The Sunset of Promise

all images courtesy of AMC

all images courtesy of AMC

(“The Milk and Honey Route”; Season 7, Episode 13)

I was always a little afraid Betty Draper might grow up to be Livia Soprano. When I tried to imagine her future, I came up short. I couldn’t quite concoct a fantasy scenario for her. Like Joan and Peggy, she seemed ill-suited for the role she’d been raised to play. But unlike them, Betty never seemed to be reaching for much. She didn’t engage with the world. She always seemed like a supremely disappointed woman, stuck in the body of an angel. She wasn’t happy, and though she sometimes had plenty of reason not to be, the question also remained: what exactly would make her happier?

Seventh and eight grade were rough years for me. I hated school. I felt out of place and hopeless. It was hard to get out of bed in the morning. I constantly felt like crying. I started dreading Monday mornings as soon as I’d left school on Friday afternoons. Sunday nights, with the school week ahead, were almost unbearable. My mom was good to me during those years, understanding and gentle. She concocted an arrangement that allowed me to leave school early each day and study with my grandma, a recently retired English and Spanish teacher. My grandma and I read Shakespeare aloud together, and she taught me how to diagram sentences. My mom took me to the movies and snuggled with me and made sure I got to do theater and helped me try a million ways to make things work. I have one really clear memory of her giving me a popsicle on a Sunday night. Neither of them ever told me to “get over it” or "be happy". Now, I see that depression for what it was, and I see that those two women were my saviors and my champions.

I still feel close to that suffocating feeling. “The Sundays,” we call it, though the day of the week doesn’t matter anymore. When it visits now, the difference is that I know, at least intellectually, that it won’t always be acute. I didn’t know that then.

I’m afraid Betty never learned that. She didn’t have the language. She was raised, like Joan, like a generation of women, to be admired. She was told that her heart should be fulfilled by her beautiful home and healthy family.

When we first meet Betty Draper, we’re struck by the clarity of her beauty, then by her childlike manners beside the jaded Sterlings, and finally by the fact that something’s wrong with her. Her hands are going numb and she doesn't know why. She has a slight, almost imperceptible stutter; she’s almost a little breathless. She’s in mourning for her mother, she’s short with her kids, petty with her friends, consumed by her husband. She has nothing to occupy her mind, and it’s a mind that needs occupying. Most of Betty’s ugliness over the years—disappointment, contempt, irritation, desperation, jealousy, cruelty–has always looked to me like “depression talking.” She lets an innocent mistake by her son, trading away her sandwich because he didn’t think she wanted it, ruin her entire day, lets herself recklessly ruin his as well. She holds a grudge. She sees the worst. She is cynical, unforgiving, and sour.

Betty’s husbands, in their own ways, try. Don Draper is constantly unfaithful, and essentially dishonest. When she accuses him of cheating, he shuts her out and ridicules her. But if it’s possible to put that aside for a moment, it’s worth remembering that Don worries about her. He tries to help her make things work. He’s just not equipped for it. The analysis, the modeling, the trip to Rome, the “everything's gonna be okay” approach. It’s all he knows to try, and it doesn’t work.

Henry’s house is calmer, but the darkness still accompanies Betty. Without any champions with the proper instincts to buoy her, without a society that invites her to find purpose, without the knowledge to understand herself, Betty sinks. She is paralyzed and, finally, warped by her melancholy. “Incapable of experiencing joy.”

I’m not calling Betty a victim. I’ve just always had a hard time calling her a bitch. That guy from “Revenge” was right: she is profoundly sad. And she doesn’t ever figure out how to deal with that, so her life never feels quite like her own.

Lately, I’d started to hope. Betty seemed serene and good-humored in the past few episodes. With Glen, she was more like an adult than she’d ever been with him. She treated Sally with some patience. She appreciated Don uncomplicatedly, but kept him at an appropriate arm’s length. Betty’s decision to go back to school, to study psychology, slayed me. I thought, “Yes, Matt Weiner. You’ve found the solution to Betty.” I started allowing myself to imagine elderly Betty not as a “poor you” black hole, but as one of those rather twisted but not ineffective therapists, her own issues still percolating and plaguing her family but not holding her backfrom living a fulfilling, active life. I found the idea hilarious and miraculous.

But it wasn’t to be. Things change in an instant Betty won’t be following that road.

In “The Milk and Honey Route,” Betty sits in the exam room, staring at her blighted X-ray, and listens to the doctor tell her husband–her husband, not her–her prognosis. The camera focuses on Betty from the side, Henry and the doctor out of focus behind her. I couldn’t help but think, in this moment, of Season 5’s “Tea Leaves,” when Betty has her first cancer scare, and her friend tells her, “It’s like you’re way out in the ocean, alone. And you’re paddling. And you see people on the shore, but they’re getting farther and farther away. And you struggle because it’s natural. Then your mind wanders back to everyone normal….and then you just get so tired. You just give in and hope you go straight down.”

Silent and still, Betty is already leaving. While Henry “chases his tail,” she remains stoic, almost unsurprised–a very Livia-like way of reacting, I suppose. She is mercilessly blunt with Henry, exasperated by his hope. (Also very Livia: “In the end, you die in your own arms...It’s all a big nothing. What makes you think you’re so special?”) Her mercy toward Sally comes not with any motherly comfort, but in her insistence that Sally not have to watch her die. It seems cold, but it shows a certain amount of care and attention to formality that is so very true to Betty’s nature.

The best “way in” to loving Betty has always been the details. Her character is realized so beautifully through them. Singin’ in the Rain is her favorite movie. She likes hot dogs. She reserves her most genuine smile for when she gets a compliment or feels a sense of power.

“Only boring people are bored.”

“It’s just, my people are Nordic.”

“Daddy used to fine us for small talk.”

“And put my hair up, like this.”

“I’ve fought for plenty in my life. 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.”

It’s Sally she trusts, in the end, with the important details of her death. Her instructions reveal a woman still heartbreakingly preoccupied with earthly things, but softened by the comfort of those same restrictions. She knows what to do, because this is what one does in such a situation. She lists these details lovingly:

“I’ve also enclosed a portrait from the 1968 Republican Winter Gala. The blue chiffon I wore is my very favorite. I hung it in a gold garment bag in the hall closet beside the mink. Please bring them the lipstick from my handbag, and remind them how I like to wear my hair. Will you show them the picture?”

And, at the last possible moment, Betty becomes Sally’s champion: “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.”

In her final act, Betty reaches for something. When Henry asks why she’s still going to class given her condition, she says with a smile, “Why was I ever doing it?” I hope she means that she was doing it because she’s always wanted to, and that that hasn’t changed. I hope she sees each excruciating step up the staircase as the victory it is, because she is finally fighting for something she knows she wants.

This is how Betty escapes Livia Soprano’s fate. She won’t have decades of disappointment to come. And she’s taking charge of the details of her own end, which is no small thing.

Knock ‘em dead, Birdie.

*

Who could ever have predicted that, in the penultimate episode of Mad Men, it would be Pete Campbell pulling a Don Draper?

And the craziest part is, I’m buying it. Trudy Campbell is perhaps the only woman ever portrayed on Mad Men who might actually want to inhabit the role she was raised for. Her marriage fell apart because she refused to tolerate blatant infidelity, but it had been crumbling for awhile because Pete didn’t want what she was offering. He didn’t want the beautiful home and family yet. He wanted the city, and success, and power, and to be desired. But he’s over that now. He calls the city “a toilet.” He’s spending time with Tammy. He’s content in his work. He is considerate and respectful of the women in his life, both professional and personal. When he asks Trudy to come to dinner with him, he puts it to her as an equal. This is a new dynamic between them. His proposal is, as he puts it, “supernatural,” but when you think about it, it’s been a long time coming. We might just be seeing the real thing here: change. “I’m not so dumb anymore.”

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“We both know that things can’t be undone,” says the ever-reasonable Trudy. “Says who?” replies Pete. He makes the case for starting over, tells her all the things we’ve always wanted him to, his voice almost unrecognizable with emotion. It’s very hard not to believe in what he’s saying. This is a type of speech we’ve heard before, more than once, from Don to Peggy, Betty, Megan, Lane, Ted, and from Pete himself, to Peggy. But this is the most convincing version of it. It’s more grounded, more earned. The language is romantic, and yet the frills are somehow stripped away. Pete wants to start over not by “always looking for something better, always looking for something new,” but by finally appreciating what he had from the start. We believe it. And, with Betty on our minds, we very much want it to work.

I kept it pretty well together until this scene. In the face of death, a wild, hopeful grasp at life by the most unlikely candidate. Pete Campbell for Most Improved Player. May his streak continue.

*

The episode’s title –"The Milk and Honey Route" – refers to a 1930 study called The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man:

“Any railroad running through a valley of plenty may be called a milk and honey line. But this is a transient term; what may be a milk and honey route to one hobo may not be so to another. A hobo may fare well on a route one time and another time fare ill. Again, it may be milk and honey for a road kid but not for an old timer.”

The last time Mad Men openly referenced hobos was in Season 1’s “The Hobo Code,” in which we see flashbacks of Dick Whitman’s father cheating a hobo who did some work for him at the farm. The hobo teaches young Dick the symbols hobos carve on fence posts outside of houses to communicate to each other about the inhabitants. When the hobo leaves the Whitman farm, Dick sees the carving he left: “a dishonest man lives here.” The memory drives Don Draper home to wake a sleeping Bobby and assure him urgently, “I will never lie to you.” Bobby, confused and sleepy, sits up and gives his dad a hug.

“The Milk and Honey Route” finds Don, apparently weeks after his escape from McCann, still on the road. He’s in touch with his family; he shares a light-hearted, fatherly call with Sally about sporting equipment and school trips. Talking to Sally, he echoes the words Betty used when she first found out about Dick Whitman (fittingly, in "The Gypsy and the Hobo") and she told him she’d always known he’d been poor: “You have no idea about money.”

Don and Sally’s relationship here is easy and honest. In an interview with The Nerdist, Matt Weiner spoke about the moment in The Sopranos (Season 1’s “College”) when Meadow asks Tony if he’s in the mafia. The understanding between the two of them is earth shattering because, Weiner explains, it blows what the audience expected would be a series-long story arc out of the water. She knows. She already knows. Now what? As Weiner put it, “I have another story to tell you.”

He goes on to say that the same thing happens in Mad Men when we learn that Megan knows about Dick Whitman. And now, in a more gentle way, the same thing has happened with Don and Sally. Sally knows about Dick Whitman. She knows Don cheats. She knows Don was fired. She knows he’s traveling right now, that he’s aimless. Don isn’t on the run: Mad Menhas another story to tell us.

I’ll pause here to make a little confession: this week’s recap is the hardest for me to write, because I find myself wanting to escape from the sadness of it all. Don’t get me wrong. I’m completely on board. This was utterly beautiful. “It’s something I couldn’t have imagined, yet exactly what I expected.” I feel equal parts devastated and grateful for the gift of this show, and the clearly dear thought that is put into every moment. I’m ready for next week. Don’s misadventure at the Bates-like motel is loaded with stuff to think about, but digging in feels more overwhelming this time. I’m fighting the urge to go binge watch Parks and Recreation and work on remembering that this is all fiction.

In Oklahoma, Don continues to let parts of himself drop away. He sees a beautiful woman at the pool, traces her body with his eyes, and then passes her by without breaking stride as he realizes she’s with her family. That never comes back. He tinkers and fixes things around the motel, like he did when he stayed with Anna in California. He allows himself to be drawn into a fundraiser at the local VFW and speaks aloud a truth we’ve never heard him voice before: “I killed my C.O.” And thus, the final secret of Dick Whitman is revealed. It’s received like any other old war story, with a slap on the back, another drink, and a chorus of “Over There,” which Don joins in lustily. It’s a surreal picture; Don belongs but doesn’t belong. And when the money goes missing, of course he’s the first suspect. Is it because he’s an outsider? Because of the secret he revealed? Is he once again being rejected after telling the truth? He doesn’t fight the charge; he knows who took the money, and he simply gets it back, returns it, and leaves.

Finally, Don lets the rest go. He passes on what knowledge he feels like sharing about how to start over, about the hobo life, to the clumsy young con man who stole the money. Pulling up to the bus stop, Don gives the road kid his Cadillac. “Don’t waste this.”

Back home, Sally is reading Betty’s letter. Betty is climbing the stairs. Pete is wishing Trudy a “good morning” (how very poetic, and yet how very Pete Campbell: it is morning, after all). Who knows what will happen next? But something tells me that Don’s shedding of his possessions, his career, his secrets, doesn’t mean he’s headed down a route that leads away from reality.

We leave Don sitting at the bus stop, alone. What a valuable and rare thing, to spend as much time with a character in solitude as we’ve spent with Don Draper. Right now, he looks like a little boy, a Sears bag balled up next to him, nothing else for miles around. Buddy Holly sings, “Every day, it’s a-gettin’ closer.” And Don smiles, unaware of the darkness awaiting him.

Go home, Don. You have one, and your children need you. You’re ready. Don’t waste this.

“The road the real hobo follows is never ending. It is always heading into the sunset of promise but it never fully keeps its promise. Thus the road the hobo roams always beckons him on, much as does the undealt card in a game of stud. Every new bend of the road is disillusioning but never disappointing, so that once you get the spirit of the hobo you never reach the stone wall of utter disillusionment. You follow on hopefully from one bend of the road to another, until in the end you step off the cliff.”


Erika Schmidt is an award-winning writer living in Berkeley, California. She is the 2013 recipient of the Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Award for short fiction. A graduate of Northwestern University's Creative Writing and Theatre Programs, she has trained as a writer at StoryStudio Chicago and Narrative Magazine, and as an actor at the School at Steppenwolf.