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Mad Men - The Milk and Honey Route - Review: "Making Peace with the Past"

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With one episode left to go in “Mad Men’s” run, Matthew Weiner is still surprising viewers. Much of the content in “The Milk and Honey Route” was unexpected. While I was not surprised to see Don continuing his road trip, I was shocked at Betty’s horrible cancer news. I was also pleasantly surprised to see Pete declaring his love for Trudy again. I had to let this episode sink in a bit to absorb it all. But when I did, aside from Betty’s sad fate, I really enjoyed where things ended.

Once again we see how much Pete and Betty have both grown. Their development forces us to ask if Don is growing as well. Will he learn from his mistakes? Can he come to terms with who he really is? By the end it’s clear: Don is making peace with his past. He has learned from his life. He is finally accepting the choices he made, allowing him to become the man he wants to be. This trip was part of his journey to the land of milk and honey. The title is a biblical reference from Exodus 3:8 where God recognizes the Israelites’ suffering and tells them he will rescue them from being the Egyptians’ slaves, promising to bring them to “a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” Don is getting to that place himself. He could only do that by acknowledging his past and letting go of the guilt so he can prepare for a better future.

Embracing the Inevitable

It was so sad to see an excited, proud Betty finally going after what she’s wanted, just to have life knock her down. But as hard as this was to stomach, it made sense to the story. It gave us a chance to see how far Betty has really come. When faced with the most awful news one can imagine, she goes from being upset and shocked to thinking about her family. She thinks of her children and what she will tell them. And she thinks of Henry and how he will deal with her death. She is worried about everyone else and wants to take care of them. She is no longer thinking mainly of herself.

Her discussion with Sally comes earlier than she expects, thanks to Henry. But once Betty gets over her initial anger and betrayal, she is very calm and firm as she gives her daughter a “Betty version” of a pep talk. I loved this scene. Sally thinks her mother isn’t choosing treatment because she’s being a drama queen. But that’s not actually the case. Betty shows herself to be strong, brave and wise. She doesn’t want Sally to watch her suffer any longer than she has to. Betty watched her own mother die and now she is looking out for her daughter. She says she’s learned to believe people when they tell you it’s over. The statement clearly refers to her marriage with Don, and so do her later statements. She tells Sally she’s not quitting, saying she has fought for plenty in her life. She sees that experience as a gift that taught her when to keep fighting and when to move on. This is a very mature way to look at the end of her marriage. And it shows she learned from that experience. It took her awhile to gain her footing but Betty eventually became a caring mother, better wife and happy woman – unfortunately just as everything is taken away from her. Life is cruel, but at least she became the woman she could be before she died. She reminds us it’s not how you start but how you end that matters. Whatever time Betty has left, she’s at peace with her own life and what she achieved for herself and her family. And she did truly love that family.

She proves this with the letter she leaves for Sally, filled with encouraging, inspiring words that show her pride in her daughter. After acknowledging she worried about Sally marching to the beat of her own drum, she admits she now knows that is a good thing because Sally’s life will be filled with adventure. With these words, she encourages Sally to be herself, supporting her and letting her know how much she loves her. She wants her daughter to have a good life. They may have had a strained relationship, but Betty wants Sally to know how much she cares.

Taking a Risk on a Second Chance

Pete is another character who impresses us with his development in this episode. He has a history of constantly acting like a schoolboy with something to prove. But suddenly he sees life with a new perspective. Simply put, he has grown up. We see it in his conversation with his brother, where he says he doesn’t understand why they are always looking for something better. He knows cheating feels good for a while, but it doesn’t ultimately satisfy.

I was so impressed with Pete’s new outlook. His unexpected job opportunity forced him to examine what he really wanted out of life. And Pete realized that was a fulfilling life with his family. Just like Betty, it took him a while to reach the point where he could be the type of husband and father they needed. But it’s clear he now appreciates Trudy. And he has gone from the type of father whose daughter was scared to be around him to a hands-on dad who heals his daughter’s injuries. He is finally at a place where he is ready to offer them a real life together.

And he’s not afraid to take that risk. I loved Pete’s speech to Trudy. It was so heartfelt and earnest. He wasn’t arrogant in expecting her to answer a certain way. He told her he knew he could lose her love. But he still let her know how he felt about her. He took a risk when she did not seem receptive, laying out his feelings and then waiting for her response. That took guts, but Pete is a pretty fearless person. He always thought he could do anything. But this time he used that drive and desire to win back his family. Because he was open and vulnerable and willing to show his growth, he achieved the impossible.

It was interesting how this new job materialized out of nowhere, but it didn’t feel forced to me – maybe because Pete wasn’t interested at first. He didn’t pursue it; he didn’t even want it. He’d been completely happy at McCann Erickson, being “the mayor,” as Duck puts it. But suddenly a new opportunity just dropped in his lap. Once he thought about it, he couldn’t deny the benefits it would give him – a chance to have a suburban white-picket-fence life with Tammy and Trudy. This is not the type of life Pete used to want. But his priorities have changed. He makes a purposeful, conscious decision to grab this opportunity for a second chance. He likes this picture of his future. And he can’t pass it up.

Making Peace with the Past

As Don heads on his road trip across the country, we see him coming face-to-face with his past. We start the episode with Don’s fears manifested through a dream. As he drives in his car, a police officer pulls him over and tells him they’ve been looking for him. “You knew we’d catch up with you eventually,” the officer tells Don. The statement reveals Don’s fears that his past will catch up with him and people will find out what he did.

So it’s significant that when Don is invited to an American Legion meeting with a lot of veterans, he goes. This is not the type of environment Don typically embraces. He doesn’t like to talk about his military past. But here he has no choice. The veterans ask him specific questions about his military history. At first he lies and tells him he was a lieutenant (taking on Donald Draper’s persona). But then the men start telling stories. Suddenly he realizes they have war ghosts just like him. The old man killed a group of Germans that wanted to surrender. They all did horrible things to try to survive and get out of a bad situation. And they’re all haunted by their pasts. Don is not alone in his guilt – everyone did what they had to do to come home from war. And that realization prompts Don to confess his history in Korea. Instead of being disgusted or shocked at how Don’s commanding officer died because of him, the men embrace him because they can relate. It’s a turning point for Don. He shares his guilt with people who have their own. They don’t blame him; they understand. In that moment he feels a part of them. Though what he did was wrong, it’s in his past and he has to move on.

After that bonding moment, it was sad to see those same men come to beat him up, thinking he stole their fundraising money. Don knows exactly who took the cash – the young kid who cleans his room. And Don confronts him when the boy comes by. Don is angry at being set up. But he is also angry at what the boy is doing with his life. Don acts like a stern father trying to set him straight. The boy doesn’t understand why Don cares, but we do. The boy’s actions remind Don of his own life. He tells the kid, “I know you think you know how to hustle, but this is a big crime, stealing these peoples’ money. If you keep it, you have to become somebody else. And it’s not what you think it is. You cannot get off on that foot in this life.” He equates stealing the veterans’ money with Dick Whitman stealing Don Draper’s identity. He became somebody else, and it wasn’t as easy as he’d thought. He had to come to terms with what he did – and it was a long, difficult process. You get the impression that if Don had the chance, he would do things differently now. His actions caused painful consequences in his life. And he doesn’t want someone else making that same mistake.

So he gives the boy his car, offering him an opportunity to start over. But that leaves Don on the side of the road with no car and no way to get anywhere. Yet in that moment I love that Don smiled to himself. He isn’t upset by his situation; he seems truly happy. Right then he doesn’t need anywhere to go or someone to be with. His life has been as fast as a roller coaster, like Buddy Holly’s closing song says. But he took time to make peace with that ride. Not only did he save someone from his own fate, but he released himself from the hold his past had on him. And that frees him to move forward. The question is, where will he go now that he’s free?

Additional Observations

- I was so happy that Don hasn’t picked up a woman along his journey. He clearly still has those urges as he checked out the lady at the pool. But he needed time on his own to get right with himself. He has always relied on being with someone else to fill that void in his life. But when you’re alone you have to face things you otherwise wouldn’t.

- I was really happy to see Don talking to Sally on the phone and mentioning he’d be calling his sons. He is clearly becoming a better father. He talked to Sally like a dad who cared about what she was doing. And she knew exactly where he’d been and where he was going. You could feel their bond and the impact it made in Sally’s life.

- Sally is growing up fast. Of course, she doesn’t have much choice with what she’s had to face. But she is really coming into her own. She shows concern for her mother, her brothers and even Henry. I love how she comforted Henry when he visited her. I have great faith in the woman Sally would become.

- I loved “The Graduate’s” Mrs. Robinson reference when Betty was at the doctor’s. She was a good sport as she recognized what it meant.

***All photos courtesy of AMC.

How did you like "The Milk and Honey Route?" Were you shocked by any developments? Do you like where the characters are ending? What's been the biggest surprise for you? Let us know in the comments below.

About the Author - Tonya Papanikolas
Tonya Papanikolas is an online, print and broadcast journalist who loves covering entertainment and television. She spent more than 10 years as a broadcast news anchor and reporter. Now she does everything from hosting to writing. She especially loves writing TV articles and reviews for SpoilerTV.

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