Some thoughts on Betty, + Mad Men s7e13 “The Milk and Honey Route”

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iconic s1. image courtesy of Tumblr.

“We knew we’d catch up with you eventually.”

That State Trooper nightmare holds some weighty foreshadowing. And, fun fact.. he’s the same actor who played that cop in s5e6 “Far Away Places”. Goddamn!

Jesus, that last episode of Mad Men was a sucker punch. I haven’t had a hell of a lot of time to organise my thoughts, but that penultimate episode hasn’t left my head; it resonated with me. We’ve watched Don shed more and more things as this half-season wears on; first his wife, then his furniture (involuntarily, but he seems happy about it), his apartment, his job, and now his car. I can’t help but be reminded time and time again of that bum from the iconic s1 episode “The Hobo Code”, because it feels like Don took so much of that guy’s viewpoint to heart it’s hard to ignore. It’s easily one of the most important episodes of the series.

Even this past episode’s title, “The Milk and Honey Route”, is hobo code for a train/journey that rolls through a field of plenty – with a different meaning for every individual. A route that promises better things to come. Don’s route apparently involves a smackdown from an octogenarian WWII Vet with a phone book to the face, but when he gives away his Cadillac and sits on that bus bench in the middle of goddamn nowhere.. he looks the happiest we’ve seen him in a long time.

Another question that this series posits: what IS happiness, anyway? Besides the moment before you need more happiness, that is. It’s a look at the future — that future which Don was always envisioning in his pitches, that gleaming American Dream. What lies ahead, the promise of better things to come. The life that you can’t see just yet, but the one you daydream about.

Don has built a career hawking Things(TM) that are engineered to be tied with achieving that feeling of innate happiness, of contentment. It all goes back to the pilot.

“Advertising is based on one thing, happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing.. is okay. You are okay.”

If I buy this thing, I’ll feel what I’ve been longing for; but nope, you just end up with a lot of shit at the end of it.

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We’re on the road to nowhere.. image courtesy of ONTD

Even when he bought that Cadillac in s2e7 “The Gold Violin”, Don wavered because he didn’t know whether he deserved it or not. That status symbol rang hollow to him, a point driven home by little Sally asking “are we rich??” on their garbage picnic one Sunday with the Caddy. On the other hand, Roger’s words echoed through his head–“Like the song says: Enjoy yourself. It’s later than you think.” And I feel like he couldn’t get rid of that car fast enough at that bus stop.

Where will Don be in the finale? My guess (and the most obvious one at that) would be California. It’s always held such hope and opportunity for a fresh start to Don, but I think that hearing the news about Betty will boomerang him right back to New York. I mean.. it’d better. I feel like if he hears the news of Betty’s cancer and she dies while he’s outta the loop, that will be something that truly breaks him. I really hope that’s not the case.

This show has always had a couple of central thematic elements at its core; the grim spectre of death, and ‘can people really change?’ When two important women in Don’s life died from cancer, he wasn’t able to get out of his own way to help or be there in any capacity. Maybe he’ll get his shit together for Betty? My ideal Mad Men ending is taking it back to s1e13 “The Wheel” and in this version, Don actually makes it to Thanksgiving dinner. Yeah yeah, it’s Norman Rockwell as shit.. but then again, who the hell knows what’s going to happen?

I’ve seen a lot online about how people think Betty’s most recent storyline and fate is some form of either cheap, bad writing, or doing her dirty; personally I feel like this is the most compelling and appropriate end for her. Don’t get me wrong, I uglycried during this episode; it was difficult to watch, and I totally lost it when Henry broke down telling Sally the bad news. That’s also likely the first time Sally has seen a grown man exude that kind of emotion. But I was also blown away by Betty’s stoicism and acceptance, and knowing exactly when it’s over. Can people really change? Not entirely, per se, but they can get to know who they really are at their core and learn how to function and move forward within that paradigm. Look at Pete, who has finally accepted his own nature after a long struggle; he’s set to be the King of Wichita.

Remember the first Betty-centric plot in s1e2 “Ladies Room”? It deals with her crippling anxiety, due mostly to the death of her mother a few months prior. She’s so nervous and wound up that her hands go numb; she crashes their gigantic yellow car into someone’s birdbath, then has a miniature breakdown to Don wondering what would’ve happened had Sally ended up with a permanent scar on her face. Yikes. It’s clear that Betty was raised to be beautiful, by a woman who instilled the idea that good looks and a perfect figure are the only social currency she would ever need in life. And not so naturally for 1960, Betty questions it.

“My mother wanted me to be beautiful so I could find a man. There’s nothing wrong with that. But then what? Just sit and smoke and let it go ’til you’re in a box?”

Huh. Is that All There Is?

In “The Milk and Honey Route”, we learn that Betty had to watch her mother die while all of the beauty her mother was so proud of completely evaporated in her horrible decline. Her mother deeply instilled that aforementioned standard of beauty; a standard that maybe Betty has felt oppressed by, but one I think that she has been empowered by. Betty is elated when recounting that she was an Italian designer’s muse (and showing off those incredible clothes made just for her), she’s proud of her modeling career, and is always charmed when a man is into her.

As an aside: Don, to an extent, also uses his looks to get away with bullshit nobody else could. Mathis astutely calls it when he tells Don in s7e10 “The Forecast”, You don’t have any character. Youre just handsome!” Christ, Mathis. Don takes that harsh observation like a bullet, and chooses to impart that wisdom to Sally; don’t be like your mother and I. We gave you your looks, it’s up to you to be more than that. And so on.

While her grim prognosis was a jarring left turn, it also makes damn near-perfect poetic sense for her character arc. I’m in the midst of rewatching s1 right now, and it’s like a slap in the face; of course this is how it would have to be. Betty has made significant strides in knowing herself, and learning about the people around her in the world. Her act of surrendering right away and giving instructions to Sally is her own way of not repeating her mother’s mistakes. Her closing part of the letter where she lets Sally know that marching to the beat of her own drum is a good quality to have in life is entirely heartbreaking; it made me wonder what adventures Betty could have had, had she not been so constrained by the era in which she grew up. Sally has that same inherent agency; she was just born into a more appropriate generation. As a result, Sally and her mother have a very complicated relationship. Betty was just coming to understand more of Sally’s behaviour in recent episodes, and in turn reflecting on her own treatment of her daughter. Moving forward.

Throughout the series, Betty has struggled with how to assert her independence, and refusing cancer treatment is the ultimate declaration. She won’t let the opinions of anyone, not Henry nor Sally, sway her decision.. she’s making the best choice for her own damn self. As a woman who had such little control over her life, she should at least have control over how she dies if she’s able.

Betty also remembers when her father died, and how frantic the immediate aftermath was — and that when Gene confronted her with his postmortem plans neatly laid out a few weeks prior, she did not want to listen (not entirely unlike Sally literally covering her ears as Henry broke the news).. but she was thankful that he put it all together. With that foresight, Sally will not have to witness a drawn out battle in which Betty loses the looks that were so important to her, and in the end Betty will go out looking like herself. In the Blue Chiffon, with the hair she likes, and the lipstick that she keeps in her purse. Even though Betty is not exactly fiercely conquering new frontiers like Peggy, she is still going out in a way that is the most “her”, and I feel like this will help Sally way more than Betty’s mother’s death helped Betty in the long run.

People are railing against her shallowness as well, but like.. do you watch this fucking show? It’s what Betty has been taught to value most in life, in a time when women didn’t question much of anything and just followed ‘the rules’. And hey, it’s easy to prefer intellectualism over vanity. Thoughts and ideas can transcend generations and looks will only be preserved with photographs, and even those fade every few decades. But Betty is no stranger to intellectualism, either. She speaks Italian. And when Henry confronts her with the hopelessness of life, the inherent futility of keeping up appearances when we are all constantly dying.. she replies simply, “Why was I ever doing it?” Because for Betty, the image is a truth in itself; it’s everything. It makes her happy, and damn it, that’s enough.

A big part of Betty’s character arc and evolution has been learning when it’s time to stop and let go. If anything, what Weiner wants us to take away from Betty’s overall story and perhaps the show itself, is that it’s imperative to accept when something has come to an end (so meta). Betty’s terminal cancer pretty much annihilates any nonsensical fairytale ending where Don and Betty reconcile. As much as we’d all love to watch these characters to the point where they all die off, it’s a show about actualization, about a form of reality. Betty, in her choice to further her education, finally became her own person. And by the conclusion of the series finale on Sunday, all of the characters will have reached a point that puts them nearly at complete odds with who they were at the start of the show.

And Mad Men itself, will then complete its’ own journey in answering the very question that was posed at the beginning of the series: “Can people really change?”.

 

Betty: “I’ve learned to believe people when they tell you it’s over. They don’t want to say it, so it’s usually the truth.”

Sally: “I’ll be with you. I won’t let you give up.”

Betty: “I know that.. and I don’t want you to think I’m a quitter. I’ve fought for plenty in my life. I know when it’s over. It’s not a weakness. It’s been a gift to me. To know when to move on.”

Thoughts on Mad Men s7e8 + 9, “Severance” + “New Business”

thanks_marieimage courtesy of imgur.com

“A man is whatever room he is in.”

Sorry for the delay. I haven’t had much time to write as I’m a regular working stiff these days, but to be honest, I’ve had trouble stringing my thoughts together for these first two episodes. There’s so much David Lynch seeping into these episodes it’s difficult to formulate coherent sentences. Everything is so goddamn surreal! They’ve left me cold. These episodes have eerie, dreamlike qualities.. like nothing we’re seeing is quite right. I’ve read a lot of criticism that Weiner has lost the plot, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. My bet is there’s something afoot just under the surface that won’t all fit together until the finale, when we can take a step back and gaze at the season and the series as a whole.

Besides the constant looming of death around every corner, the recurring theme of this show is ‘can people really change’? And to tell you the truth, I have no fucking earthly idea. We ended the first half of s7 with Don clawing his way back up at SC&P, getting his shit together, trying to mend the damaged relationships in his life. Bert reminds him that The Best Things in Life are Free, a hard truth Don is learning. The whole nation was filled with hope for the space shot and the moon landing, all this hard work and thought and sweat and tears poured into this one mission, this singular defining event. And once you achieve this, once you make history, once you get to the top, once you get your corner office back.. then what? What comes next after such a huge achievement?

Enter April 1970, where “Severance” picks up.. ominously and appropriately bookended to the tune of “Is That All There Is?”. The real Don Draper died and handed Dick Whitman a new life. What has he done with that life? Has it made him happier? Where does Don go from here?

The time jump straight into nearly-mid 1970 is pretty great, and for a bit it looks like not much has changed in the decade since the show began. We go from a crazy decade that closed out with high hopes right into the me-me-me 70s and The Manson Family. The midseason premiere opens with Don being a vague creeper to a boilerplate Wholesome Hot(TM) 70s model, and we see that he’s once again hawking fur coats. Later, we see Don and Roger with hot models on their arms, the pair of swinging dicks/drinking buddies up to no good. Peggy and Joan’s verbal swordfight in the elevator, again. Kenny passing on his true calling as a writer for a corporate job, again. Joan being overtly sexually harassed. Don needing an answering service for his ~1100 women. Pete finding a way to bitch about being successful.. again. Peggy pulling a Don and trying to swing a spontaneous trip to Paris to run away with someone she just met. Don forming a weird obsession with a waitress who resembles some combination of Midge and Rachel Menken (but is in reality a Human Eeyore). Are we sure it’s 1970? I guess the hilar mustaches say as much, but there’s a lot of familiar 1960 shit going on here.. despite Roger looking like an oil baron. What in the fresh hell is going on??

Speak of the devil.. we’re back to creeper casting sessions at SC&P. Ted opens the door and I was happy to see Rachel Menken (Katz) on my screen. It’s about 10 years ago that her and Don met at that point. Then I was immediately filled with dread as I realised what was happening. Don sees a whole lotta dead people, lest we forget..

“I’m supposed to tell you — you missed your flight”.

“Rachel. You’re not just smooth.. you’re Wilkinson smooth.”

This Twin Peaks realness right here. Rachel, speaking in code, says something to Don that strikes all of us. Not that this is out of the norm as ghosts tend to say pretty devastating things to him (“Dying doesn’t make you whole.. you should see what you look like.” “It’s not your tooth that’s rotten.” etc) aside from Bert. Then Don, true to form as someone who has no fucking idea how to say anything meaningful outside of work, spits back ad copy. Pete lets her out of the room, since the men in Don’s work life are pretty interchangeable. Taking this dream as a sign for business re:L’eggs, he tells Meredith to schedule a meeting with Rachel.. and Meredith shares the somber news. And I can’t help but think of Kenny’s “Wanna hear something spooky?” to Don in that episode about getting fired the day he was going to quit. The life not lived.

Don goes to the Shiva for Rachel, and talks to her sister Barbara. Their entire interaction is laced with shots being fired, and Don likely doesn’t know that Rachel told her about their affair. Barbara tells him that she died of Leukemia, and he is visibly distraught; the same cancer that killed Anna. Yikes.

Don has a sad fling with the waitress Diana over these first two episodes, and she reveals to him that she’s abandoned her own family back in Wisconsin; a husband, a daughter who died, and an older daughter which she does not reveal until a touch later. Unlike Don, she does not want to forget about her daughter.. which is what happens when they’re having a bang. So she tells him to get out. It’s a brief arc, but it says a lot about his lonely-ass state of mind.

The women in Don’s life genuinely seem better off without him so far. When Betty tells him that she’s heading to Fairfield University (hey, my alma mater!) for a Masters in Psychology, I was pumped! She’s shown a lot of growth among the struggle, and seems to have found a good rhythm in life. Grad school seems like a great choice for her, as a woman who has consistently struggled with the rules that were thrown at her since she was born. Of course we don’t know any more about what’s really going on in the Francis household outside of that one scene, but goddamn Betty is doing well.

On his way out, Don looks back longingly for a beat, seeing the life he could’ve had. Rachel, though dead, got everything she desired and lived the life she wanted to live. Even Diana will be better off, because she chose to face her issues instead of pulling a Don and just running off; she’s just taking some time. The brief glimpse of Sylvia.. she’s still with Arnold, and doesn’t give Don the time of day. Drunk Arnold takes a bunch of jabs at Don, making me wonder if he knows about Don and Sylvia’s weirdo mess. Megan is going to get on with it in Los Angeles no matter what, though it’s not likely that check will clear.

Speaking of which, I have to address the Megan hatred head on. I’m one of those people who digs her, loves her as a character, the whole nine. After “New Business” aired, the internet was blasting hate for her across all channels and all I could think was “really??”. This time, it’s not just the neckbeards.

I love Megan. I thought she was good for Don, but he wanted to use that marriage as a crutch to right the (many) wrongs in his life, to run. He wanted to escape through Megan, to escape facing shit in his life like Dr. Faye wanted him to do (even though I don’t think Faye is right for him either). He’s even using humour as a form of escape now– that scene with Roger and Don in the trash diner with the models, he’s regaling a tale of his impoverished childhood framed with humour. And the fact that his escape hatch marriage didn’t work out seems to be really getting to him, on top of Rachel’s death to the same illness that claimed Anna.. the only person who knew everything about him and still loved him.

Megan maybe could have helped him so much more if he would’ve stopped pushing her away with both hands. That iconic sherbet scene at the HoJo’s from s5e5 “Far Away Places” is her standing up for herself, not wanting any part of the obvious “role” he wants her to play; she’s a real person, not some invented shit only for him. I feel like that was the very start of his resentment which only intensified once he got her that audition with Butler Footwear at the close of s5, cue iconic “You Only Live Twice” ending.. and then we see him throwing a bone to Sylvia in s6 once Megan’s acting career got that jump start.

I love that she called him on his garbage (“an aging, sloppy, selfish liar”), and he took it like a bullet. People on the internet are worked up into a froth over that sad phone conversation they had roughly 10 months ago timeline-wise, where she said he didn’t owe her anything; 10 months is plenty of time to find out about Don’s various indiscretions, the lies, and to let that anger build up after the initial sadness and reality that your marriage is ending. She was angry with herself for marrying him, for giving him the benefit of the doubt, for trusting him. So I understand why she was so pissed off. I would be too! And think about the day she’s had. Her mother, though ultimately on Megan’s side, openly trashes Don and brings those raw feelings to the surface. Her comments about what he’s done to their family are poignant and double-edged — she’s obvi talking about Emile as well. And hey, we finally meet Megan’s judgmental sister Marie-France living atop a fucking perfect mountain of morality!

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Marie with the truth bombs. image courtesy of The Daily Mail

I’ve seen a lot of complaints that the time spent with the Calvets was “useless”.. what? The scenes with Megan and her family really tell you a lot about who she is, and her motivations in life. She’s consistently struggling to be taken seriously by her own family, as well as agents, other actors, casting people and directors. Don didn’t take her seriously when she started auditioning, nor when she said she didn’t like foul orange garbage sherbet at the HoJo’s.

UGHHH speaking of foul, fucking HARRY CRANE is the proto Nice Guy(TM). She sets a secret lunch meeting with Harry to see if he could help her find a better agent in LA, knowing full well that he’s atrocious but maybe he has some connections she could gain traction with.. and he turns the creep up to 11. I used to think Harry Crane was a mere boob, but he’s a real piece of shit here.. and that scene was hard to watch. With the grace of a goddamn Hadrosaur, Harry laments how Megan deserves a great agent — the right person to get her into the right meetings with the right people, and then starts in with “I can’t believe Don threw you away.”

Fucking barely 2 minutes into their lunch meeting, this asshole propositions her for a midday fuck, and when she balks at this gross idea of following him up to his hotel room and shuts it down, he turns it around on her tells her this is why she’s had no success. FFFFFFFF- cue sounds of my head exploding. He’s despicable in this scene, then paints it to Don the next day as “SHE CRAY LOL” to cover his own ass.

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I SEE YOU, HARRY. image courtesy of ONTD

Yup. So, let’s think about the day Megan has had, leading up to the tense meeting with Don finalising their divorce. Her sister, in a weird way to show faux-support, claims her marriage failing is on her shoulders. Her soon to be ex-husband is already banging around in the apartment they bought together, which she decorated and where they made a home.  She’s between acting jobs and doesn’t want to (nor should she need to) resort to being some form of prostitute on the casting couch to get a job. Her mother has been criticising her marriage for awhile now, and then Megan finds Roger Sterling in her former home, having just banged Marie. What in the whole world. I’d be in a mood too, if I were her. Roger is the closest thing Don has to an actual friend, and it’s hugely disrespectful and devastating for Megan to find this all out and like.. completely fucking bizarre. Aaaaand apparently Marie is leaving Emile for Roger! Who knows what will pan out, but YIKES on bikes.

This is Megan attempting to regain control of her life and hitting every roadblock imaginable, and Marie is trying to do the same thing by fleeing to New York City for however long it ends up being. Her outburst that Don has ruined her life isn’t entirely true of course, but it sure feels like it after that disaster of a day. He certainly derailed her steady acting gig on that soap opera by floating the LA move, then reneging on it later.

The hits just kept on coming and she’d had enough by the time she meets up with Don. And the strange thing is, when he gives her that check, it’s the only bit of “support” she’s had that day. In reality the check likely IS a joke, since no bank is going to cash a personal check for a rock. Strangely (and admittedly shallowly), this is the only gesture directed at Megan that didn’t indicate she was worthless. Since Don doesn’t know how to be emotionally supportive, he tries what he knows best; throwing money at the problem.

Where is this season going? I think there’s more to the latter half of s7 than we think. Just gotta dig a little deeper.

Marie jacking all of the furniture is pretty hilarious though, especially empty Don in his empty apartment set to French pop music. C’est si Bon.

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image courtesy of The Daily Mail

“When a man walks into a room, he brings his whole life with him. He has a million reasons for being anywhere. Just ask him. If you listen, he’ll tell you how he got there. How he forgot where he was going — then, he woke up. If you listen, he’ll tell you about the time he thought he was an angel and dreamt of being perfect. And then he’ll smile, with wisdom, content that he realized the world isn’t perfect.

We’re flawed because we want so much more.

We’re ruined because we get these things and wish for what we had.”