From the very beginning of Mad Men, Pete Campbell has tried to emulate his boss, Don Draper. He sucked up to him in the series’ earliest episodes while also trying his hand at picking up women with a form of the debonair charm Don possesses. As the show progressed, Pete became more ingratiating when he didn’t get the credit for his work, while also becoming more stubborn with office business in a way that would impress his superior. While Pete has done various smarmy and inflammatory things at the offices of Sterling Cooper (and beyond), he has remained one of the series’ most relatable characters. Along with Peggy, although to a greater extent than she, he has had to suffer the indignity of having a fractious relationship with his boss – and it’s this factor that has made him so endearing to so many.
For those who find Pete too prickly to appreciate, “The Milk and Honey Route” could quell many of the apprehensions viewers have of Mr. Campbell. The gains he showed to Trudy in “Time & Life” were sincere, not a sideshow. He really does want to spend more time with his wife and daughter. Some Mad Men watchers could be peeved at the quick shift from business savvy to reinvigorated family man – a shift that Don has never quite been able to master as seamlessly. However, Pete reveals in this hour that he’s closer to the antithesis of the man he has tried to indulge and influence for so many years. (Side note: It’s also a rotten shame that Vincent Kartheiser has never received an Emmy nomination, since he has been the show’s most versatile male actor.)
Pete and Don are both divorced men with children, but the former doesn’t have a hostile relationship with his ex-wife and actually looks giddy when he spends time with his daughter. Pete and Don are both especially convincing under the golden glow of a steakhouse restaurant, selling their services (and a bit of themselves) to prospective clients; however, Pete’s drive to secure big business in this hour is the opposite of Don’s slow sojourn to nowhere. Pete and Don both cheated on their loving wives, but only the Campbell has learned from his mistakes, realizing that you’re not supposed to always act on an impulse.
So, it’s a lovely grace note that Pete gets an honest second chance with the life he knows he screwed up. Near the end of the episode, one of the characters tells Don, “You just do what you have to do to come home,” referring to life during wartime. However, the one actually taking this advice to heart is Pete, who returns to Trudy’s side for the most important pitch of his life. “I want to start over,” Pete tells his wife, mentioning of the new job opportunity he has out in the Midwest, far away from the hustle and hysteria of the city. Pete began the series by trying to save enough to get an apartment in Manhattan, but he has found a promising second chance in Wichita. (Maybe he is more like Don in another capacity.)
While Pete is making deals and avoiding Duck Phillips – Mark Moses makes the most of what is likely that character’s last drunken stumble onto TV screens – Don spends much of the episode cooped up in an Oklahoma motel, owned by the homely Del and Sharon Hill (Chris Ellis and Meagen Fay). His car is in the shop, so he lounges around reading The Godfather, takes a dip in the pool and teaches a sly hotel employee, Andy (Carter Jenkins), how to speak good English. His attempts to lay low don’t quite succeed, as Del invites him to a veteran’s fundraiser. Don tries to avoid much attention, even hesitating to look at the Korean War vet, with the fear that he may be recognized as a phony.
For an episode arc that consists almost entirely of staying put and attempting not to draw attention, director Matthew Weiner creates a foreboding atmosphere. “The Milk and Honey Route” is filled with plane motifs. The episode begins with Don waking up from a frightening dream, with a helicopter whirring coming from outside his room. Right before he enters the motel later on, the sounds of an airplane flying overhead are emphasized on the sound mix. Between these two encounters with airplane noises, there is also the Learjet account Pete tries to snag, a Buddy Holly song wrapping the episode and references to Wichita – check out the city’s newspaper headlines on October 3, 1970, when part of the episode takes place, for more information about that.