Don’s still on the road in ‘The Milk And Honey Route’; and, in a sense, on the run: as the opening dream sequence makes clear, he’s always worried that his Dick Whitman past will catch up with him one day. His car breaks down in Nowheresville, so he’s obliged to stay in a motel for a few days, where his room is cleaned by a young man on the make and, as we will discover, on the take. Before that there’s a lovely little throwaway: Don wanders out to the motel pool where a good-looking woman is sunbathing, her skin lightly anointed with oil. He appraises her, and we know, we just know, that within a few minutes she’s going to be astride him in his motel room… except her husband and children turn up, and the moment passes; as, perhaps, has the Don Draper we knew. “I was”, he says to the young hustler, “in the advertising business”.
Don later accompanies the motel owner to a Legion fundraiser, at which he starts off by saying he doesn’t like to talk about his wartime experiences – understandable – and then panics when introduced to someone who was also in Korea, although it turns out they were there at different times. He tosses out a detail of how he killed his CO, although by no means tells the whole story. Then the money raised goes missing; the locals are suspicious of Don, the wealthy stranger, and smack him about a bit in the hope of getting him to admit to stealing the cash. He didn’t take it, but he knows who did, and he gets the money back from the young conman, before the two of them hit the road, with no obvious plans apart from getting out of town.
One by one, though, the destiny of the characters is being revealed: a few major pieces have already been removed from the chessboard, and this week Pete is visited by an occasionally inebriated Duck (the great Mark Moses) who has a complicated plan which I didn’t quite follow, but the upshot of it all – whether by design or otherwise – is that Pete is offered a job with Learjet in Wichita. He asks Trudy to go with him and, inexplicably, she agrees. I must have missed the softening of her attitude towards him over the last couple of years; in fact, she seems to be won round in the course of a one-minute conversation, which isn’t always the best way to make important life decisions, particularly ones which involve getting back together with Pete.
It isn’t impossible that we’ve seen the last of Pete. And for Betty, it’s a more harrowing end: she is diagnosed with terminal cancer, and opts for quality of life over aggressive treatment, a decision which Henry is unable to talk her out of. So he tries to enlist the assistance of Sally (Kiernan Shipka is, my God, still only 15), but she can’t budge her mother either. For much of this episode I thought Henry was behaving like a jerk, but I revised my opinion after his conversation with Sally at her college: from Sally’s pained incomprehension about what her stepfather wants her to do (“I wouldn’t know what to say”) to Henry giving Sally the go-ahead to cry, then breaking down himself, this was an exceptional scene. And as I’ve described January Jones as the weak link in the show’s cast, I should in fairness concede that she was excellent this week.
At the end of the episode, though, we’re back with Don: he gives his car to the young conman from the motel, and sits at a bus stop (a scene of Hopperesque beauty), in no particular hurry to go anywhere. The final episode will be shown later this week in the UK, but in a few hours’ time in America, and I’m writing and posting this before then so as not to be influenced by it; even with the best spoiler-avoiding intentions something will get through. (And once again we have to acknowledge how successful Matthew Weiner has been in keeping advance information to a minimum: no previews, no “teasers”, nothing. Well done.)
Pretty much since the first episode – perhaps influenced by the credits – there’s been a view that the show has to end with Don’s death. I’m not so sure. I think he’ll live, although it’s worth noting that the death of “Don Draper” doesn’t necessarily mean a funeral. I could, for example, see a dark, handsome man sitting at a bar somewhere in Middle America, turning to the good-looking woman next to him, and introducing himself as Dick Whitman: this episode was as heavy on the Whitman references as any we’ve seen over the past two seasons, so I have a mild hunch that Dick might not be quite out of the story yet. Anyway, we need a little closure on the two characters – Don and Peggy – who have been at the centre of Mad Men since the pilot, and a few Roger one-liners for old times’ sake. Otherwise, after this stellar episode, I’m good.