This Week on Dear Television:
- “The Choice is Yours,” from Evan Kindley
The Choice is Yours
By Evan Kindley
May 11, 2015
Mad Men’s last couple of episodes suggested a terminal arc for the season (and the series): the dissolution of Sterling Cooper, and the loss of the collective identity that had defined Mad Men’s characters. These episodes had narrative and thematic momentum: they introduced changes that affected every single character, and they were rife with sociological detail about corporate life, gender relations, and professional ambition.
This week was different. The death of Sterling Cooper is a fait accompli, and the novelistic surge we’ve felt at our backs for the past two weeks has receded like the tide. What remains is what we’ve had since the beginning of this final season: the knowledge that we’re running out of road, and that the show will have to come to a stop somewhere, somehow. The episode played out like a Mad Men Choose Your Own Adventure, offering us three discrete endings for the series in as many genres: the sentimental ending (the unlikely reconciliation of Pete and Trudy); the tragic ending (the impending death of Betty Francis); and the picaresque ongoing non-ending (Don on the road).
Let’s start with the sentimental ending. Pete Campbell has proven to be a surprisingly resilient character throughout Mad Men’s run, and he’s apparently the only Sterling Cooper employee who’s thriving at McCann Erickson. (“One month and you’re already the Mayor,” Duck Phillips observes.) His good luck in this penultimate episode arrives as a windfall — Duck “trick[s him] into a job interview” with an executive at Learjet, and his alleged WASP charm does the rest. Pete’s response to this good fortune is to ask Trudy to join him in Wichita. This is probably the closest we’re going to get to a happy ending for anyone on this show, and even here there’s room for doubt: Does Pete go back to Trudy out of a genuine love for her, or is there a cynical calculation here too — he needs a wife in order to play the part of the reputable Ivy League businessman? (“We’re entitled to more. We’re entitled to something new,” he tells Trudy, and “entitled” is the key word here.) From an audience perspective, though, this hardly matters: we’ve always known Pete is an operator, and as Lili expressed at the beginning of the season, his relationship with Trudy is one that fans care about, and want to see resolved. With a show as unsentimental as Mad Men, we’ll take what we can get.
To my mind, the tragic plot, in which Betty suddenly learns she has advanced lung cancer, was less successful. Certainly it’s a bold move, to give a fatal disease to a major character in the second-to-last episode of the series — and in the Mother’s Day episode, no less. (As Gerry Canavan commented on Twitter, it should have come with a trigger warning.) There is a certain logic to this development: her mother’s death from cancer is what set off her depression and led Betty to seek therapy in season one, and of course she, like all of the other characters, has been smoking heavily throughout. “You’re a very lucky woman. You have been your whole life,” Henry reminds her, underscoring the cruel Friedanian fate that has always stalked Betty: she’s perfect, she’s beautiful, she has it all, she must suffer. If there were more than one episode left to go, I would be less skeptical, waiting for Betty to move past what seems to be her stoic acceptance of death to something deeper and rawer. But I suspect this may be the last we see of Betty (and perhaps of Sally, too?), and the erasure of the emotional distance that’s been growing between them over the course of the series felt too abrupt. “I always worried about you because you marched to the beat of your own drum, but now I know that’s good,” Betty writes in her final letter to Sally. “Because your life will be an adventure.” To me, this felt like a stretch — much less in character than her very specific instructions about how her hair should be styled at her funeral.
This leaves us with Don, killing time at the Sharon Motel in Oklahoma, flipping through paperbacks and waiting for his Cadillac to get fixed. Many viewers (including our own Phil Maciak) have looked forward to the decentering of Don, and now we’ve sort of got it: he still has more screen time than any other character, but he’s not at the center of anything anymore, and we’re no longer encouraged to invest much in his hopes and dreams. No one back on the East Coast seems to care about him much; we learn in passing that he is being replaced at McCann Erickson, and it’s significant that his name doesn’t come up at all in any of the conversations surrounding Betty’s illness. “You knew we’d catch up with you eventually,” the patrolman tells him in his dream at the beginning of the episode, but no one seems particularly eager to find him.
Instead, he’s drifting through other people’s lives, suspiciously out of place and yet basically ancillary to the action. His secrets aren’t even secrets anymore: when he tells his new drinking buddies at the VFW hall that he killed his commanding officer (the real Don Draper, though he doesn’t tell that part), the holiest of holies at the center of his psychological labyrinth, they react nonchalantly: “That is the name of the game.” A few hours later, they’re beating him up in his motel room, but only because they mistakenly believe him to have stolen from their collection plate. He’s being punished for crimes he didn’t commit, not the ones he has.
This, by any conventional standard, is the wrong way to wrap up the story. Hasn’t this always been an ensemble show? Isn’t it a show about the advertising industry? About the 1960s? About New York? Yet I sort of love this slackening of the narrative, this allowance that, after all, there is a world beyond Madison Avenue. Watching “The Milk and Honey Route,” I found myself imagining another season of the show — or another show entirely — in which Don simply drifts from place to place, gradually forgetting his identity and occasionally taking on new ones. (Despite his warning to young Andy about the dangers of “becoming someone else,” we saw him indulge in it as recently as last episode, when he assumed the identity of researcher Bill Phillips.) Maybe I’m alone in this, but I would watch Jon Hamm in a kind of beatnik Quantum Leap.
I have a feeling that next week’s finale will double down on this development: hobo Don, AWOL Don, the Don without qualities. We might not see New York at all. We might not get any callbacks to previous episodes. We might see a man who is not Don Draper, or Dick Whitman — who isn’t anybody, really. Of course, I’ve been wrong before.
I’ve learned to believe people when they tell you it’s over,