of money. She quit field hockey, even after Don purchased all of her equipment. Don’s financial position can undoubtedly support a family but can it support their future?
Now, I don’t have to point out the other ironic point of this question. Is Don diving back into the business that destroyed his family in order to support and raise his children? As I mentioned in my last review, Don did tell Roger that if he were ever to leave, it would not be for more advertising. But circumstances have changed. I believe that is the ultimate question Don faces in the series finale, “Person to Person.” Whatever action he decides will reflect his level of change and growth.
I’ve realized this review morphed into a sort of prediction for the final episode. I’ve barely gotten into Don’s plot points and Pete’s growth and his reunion with Trudy. So I’m just going to roll with the punches and be the N-teenth person to offer a prediction and hypothesis. My prediction involves Diane.
Diane has been such a polarizing character this season that they even chastised Matthew Weiner for wasting time on a new character. However, I always believed that Weiner kept going back to her for a reason. I believe she will return in the final episode and play a significant role. I believe the episode will begin with Don learning about Betty’s cancer, or possibly her death. Don will pack whatever little things he has left and drive across the country back to New York. And along the way, Don will magically run into Diane. He has finally found the one person he has been seeking all along. So the ultimate decision would be whether to start a new life with Diane, or whether he should return back to New York to be with is children. Another thing to keep in mind is Diane also left her daughter and husband to escape the guilt of the death of her other child.
Now that we have witnessed his growth, will Don choose to raise his children or will he continue down the same route and choose Diane? Betty’s surrender to death signals her growth. However vain Betty may be in her letter, Sally should still be proud of her mother. Now it is Don’s turn to face judgment. Will he follow Betty’s example and display growth? Or will he continue his descent? Perhaps Mad Men will end in a blackout like The Sopranos, as Don must confront and choose between the two. After all, Weiner was a writer in The Sopranos and worships the ground David Chase walks on. Weiner has always championed the ending of the show. Would it shock you if Weiner emulated one of the greatest shows of all times? I don’t think so.
Now, I am firmly aware of the fact that my predictions are probably at least 95% wrong. I’ve already made a couple of prediction that don’t look like it’s going to pan out. Actually, I want to quickly throw another hypothesis out there. Will Don turn himself over to the authority for desertion? Whatever it is, I know Weiner thought of something that we cannot anticipate. For a show that is not plot driven, I’m actually quite impressed that the story always kept me on the edge of my seats. My interest never waned throughout the seven seasons. I have to tip my hat off to Weiner for silencing all the naysayers who believe that “nothing happens” on the show. Nevertheless, despite what happens, I trust the path that Weiner has set for Donald Draper.
* I don’t cry easily but I have to admit that the news of Betty’s cancer made my eyes watery. Having watched Betty’s growth throughout the season, it is devastating to learn that this is the moment she is leaving us. This brings me to my next point…
* On a narrative standpoint, it makes perfect sense that Betty dies. However, I also think there is another reason that Weiner chose Betty to be the sacrificial lamb. Betty Draper has never been a fan favorite. That dislike even extends to January Jones, who many criticize for being wooden and bland. While she is not my favorite, I always appreciated and understood the value of such a character. My favorite Betty Draper moment was when she took out an air rifle and started shooting her neighbor’s pigeons. The most memorable January Jones moment was when she tells Don that Sally has been suspended from school again. Notice how Jones delivers the line “She’s from a broken home.” It is master class performance. I am happy that Weiner made Betty the center of this episode. Hopefully, people will change their minds about her.
* I apologize for not getting to Pete’s storyline. I am writing this just in case this is the last time we see Pete. Like Betty, he has grown on me. Pete has become one of my favorite characters. Plus, it’s always fun to see Duck! In some ways, after spending years emulating Don, Pete has exceeded him as well. Pete is far better equipped to adapt to his surroundings than Don. I have read many reviews about how Pete doesn’t deserve happiness and how he has gotten through life because of his name. These are probably the same people who chuckled when Betty told Sally that she has “fought for plenty” in her life. I couldn’t disagree more with these critics. I believe Pete has changed and I wish him well in Wichita.
* So now that everyone’s life has been somewhat resolved, besides Don, the only one left is Peggy. I don’t have any predictions for her but I will say this; I don’t worry about her.