Goodness. First Joan walks away from the agency, presumably never to be seen again, and now Betty is dying? And of lung cancer? Not that that's a completely shocking development—like almost every other character on Mad Men, Betty's been sucking on cancer sticks from the moment we met her. Common medical sense aside, the reveal of her impending death just before the series finale is the emotional equivalent of being tackled on the one yard line: it hits hard and comes out of nowhere.
“The Milk and Honey Route,” focuses on Betty, as well as Don and Pete, following each character on a journey in which the common denominator is an exit. While Betty's is the most dramatic and literal, Don and Pete's arcs also deal with leaving what is familiar behind with the belief that what's on the other side is better.
Betty's story opens with her at school, tripping while trying to go up the stairs. She plays it off like she's fine, but goes to a doctor who insinuates her fall might be something more serious. It turns out Betty has an aggressive, advanced form of cancer, with the doctor giving her nine months to a year to live. Of course, Betty had a health scare back in season five's “Tea Leaves,” but it turned out to be nothing. Sadly, it's not the case this time and it's heartbreaking, not only because Betty really seems the happiest and most at peace that we've ever seen her, but because of the devastation the news will cause her family.
Henry takes it particularly hard, yelling at Betty for refusing to undergo treatment. He ignores her request to let her tell the kids, and goes to Sally's school to break the news to her. Henry wants Sally to talk some sense into her, and tells her it's okay to cry, before breaking down himself. Later, Sally shows up at the house, and Betty gives her a glare that says “I know you I know,” before coldly pushing past her. Henry goes after her, and Sally immediately snaps into older sister/mother mode, tending to Bobby and Gene.
Later, Sally and Betty have a very grown up talk about cancer and death. Sally says Henry doesn't know Betty's in love with tragedy of it all, and there may be some truth to that. It was definitely a sense of dark romanticism in Betty's first cancer scare. She told an old acquaintance she was “leaving behind a mess,” in reference to her family, and dreamt of Henry and her children mourning her. Betty often remarked her mother was vivacious and beautiful right up until the end; whether that was true or another example of Betty's superhuman ability to live in denial we'll likely never know. Either way, Betty's intent on following her example, leaving Sally detailed instructions on the dress she wants to wear and how her makeup and hair should be done for her funeral.
But Betty also reminds Sally she saw her own mother die in inches, and doesn't want to put her children through the same thing. She also tells her she doesn't want her to think of her as a quitter, and says her ability to know when to move on has been a strength in her life. In terms of her marriage to Don, that was certainly the case. Betty gives Sally a letter, instructing her to open it only after she's gone. Sally opens it earlier of course, and it both gives the aforementioned instructions for her funeral and parting words for her eldest.
“I always worried about you because you marched to the beat your own drummer,” she writes, before going on to say she's learned to appreciate this quality in her daughter, because it means her life “will be an adventure.” Her words come via voice over, as we watch both Sally's reaction (and if you weren't tearing up already, the sight of Kiernan Shipka bursting into an ugly cry will finish you off) and Betty as she walks up the stairs at school, her inner resolve to push past the pain and live her dream for as long as possible is palpable. A decade ago, Betty referred to herself as an ostrich with its head in the sand. Now she's as clear-eyed as ever.
The only person, aside from Bobby and Gene, who doesn't know the shocking news is Betty's ex-husband. Don has turned playing hooky from McCann into a full-on cross-country road trip—according to his call with Sally, he's currently in Kansas—but this is still Mad Men after all, so it can't be all aviator shades and stops at quaint hotels.
Don gets stuck in Kansas when he has car trouble, and given the small-town settings (church revivals and football are the big attractions), has to resort to paying a young guy to go score him some liquor, which he does, tacking on an extra ten bucks for his services. It sounds like a scam a young Dick Whitman would've run back when he was a valet peeing in rich people's cars. The kid, dark-haired, skinny, possessing an eager-to-please personality and a tendency to use double negatives in conversation, certainly could've been Don at that age.
The motel owners push Don to stick around for a meeting where local veterans come together for conversation and beer. The meeting actually turns out to a fundraiser for a vet who recently burned his own home down. Don is apprehensive, and it's understandable why; the whole scene would once again make him confront the gigantic lie much of his life has been built on. The knife gets twisted further when the guys introduce him to Jerry, who also served in Korea, but said temporary relief comes when Jerry says he arrived in Christmas 1953, after Don had already gone home.
Later, a veteran tells a story about when he and a few other soldiers killed some German soldiers in order to survive the brutal winter, despite the fact they wanted to surrender. Don then tells most (though not all) of his own ugly truth, of accidentally killing his own commanding officer, and getting to go home because of it. Everything seems good, until the guys bust into his room later that night and beat him up, claiming he stole their money. For a moment I thought it was another dream, like the opening sequence where he gets pulled over by an officer who says “you knew we'd catch up with you eventually,” though it quickly becomes clear this is is very real.
Don puts two and two together and confronts his young liquor supplier the next day (“You have shitty instincts for a con man,” Don snaps at him), who says he stole the money so he could get out of town. Don lectures him that starting his life this way will cast a shadow over the rest of it, and he'll have to become someone else, which, given the hell we've seen Don go through all this time, is not nearly as glamorous as the kid may imagine it to be. In the end, he gives the kid a ride out of town, and in a surprise move, gives him his car, telling him not to waste the opportunity. He drives off, and Don takes a seat at the bus stop, smiling broadly, either because he may have spared someone from making the same grave mistake he did, or because he's lifted some of the gargantuan weight of his past off his shoulders. There will likely always be some part of Don that's paranoid about his past catching up with him, but at this moment, that part appears smaller than it has ever been.
Pete's story was the quirkiest of the three, bringing back Duck Phillips to create professional havoc that turns into a personal breakthrough. Duck, who's been called in to replace Don at McCann, runs into Pete in the elevator, and goes straight into his office, asking him to meet with an exec from Lear Jet, as a way to both pump up McCann and pump up Duck's services as a headhunter. Turns out, Duck lied to Pete and the Lear Jet exec, with the latter thinking Pete was meeting to join their company. Undeterred, Duck pushes another dinner date with the wives—despite the fact Pete is sans one and despite his ironclad contract with McCann. Nevertheless, Pete, intrigued by the offer, a senior position in Kansas, and asks Trudy to be his date, to which she declines.
“You know what, I'm jealous of your ability to be sentimental about the past. I'm not. I remember things as they were,” she says, with a hint of steel in her delivery.
Pete skips out on the dinner for a meal with his brother Bud, and Duck shows up stinking drunk at his room, babbling about getting him out of McCann and going to Lear Jet with stock options. And oh yeah, he called Jim Hobart. Pete tells him he's going to ruin everything, before Duck stumbles off. Pete comes over to Trudy's house at four in the morning and asks if she and Tammy will join him in Kansas. Trudy rightfully eyes him like a crazy person and tells him some things can't be undone, but Pete promises to be a different man, one not arrogant enough to think he can do whatever he wants and not lose her. She says she never stopped loving him, and well, now they're reunited and it feels so good.
After watching these characters for so long, pushing towards maturity in fits and starts, evolving and regressing at various points, it's satisfying to see them doing the latter, in ways that feel honest and hard earned.
See you next week for the finale.