Sitting Shiva

Mad Men has always been self-referential, but it has only become more so in this final half-season, as we approach what we know to be the end. As each character takes a final bow (some, like Rachel ...

Mad Men has always been self-referential, but it has only become more so in this final half-season, as we approach what we know to be the end. As each character takes a final bow (some, like Rachel Menken, die off-screen; others, like Glen Bishop, go out in a half-hearted blaze of glory; and still others, like Megan, take an entire episode to wrap up the storyline and exit the plot, taking all signs of their former existence with them), we understand that the show is also staging these exits for our pleasure, for our chance to say goodbye. As we move from episode to episode, getting ever closer to the series finale (with AMC providing a countdown to the final moment: “Only 2 episodes left until the series finale!”), characters deliver lines that speak as much to their immediate lives and to the life of the show. “That’s how I know it’s over,” Betty tells Sally, “I know when to move on.” “Aren’t we entitled to more?” Pete asks Trudy, “to something new?” “Everyday, it’s getting closer, moving faster than a roller coaster,” Buddy Holly sings as the final shots of Don sitting at a bus stop in Oklahoma fade to black.

The first of the final seven episodes of this half season, “Severance” (708), provided what I take to be a metaphor for the remainder of the show. As Joan and Peggy try to solve the problem of Topaz pantyhose, Don learns that Mrs. Katz (aka Rachel Menken) has passed away. He goes to her New York apartment to find that her family is sitting shiva, that is to say, observing the week-long mourning period in Judaism for first-degree relatives—father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, and spouse—during which family members traditionally gather in one home (preferably the home of the deceased) and receive visitors. The word shiva comes from the Hebrew word shiv’ah, which means “seven.” The tradition was developed in response to the story in Genesis 50:1-14 in which Joseph mourns the death of his father Jacob (Israel) for seven days. I don’t think it’s incidental that this plotline occurs in the first of the final seven episodes of the series: like Rachel’s family, we are also sitting shiva, with exactly seven episodes left in the series to say farewell.

Episode 713, “The Milk and Honey Route,” seemingly picks up where we left off in “Lost Horizons,” with Don still on the road, until we realize that in fact, weeks if not months have passed by since the previous episode. Don’s cross-country road trip has now taken him from St. Paul, Minnesota to Wyoming, south through Kansas and Oklahoma, following route 40 on his way to the Grand Canyon (a very Thelma and Louise destination). Not long after passing through Wichita, his Cadillac breaks down, and he spends a week at the Sharon motel outside Alva, Oklahoma, fixing a seemingly random series of machines: the Cadillac, the typewriter, the TV, the Coca Cola dispenser. All his worldly possessions are now contained in a Sears paper bag and, by the end of the episode, he no longer even has the Caddy, having handed over the keys to a local hustler, trying desperately to start a new life, to become someone else. Possibly, to become Don Draper.

In the meantime, Pete is also being hustled, tricked into a job he doesn’t want, but able to see this as a deus ex machina / hand of God second chance to restart his life, this time, in the “wholesome” family environment of Wichita, with Trudy and Tammy by his side, and a Lear Jet standing by ready to take him “anywhere in the world.”

And Betty has lung cancer. Happy Mother’s Day.

The organizing metaphor of episode “Lost Horizons” (712) was the notion of mobility: the floors of McCann-Erickson underscoring everyone’s place in the new pecking order; Peggy’s circling around Roger on roller skates while he sits playing the organ in the empty halls of SCDP offices, a study of movement and stillness; and Don’s wistful gaze out the boardroom window at the airplane flying over the Empire State Building reminding us, again and again, of the opening credit sequence. “The Milk and Honey Route” continues this theme, though that mobility is curtailed by a series of breakdowns, which leave our characters temporarily marooned. Don is now firmly on the hobo trail, announced by the episode’s title, a reference to Nels Anderson’s The Milk and Honey Route: A Handbook for Hobos (published under the pseud. Dean Stiff), as he sheds more and more layers of his put-on identity: the family, the job, the suit, the car…

Often the hobos speak of a railroad as a “milk and honey route.” The original milk and honey route was a railroad from Salt Lake City southward through the valleys of Utah. Along this line were the Mormon villages so euphoniously named, Moroni, Manti, Nephi, Lehi and Juab. In the early days, before the Latter Day Saints got disillusioned by the great influx of bums and yeggs, or, what is worse, the auto tramps, this was the greatest feeding ground for hobos. Hence the name, milk and honey route, which has since become a household term among hobos. Any railroad running through a valley of plenty may be called a milk and honey line. But this is a transient term; what may be a milk and honey route to one hobo may not be so to another. A hobo may fare well on a route one time and another time fare ill. Again, it may be milk and honey for a road kid but not for an old timer. For Jewish hobos, the trombenicks of the road, every road is always milk and honey, which explains in part why Jews never lack partners on the road.
(Dean Stiff, The Milk and Honey Route: A Handbook for Hobos 1931)

Don is not following a railroad (or at least, not yet), but he is, at least according to what he tells Sally, following U.S. Route 40, an east-west highway that once traversed the entire United States. It was one of the original 1926 U.S. Highways, and its first termini were San Francisco, California, and Atlantic City, New Jersey. Between the cities of Lawrence and Topeka, Kansas, US 40 followed the path of the Oregon Trail that served as a major thoroughfare for people immigrating to the Pacific Northwest in the 19th century. Most of the western section of US 40 followed the former route of Victory Highway, a road that once linked Kansas City to San Francisco. The road was named as a memorial to fallen World War I veterans, and given that the episode’s climatic turn that takes place during a Legionnaires fundraiser (“everybody who’s a vet and likes drinking will be at the Legion on Saturday night,”) the choice of this highway seems intentional. The fundraiser calls back to the 4th of July “ribs and fashion show” at the Country Club in “Maidenform” (206), where Don felt the full weight of his false identity as a war hero. Here, Don gets to undo that fake status, by finally admitting out loud how what he did in Korea that let him “come home” (although he still doesn’t tell the full story).

A direct reference to “The Hobo Code” (108) as well as to “Seven Twenty Three” (307), “The Milk and Honey Route” returns us to the Dick Whitman storyline that we thought we had lost once Don told Megan (and everyone else) the “truth” about himself. In retrospect, we should’ve seen it coming: “He loves to tell stories of how poor he was,” Roger tells their dates at the diner in “Severance”; “he grew up very poor,” Sally tells her “fast” friend who quizzes Don about his penthouse apartment. As the ghost of his father tells him in “Seven Twenty Three,” “Look at you, up to your old tricks. You’re a bum, you know that?” And indeed, in the middle of this episode we are given a full view of Dick Whitman, not in flashback, but as the other side of the handsome but “characterless” Don Draper, the painful depth underneath the glossy surface, as he confesses one part of his crime (not the full crime, but its origins, the killing of his CO), and is punished. As the policeman tells Don in the opening dream sequence, “We’ve been looking for you. You knew we’d catch up with you eventually.”

The three seemingly unrelated storylines are held together by visual as well as other cues. As we move from Pete, to Betty, to Don, we realize they are all wearing the same color – blue – which, like Don’s brown sports coat that visually ties him to the other vets later in the episode, here serves to connect him to Betty and Pete, back in New England. All three storylines are about a kind of resignation to fate: Pete accepts that he is being manipulated by forces beyond his control and recognizes the “supernatural origins” of his predicament. “I was offered a job tonight,” he tells Trudy. “Because its origins were supernatural, I realized its benefits might be as well.” Betty similarly accepts her diagnosis not because, as Sally puts it, she “loves the tragedy,” but because she too understands it for what it is: the novel (and serial television shows that behave like novels) has only two possible endings, death and marriage. If Pete gets the one, then Betty must be satisfied with the other. She gets to control it to the very end, including providing her daughter with precise instructions on the burial—which gown, which hairstyle, which lipstick.

Of course, Mad Men has always been about death. Or in any case, about the death drive. From the opening credit sequence of Don Draper falling from a New York skyscraper, to the very first Lucky Strike campaign, in which Don rejects Greta Guttman’s suggestion that people smoke cigarettes because of a “death wish,” a drive as powerful as that of sexual reproduction and physical sustenance, Mad Men has been moving forward to the one inevitable goal. It’s no wonder Betty is reading Freud. It surprises me that Pete is let off the hook so easily: a man who sat in his office clutching a hunting rifle and watched Red Asphalt in driver’s ed. seemed destined for an entirely different kind of narrative resolution. Perhaps, that’s why we find him so elated at the end of this episode: he has escaped unscathed.

And Don? Don is living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.

In his groundbreaking essay, “Freud’s Masterplot,” Peter Brooks wrote:

What operates in the text through repetition is the death instinct, the drive toward the end […] As Sartre and Benjamin compellingly argued, the narrative must tend toward its end, seek illumination in its own death. Yet this must be the right death, the correct end. The complication of the detour is related to the danger of short-circuit: the danger of reaching the end too quickly, of achieving the improper death. The improper end indeed lurks throughout narrative, frequently as the wrong choice: choice of the wrong casket, misapprehension of the magical agent, false erotic object-choice. The development of the subplot in the classical novel usually suggests different solution to the problems worked through by the main plot, and often illustrates the danger of short-circuit. The subplot stands as one means of warding off the danger of short-circuit, assuring that the main plot will continue through to the right end. The desire of the text (the desire of reading) is hence desire for the end, but desire for the end reached only through the at least minimally complicated detour, the intentional deviance, in tension, which is the plot of narrative.

“I don’t want to take you out of your way, man” says the hitchhiker to Don. “It’s not a problem,” Don replies.

So what is the right end for Mad Men? Serial television is predicated on repetition, on plotlines and characters reappearing season after season, but the desire of the text (and of its viewers) is for the end, and we’ve known this one was coming from the beginning. So without making any predictions about next week, I turn again to the source that undergirds this episode:

The road the real hobo follows is never ending. It is always heading into the sunset of promise but it never fully keeps its promise. Thus the road the hobo roams always beckons him on, much as does the undealt card in a game of stud. Every new bend of the road is disillusioning but never disappointing, so that once you get the spirit of the hobo you never reach the stone wall of utter disillusionment. You follow on hopefully from one bend of the road to another, until in the end you step off the cliff.
(Dean Stiff,The Milk and Honey Route: A Handbook for Hobos 1931)