Mad Men Recap Season 7 Episode 13 (Original airdate Sunday, May 10): “The road the real hobo follows is never ending. It is always heading into the sunset of promise,” says the author of The Milk and Honey Route, a 1930s handbook for hobos — also the title of the penultimate Mad Men episode. “You follow on hopefully from one bend in the road, until in the end you step off a cliff.” Which brings us to Don, waking up alone in a Kansas motel and discussing his proposed route toward the Grand Canyon on the phone with Sally
Don’s Muskokie nightmare, featuring an officer pulling him over on a dark highway — “You knew we’d catch up with you eventually,” the cop gloats — also chimes a note of longing. The officer says they’ve been looking for him, but no one actually is. When Duck Phillips, now an executive recruiter, turns up in the elevator with Pete, Pete assumes McCann has hired him to find a replacement for Don.
Not so. Duck is there to trick Pete into an interview with Lear Jet, which needs a marketing director. Pete wants nothing to do with Duck or his suspect offer. What he really wants is Trudy and Tammy and the life he forfeited through serial infidelity. “I think it feels good and then it doesn’t,” Pete advises his philandering brother.
The affection we saw between Pete and Trudy over Tammy’s school rejection continues here as Pete brings Tammy home early from an outing because of a bee sting. He’s treated it with toothpaste, and offers to take Trudy and Tammy to lunch, but under the judgy eye of her friend and tennis partner, Trudy declines. Tennis Friend embarks on some ex-bashing – Friendenfreude, anyone? – but Trudy says a real friend wouldn’t constantly remind her of past sorrows.
Don’s car breaks down in Oklahoma, and the tow-truck driver drops him off at a middle-of-nowhere motel, stranding Don while the local mechanic orders parts. His only luggage is a Sears bag. The motel owners’ leftovers as room service, shifty teenage handyman, lots of questions about Don’s past – what could possibly go wrong?
Betty collapses at school, and is taken to the hospital by college boys who check her in under the name Mrs. Robinson. The doctor finds a broken rib, and late stage lung cancer, metastasized elsewhere, with slim hope of anything beyond palliative care. Henry is frantic; Betty’s not. He researches doctors and treatments and rushes to Sally’s school to spill the beans and recruit Sally to talk Betty into treatment. As Henry breaks down, Sally is once again the only adult in the family, comforting him instead of crying herself.
When Sally and Henry arrive in the Francis kitchen, Betty realizes Henry has told her and marches out. Sally takes Betty’s usual seat at the kitchen table while the unsuspecting boys do homework. Gene climbs into Sally’s lap and she absently kisses his cheek, already becoming the mom they’ve never had in Betty.
Betty wakes Sally in the night to level with her about the cancer. Sally pleads for her to try treatment, and Betty refuses because it’s hopeless. Sally protests, but Betty’s resolved. “I’ve learned to believe people when they tell you it’s over,” she says. “They don’t want to say it, so it’s usually the truth. … It’s been a gift to me, to know when to move on.” Sally accuses her of loving the tragedy of it. She watched her own mother die, and won’t put Sally through it, Betty snaps. She hands Sally a sealed envelope and tells her to open it the moment she hears Betty is dead, as she knows Henry won’t be able to handle things. In the morning, Sally reads it. The letter is believably shallow, with a focus on how Betty will be arrayed for burial – the blue chiffon, the lipstick from her purse, hair done the way she likes to wear it – but ends with the one golden gift Betty can bestow on the daughter she’s never liked much: words of approval, and an “I love you,” in writing and irrevocable.
Pete and Duck continue their bizarre dance regarding the position Duck needs to fill at Lear Jet, with Duck cajoling Pete into meeting with Lear again on Saturday night, a dinner with the Lear rep and their wives. Pete tries to recruit Trudy, who refuses, offended by his nostalgia for their marriage. “I’m jealous of your ability to be sentimental about the past. I’m not able to do that – I remember things as they were,” she says before shooing him out of the house.
But Trudy doesn’t relish turning Pete down. And even though Pete stands up Lear on Saturday night, Duck works a new angle – that Pete was insulted by the offer. Pete is horrified that Duck has spoken with Jim Hobart about Lear Jet as a possible future client, as a way to soften Jim – and the financial penalties – should Pete wish to accept a Lear offer. “You are charmed, my friend,” Duck drunkenly crows. “I’ve been there, and it doesn’t last long.” But it lasts long enough for Pete to convince Trudy to marry him again so they can start over in Wichita.
The sketchy Handy Boy bilks Don for extra cash after bringing him books and whiskey from town. The mechanic will overcharge him but do a good job on his car, the motel owner’s wife tells him. And everyone keeps fishing around about whether Don is a veteran. A highly unlikely woman appears on a poolside chaise, dozing beneath a copy of Alberto Moravia’s The Woman of Rome – is she a figment of Don’s imagination? – but jostling kids arrive and the spell is quickly broken.
When his car is finally finished, Don is ready to settle up and leave Creepville, but the motel owner pressures him to stay one more night. Despite the usual Draper instinct to get out while the getting’s good, Don stays, and attends an American Legion meeting. As the stranger in town, Don’s the focus of the evening – they’ve all heard each other’s stories already.
Don shares the Draper credentials – lieutenant, 7th Infantry, Korea before it was called a war. When he’s drunk enough, and has heard the gruesome war stories of WWII-era Legion members, Don tells them he killed his commanding officer. It was a terrible accident, but his survivor guilt is plain.
The American Legion rubes are robbed, and accuse Don, beating him and taking his car keys until they get the money back. In the morning, Don scares Handy Boy straight, telling him he’s a lousy con man, and that if he keeps the money, a major crime, he has to become someone else. “You cannot get off on that foot in this life,” Don warns. “You think this town is bad now? Wait until you can never come back.” Don cares enough to keep correcting the kid’s grammar.
Handy Boy brings Don the money. Don presents it to the motel owner, collects his car keys, and refuses to pay for his room. The chastened kid asks for a ride to the bus. Don agrees, but when they get to the bus stop, Don tosses the boy his car keys and tells him the pink slip is in the glove box. “Don’t waste this,” Don advises as Handy Boy incredulously accepts his “do over” and drives away.
Don sits on the bench of a bus stop in the middle of nowhere, possessions now whittled down to a bag he can easily shoulder. He is alone, at a crossroads, smiling as Buddy Holly sings us through the credits: “Every day, it’s a-gettin’ closer/Goin’ faster than a rollercoaster/Love like yours will surely come my way.” It seems Weiner wants us to have hope.