Mad Men

'Mad Men' Recap: Charmed Lives

Are They Really 'Lucky'?

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January Jones (Betty Francis).
January Jones (Betty Francis). Credit: AMC

Much of "Mad Men" has been about luck, or rather the difficulties that vex even those who have the best of luck. In many ways, the show is #FirstWorldProblems forty years before the hashtag. This has been especially clear in the episodes following the McCann acquisition. Now the characters aren't just affluent; they're straight up rich. But they're still searching.

In the penultimate episode of "Mad Men," we see this theme made quite literal. Two characters, in two very different contexts, are told they are lucky. First, Betty Francis hears it from her husband, in the initial moments following her terminal lung cancer diagnosis. "You're a very lucky woman," Henry says. Though designed as support point for his argument that she should fight the disease with whatever care was available back in October 1970, it just comes off as a ridiculous statement to someone about to be cut down in her mid-30s.

Later, a drunken, raving Duck Phillips tells Pete Campbell pretty much the same thing. Pete is in line for a job at Learjet that would get him a raise, a signing bonus, and stock options worth in the neighborhood of the $1 million left on his earnout at McCann-Erickson -- all despite blowing off a meeting with his suitor.

"Who's going to win the World Series?" Duck asks him. "You are. Because you are charmed, my friend."

Who would have thought we'd ever say this about Pete Campbell? For a long time, he was odds on favorite to exit the show via suicide, with plenty of speculation he, not Don, is the falling man of the opening credits. But now, I dare say, his outlook is actually looking bright.

Pete is the one partner we've seen really make a go of it at McCann. Trying to fend off Duck's advances, he rattles off a list of accomplishments, including the possibility of working on Coke, McCann's sexiest account. But that doesn't stop Duck, the new-business-whiz-reinvented as a headhunter, from tricking Pete into taking a meeting with Learjet. The private jet company, at this point heavily reliant on endorsements from celebs like Danny Kaye, needs someone like Pete who can help sell it into boardrooms.

Pete's personal life has been a different story. In seasons past, we watched him blow up his marriage with affairs that ranged from the interesting -- the Sylvia Plath-ish lady -- to the banal. What drove him to do this was never quite clear, though there were suggestions it was the pressures to conceive or the thought of abandoning the city for the suburbs. His unhappiness seemed generalized, an ennui more than anything else. And since his marriage ended. there hasn't been much romance for him.

In last night's episode he identifies the source of all this. Pete takes his brother to dinner, ostensibly to talk about the Learjet opportunity and risk in a more general sense. The conversation, however, takes a turn into family history. Why are we, he asks Bud, "always looking for something better, always looking for something else?"

Bud's answer: "Because Dad was like that."

Pete's father was a cold, disapproving man, who died in the crash of American Airlines Flight 1, a real-life tragedy depicted in the show's second season. The death allowed Pete to showcase his dedication to Sterling Cooper, when, with his dad's body still cold, he played a role in a Duck Phillips-led new-business offensive to try to win the American account.

Pete's misery is what cost him Trudy as a wife, though she did hang around as a sort of friend. And, with last night's episode, it's clear why. Showing up at her home at 4 a.m., Pete makes the case for getting back together, moving with Tammy to Wichita, so, in Pete's words, "beautiful and wholesome and not the city and not Cos Cob."

Once again that notion of having so much you don't know what to do with it pops up:

Pete: "We're entitled to more --"

Trudy: "Of what?"

Pete: "Then we're entitled to something new."

If Pete's storyline ends there, locking lips with Trudy, it's quite a rehabilitation of the character. When we met him in season one, he was slippery, slimy and conniving. He evolved into the aforementioned long period of unhappiness and despair, re-emerging as a reliable business partner and now, it seems, finding redemption in his reconstituted family life. That he does it by taking a job in the middle of the country -- not the coasts he's fetishized -- and in the very industry responsible for the death of his father feels like a slaying of some demons.

At the same time Pete is reuniting with his ex-wife, Betty is preparing her daughter for the end. Betty explains why she doesn't want the treatment -- she watched her mother die. "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. ... I don't want you think I'm a quitter. I've fought for plenty in my life. It's not a weakness. It's been a gift to me, to know when to move on."

Faced with death, she is in almost immediate and complete acceptance. Yes, she is shocked as Henry is given her diagnosis but that very quickly gives way to a fierce affirmation. She doesn't want to mess around with pointless treatments, preferring to spend her time in the psychology courses she's begun.

The notion of understanding and recognition as a "gift" speaks to the true luck that Betty possesses, which is most certainly not what Henry is talking about when he calls her "a lucky woman." Henry is surely referring to her looks, her class and, probably, her good fortune to wind up with him post-Don. Betty's diagnosis is a reminder that, in 1970, we were still in a society where husbands receive diagnoses on behalf of their wives, just as in the show's earlier episodes Don received regular updates from Betty's shrink -- and that was normal.

Betty knows that after she dies Henry will be useless. Not because he's a bad guy, but because he's a a bit of dunce. He's already managed things poorly. In complete disregard for Betty's wishes, he showed up at Sally's dorm to break the bad news. He tells the little girl it's ok to cry -- good! --then he immediately breaks down himself -- not so good! Betty knows Sally will be on her own -- and that's ok. She leaves Sally with a note -- on Betty Francis letterhead, charmingly -- that concludes with this:

"I always worried about you because you marched to the beat of your own drum. But now I know that's good. I know your life will be an adventure."

If there's a such a thing as unemotional love, this is it. It's another kind of acceptance, not of circumstances, but of people.

The third and final storyline, of course, belongs to Don. We pick up with him in the middle of his midwestern roaming that gives the episode its title, "The Milk and Honey Route," which is a hobo term for a railroad. Tramp lore has figured into "Mad Men" before, most memorably in "The Hobo Code," an episode from the first season in which we start to get a glimpse of Don's Depression-era childhood.

The arc of the show, essentially, is to drag Don through the horrors of his past and see what comes out the other side. Now, having rejected everything -- he even refers to advertising in the past tense -- he's roaming middle America, when his road trip putters out with car troubles in Oklahoma. While waiting for it to get fixed, he holes up in a motel, swimming in the pool, watching TV, and reading "The Godfather."

It feels a lot like a road-not-taken universe. If Don Draper had remained Dick Whitman, then maybe he'd be living this life of American Legion halls and maybe, instead of making ads for Coke, he'd be fixing their vending machines.

Would that be so bad?

To the show's credit, there's nothing sentimentalized about this life. It's hard and cruel and ugly and fraught with violence. After what should have been a night of bonding over war stories at the American Legion hall -- yes, Don tells the story of how he accidentally blew apart his commanding officer -- the townsfolk turn on him when they suspect him of stealing a bunch of fundraising money.

The only real moment of kindness is created by Don himself, when he helps the young grifter who actually stole the money skip town, even handing over keys his Cadillac. Don decides that only this beneficence will allow the con man Andy to get away without having to change his identity -- Don knows what that entails. The meaning here is transparent: An older, wiser Don is helping out a younger version of himself.

With one episode left, there's not much more for Don to give away. He's left at a bus stop with a bag of clothes from Sears. His destination is uncertain. It could be westward. Certainly before last night's episode that's what I would have guessed, him ending up in California or Hawaii.

But now we know something Don doesn't: Betty is going to die. It would seem that that news would pull Don eastward offering him the chance at real redemption, to become the father he never was.

We'll see.

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