Monday, May 11, 2015

Mad Men recap: Don set adrift, or how my head exploded

Last night's penultimate episode of Mad Men, "The Milk and Honey Route," blew my mind -- almost literally. By the time it was over I had such a throbbing headache I had to call it a night, though I couldn't fall asleep for hours and then work up a few hours later for good. Granted, I always have a problem sleeping, but this was extreme even for me. I don't know if the sharp, jagged blows delivered by the storyline did me in or if it was the margarita I subbed for ChocoVine to see me through the tense episode, but by the time the credits faded my head hurt so badly I couldn't keep my eyes open for the pain. It could also be the weather or allergies or who knows what, but I'm going with Mad Men being so startling it almost knocked me out.

I thought last week Don was fading into the ether, and that seems to be exactly where's he happily heading. The housekeeper/errand boy/junior criminal at the motel immediately pegged Don as rich, while it seems the village folk with their pitchforks must've thought he was a poor drifter. Who could blame them, seeing his Sears luggage (not a suitcase from Sears, but rather a paper shopping sack from the store that held all his worldly goods -- other than the millions he has in the bank, of course). But it takes a con man to know a con man, and the kid sized Don up a little better than the others. Don sized him up perfectly, of course, and recognized a kindred spirit who'd been dealt a shit hand and wanted out of Dodge.

There were so many times in his story where it seemed things might go one way, then in true Mad Men style that defies formula, went another. Don didn't want to go to the VFW because he's always been uncomfortable with anything involving his service history. He's not the hero people think he is, and he's not even the rank they think he is. Last night I got a sense it was more than not wanting to lie about his service, though. When he walked into the fundraiser, I realized another danger was he could meet someone who'd served with him as Dick Whitman or knew the real Don Draper, and things would get messy. The odds are low he would run into someone like that, but then again, both myself and my husband have several times run into people we hadn't seen in years in different far-flung cities and even different countries. That saying about it being a small world after all isn't just from a grating tune at Disney World, it's freakishly true.

When the other man who'd served in Korea came over, Don didn't even want to look in his face. I got the impression it was from fear that maybe, just maybe, it would be someone who would know he wasn't Don Draper. But that didn't happen. Instead the men sat around swapping war stories and Don, for the first time, admitted his mistake killed his CO. I was begging him not to tell the rest, not to reveal that he stole a fellow soldier's identity and deserted. The other veteran admitting to cannibalism (I think that's what he admitted to, anyway) made Don feel like he was in an understanding group that knew the horrors of war and seemed able to forgive and accept anything in that context. But I didn't think they'd accept someone cheating to escape the horrors they'd had to stay and face, and fortunately we didn't find out what they'd think on the matter because Don's fear of revealing too much kept his mouth in check.

When the smallish mob of angry villagers dragged him from his drunken slumber, I thought they'd somehow realized the truth. That desertion was the one thing they couldn't forgive. Turns out what they couldn't forgive was messing with their money, and they were rather clueless to the fact the millionaire they held down in a fleabag motel didn't give a fig about $500. Oddly, this wasn't the first time he got knocked upside the head by strangers in a cruddy motel -- in an early episode, Don had picked up some hitchhikers who ended up drugging him, then knocking him upside the head when he didn't pass out fast enough. They wanted money, too. Don has his patterns, even in getting his ass kicked.

I don't think I could've done what Don did next, to let this town of people think he really was a thief, and one who'd steal from an elderly veteran at that. But he knew what it was like to burn bridges you can't un-burn, to never be able to return to your hometown. No matter how much you think you'll never want to go back, it's different when you know you can't. So he took the fall for the shadow of young Don he saw in that young man, then even handed over his car to boot. It was kind and empathetic and showed once again he often sees the bigger picture others miss (just as often as he can't handle the little important aspects of life that everyone else can deal with). As he sat there at the bus stop, no possessions but a sad, crumpled paper sack of clothes, he looked delighted. Thrilled. Lighthearted -- no burdens. Oh my god, where is he going in the final episode? Before last night's episode, my husband said he thought everything was heading to Don's death. I said I thought so too, but maybe only metaphorically, as in he may stop being Don. He may be Dick Whitman again, or somebody new entirely. Watching him there at the side of the road in BFE, I didn't have a good feeling. I don't know what's coming, but I anticipate watching the ending more than any other show, ever.

It was reassuring to see at the start of the episode that he was still in touch with Sally and they seemed on good terms, that he hadn't come so unmoored he'd drifted out of his children's lives and any attachment to his old world. But the thread was very thin. He hadn't found out about Betty by the end of the episode. Will he ever? What if he drops out completely and doesn't call home again for a long time?

Betty. Dying. Young. Did not see that coming.  I think so many of us were wondering if Don would die, we didn't think about Betty. When she got a pained look and then stumbled on the stairs, I assumed it was something serious. Then the doctor refused to tell her what was wrong until her husband arrived, and I knew for sure she was a goner.

I have mixed feelings about that storyline. I admit there were a couple of times I nearly teared up, but then thought no, I will not cry for Betty Draper (aka Betty Francis, aka Mother From Hell). When Henry brought Sally home to deal with an emotional situation he couldn't handle (nice putting that on a teenager, btw, Hank), Betty immediately knew why Sally was there and refused to even give her a hug. All I could think was damn, woman, this is what you're daughter will have to remember you by. This is it, these last few months. There has been very little good in the way you've treated her for her whole life, and this is your last chance. And then you still can't pull it together? But that's true to life, people don't suddenly change or acquire skills or emotions they never had before. She did give one small gift to Sally, wrapped in a heavy task, in that final letter. Making a young girl be in charge of what you're buried in and even what lipstick you'll wear? Not cool, but I can give that a pass because she may honestly feel Sally is the only one who can handle it, and it may even be a sign of trust and love to give that chore to her. So, OK, I reluctantly won't add that to Betty's shitty mother scorecard. And she did give a small bit of encouragement, telling Sally she'd have an amazing life. I do feel this episode showed Betty as being more stoic and having more inner strength than we realized. She didn't fall apart or cry out "why me?" Instead she went about her life as normal, cooking for the family, attending a school she will never graduate, not complaining. I think we were meant to like or understand Betty a bit more than we had, but I could only go so far down that road.

This is the woman who, when her own father died and a traumatized Sally cried out "No!" in obvious shock and grief, walked past the distraught little girl and closed the door. Betty felt it was all about her, and didn't see or care about her daughter's grief. There are just so many instances where Betty was a crap mother and so selfish that it hurt to watch, and here at the end of her life she still can't suddenly become warm and emotionally giving. I get that, people give what they have to give, and Betty never had warmth and empathy. So while I appreciate that she is being brave in the face of a looming painful, early death, and I actually do feel sorry for her, I still don't feel as moved as I could be. I feel more for the kids, really. A distant, manipulative mother is probably better than none at all. And they may not even have Don to fall back on. Fortunately, Henry seems like the kind of man who will continue to raise those kids and hopefully be a part of their lives when both of their biological parents may be gone from their world. He may be the one who gives Sally away at her wedding someday, teaches the kids how to drive, provides the home that's always there even as adults if they seek the embrace of family for the holidays. I hope so. And clearly from the scene where she took her baby brother onto her lap, Sally is going to step up and help care for her younger siblings. I think she'll have a lot of issues to deal with, but she's got the strength and intelligence to handle it.

And then there's Pete. There had been hints he'd get back together with Trudy, and I admit I cheered when he finally did. There were times throughout the series when I hated him, but by this point, I could actually just want him and his family to be happy.

Now, on to the final episode and finding what will become of Peggy and Don. I'll take Tylenol beforehand and keep tissues in hand -- I'm sure I'll need both.

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