‘Mad Men’
Season 7, Episode 13, ‘The Milk and Honey Route’

The penultimate episode of “Mad Men” was a sparse affair, cast-wise, with almost no time spent in the McCann Erickson offices and several key players AWOL. There was no Peggy, no Roger and, of course, no Joan. There was, however, plenty of Betty (January Jones), the character who’s tended, over the seasons, to be forgotten the most, and who usually garners complaints whenever she appears. If you’ve spent most if not all of the show’s run hating her, then don’t you feel bad after this episode? Because creator Matthew Weiner went and gifted her with terminal lung cancer. She’ll live maybe a year, but only with lots of bothersome chemotherapy. 

This wasn’t a mere cheap ploy for sympathy, though. Betty didn’t crumble upon hearing the news. In fact, she stayed resilient, tough. She decided to think things through, much to the irritation of her ever-irritated second husband, Henry (Christopher Stanley). And when she made up her mind, it was to skip treatment and live whatever time she had in relative peace, not hooked up to machines and doped up on medication. She wasn’t even bitter; she acknowledged that her life was, at least up to this point, one of relative privilege and happiness.

Is she delusional? Has Betty not read the recaps and think pieces that decry her and the actress who plays her as stilted killjoys? Then again, not all of us hated Betty, and perhaps even enjoyed her stealth strength, even her grouchiness after Don (Jon Hamm) vacated the premises. And some of us have enjoyed Jones herself, a limited actress who nevertheless could do Betty, and over the years found myriad ways to squeeze sneaky personality into her compartamentalized performance. Jones played — or plays, since Betty ain’t dead yet — her as someone trapped within a body, communicating her discomfort subtly through eyes and limited but always telling body movement. Jones has moved with poise and precision. And yet Betty was still mysterious. She could be annoying, she could be childish, but she also came to understand the difference between giving up and accepting fate. And when she asserted that she was OK with encroaching death, one has to admit she was ultimately unknowable in a way that make it hard to reduce her to likable or not.

The episode was a three-way split between Betty as well as Don and another character who largely retreated to the background over the seasons, Pete (Vincent Kartheiser). Pete is finally treated like a rock star, courted, including by good old Duck Phillips (Mark Moses), for a job that would take him to the Midwest, and he even winds up convincing his ex, Trudy (Alison Brie), to reunite. At first it seems like this will take a darker, arguably more truthful path. Pete has been worming his way back into Trudy’s life, and finally Trudy will have no more. “I’m jealous of your ability to be sentimental about the past,” she tells him. “I remember things as they were.” But this is the end of the show and Pete — poor, puppydog, vaguely silly Pete — gets his wish just five screen minutes later.

Don’s symbolic journeys through the middle of America wound up with a symbolic flat tire, despositing him in a Nowhere, Oklahoma motel, where all he can do is plow through paperbacks and pay through the nose from a bottle of Old Granddad. For awhile this feels like a weirdo spinoff — like that time “Gilmore Girls” tried to launch a series about Milo Ventimiglia’s character hanging out with his estranged dad, played by the guy from “Silk Stockings.” But it builds to the show’s other bombshell: Don, drunk at the VA, confesses that he “killed” Don Draper. He doesn’t confess to nicking his identity, but he says that which he never told anyone. And then, in maybe the best joke of the show, it winds up being a fat anticlimax. They don’t care, and when they wind up busting into his motel room and beating him for something, it’s for a crime he didn’t commit. Both of the bombshells in this episode are part of long cons: we likely spent the entire run of the show waiting for Don’s past to come back; we waited for Betty to just disappear already. And both have wound up with endings we didn’t expect. Don, lost in America, jobless but carelessly wealthy, officially no longer matters. And like Betty, he’s amazed that he’s fine with that.

Token stray observations:
— The dream Don has at the beginning is “Mad Men” at its most infuriatingly on-the-nose: “We need to know what you’re doing?” grills the cop who pulled him over as he drives with no real end in sight. Get it!
— This was a good episode for retro paperbacks, from a bored Don plowing through “The Godfather,” “The Andromeda Strain” and James Michener’s “Hawaii” to Betty reading Alberto Moravia’s “Women of Rome,” about life under Mussolini.
— I have nothing original to say about Sally (Kiernan Shipka), except poor Sally.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge