MAD MEN 7X13 Debriefing: We’re not in Kansas anymore. (Which is probably a good thing.)

January Jones as Betty Francis - Mad Men _ Season 7B, Episode 13 - Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

With only one (!) episode left until the series finale, Mad Men has a lot of loose ends to tie up — or not, as the case may be, because if there’s one thing this show has always reinforced, it’s that you don’t always get a storybook ending in life. Boy, is that ever true for Don and everyone else on the show tonight.

We pick up with Don being pulled over, and the officer informing him that they’ve been looking for him for a long time. What a way to start off the episode! He is dejected, and the rest of the episode is presumably a flashback leading to this event. Don wakes up in a hotel room, and we find out (thanks to Pete) that he’s been on the road for close to a month; he calls Sally for his weekly chat, expounding the virtues of learning the value of money as she decides to trade in her field hockey team for yearbook committee. He’s sharing his trip with her long-distance, and while she offers just the right amount of teenage sarcasm about her dad’s dorky navigating, there’s no question that Sally would absolutely rather be by his side for this, because as we’ve been learning, she is her father’s daughter.

Don’s car breaks down somewhere in Kansas, and he’s left to idle away at a roadside motel while he waits for it to get fixed. There isn’t much to do besides go to the pool or watch TV, and when the latter breaks down, it sets off a chain reaction which he probably wishes he could take back. He asks the manager for a new TV, and helps her fix her typewriter in the meantime. She’s so grateful that she invites him to attend the local legion’s dinner the following night, after finding out he’s a veteran. Her husband twists his arm the next day by throwing in a free night at the motel, and he relents, because Don doesn’t say no to drinks.

When there, he finds out it’s really a fundraiser for one of the locals, and one drink turns into, well, probably dozens, and they start trading war stories. Don refuses to share, but the other men convince him that the legion is the only place any of them can talk about what they went through Over There — think of it as a primitive support group before anyone could voice what PTSD was. It’s clear they’re all still reeling, no matter which theater they were in. Don keeps mum other than the fact that he was in Korea, but when one of his new acquaintances recalls the horror he went through in World War II, and what he had to do just to survive, Don’s defenses are breached. He admits to them all that he killed his CO by accidentally dropping his lighter on the fuel-soaked ground, for probably the first time of his own volition. They understand him completely, and Don basks in the camaraderie of the servicemen for likely the first time in his life.

In the middle of the night, though, he is awoken by the same group of “friends”: they drunkenly accuse him of stealing the cash box from said fundraiser, and steal his car keys as leverage until he coughs up the money — along with socking him with a phonebook a couple of times for good measure. (I told you last week that road trips never end well for him.) Don didn’t take it, but is certain the motel cleaning guy who conned him out of $20 for a bottle of whiskey did, because he knows a hustler when he sees one. Later, the kid admits he did take it, because he wants to get out of there, but long-time conman Don warns him that he doesn’t want to start down this road, because once he pulls that trigger, he will never be able to return to his old life. Man, Don is confessing his darkest secrets left and right here, even if it isn’t the whole truth.

In any case, Don manages to get the money back, and silently pays the manager back, and has his car returned to him. Cheekily, the young thief asks Don for a ride to the bus station on his way out of town; it seems he’s made up his mind, despite Don’s warnings, and wants out of Dodge, too. So off they go again, to anywhere but here. At the bus stop, Don makes a completely Don decision: he gives the keys and the pink slip to the young man, and gets out himself to wait for the bus to nowhere. He cautions him that he’s only going to get one chance like this in his lifetime, so he better use it wisely. Obviously, this is Don paying it forward, in his own way, not unlike how he was “gifted” with the real Don Draper’s identity in Korea for his own second chance. The kid takes off, while Don couldn’t look happier waiting for life to happen on that deserted bench.

Back in New York, things are infinitely more heart-wrenching. Betty’s back at school, and is not only struggling emotionally, but physically as well. After getting winded walking up the stairs, she trips, and though she claims to her handsome young rescuer that she’s only hurt her pride, she ends up in the ER. What she thinks is just a broken rib turns out to be her worst nightmare: it’s lung cancer, and it’s already spread to her lymph nodes and metastasized. In effect, it’s a death sentence; she’s got nine months to a year left if she’s lucky, but there’s no accounting for the quality of that life once she undergoes treatment. (Is this a callback to her thyroid tumor a few years ago? I know they said it was benign then, but I always had a feeling the parallel with her friend with breast cancer would come back to haunt her.)

January Jones as Betty Francis - Mad Men _ Season 7B, Episode 13 - Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

January Jones as Betty Francis – Mad Men _ Season 7B, Episode 13 – Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

Of course, Betty loses all agency in this discussion — doctors won’t discuss her own health with her without Henry present; Henry, out of misguided love, tasks himself with finding doctors and making appointments and coming up with treatment plans before asking Betty what she wants. What she wants is to not talk about it, and forget all about it. Henry’s right that it’s partially out of shock, but Betty’s got another perspective: she watched her mother go through it, and she knows the writing’s on the wall for herself. She could undergo treatment and prolong her life by a tiny bit, but become a miserable shell of the person she is in the process. Henry’s enraged, because he can’t believe she won’t even think about fighting, but Betty’s mind is made up. She doesn’t even want to tell the kids until she’s figured out what exactly she wants to do.

Henry, again, takes the matter into his own hands. He heads to Sally’s school, and against his wife’s wishes, drops the bombshell on her. (Not cool, Henry.) Sally’s first instinct is to call her mom, but Henry forbids it, because she isn’t supposed to know. I understand Henry at this point, but he’s put Sally in an impossible situation, and what did he expect her to do once she found out her mother has (terminal) cancer? He’s hoping Sally can convince her mother to fight, since if she won’t do it for herself, maybe she’ll at least do it for her kids. Sally is overwhelmed, and Henry tells her she’s allowed to cry — only, Henry’s the one who breaks down. It’s a shock to Sally’s system, because I’d bet that this is probably the first time she’s seen any man in her life cry — hell, it might be the first time she’s seen any of the adults in her life cry, period. Once again, she becomes the parental figure to the person taking care of her, and they’re both left in their grief in her room. Sally’s always had a contentious relationship with her mom, but there’s nothing like hearing she may lose her to make her want to be a little girl again; meanwhile, Henry may not be hearing Betty right now, but his sorrowful “Jesus, what am I going to do?” to Sally says it all — he’s terrified of losing the woman he loves. Henry’s always been a good man, and it’s obvious that Betty is his world.

So he enlists Sally’s help, but it backfires spectacularly, because Sally never makes an unannounced trip home from school. (Unless she’s in trouble.) Naturally, Betty figures it out immediately, and gives them both the cold shoulder and exits the room, leaving a subdued Sally all alone with her brothers, trying to keep up appearances. Sally immediately takes on the mother hen role with them, as she always has when things get bad at home. She snuggles Gene and contemplates, not unlike Betty after her earlier cancer scare all those years ago. There’s no time to be a brat when your whole world is about to be turned upside down.

That night, restless in bed, Betty pays her a visit, and hands her a letter detailing instructions of what to do after she’s passed. Sally tries to get a rise out of her mom by accusing her of not getting help because she loves the tragedy of it all, but it’s a hollow threat. She just wants her mom to prove her wrong. She pleads with her to fight (because “I won’t let you give up” — oh Sally) and get treatment. Betty serenely tells her that she’s not giving up, she just knows when it’s time to “move on.” Devastatingly, she informs her daughter that she’s gotten good at believing people when they tell her it’s over, and this is the universe telling her it’s over, too. (God, what a loaded statement; this is what years with Don does to you.) Her time is up, and she wants to spend whatever is left doing what she wants, instead of being a victim. So she tells her to go back to sleep and go on as normal the next day, like nothing ever happened. Betty has always been good at playing the charade, but can Sally?

When Sally gets back to school, obviously the first thing she does is read that letter. It’s a meticulous plan for Betty’s funeral arrangements, because she knows Henry is going to be too overwhelmed himself to deal with any of it. She wants to be interred with her family in Philadelphia, and buried in her favorite blue gown, with her hair done “how I always like it” and her favorite lipstick from her purse. One would be forgiven for thinking this was a stylist appointment, and not a burial plan. This is Betty: even in death, she wants to be the cover girl, one last time. She was always the pretty picture, and she’s going to hold onto that until the very end.

Yet, the letter is also a testament to how much she’s grown since then, too, because she says some lovely things to Sally. She used to worry about her daughter because she marched to the beat of her own drum, but now she realizes that’s exactly why she’s going to succeed in life. For all the years Betty spent trying to get Sally to play house in their charade of a perfect life, she’s remarkably accepting of Sally’s rebellion, grateful that it means she won’t ever compromise who she is for anyone else. It is hands-down my favorite scene of theirs of the series — and they aren’t even together in it. While Sally reels from having to grow up in the blink of an eye, Betty makes good on her promise: going back to school was always her dream, and she’s going to keep doing it as long as she can, one breathless step at a time.

In less-heartbreaking news, Pete’s still waxing nostalgic about his life with Trudy, and being headhunted by Duck Philips, in that order. He’s spending more time with Tammy, and trying to be civil with Trudy, who in turn keeps communication lines open out of their daughter’s best interests. He’s got that wistful look in his eyes again about what could have been, but Trudy remains distant. Meanwhile, Duck convinces him that Learjet wants to be in business with McCann, but it becomes apparent at the dinner date with its president that it was a setup; Duck actually wants Pete to take a job at Learjet, promising him riches and prestige he will never get at McCann. Pete is disgusted at first, because he doesn’t want to leave New York or McCann, in that order. Besides, he’s got a four-year contract to fulfill, and the promise of a million dollars at the end of it. Duck smiles in victory, because now he knows Pete has a price.

After dinner with his brother, he wonders why the Campbell men always search for “something else,” whether it’s in business or in women, when they have everything they could ever need right in front of them. His brother is more concerned over Pete’s assertion that his wife must know about his philandering, but Pete is caught in the moment, clearly wondering why he couldn’t have appreciated Trudy while he had the chance. Is it really too late? His brother promptly cancels his date with his mistress, ostensibly to return home to his long-suffering wife, but Pete is clearly contemplating what this all means.

Vincent Kartheiser as Pete Campbell - Mad Men _ Season 7B, Episode 13 - Photo Credit: Justina Mintz/AMC

Vincent Kartheiser as Pete Campbell – Mad Men _ Season 7B, Episode 13 – Photo Credit: Justina Mintz/AMC

Duck arranges another dinner meeting “with the wives,” but Pete can’t convince Trudy to play house for one night. She is briefly charmed, especially when he rightly points out what a formidable team they were, but she can’t forget what he’s done to her in the past, and refuses to play his game. (Hey, I said that last week, too!) When Pete bails on dinner with Duck and Learjet (in favor of eating pie with Trudy), Duck is angry, but also uses it to their advantage, by claiming Pete was insulted by their initial job offer. So they sweeten the deal: they’ll buy out his contract, pay him his million-dollar bonus, and offer him exclusive use of their private jets whenever he wants — all he has to do is relocate to Wichita.

He barges in on Trudy at four a.m., and asks her to go with him; she’s confused, but he’s proposing, all over again. He admits that Trudy is the only woman he’s ever loved, and he never stopped loving her — nor did she him. She’s resisting his words, and tells him that she “will never allow [him] to hurt [her] again,” and he sorta Han-Solos “I love you, too” right back. She asks him how she can believe him this time, and he basically tells her that it’s because he’s been to the greener grass, when she is what he’s been longing for all along. He meant it ten years ago when he said “I do,” and he means it even more now. (I guess all those other women in between didn’t count.) Trudy finally relents, and they reconcile; iseems like they’re about to go live the American dream in Kansas after all. At least someone gets a happy ending tonight.

I don’t even know where to start with this episode, I was so bowled over by it. I love how it concentrated so intently on four of our core characters, setting them up for their conclusions, such as they are. Firstly, Betty’s story is obviously the most poignant. As I mentioned above, I’ve sensed for a few seasons that she’d meet some sort of tragic fate, and I’m sorry that it appears to be the case. Poor Betty — for years she was trapped within the confines of her society and her toxic marriage and even her own psyche, and now that she’s finally free of those, her life is about to be ripped from her. It’s heartbreaking and realistic, but it also made for a damn fine hour of television. I would have been fine if the last we’d seen of her was last week’s sweet goodbye with Don, imagining her trailblazing in academia, but this feels much more in line with the show’s tone, too. Essentially, shit happens and then you die, so you may as well live your life as you want. Don seems to be heading there, too, for different reasons. (I’d wonder how Don would take the news, but I don’t think we’re going to see it.) I’m definitely curious if this is now the end of Betty on our screens, since Mad Men loves its time jumps — could her year be up by next week? No matter what happens, though, I love that Betty’s arc has ended with her fulfilling her dreams, however short-lived they may be.

I just loved Sally and Henry’s reactions to her diagnosis, too, because of how their love manifested in different ways. Henry puts on a strong front, his years of politics being put to good use, but ultimately, the sensitivity in him to which Betty was first attracted prevents him from keeping up that ruse, and he’s utterly broken in private with Sally. Meanwhile, Kiernan Shipka did such a fantastic job of portraying Sally’s range of emotion — from shock, to confusion, to grief, to love, it was all on-screen, and utterly remarkable.

When it comes to Pete and Trudy, again I must comment on the actors’ performances, because they sold the hell out of them. Alison Brie was wonderful at portraying Trudy’s distance, yet obviously covering affection she was trying not to give into. On the other hand, Vincent Kartheiser’s Pete was like a lovesick puppy from the start, making it obvious where the episode was going, but wholly enjoyable nonetheless. I confess that I feel like there’s a slight bit of revisionist history going on here; Pete was a terrible husband (and often human being) while he was with Trudy, and I find it a little difficult to sweep that under the rug because Pete misses what he can’t have. (Duck nailed that one on the head.) Yet, like I said, Kartheiser and Brie were so electric together that I can’t help cheering them on, and I want Pete and Trudy to become the toast of Wichita.

Then there’s Don: to be perfectly honest, I haven’t a clue where he’s going, and that’s probably just the way Matt Weiner wants it. I always wondered if the series would end with Don merging his two identities, letting go of the big secret which created his current persona in the process, and it seems like there may be some of that in store for us next week. Between him admitting how he was discharged to a bunch of vengeful strangers, to his not-so-thinly-veiled counsel on being a con man to the cleaning guy, to the mysterious teaser in which the cop tells him (and us) that he knows they’ve been looking for him, it looks like we’re in for an explosive end. And I am so completely intrigued — this is what Mad Men is all about, and it’s hard to believe we’ve only got one more episode left with this wonderful group of characters.

If I had to pick a theme for tonight, it might have been about the desperation people feel when faced with losing their loved ones. For some, like Pete, it’s a wake-up call. For others, like Henry, it’s a catastrophe. For Sally, it’s likely going to impart wisdom she is far too young to learn. Could Don be close to losing the life he’s created for himself, too? I definitely don’t know, but I’m sure on board to find out.

Nels
Nels knew how to operate a TV remote control before she knew how to talk. As a result, she has spent an inordinate amount of time pretending she actually lives on a soundstage. When she isn’t watching whichever show is currently capturing her heart, she is writing about how said show is currently capturing her heart. She loves pie.

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