On Saturday, I graduated from college. I went and sat in the Falcons’ football stadium and listened to a few speeches, and at the end of it, we all cheered. The whole commencement ceremony lasted less than an hour and fifteen minutes.
It took me five years to get that degree. I faced a lot of stuff along the way, boring stuff that everyone faces. I struggled with grades and with commuting and with my own social anxieties, and there were many times that I wished I could do over. But in the end, I walked away with a degree, and a much brighter future.
But in the weeks leading up to my graduation, I was dreading it. I wanted it to be over. I wanted it to be off my plate so I could do other things that were more exciting or more productive. I went because I felt like I should; the least this school owed me was a degree and a ceremony to celebrate it.
We had to wait in the stands for about an hour and a half before things started, and for about thirty of those minutes, I was miserable. I wanted to go home. I wanted to skip out. But as I was sitting in the stands, surrounded by friends on all sides, I realized I had made the right decision.
Because, you see, I was there with friends, and my family would be watching. Getting the degree was the end goal, sure, but the journey, in which I learned all that I knew and whom I learned it with, was actually the most important, and best, part. The journey was the real reason to be there.
Tonight’s Mad Men was about that same journey. “The Milk and Honey Route” conjures up images of this perfect land; many of us have heard this reference in church or in some form of media. However, it doesn’t specify a place, but a road. The road that leads to the riches is really the place that is fertile; that’s the place that is really important.
You wouldn’t be wrong to call it meta. Television is about collaboration, much more so than any other artistic medium. There are exceptions, like True Detective, in which one dude writes it all, but for the most part, it’s a group of people trying to come up with the best story possible. It’s about late nights and Chinese takeout and breakthroughs; it’s about making friends and doing something you love with people you care about. The finished product is nice, yeah; when you can create something like Mad Men or Breaking Bad, it’s satisfying. But you get to share that satisfaction with others, and you get to commiserate and laugh with them years after its all over.
We see this idea, this “journey-over-destination” ideal, expressed in every single one of the characters tonight. Characters are confronted with the past and the future, and it brings into perspective the things that they already have.
Don is thrust into this small town, still travelling across the United States. He is confronted with his darkest secret. In a moment of drunken bravado, he actually tells the truth about his military service. He doesn’t reveal his charlatan status, but he does tell them that he is no war hero. It’s a really poignant moment; he’s drunk, and sweaty, and he murmurs out this tale of his own wretched incompetence, and people shrug. Don is trying to shed that old Draper skin; he’s been giving away everything that reminds him of that old life, one by one. He gives Megan a million dollars; he sells his apartment; he basically quits McCann. He finally even gives up his car, to a kid conman that reminds him so much of himself. Don is slowly coming to the realization that his unhappiness is not because he doesn’t have enough; no, he’s unhappy because the things he’s acquired have been more and more masks to paper over the fact that he’s a thief and a liar. He’s never been anything more than a thief and a liar; that’s who Dick Whitman is at his core. He’s been trying to get to the end for so long, to get to that place that made him feel safe from his past, that he missed the moments in which he did. Those tender moments with Megan, or the bonding with Sally; those sorts of things are when he felt most at home. Don wanted safe, and comfort, but he never wanted to work for it. Instead, once he used a person up, he moved on.
Pete has always been an interesting figure; if you were marketing him as a soda, you’d call him Don Draper Zero. He had the ambition, but none of the charm, or good looks. He made all of the same mistakes. But, like Don, there is a much softer core. Pete is, as always, the worst, but he comes through in weird moments. Pete’s journey in this episode was the linchpin in which all other stories revolved. Pete was always looking for something better, and bigger: a bigger office, a prettier wife, more status. But he never got them; he always got in his own way. But now Pete has stumbled into an opportunity, a new start, fresh, with Tammy and Trudy, away from the soullessness of McCann and in a new place. Pete somehow manages to convince Trudy to take him back. For now, I am not sure what this means for Pete. It reminded me a lot of the Don Draper way; ‘fresh start’ is his middle name. But Pete didn’t want to run away from the people he cared about. He wanted Tammy and Trudy to go with him; he wanted this new job with Lear to be with them. Something about the conversation with his brother clicked; when talking about a job, they talk about relationships, and Pete doesn’t understand why they’re always looking for something better. Pete is faced with the idea of his father having this large of a place in his decision-making, and it shakes him. Does this mean this was a good idea? I don’t know. But it’s a hell of a lot better than running off to California every time Betty and Megan ask to be treated like an actual human being.
Watching this season, I never thought that Betty would have such a crucial role, but the revelation that she has terminal lung cancer was really, really powerful; it served to put things into perspective. Betty has always been a bit of a punchline; she was Fat!Betty, or Brunette!Betty. Oftentimes, she’s been portrayed as a brainless, airheaded idiot, but that’s never really been the case. She was Don’s first wife, and she was always smarter than anyone gave her credit for. She’s been treated poorly for much of the show’s run, but it’s telling that Henry and Sally, the two stoics who disdain the so-called drama that Betty brings, are the ones who break down emotionally. Henry is not a stately gentleman when his wife is staring at a death sentence. Sally is not a steel-eyed young woman when her mother hands her a letter with instructions on how to take care of her affairs. Betty has taken control of her life, and she will do what she wants, a desperate Henry be damned. She continues to go to school, diagnosis be damned.
Henry asks her why she continues to go, even after the diagnosis. He can’t fathom why someone would continue to do something with nothing to show for it. But it’s simple: Betty always wanted to go to school, so she’s going to go to school. Betty has realized that the degree is not the point; it’s the fact that this housewife, long denied her desires, is doing what she wants. She wants to live her life, independent, and free.
You almost worried, at some points throughout Mad Men‘s run , of the idea of Betty raising Sally. You might have even thought, like I did, that the power and independence she derived was from her father. But God, we were wrong. Sally Draper could’ve had no better role model than a mom who wanted to be more than what the world had dealt her. Sally is a better person because of her mother. She’ll always cry when she thinks of her now, but Sally’ll be okay, because she’ll get it sooner than most. She won’t have her mother at her college graduation, or when she starts her career, or when she has her first child. She won’t get to watch her mother hold her grandchild, rocking the baby to sleep and tucking her in like she used to do for Sally. But she’ll always remember the moments that she spent with Betty, and she’ll hold that as her memory of her mom. She’ll remember the journey, and do her best to ignore the end.
It is always the journey. It is always, and forever, about the journey.
[Photo via AMC]