Historically speaking, the episode of Mad Men that airs on Mother’s Day hasn’t always been kind to Betty. Still, Sunday’s episode, “The Milk and Honey Route”—the second-to-last episode of Mad Men ever—felt like a particularly cruel coincidence. After a fall at school sends Betty to the hospital with a rib injury, her doctor makes a startling discovery: she has advanced lung cancer, it’s metastasized and she has about nine months to live, possibly more if she goes for an aggressive treatment plan. That’s what Henry wants for her, but Betty, who you’d think would play victim here (she’s done it over far less), is remarkably at peace with her diagnosis, to Henry’s frustration. (“You’re being morose!” he shouts at her.) Until we saw her struggling on the steps, there hadn’t really been any indication that Betty was sick. The out-of-nowhere circumstances of her diagnosis would probably feel more bothersome if they didn’t end up eliciting some of the most touching scenes in the whole episode.
First, there’s Henry breaking the news to Sally and asking her to talk some sense into her mother. Sally covers her ears when she learns of her mother’s grim prognosis, but she’s ultimately the one who keeps it together while Henry, moments after telling her it’s okay to cry, crumples into sobs. That’s Sally for you—being more of an adult than many of the adults in her life. Then there’s Sally’s homecoming. Betty didn’t want her kids to know she’s sick, so she’s furious when Sally shows up per Henry’s request, but she makes up for the chilly reception later when she explains to Sally that her decision doesn’t come from a place of reveling in tragedy, as Henry believes, but rather, from a place of strength and love. “I watched my mother die. I won’t do that to you,” she tells Sally. “And I don’t want you to think I’m a quitter. I fought for plenty in life. That’s how I know when it’s over.” She leaves Sally one final note—mostly end-of-life instructions along with an affirmation of her love—and goes back to class like nothing’s wrong. And why shouldn’t she?
“Why was I ever doing it?” she answers Henry after he asks why she’s bothering with so few months left. You could say the same about a lot of what Betty endured as the show’s resident punching bag over the years, but at least she’s going out having patched things up with Sally and making peace with life’s curveballs.
Pete Campbell also got something of an ending on Sunday’s episode, and it’s a lot happier than Betty’s. As Pete continues to mend his personal life, amicably co-parenting with ex-wife Trudy, he’s wondering more and more about what will really make him happy in his work life. As you remember, Pete was a little ambivalent about McCann-Erickson’s absorption of SC&P because of how powerless he felt, but Sunday’s episode gave him some of the agency he’s long been craving in his own life. Duck Phillips, in the office to help replace the AWOL road-tripping Don, asks Pete to meet with the head of a luxury airline to convince him to listen to Duck and hire a senior marketing executive (with the idea that the executive would then bring the airline to McCann). Pete and the client hit it off, but the dinner turns out to be another one of Duck’s headhunting projects, as Pete realizes that he’s the candidate for the job before declining on account of his remaining contracted years at McCann. Pete seems to warm up to the opportunity—and the chance to get off the hamster wheel of “always looking for something better, always looking for something else”—but he skips out on another round of dinner after Trudy refuses to go as his date and pretend they’re back together. Not that it really mattered, anyway: a drunk Duck shows up later and tell him to basically pack his bags for Wichita. He got the job, like it or not, and Jim Hobart of McCann-Erickson is happy to let him out of his contract early in the hopes of getting business from the airline’s VIP clientele.
Pete doesn’t seem thrilled by the news, but the next thing you know, he’s knocking on Trudy’s door and asking her to move with him to Kansas and be his wife again. She protests, but a determined Pete nudges her along toward a yes. When Trudy says she’ll never allow him to hurt her again, Pete just answers, “I love you too.” When Trudy tries to think the offer through, Pete says, “Say yes with your voice, not just your eyes.” (Pete Campbell, generally slimy human, is all about that verbal consent, apparently.) And so this is how Mad Men will leave Pete: devoted Midwest family man with a cushy job that seems to value him more than the advertising agencies ever did. There are plenty of characters more worthy of a (mostly) happy ending than Pete — Joan and Peggy, for instance — but let’s hope Matt Weiner is just saving triumphant moments for the series finale. (Joan taking the money and leaving McCann can’t be the last we see of her, can it?)
Don’s road trip last week felt like it could have been an ending—his absence in the last week’s cryptic teaser led one of my colleagues to wonder if we’d already seen the last of Don—but nope, here he is, in some middle-of-nowhere motel, having vivid dreams about his past catching up with him and his identity being found out. So of course, his journey to find himself after giving up on finding Diana takes him to a VFW fundraiser benefitting a veteran who accidentally burned his kitchen down. It’s both stressful and therapeutic, as Don worries about being recognized by another Korea vet (whom you may have recognized as Roy from The Office) while also getting a chance to open up about the very thing that’s haunted him—accidentally killing his C.O. (though he leaves out the identity theft part)—when the conversation turns to grisly stories about the darkest moments of their service.
Whatever bond the men develop, however, is clearly broken when those guys storm into his room and demand that Don return the fundraising money they think he stole. (It’s the closest Mad Men has gotten to resembling Gone Girl, as many live-tweeters noted.) The culprit wasn’t Don, of course, but Andy, the maid-messenger who had the audacity to not only set Don up after hustling him, but also ask for a ride after Don confronts him and makes him give the money back. Don yells at Andy for having “sh—y instincts for a con man” and warns him that having to rebuild your identity isn’t a piece of cake, but Don’s lecture must have been coming from a place of Tyra Banks-esque concern, as he ends up giving Andy the keys to his car.
The last scene of the episode features Don sitting on the side of the road with a grin on his face. Maybe because he’s giving someone a chance to avoid the mistakes he’s made, or maybe because he’s one step closer to figuring himself out now that he’s ridding his life of material goods and distractions. With one episode left, the answers are looming. “Every day it’s a-getting closer / going faster than a rollercoaster,” Buddy Holly cheerfully sings in “Everyday,” the closing song of the episode. Now who could have predicted the beginning of the end—for Don, for Mad Men—would involve so many smiles?