The death of Don Draper, Part 2: Purgatory

King of the road
King of the road

 

The next-to-last episode of Mad Men, “The Milk and Honey Route,” which aired May 10, takes its title from hobo lore. Sociologist/hobo Nels Anderson (under the pseudonym “Dean Stiff”) explained the phrase in 1931 in his “The Milk and Honey Route: A Handbook for Hobos”:

Often the hobos speak of a railroad as a “milk and honey route.” The original milk and honey route was a railroad from Salt Lake City southward through the valleys of Utah. Along this line were the Mormon villages so euphoniously named, Moroni, Manti, Nephi, Lehi and Juab. In the early days, before the Latter Day Saints got disillusioned by the great influx of bums and yeggs, or, what is worse, the auto tramps, this was the greatest feeding ground for hobos. Hence the name, milk and honey route, which has since become a household term among hobos. Any railroad running through a valley of plenty may be called a milk and honey line. But this is a transient term; what may be a milk and honey route to one hobo may not be so to another.

In “The Hobo Code” episode in season one, Don gets high on weed and flashes back to an incident from his childhood, where a hobo gives the young Dick Whitman his first glimpses of the possibility of escape and reinvention. Dick/Don has lived by that code ever since.  “The Milk and Honey Route” echoes back to “The Hobo Code,” and also continues Don Draper’s flight from himself which began the week before in episode 12, “Lost Horizon.” (See The Death of Don Draper.)

“The Milk and Honey Route” finds Don stranded in an Oklahoma backwater when his Cadillac breaks down. He takes a room at a roadside motel, and the vibe is unsettling — as in “Twin Peaks” unsettling — from the git-go. The motel is a log-cabin and pine affair run by a suspiciously folksy old husband and wife. The handyman is a fledgling con artist who mistakes Don for an easy mark. (The actor who plays the con artist bears more than a fleeting resemblance to Dana Ashbrook, who played delinquent teen Bobby Briggs on Twin Peaks.) The repair of Don’s car drags on and on, while the motel owners inveigle him into attending a fundraiser for a war vet at the VFW.  At the VFW, he gets drunk with a group of old soldiers, one of whom was, like Dick Whitman, a Korean War vet. Without fully confessing to identity theft, Don acknowledges aloud for the first time in the series, the stroke of luck that ended his war: “I killed my CO. I dropped my lighter and it blew him apart.”

Later, he’s accused of stealing money from the benefit and beaten by the vets, who take away his car keys. The only way Don can leave is to find the stolen money. He doesn’t have to look far; the young con man has taken it, and Don leans on him to cough it up. The ambitious, rough-hewn kid clearly reminds Don of himself, and in a scene heavy with meaning, Don offers to drive the kid to the bus stop on his way out of town. But when they arrive at the deserted roadside stop, Don hands over the keys to the kid: “License and registration are in the glove box.” Like the hobo from his childhood, Don passes on the gift and secret of the road to the kid. Don takes a seat on the bus stop bench, while the kid drives off in the Cadillac, which is the last outward vestige of “Don Draper.”

There’s another haunting callback to the past in that final shot of Don, smiling under a wide sky in the middle of nowhere. His possessions are contained in one Sears shopping bag, a far cry from the Samsonite suitcase that provided a touchstone moment in the season 4 episode “The Suitcase,” in which Don gets news of the death of the real Don Draper’s widow, Anna. In “The Milk and Honey Route,” Dick/Don unloads the last of the baggage of his past and his deception, the suitcase replaced by a paper bag, the Caddy by a bus. He is free at last.

“The Milk and Honey Route” also called back to “The Doorway” from season 6. That pivotal episode, which sets up the long dark night of the soul from which Don has now emerged, opens with him reading Dante’s Inferno (a gift from his extramarital lover Sylvia) on the beach in Hawaii. So it’s no accident that “The Milk and Honey Route,” with its endless waiting and surreal, disorienting tone, felt like Don/Dick in Purgatory. There’s a moment in the episode where Don hangs out by the motel pool and is stunned by the sight of a beautiful brunette sunbathing. He considers her hungrily, but then her husband and kids arrive and Don turns away. He resists the temptation. This moment, and his truth-telling at the VFW hall, might have been the actions that tip the scales in his favor, that clear the way for his passage from Purgatory. When he hands off the Cadillac — registered to Don Draper — to the kid, it’s his final act of coming clean, of skin-shedding. Next stop, transcendence?

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I have the strong suspicion that next week’s series finale will be set some years on from where the series is now (Fall, 1970), which means, it will be after the death of Betty Draper Francis. Matthew Weiner dropped quite the bombshell in “The Milk and Honey Route” when he revealed that Betty is suffering from metastasized lung cancer. It’s not a random diagnosis; Betty smokes cigarettes throughout the series, Don works on ad campaigns that glamorize cigarettes. You could read her illness as this: Being married to Don has, literally, poisoned her.

But Betty, with her icy propriety, has always been a throwback to an era of remote femininity. Remember that line about the hobos: “What may be a milk and honey route to one hobo may not be so to another.” Betty reaches her Land of Milk and Honey, twice, in marrying two handsome men who provide her with wealth, children and status. But her tragedy is that she was never able to quell the messy emotions and ambitions required of her to play the part of the Perfect Middle-Class Suburban Wife and Mother.

Betty has a college degree, as she often reminded people, but was never encouraged to use it. She could never quietly tolerate Don’s infidelity. She replaces Don immediately with another knight in shining armor, rather than embracing the role of single mother (as Trudy Campbell did). And she has been, at times, a terrible mother, angry, cold, selfish, taking out her unhappiness on her children, particularly on Sally. Betty learns, too late, what Peggy already has — that not every woman is cut out to be a mother, that there is no such thing as having it all. But Betty does learn it. Thankfully, for Sally’s sake, “The Milk and Honey Route” finds Betty expressing her love and approval to Sally at the eleventh hour, writing her a note that tells her that she admires her for marching to the beat of her own drummer. And though she left her self-actualization as a mature returning student until it was too late, the last shot (maybe forever) we have of Betty alive is her slow climb up a staircase to her college class, breathless from the cancer. But still she ascends, lit from above.

Well, if Weiner is taking the Dante’s Inferno metaphors literally, Don is going to need a Beatrice to guide him through Paradise.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015