Mad Men Thread: The Hobo Coda

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There was a lot going on in the penultimate (a word I love as much as eponymous) episode of Mad Men, The Milk and Honey Route. I’ll let the Guardian’s Will Dean explain the reference instead of cribbing from it:

The milk and honey route, from which this penultimate episode takes its name, was the hobo nickname for one of the train lines running through Utah. It got its name from the generosity of Mormons who would feed the itinerant travellers but, as this piece by the American sociologist Nels Anderson explains, the term has come to mean any route taken which has a promise of better things to come. It’s the route Don is on, wherever he’s headed. Anderson writes:

“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.”

That reference, in turn, got me circling back to a flashback from Season-1, Episode-8, you guessed it, the Hobo Code. In that flashback, young Dick Whitman is made an “honorary hobo” by the real deal. Ever since those days, Don’s personal code has been flight, not fight. In this episode, he’s running away from his past as Don Draper and the demons that have haunted him since Korea. His plan, such as it is, is to keep running but other developments may get in the way.

Our old friend the dog abandoning headhunter Duck Phillips returns to tempt Pete Campbell and to drink his booze. More about that after the break but first a picture:

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The Milk and Honey Route is loaded with good news, bad news scenarios for our characters. We’ll start the random and discursive comments with the good news.

Duck and Uncover:  Duck Phillips shows up out of the blue to woo Pete Campbell. Pete is the only one of our original Sterling, Cooper characters who’s enjoying life at McCann, which is why Duck is less than candid in his approach.  Actually, he lies through his teeth, but I don’t have very high expectations for Duck the dog abandoner and married seducer of the Pegster. Her taste in men has always been rather suspect, even when she doesn’t accidentally shoot them. That’s why she and Stan should get together. Besides, he has Moshe Dayan on his side…

Duck put Pete together with a guy from Lear Jet. The meeting is ostensibly about Duck’s desire to win their business and to give Pete a chance to sing his praises and pitch them on behalf of McCann. It turns out to be a covert job interview, which goes very well. Lear Jet Dude wants an “old Knickerbocker” to help them woo corporate clients and Pete fits the bill. He gets a job offer and Duck makes sure that Jim Hobart is aware of what’s going on. Then Pete has one of his Daffy Duck style meltdowns and tells Duck to go find his dog. I made that last bit up.

Despite the fact that Lear is based in Wichita, Kansas, Pete is interested in the job, especially because of the perks, which include free use of a  jet. I guess he’s gotten over the fear of flying that afflicted him after his father died in a plane crash. More importantly, Pete sees a chance for a new start that includes Trudy and Tammy. The least convincing part of the Pete storyline is how quickly Trudy went from refusing to dine with Pete and Lear Jet Dude to agreeing to remarry Pete and move to bloody Kansas.

I suspect that Weiner and krewe want to draw a contrast between Don who’s having a hard time changing, and Pete who seems to be changing. I’m not certain I buy the new Pete Campbell. I believe that he loves Trudy but remain dubious that he’s worthy. I’m also unsure that the man who didn’t want to move to the suburbs and leave his beloved Manhattan is suddenly ready to move to Witchita where the lineman is still on the line:

I almost wrote, “we shall see how this turns out,” but we’ll have to use our imaginations since it’s going to happen offstage. Pete might, however, be ready to stop skirt chasing, which gives the remarriage a chance. Besides, his father is dead and the Polo Grounds have been demolished so that pattern has been broken. I was pleased to hear that Campbell the Elder might have been a Giants fan instead of a Yankees man like most Ivy League Republican types in those days.

Betty’s Fall: It had to happen; one of our characters has finally been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. There are many heavy smokers on Mad Men but Betty is at, or near, the top of the list. She’s rarely without a cigarette ablaze or nearby. Snooty patrician Henry refuses to believe the first doctor at what seemed to be a public health clinic. He believed the second opinion, which was delivered to him instead of the patient. Typical medicine circa 1970.

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Henry’s reaction is that of a man who has spent his life as a political fixer: it’s a problem so there must be a solution. He’s wrong. The state of oncology in 1970 was very primitive: any therapy would be palliative, not curative. That’s a fancy way of saying that Betty’s a goner no matter what they try. Betty intuitively grasps this and is unwilling to be poked, prodded, and irradiated. Henry drafts Sally to convince her mother to fight but it does not work. In fact, Betty cites her experience watching own her mother die and tells Sally “I don’t want you to go through that.”

I had to pinch myself: Betty thinking of others? It had to happen. Sally thought it might be her mother’s penchant for drama but she was wrong. That had to happen too. Sally may be wiser than her years but people have a way of surprising you.

Betty gives Sally a letter to be opened after her death. Sally cannot wait, which leads to the first time that Mad Men has ever made me a tad weepy. I’ve experienced a wide range of emotions while watching it but never that one and for a character I’ve disliked more often than not. To my surprise, Betty has risen to the occasion and is handling her illness with grace and dignity. But I bought it because, in addition to praising Sally, Betty mentions how she wants to be dressed and made up for her funeral. Betty has always been vain but this time she’s not shallow. At the risk of repeating myself, it had to happen.

Now that I’ve astonished everyone-myself included-by praising Betty, it’s time for us to hit the milk and honey route and check in with Don Fucking Draper.

The Okie Punk Meets the Godfather: Don is obviously finished with advertising. When Pete sees Duck in the elevator, he assumes he’s there to consult with Jim Hobart on Don’s replacement. Don is still on the road in what people insist on calling the nation’s heartland or mid-section. He’s wandered from St Paul to Wyoming to Trudy and Pete’s future hometown, Wichita, Kansas.

The episode begins with Merle Haggard’s Okie From Muskogee blaring on Don’s car radio. It happened during a dream gone sour: a cop pulls him over and tells him the jig is up. Try as he might, Don can never escape his past as Dick Whitman.

Don’s Cadillac breaks down just outside Alva, Oklahoma. He finds himself staying at the Sharon Motel whose namesake seems to be the only honest person in town. In fact, it’s a town full of Mr. Haneys. Haney was the con man and country slicker who bedeviled Eddie Albert and the denizens of Hooterville in the camp Sixties sitcom, Green Acres. 

Everyone is out to take Don who they think is the ultimate city slicker, but his inner Dick Whitman is wise to them. At first, he doesn’t let it bother him. He expected the mechanic to take him for a financial ride and he saw something of his younger self in local con kid Andrew. Andrew is the Okie punk in the section header. I couldn’t resist the Who reference since one of the paperbacks he brings Don is Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.

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Don is cajoled into attending a social event at the Alva American Legion Hall by the seemingly jovial motel owner,  Del Hill. As an ex-hick, Don should know that no good will ever come of trusting someone named Del. It’s a dry town so Don decided to get a snootful before fleeing Palookaville the next morning. Big mistake.

Things take a dark turn when Don, to my shock and horror, trades war stories with the veterans. One of them, a seedy vet named Floyd, is to be the beneficiary of the evening’s proceeds. Another con: it’s actually a “benefit” to help him rebuild his allegedly fire ravaged dwelling. By this point in the episode, I assumed the worst of this town full of Mr. Haneys, even if Floyd was played by an almost unrecognizable Max Gail, best known as the lovable goofball Wojo on Barney Miller.

Jerry may not have much hair, but tells Don a hair raising story about being trapped during World War II with 3 fellow American soldiers. They encounter 4 Germans who want to surrender. Instead they butcher the Germans, literally. That’s right: they eat them.  So, small town drunk Jerry is a cannibal war criminal. He also has a way with a phone book…

Floyd’s sinister revelation leads Don to blurt out of one of his darkest secrets: that he’d killed his commanding office, “I blew him apart and I got to go home.” Mercifully, he doesn’t confess to being a deserter, which would have made things even worse.

A hungover Don is awakened the next day by an angry group of hungover Okies who accuse him of stealing a jar with $500 in it from the Legion Hall. When Don denies it, Floyd hits him twice upside the head with a phone book. They steal Don’s car keys and tell him to return the money or else. Small town people are so damn nice.

Don knows who the real thief was: Okie con kid, Andrew. He was waiting on tables at the Legion Hall the night before and didn’t return to sell them a last round. Kids today. Don the Godfather orders the Okie punk to return the money and leave town pronto. Don lets him off easy because he sees himself in this kid: “If you keep it,  you’ll have to become somebody else and it’s not what you think it is.”

The episode ends with Don giving Andrew a ride to the bus stop and then, out of the blue, he tosses him the car keys, takes a seat on the rural bus bench, and waits for the Greyhound to arrive. Don has completed his hobo-ization by giving up the Cadillac. Me, I would have kept that sweet ride and continued reliving On The Road but Don wants to fulfill his hobo destiny.

The end is nigh and Betty is the main character who is going to die, not Don, Roger, or Pete. I’m wondering if the news of Betty’s lung cancer will have any impact on Don’s plans to become a Southern California hobo. He does love his kids but Gene and the eternally befuddled Bobby are better off being raised by Henry even if the latter posed a vapid question to Betty: “What would Nelson Rockefeller do?”

“HE WOULD DIE.”

Everything does; even Mad Men and this epic post. Except for another image of lonely Don:

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4 thoughts on “Mad Men Thread: The Hobo Coda

  1. Aaaargh says:

    Color me underwhelmed. It’s like Weiner & Co. had 75 more minutes to fill than they expected, and not the first idea what to do with it. The entire episode just feels flung together at random like a picaresque novel that has gone on too long, and it seemed to me as if everyone has basically checked out already, leaving the audience behind to scratch their heads. They should rename it Contractual Obligation Theatre. At this point, I have very little interest in sitting through the finale. I’ve stopped caring about these characters, just like all involved in the show have done. It’s shaping up to be Seinfeld Redux, with the creators saying to us, “Stop watching this show. What’s wrong with you? It’s over. Go away. GO AWAY.”

    To say something positive, at least SOMEONE finally gets lung cancer from all the smoking they’ve been doing for all these years. It was nice it was Loathsome Betty, though if she had just faded away and never been seen again after season 4 that would have been even better. And take Useless Trudy along with her to populate a caricature farm somewhere. I thought we’d seen the last of her, but no, here Trudy is again, out of nowhere all enticed by the bright lights of Wichita. Good lord. I’m ready to push the lot of them out of the window, together with the Magic 8-Ball that seems to be generating their random characterizations. The never-endingly brilliant title sequence was the only point to tuning in last night. Depressing end (or near end) to what was a terrific series for most of its run.

    Oh, who am I kidding? I have too much invested to not watch the finale, so I’ll be there just to see how Don reinvents himself yet again. But I’m expecting to be bitterly disappointed and probably bored. Maybe that will make me pleasantly surprised. After last night, I doubt it. Maybe we’ll find out more about Duck Phillips, the man, the legend! Woo hoo!

  2. Mike Shapiro says:

    Don is reading THE GODFATHER: the story of an orphan boy who changes his name, rises to the top of his profession and becomes the Don. Don is asked to fix the soda machine: at last he gets to work on Coca Cola. Airplanes, especially small private ones, are central to story lines: the show ends with a song by famous private plane crash victim Buddy Holly. Don’s nickname for Betty is Birdie: Bye Bye Birdie. Am I the only one who found the missing money plot device a bit strained? I mean the kid is always on the make, Don is with the vets the entire time, and yet they blame him for the theft instead of the kid (who by Okie logic of the time should have been the first guess since he’s Comanche).

    I’m predicting a big time shift next week. Nine months by the doctor’s watch. Don flies in for the funeral with Neve Campbell in tow. Or they all die in a Lear Jet accident. Or Don turns out to be DB Cooper. But dammit, Harry has to go out that window!

  3. mothra says:

    Well, if someone is going to be given lung cancer, someone else has to be given cirrhosis.

  4. Aaaargh says:

    Was talking more with Mrs Aaaargh over lunch about the ending. She thinks we still need to wrap up Roger and Peggy; I think her badass self ready to take over McCann is all we need to see of her. Roger has Marie now so I’m not sure what else needs to be done with him. Joan and Peter I think we’ve seen the last of. Sally has no way to reach Don so unless Don reaches out to her, the Francis family and the Draper children may as well fall off the earth. I really don’t want to see Don go back to comfort a dying Loathsome Betty.

    It seems to me that the entire finale may just be Don. Except whoever he is at the end, he won’t be Don Draper any more. He has been shedding pieces of Don for a while now—Megan, the apartment, and more radically Madison Avenue and now even his car, so it’s just him and a little paper bag. He could become a third persona (Duck Phillips!), but his little confessional at the VFW makes it seem more likely to me that he’ll try on Dick Whitman for a while and see if he can be comfortable in that skin now that he’s gotten rid of everything else. That’d be a satisfying conclusion.

    Or, he could just go out a window.

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