What do all of the airplane references mean (in both this and last week’s episode) for Don? They could be the distant hum that ensures he abandons the high life for something more grounded. Alternatively, these could be a sign for Don to fly off to a destination that makes him truly content. This hour, the whir of the planes bring back a haunting reminder of the war he fought in two decades earlier. At the fundraiser, Don manages to unearth his tenuous connection to the man he used to be, revealing to a table of veterans that he accidentally killed his commanding officer.
He’s been running from the truth for a very long time. And, as the cop in his initial dream replies, the truth has eventually caught up with him. Sitting at a table with veterans, chanting an old Army tune, Don finds a bit of the community he lacked during his ennui from earlier in this half-season. Even if he is lost at the episode’s end, he has found some inner peace and made roads inward to the truth. The drifter even gives a grifter, Andy, his car: a new opportunity for another con man to venture out and make his own American dream.
As for dreams shattered, the brimming smile of a studious Betty Francis from “Lost Horizon” quickly fades, when the mother of three finds out she has terminal cancer and less than a year to live. Henry tries to urge for immediate treatment, but Betty realizes there’s no use. (January Jones’ glassy stare at the X-ray as Henry stands, impatient yet blurred in the background, is the episode’s most striking image.)
“My rib’s not going to heal,” she attests, without the stubborn streak more accustomed to the character. She is resigned to her fate and just wants to give her daughter some guiding advice. Betty does huff right by Sally when her daughter returns from school, after Henry notifies her of the impending future. However, the shade throwing is more about Betty’s lack of control over how she explains her end than any grudge on her daughter. “I don’t want you to think I’m a quitter,” Betty tells Sally. “I’ve fought for plenty in my life. That’s how I know when it’s over.”
Instead of rolling over, Betty returns to school – a place where she can be happy and find some of the same autonomy her daughter has managed. In the envelope to Sally, which her daughter opens long before its desired date, Betty gives an old photograph of a dress she wore. She wants a beautiful, dignified exit – and the exquisitely framed and compassionately performed scenes between mother and daughter brought the character just that.
Just as Pete Campbell’s moral purity in “The Milk and Honey Route” leaves some of his poorer characteristics behind, it is easy to look past Betty’s naivety and vanity from earlier seasons. Here, she finds strength and wisdom with the person closest to her – and none of it feels false or forced. While Kiernan Shipka deserves merit for fighting off tears when Henry breaks the sad news, the episode belonged to Jones, finding a strong note of grace to send off the character – leaving the domain of the domestic, while driven and determined to live her own dream.
This final season of Mad Men has not as much been a series of exclamation marks as periods. There is not just a sense of finality to many of the subplots, but many of the characters have come to a realization and admitted the truth, granting them a form of catharsis. Peggy spoke to Stan about the baby she had a decade earlier. Joan confronted the pervasive industry sexism. In “The Milk and Honey Route,” the series’ penultimate hour, two more declarative sentences close, with Pete and Betty. As for Don, he is sitting at a bus stop in the middle of Oklahoma. Although he has found a sort of catharsis, his final destination is still a question mark.