I've always loved the word penultimate, ever since I learned what it meant as a child. And, as an adult—and a semi-professional appreciator of stories—I've always loved the concept. Endings are endings—good or bad, happy or sad, satisfying or disappointing—but there's something marvelously evocative about the penultimate chapter in a book, the penultimate episode in a series. It is the second to last piece of the story, but in a way it is the very last chance for we, the audience, to be active participants in the telling. At the end of the penultimate chapter, there are still possibilities: the door is still open for us to either imagine the perfect conclusion that we want, or else to imagine the story going on forever, a tale without an ending. At the end of the final chapter, that door slams shut: speculation ceases; imagination is thwarted; the last piece of the puzzle is in place, and the picture is sadly and definitively complete.

This coming Sunday, Mad Men will be over. The full shape of Matthew Weiner's seven-year tale will be visible, and all our wondering about where the show would go, and what would happen to the characters, will come to an end as well. Every good story is in some sense a mystery, and isn't it always a little disappointing—a little anti-climactic, a little unsatisfying, a little sad—when the answer to a mystery is finally revealed? We thought we wanted to know, but what we really enjoyed was the not knowing. The period of not knowing is when the story truly lives in us: in the final chapter, the author yanks it back from us, and pins it down on paper in a way that makes it smaller, somehow, than it was when it was ours.

(Endings are mixed blessings. I regret nothing in television history so much as the fact that David Milch's Deadwood never got its fourth and final season. And yet I wonder if I'm not happier just leaving those character forever where I saw them last, the thwarted final chapters a lost masterpiece made all the more perfect for being forever untold. Might I not love Joss Whedon's Firefly all the more because the vast bulk of it exists only in the imagination? Might I not love his Buffy the Vampire Slayer a little less for telling me about two seasons more than I really wanted to know? And I am certain that I would have been much happier not watching the final hour of Breaking Bad. If I had stopped at that show's penultimate episode, my memories of the entire series would be much fonder.)

I'm writing about all of this, this week, because I don't want to be writing about it next week. I don't want to spend all of next week's review talking about how the series finale did, or didn't, do Mad Men justice. (It probably won't, and it probably can't, and we probably shouldn't expect it to.) Mad Men is a study in change, a time-lapse documentation of evolution and adaptation, of constant reinvention. It has never been about any single moment, any single episode, any single scene or hour or even season. (I know plenty of people who have watched one episode, or a handful of episodes, and reported that they don't understand what all the fuss is about. Of course they don't: Mad Men's pleasures are more gradual, tracing changes in character and culture that seem almost imperceptible while they're happening, but which seem radical and transformative when we look back.)

Cliché though it is to say, Mad Men has always been about the journey, not the destination. Next week, that journey comes to an end. I'm sure that, even after the finale, we will still be able to speculate—if we want to—about the fates of most of the characters. (It would be extremely uncharacteristic of Matthew Weiner to just kill everyone in a fiery conflagration, and I think it would be fairly uncharacteristic of him to not leave us with a certain amount of ambiguity: he knows what his show is about.) But those speculations will not be the same. Mad Men will be a closed and complete thing, into which we can keep excavating, and out of which we can keep extrapolating. But Mad Men itself will be over; the process of guided, participatory imagination that is the strange and inexplicable magic of storytelling will come to an end.

So, this week, let's forget about the impending ultimate and celebrate the penultimate. This is our last chance to be active participants in the tale, our last opportunity to bring our own theories, hopes, and expectations to the table. ("That's the best opportunity in the world," Don said recently, of an empty slate for the imagination.) For us—for everyone, in fact, except Matthew Weiner and his team—the final chapter of Mad Men is still an empty page, the rest of the story still gloriously unwritten and infinite.

I'd like to enjoy it while it lasts, because I don't really want it to be over.

"You're a very lucky woman: you have been your whole life." — Henry, to Betty

Betty (January Jones) in The Milk and Honey Route

If we all stop watching Mad Men right now, Betty will be just fine.

Okay, she has cancer: lung cancer that has spread to her bones and lymph nodes. The prognosis is bad: she has nine months, perhaps a year. The treatment options available to her, the doctor tells Henry, are mostly palliative.

But as long as we don't watch "Person to Person" next week, Betty will be okay. She'll quit smoking and go into remission; she'll find a miracle cure through Nelson Rockefeller's connections; she'll wake up on her fainting couch to discover it's all been a dream, and go outside in her bathrobe to idly shoot some pigeons. Betty will continue on with college, continue the path of self-discovery and independence that she—fashionably late to the women's liberation party—had really just begun to travel. Betty will live, and grow old, and have the kind of friendship with her daughter that both of them were just about at a point of being able to enjoy. Betty, the luckiest, and most perfect, and most proper of women, will be just fine.

But of course, Betty will not be fine, and she never really was. More than any other person on the show, Betty represents the American dream from which America—during the show's long run—has slowly been awakening. In 1960, when the show began, Don and Betty were the vision of the perfect couple: the handsome business man going to the office in his suit and hat, and the beautiful blonde wife at home with a frilly apron over her pretty dress. They were the couple on the wedding cake, the poster-children of suburbia, the perfect embodiment of a 1950s-era ideal of the nuclear American family that still persists today.

Of course, it was always an illusion: that's one of the central themes Mad Men started out exploring. (The cancer, if you like, was present all along.) Back in the pilot episode—which, incidentally, was all about smoking—Betty was the last person we saw: we met Don's bohemian mistress even before we met his suburban wife. So the perfect life in the 'burbs with a picket fence and 2.5 children was always a lie, but it was a necessary lie. It was the lie to which everyone aspired, the lie for which Dick Whitman destroyed his old life, the lie Don Draper was so desperate to protect that he let his brother die. That life was the very definition of status and success, of being okay, of being a good American. It was unthinkable to lose it—remember the scandal when the first divorced woman moved into the neighborhood?—and it almost destroyed Don when he did finally lose it. (He spent much of the next season in a pathetic, drunken abyss, paying whores to slap him around.)

But Don adapted, eventually, as a number of people—notably Megan—helped usher him into a different vision of what life could be. But Betty never really did adapt, did she? While Don eventually moved on to a younger, hipper wife, Betty immediately moved on to an older, more old-fashioned man who could give her a more stable version of the only life she could imagine. As Don moved into the '60s and '70s, Betty moved further back into the '40s and '50s, her life with Henry Francis frequently resembling a Normal Rockwell painting. Betty had been raised to be exactly what she was, and she couldn't conceive of any other definition of what she should be. In a show about change, Betty was largely a fixed point.

So—to the extent that Mad Men was always about the death of that particular American dream in the 1960s—we should have seen this coming. It makes sense that Betty will die as a the 1970s begin, and there's even a perverse, tragic logic in her death coming just at the moment when she finally began to change. Betty was too much exactly who she was to really change: that was Betty's curse and charm. She was the personification of a vision of America that ultimately could not change, and could not survive.

Sally (Kiernan Shipka) and Betty (January Jones) in The Milk and Honey Route

But that's Betty as a symbol: it's Betty as a person who I'm going to miss, and I'm a little surprised at how much I'm going to miss her. She has had absolutely glorious moments. (Shooting the neighbors' pigeons is still the highlight for me.) She has had absolutely hateful moments. (Unceremoniously firing Carla–who practically raised her children—is probably her low-point as a human being.) But there is something admirable and indomitable about Betty precisely because she never changes; she may be a symbol of an American ideal that America refuses to relinquish, but January Jones translated that symbolism into a character who is remarkably and endearingly resilient.

I mean, try to imagine Betty going through all those 1960s transformations that we've seen some other characters go through. Betty gets a job at the agency and ascends in the ranks as a copywriter? Betty gets a swinging pad in the city? Betty moves to a commune and hangs out with hippies? Betty becomes a Hare Krishna? Betty grows a porn stache? It would all be terribly, terribly wrong. Betty doesn't need to constantly reinvent herself: almost alone among the major characters, she has a perfect vision of the person she's supposed to be, and it's the rest of the world changing around her all the time that mucks that up.

There is something childish—and even selfish—in Betty's adherence to her own self-image. (There is something childish and selfish in the vision of America she represents.) And there have certainly been times over the years when I felt like Matthew Weiner judged Betty, not necessarily unfairly, but with a certain amount of meanness. (Her fat-suit days in Season Five were regrettable.) And when I heard the cancer diagnosis, my initial reaction was that it was a cruel final fate for a strong but often mistreated character.

Yet "The Milk and Honey Route" does not judge Betty—in fact, it celebrates her. Betty was raised to be the perfect wife, the perfect mother, the perfect hostess: now, we see her determination to have the perfect death, and there's something heartbreakingly admirable in that. She will not subject herself to physical indignities; she will not subject her family to months of misery and caretaking; she will not have anyone remember her as less than perfect. Even her final instructions for her burial—about her hair, her dress, her lipstick—speak to her determination to preserve the self-image that has been the entire core of her self-identity. "You must immediately tell the hospital and the funeral director that I am to be interred intact," her letter to Sally says. Betty was always intact, and she is determined to remain intact.

And her final words to her daughter in the letter speak to an understanding of herself, and her own inability to change. "Sally, I always worried about you, because you march to the beat of your own drum. But now I know that's good. I know your life will be an adventure." Betty's life was not an adventure, and she did not march to her own drum: she marched, all her life, to the same exact rhythms that had been set for her from childhood, even after the rest of the country began listening to a different beat. But she can admire her brave daughter, and wish adventures for her that Betty herself not only couldn't have, but couldn't even want.

If this is Betty's last appearance—and I'll be surprised if the finale doesn't open after her death—Betty gets to go out as a grown-up, centered, and strong, and absolutely true to herself. "I don't want you to think I'm a quitter," she tells her daughter. "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."

Sally and Henry in The Milk and Honey Route

And Sally, too, becomes a grown-up in "The Milk and Honey Route." This, in retrospect, is the other narrative reason that Betty had to die: because Mad Men was always, on one level, about The Education of Sally Draper. There are other children on the show—including Sally's two brothers—but Sally is the only one who is a major character. She is the next generation, the inheritor of the country that this generation leaves behind.

I suspect we will get to talk about Sally—a lot—next week, so I'm not going to do it here, except to say that Kiernan Shipka is a marvel, and Sally's arc in this episode is stunning. When first we see her, talking to her father, she's the independent, slightly cynical teen-age wise-ass that she has become. Then, when she gets the news about her mother from Henry, Sally's facade crumbles: she covers her ears like a very small child, as if not hearing the truth will somehow make it not real. This only lasts a few moments, however. "It's okay to cry, honey," Henry tells her, but it's he who breaks down, and in an instant Sally is forced to become the adult, the one who comforts him. (Later, when we see her come home, the first thing she does is take care of her younger brothers, sitting down at the head of the table.)

"Henry's not going to be able to handle things," Betty says, when she gives Sally the letter. It's a passing of the generational torch, and—when Sally disregards instructions, and reads the letter ahead of time to prepare herself—it's an acceptance of responsibility. Sally Draper has become a grown up.

"We're not even through half our lives. And even if we are, we're entitled to more." — Pete

Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) and Trudy (Alison Brie)

Who would ever have predicted that—of all the characters—Pete Campbell would get a happy ending? And yet that's what seems to happen in "The Milk and Honey Route," as Pete is on a winning streak. He gets a lucrative new job offer from LearJet (courtesy of Duck Phillips, who now appears to be a headhunter). He gets an offer to move to Wichita, where it's "wholesome," and away from the city he says has "become a toilet." Most importantly, he reconciles with Trudy, in a 4 a.m. declaration of love and hope.

I confess, I'm conflicted on how to take this. (We'll leave aside my biased conviction that Trudy could do much, much better than Pete.) On the one hand, Pete and Trudy have always been mini-Don and mini-Betty: they had the bad luck to be aspiring to that same perfect American life at the exact moment that it was being stripped of its illusions of perfection. "Pete has spent his whole life trying to be something that is now going out of style," I wrote in my review of "Signal 30" (the episode that included Pete getting a much-deserved beating from Lane). "He's become everything his society told him he should be, in order to be liked, but no one likes him. He's achieved everything he was supposed to achieve, but […] he has nothing."

So there's something ironic and untrustworthy in Pete and Trudy renewing their commitment to that outdated vision at the same time the avatar of it (Betty) is dying. From a symbolic standpoint, I wonder if Weiner isn't saying something about the lingering fondness for that wholesome vision of America that still lives on today (in Kansas and plenty of other places). Old-fashioned American values didn't die, they just moved out of the big cities and into the heartland of America: isn't that the message that conservative politicians are still peddling?

But again, that's the symbolic level. On a character level, I feel a little warmer towards Pete and Trudy, and a little more optimistic. "It doesn't last long," Duck says of the kind of winning streak Pete is on, and I tend to agree: my confidence in the long-term sustainability of the Campbell's second marriage is slight. But on the other hand, there's something to be said for the way they're going into it, with their eyes wide open: they are not simply being drawn along on the conveyor belt of cultural expectations as they were when they were younger, but making a conscious decision to embrace the life they want even knowing its flaws.

"You know, I'm jealous of your ability to be sentimental about the past," Trudy has said, earlier in the episode. "I'm unable to do that. I remember things as they were." But that's good: remembering things as they were is what will give them a chance this time. Pete, too, has grappled a little with the past, as his conversation with his brother reveals. "I think it feels good, and then it doesn't," Pete says. He's talking about philandering, but he's also talking about the larger issue that plagues almost all of Mad Men's characters: "always looking for something better, always looking for something else." Just as there's something admirable in Betty's refusal to change, there is something sweetly optimistic in Pete and Trudy daring to imagine that the life they thought they wanted, way back when, is the right life for them after all.

"You just do what you have to do to come home." — Del

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in The Milk and Honey Route

I have less to say about Don's story this week: pontification about what it all means is probably best postponed for next week. For now, in this penultimate episode, Don is on the journey, not at the destination. And it is framed very much as a journey to the Promised Land. (Biblical references abound: the title refers to a region in Israel, and the motel Don stays in is called the "Sharon Motel.")

The Promised Land, as we well know from years of watching Mad Men, is West: that's the direction Don is headed—the Grand Canyon is on the itinerary he describes to Sally—and I'll be shocked if next week doesn't find him, at last, in California. But it's important to note that his exodus this week takes him through the exact same ground that Pete is gazing fondly towards as a beautiful and wholesome place: Kansas, the heartland of America. And it does seem like a friendly, old-fashioned place of simple people with good American values—right up until the moment Don finds himself being beaten with a phone book in his motel room.

It is somehow appropriate that Don would need to venture through this territory, and suffer trials and tribulations, in order to reach whatever his destination is. It is not a literal return to his roots—Dick Whitman was born in Illinois—but it's a spiritual one, a journey back among the kind of poor country folk he left behind when he assumed Donald Draper's identity. It's a return to a simpler way of life—where being able to fix a Coke machine is more important than any of Don's more erudite skills—and a confrontation (through the American Legion) with the person he was at the moment of his transformation in Korea. "I dropped my lighter, and I blew him apart," he says, of the real Donald Draper. "And I got to go home." That, the other veterans agree, is "the name of the game": doing what you have to do to go home.

But Dick Whitman never went home: he ran, and he's been running ever since, always chasing that "something better, something else." The man who became Don Draper never really had a home. "I was surprised you ever loved me," he told Betty once. "I never saw myself working in a place like this," he said to Roger, when they closed the first Sterling Cooper. "This place reeks of failure," his real estate agent said recently, of his apartment with Megan. "Home," as we learned from Don's greatest pitch ever, is "a place where we know we are loved." Don has never really found that place, in part because he could never stop looking for it.

So of course his exodus through the heartland of America brings him face-to-face with a version of himself. (Don has been prone to these encounters with doppelgängers over the years, like the young soldier he met in "The Doorway.") This time it's a young grifter named Andy (Carter Jenkins), and Don recognizes enough of himself in the boy right from the start to bother correcting his grammar. You want to make something of yourself, you need to learn to play the part, he seems to be saying, because that's something Don knows all about. When he learns just how much Andy is like him, however, he has a few words of caution that come from a hard-earned understanding of his own long journey. "You'll have to become somebody else, and that's not what you think it is," he warns the boy. "You cannot get off on that foot in this life."

He bails the boy out of trouble—taking Andy's sins on himself, in return for all the sins he himself never paid for—but ironically he also gives Andy the opportunity to reinvent himself. He gives the boy his Cadillac—the symbol of what he has achieved through his own transformation—and tells him "the pink slip is in the glove box." But the name on that pink slip, of course, is "Donald Draper."

So, in this penultimate episode of Mad Men, I'm not even sure it's accurate to call our protagonist by that name. I'm not sure it's accurate to call him by any name, in fact, because he's not Dick Whitman anymore either. Sitting by the side of the road, halfway across America, halfway between the past and the future, he is no one, a wanderer, a hobo like the ones he met as a boy. He is homeless, but he is a blank slate, and that is the best opportunity in the world.

When last we see him, he is smiling: he is all about the journey, with no destination. And part of me wants to leave him right there.

NEXT: Episode 7×14 – "Person to Person"

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