As they say on Mad Men: Jesus [mute]ing Christ.
With the imminent death of Betty Draper, whose last laborious climb up those college steps looked a lot like her ascension into heaven, Matthew Weiner dropped a bomb on his audience as well as his characters. No extended epilogue for Mad Men, no multi-episode equivalent to the elegant pull-back shots that have closed so many episodes. Nope, shit is going down.
Giving a character lung cancer is, in one sense, a logical culmination for a show that has savored the ambience of cigarette-tainted rooms for so long. (The first episode was called "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," but really, it gets everywhere.) But why Betty, perhaps the longest-suffering of its many martyr-like characters? Because as often as she's seemed extraneous to a show about advertising men and women, and as many opportunities as Weiner and co. had to send her off to live in a nice Republican mansion in Westchester Country and never be heard from again, she's served as the show's most persistent link to the world outside of Madison Avenue. In Don's world, "It's toasted" is an appealing slogan precisely because of how meaningless it is. But when Betty's doctor tells her she has months to live, she doesn't try to parse the words. "I've learned to believe people when they tell you it's over," she tells Sally. "It's been a gift to me, to know when to move on."
Betty's conversation with her daughter, both in person and via the note she left to be read after her death, strikes a startling note of acceptance, in profound contrast to Don's lifelong flight from the truth. She's been painfully naive and immature for so long, but the Grace Kelly-like blonde bombshell suddenly vaulted past her fellow characters in maturity — or perhaps she's been sneaking up on it for years, and we never quite noticed.
Although it's doubtful the series will end on a Sopranos-like metanote — then again, no one saw that one coming, either — its final run has been in large part about the end of the show itself. The partially disassembled offices of what was once Sterling Cooper & Partners in last week's episode ("Lost Horizon") looked like a set in the midst of being taken apart, and the featureless grey corridors of McCann Erickson look like a new set built on the cheap. (Don't open that door; there's no office behind it.) One thing we know for sure: After next week, Mad Men is dead, and we're just going to have to accept it. Make sure get that nice blue gown out of the hall closet, and do the hair just right.
Only slightly less shocking than Betty's terminal prognosis was Pete Campbell's new lease on life, courtesy of a scheming Duck Phillips and a whole lot of dumb luck. Duck tricks Pete into meeting with Learjet for what turns out to be a job interview, then turns Pete's failure to show for a second dinner into a negotiating tactic. Only a few days after failing to talk his ex-wife, Trudy, into sharing late-night pie with him at her house, he persuades her to start a new life in Wichita, Kansas — far from the disapproval of Connecticut housewives and the leering eyes of their husbands. It's not that Pete regrets cheating on her, exactly, but as he says to his womanizing brother: "It feels good, and then it doesn't." (You could say the same thing about smoking.) Pete's apparent metamorphosis into a decent human being is hard to swallow: As his ex puts it, "I'm jealous of your ability to be sentimental about the past. I remember things as they were." But if this is his ending, why not make it a happy one?
No such luck for the Draper clan, whether up north or down south. When Don's Caddy breaks down in the Oklahoma sticks, he finds himself marooned in a dry town with only a paperback of Mario Puzo's The Godfather for company. The young man who cleans his room scores him some booze — upping the price just before handing it over, the sign of a true self-made man — and a couple more paperbacks: Michael Critchton's The Andromeda Strain, a thriller about a deadly disease (sorry, Betty), and James Michener's Hawaii. In Oklahoma, he's invited to a fundraiser at the American Legion, where the former Private Whitman is once again called upon to masquerade as Lieutenant Donald Draper. He can't even look a fellow veteran of the Korean conflict in the eye, but he's told in no uncertain terms that this is not a place where "I can't talk about it" cuts any ice. After a World War II vet tells his own dark story, Don admits to accidentally blowing up his commanding officer, and the others seem to take it in stride. (War is hell, after all.) It seems for a moment that has found the community he lacked in the half-season premiere ("Severance") where the Jewish mourners at Rachel Katz's shiva turned their backs to him. This is Don's minyan. He may not be working the Coca-Cola account, but at least he can fix the vending machine.
It doesn't last: A few hours later, those same veterans are slapping him with a phone book, convinced that Don — or whoever he is — has made off with the benefit's proceeds. He knows instantly who the real culprit is: the young scammer who brought him booze. This is his true comrade, a fellow con man setting out on a life of itinerant crime. Don't do it, Don tells him: You'll have to become someone else, and you have no idea what that involves. (Don, of course, does.)
He's placed his trust in other young people with bad results before, but this time, it works out: The young man gives back the money, takes a ride out of town, and accepts the gift of Don's Cadillac with barely a backward glance. The episode ends, as so many have, with Don alone in the frame, sitting at a bus stop. But something's different. The camera isn't pulling away from him. It's stable, and Don leans back as if settling in. He is where he belongs.
Previously: Skate and Destroy