“It’s been a gift to me, to know when to move on”—so said a surprisingly self-possessed Betty to Sally, as she explained how she’d decided to handle her cancer diagnosis: Not by fighting a losing battle, but by living out her final days on her own terms. Sally presumed her mother had given up because she “loves the tragedy”—because she preferred to ride out her dying days on her fainting couch, soaking up the pity of family and friends. But Betty—so often petulant, immature, and self-absorbed—proved to be something else in the face of death.
Well, she’s still a little self-absorbed. A lot of that letter to her daughter is given over to details of how she’d like to look in her casket. But someone has to take care of those details, as she knows from her own experience watching her mother die. And it’s a dim view of Betty that sees attending to her appearance even in death as vanity; the kinder view is to see it as an attempt to die with dignity—rooted in the same impulse that gets her out of bed and off to class, even if she knows she might not make it to the end of the semester. The remainder of that letter revealed that, for all her squabbling with Sally over the years, Betty had finally come to appreciate her daughter and her strong-willed ways, and to look forward to the life of adventure Sally will have as a result—a life in that Sally will pursue her dreams (yearbook, Spain) before it’s too late. Mad Men has evoked a lot of emotions in me over the years—happiness, anger, befuddlement, surprise—but this was the first time it made me cry. When Sally lost it, I did too.
What a wonderfully redemptive moment this was for Betty, a character who has suffered a lot—at the hands of her philandering ex-husband, but also, it sometimes felt, at the hands of the series’ writers, who trapped her in that haunted Victorian that Henry picked out, saddled her with a beastly mother-in-law, made her wear a fat suit, and gave her a daughter who often seemed wiser than herself. When Betty collapsed on the stairs on her way to Freud 101, my first thought was: Of course it’s going to be poor Betty who is going to catch the lung cancer that just about every character in this series seems likely to succumb to. But in killing her off, the writers finally found a way to make Betty likeable, to give her a chance to be more of a rock than Henry (who approaches the diagnosis as if it’s a problem that can be solved with a few calls to well-connected bureaucrats) and one step ahead of her world-weary daughter, who, it turns out, doesn’t yet know it all. Happy Mother’s Day, Betty Francis.
Meanwhile, somewhere in Oklahoma … Don would like to move on, but he’s got car trouble. So he reads some Mario Puzo, shows off his dad bod at the motel pool, does some light typewriter repair, offers some remedial grammar instruction, and enjoys one very strange evening at the local chapter of the American Legion. Don seems to want to drive away from his troubles and find something new, but instead he’s stuck in a dry town and forced to confront his past: In the form of a Legion hall full of veterans who want to know the story of his service and a young con man who reminds him of his younger self. It seemed significant that our hero came clean about killing his C.O., the darkest element of Don Draper’s origin story, after initially lying about his rank. The vets he unburdens himself to take it in stride, though I thought that when they busted into his motel room later that night, that perhaps they were visiting upon him some country justice for the fragging in Korea. But no, Don had merely been framed up for the Great Coffee Can Caper. Even so, was the phone book to the face Don received punishment for that original sin? Is the point of his wandering in the wilderness to somehow let go of his Don Draperness—the lies about his service, the Cadillac his ad money bought him—so that he can emerge a new man (again)? (His dream, in which the authorities finally catch up with him, suggested none too subtly that Don’s conscience is still far from clear.) Watching him wait for that bus, I thought he seemed happily returned to a simpler, more (Dick) Whitman-esque time.
You might say that he seemed romantic about the past—the pitfall that Trudy was so wary of when Pete first let on that he might want to rekindle things. Julia, Hanna: I’m very eager for your take on the Pete plot and to hear whether you have high hopes—or any hopes—for the reconstituted Campbell clan. Will Trudy come to her senses after a few more hours of sleep? Or did she see something in her ex-husband’s eyes to suggest he really has changed? Pete’s long been Mad Men’s most entertaining villain—an insecure ass forever conniving and striving his way to the top. It’s a little hard for me to believe in his epiphany—that he’s recognized in himself his father’s insatiable appetites and decided to reform himself. That his path to betterment is paved by the wonderfully crazy and conniving Duck, and a very rich offer from Lear, suggests to me that as earnest as Pete may have been in that great moment with Trudy, this will prove a passing fancy. Remember how miserable Cos Cob made this city boy when they first moved to Connecticut? I have a slightly hard time imagining Pete in Wichita, even if he does have a jet gassed up in the backyard and even if Kansas proves as wholesome as, say, Oklahoma. I always thought Pete and Trudy were kind of perfect for each other—she was an excellent Lady Macbeth during his rise at Sterling Cooper, and they dance a killer Charleston. But I also remember things as they were, and Pete’s fondness for indiscretion isn’t one that’s easy to imagine him just willing away.
Can we still go to Friendly’s?