The great Orson Welles once remarked, “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.”
Mad Men is predicated on said “illusions”—family, martinis, glamour, all in the service of filling the existential vacuum. It’s about how we’re all, in this game of life, malleable commodities shaped by a series of moments, many of which are beyond our control. Amid the handsome orgy of rhythms, hues, and moods, it’s also about the loss of innocence, this oddly deliberate rumination on the follies of man buried in a televised medley of zombies, drug lords, and dragons; an analog show in a digital world.
As such, whenever it devolved into melodrama, whether it be errant tractor, euphoric acid trip, or a little soft shoe en route to the great beyond, the punctuation was all the more pointed. And, in Matthew Weiner’s world, it doesn’t get more wow than the big reveal during the show’s penultimate episode, “The Milk and Honey Route.”
Don Draper (Jon Hamm), God’s Lonely Man, is in the throes of his not-so-Kerouacian tour of the Midwest. He’s left the life he knows behind, even referring to his life as a suave ad exec in the past tense to a teen crook. When his Caddy breaks down, he finds himself stuck at a run-down (by his lofty standards) inn, forced to live the simple life: reading old books, eye-fondling housewives by the pool, and sipping plastic cups of cheap booze in his room while focusing on a broken miniature TV.
The proprietor of the inn is, like Don, a veteran, and invites him to the local American Legion chapter to drown their sorrows in liquor and raise some money for a fellow vet. After getting appropriately sauced, the fellas begin sharing war stories. When it’s Don’s turn, what he says makes the men’s jaws hit the floor.“I killed my CO,” he tells them. “We were under fire and fuel was everywhere, and I dropped my lighter, and I blew him apart. And I got to go home.”
To refresh your memory, Don was born Dick Whitman, and, during the Korean War, served under Lieutenant Donald Francis Draper. The duo were building a field hospital when Dick accidentally caused an explosion that killed Draper, and with Draper’s body burned beyond recognition, Tricky Dick switched dog tags and assumed Draper’s identity.
This entire episode at the Legion is ripped straight from the pages of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (and David Fincher’s subsequent film adaptation). He has, like Amazing Amy, faked his own death, escaped the societal strictures weighing him down, and assumed a different identity—that of Dick Whitman. It’s even more ironic when you consider that Jon Hamm’s Mad Men contract reportedly prevented him from starring in Gone Girl—in the role of the manipulated husband that eventually went to Ben Affleck.
But back to that killing. Don’s done some pretty damn disagreeable things over the course of his Mad Men tenure, from being an absentee father to Sally (and those other little ones) to cheating on his wives with any lady who crossed his path, from hippies to the woman formerly known as Lindsay Weir—which was witnessed by a shocked Sally, no less. No matter the frequency of his peccadilloes, though, we’ve always managed to forgive him, casting Don as the lovable, tortured lout with a shitty upbringing (he was raped by a prostitute, after all). Don's origin story, however, has always been the most disagreeable thing about him, and he's finally received his penance for it in the form of a group of vets whooping his ass with a phone book. It's also a baptism. Now, he's managed to shed Draper's origin story.
Who knows where Don’s story will end. Will he go the way of D.B. Cooper, hijacking a flight before disappearing into thin air? Will he, as the opening credits suggest, commit suicide? Or will he, as he’s been doing this season, completely shed himself of his Draper persona and start over? Whatever the case, we now know he’s the male answer to Amazing Amy: Dapper Don.
“This is a big crime stealing these people’s money,” Don says to that young crook. “If you keep it, you’ll have to become somebody else. And it’s not what you think it is. You cannot get off on that foot in this life.”
Some pleasant things happened between Pete and Trudy, as the unfortunately-hairlined ad man has, with the help of Duck (strange), managed to finagle a cushy job with Learjet and convince his ex-wife and kids to join him in… lovely Wichita. “I want to start over. And I know I can. I’m not so dumb anymore. I’m not ignoring the fact that I could actually lose your love,” he tells her. “I have never loved anyone else. Ever.”But the biggest wow moment in Mad Men’s second-to-last episode is that Betty (January Jones) has lung cancer that’s metastasized and spread to her lymph nodes. With treatment—which Betty rejects—the doctor says she’ll have about nine months to live.Perhaps we should have seen it coming. Betty’s been plagued by health scares since Season 1, when she sought therapy after suffering repeated numbness in her hands, to the Season 5 weight gain and subsequent lump discovery/cancer scare. Betty’s been a polarizing character; an unabashed narcissist who constantly finds herself on “Worst TV Mothers” lists. It’s this iniquitous world, though, that made her that way—cold and distant.
The news, of course, hits Sally hardest. While the two polar opposites have butted heads over the years—who can forget the moment Betty almost had her committed after she was caught masturbating at a friend’s house (“She was masturbating, Don! In front of a friend!”)—they’d mended fences of late, and come to terms with each other’s differences, leading to this heartstring-tugging exchange:
SALLY: “I’ll be with you. I won’t let you give up.”BETTY: “I know that. But I watched my mother die. I won’t do that to you. And I don’t want you to think I’m a quitter. I fought for plenty in my life, and that’s how I know when it’s over. It’s not a weakness. It’s been a gift to me—to know when to move on.”
Betty gifts Sally with a set of instructions to open when she dies. Sally opens the note prematurely, and it’s narrated by Betty in voiceover: “Sally, I always worried about you because you marched to the beat of your own drum. But now I know that’s good. I know your life will be an adventure. I love you, Mom.”
Mad Men, too, has been quite an adventure. And with just one more episode to go, there’ll be plenty more waterworks to come.