Mad Men Penultimate Analysis: The Milk and Honey Route’s Roots in Season 1

Cigarettes -- Kill quickly and slowly in this episode.

If Mad Men has taught us anything, it’s taught as that as the man sang, “You can’t always get what you want.” In my previous post, I wrote about my fantasy penultimate/finale storyline. Of course, my hopes were dashed and [SPOILER ALERT] I was as blindsided as anyone by Betty’s diagnosis though god knows someone had to die of cigarettes. It’s also a nice shout back to the death of the original Don Draper who died because Dick Whitman was a smoker. Who would have guessed the gun on the mantel piece was actually a cigarette, and Betty would take a bullet.

My recap of  S7 E13, The Milk and Honey Route will be appearing shortly on HNTP. In the meantime, here is an explanation of how the penultimate episode parallels S1 E8, The Hobo Code.

Last night’s episode, ends with Don doing something unexpected. He not only drives Andy to the bus stop, he gives him his car and is last seen sitting with a blissful expression, waiting for the bus. What motivated this extraordinary act of generosity, especially as it was aimed at someone whose actions led to Don’s getting beat up?

Why give Andy the car? Was this the further settlement of some psychic debt? The episode’s name holds a hint. Google the Milk and Honey Route and you’ll find a handbook for hobo’s written in 1931. The episode is a companion to S1-E8, The Hobo Code. In season one, Don recalls the hobo who in exchange for food, a couple of nights lodging in the barn, along with the promise of a quarter, does some chores on the Whitman’s farm. Dick brings him blankets. The two of them talk. Like Don, the hobo has left behind a more settled life for “freedom.” He’s not exactly a mentor, but it’s an encounter that leaves a lasting impression on young Dick. In the end, the hobo didn’t get his money, and left the hobo symbol for a “dishonest man” on the Whitman’s fence.

What happens when Don gets dropped off at the Sharon Motel? First, he’s offered some dinner — by Sharon who owns the place with her husband, Del. The next day, Andy comes to clean the room, just as young Dick Whitman came to see after the hobo in the barn. Like the hobo, Don helped out with some chores, fixing a typewriter and that Coke machine (a major shout-out to another life path) in exchange for those extra nights. Del admitted to being “dishonest” about the nature of the event at the legion hall, which he’d pressured Don to attend.  That is, he hadn’t told Don it was fundraiser.  It’s also likely that the WWII vet who told his own war story, like Don, left something essential out of the narrative. The vet, who I’ll call Ol Grizzly (because I don’t remember his name) told a harrowing tale of being one of three American soldiers in a the forest in winter, so hungry they were boiling bark. They came across four German soldiers in even worse shape, read to surrender, but they made the Germans dig their own graves, and then “bounced” them. So they survived the winter on bark? It seems like there’s something he’s not telling us. Something to awful to say out loud. But of course he’s lying by omission, just as Don is when he responds with his own war story — the one where he kills his commanding officer. Don comes closer than ever to describing what actually happened the day the “real” Don Draper died. They were under fire, fuel was everywhere. Don lit a cigarette. There was an explosion and he dropped the lighter. His CO was consumed by the fire. Don also wasn’t completely honest when he spoke. He left out the part about switching dog tags.

In both episodes, a stranger is ill-used and not treated kindly by people espousing Christianity (a situation that in the bible led to some pretty epic consequences). The hobo didn’t get the pay that was coming to him. Don gets slammed in the side of the head TWICE with a telephone book, and accused of being a thief.

Don isn’t mentoring Andy in being a fake, he’s advising against it, correcting his grammar and telling him he isn’t cut out for the life of a con man. But he understands his need for freedom. Chances are Andy will do some idiotic thing with the car, but by giving it to him, Don has paid the debt his father owed the hobo – with considerable interest.

In addition he’s confessed his original sin — killing his commanding office — the fraud that followed while more likely to put him behind bars than original Don Draper’s death which was an accident — is the one that Don feels the most that he deserves punishment for. But he confessed and was  given absolution for the accident and then punished a few hours later — for being a phony and a thief — even though his accusers got the nature of his offense wrong.

(You can catch my full recaps of Mad Man and a couple of other fine programs at HNTP. There’s also plenty to amuse at this site. If you’d like to thank me for trying, a great way to do that would be to check out my books, which in ebook form will cost you less than a latte at Starbucks.)