All Roads Lead to Kansas in Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Thirteen
Don Draper could have been the creative director on the Coca Cola account on Madison Avenue, but instead opts to help fix a Coke machine in the middle of Kansas as a way of passing time on the way to nowhere in this strange, disjointed and ultimately heartbreaking penultimate episode. When he gives up his Cadillac to a young, Draper-like grifter—the totemic American luxury car that had once upon a time demonstrated that he had “arrived” as a hotshot ad man—it appears that he’s shedding all of his worldly possessions like a snake shedding his skin.
We leave Don sitting at a bus stop with a Sears plastic bag filled with clothing, with nowhere left to go and no one waiting for him. It seems clear that McCann has already given up on him—Pete assumes that Duck Phillips is coming over to McCann to take on the search for Don’s replacement. Don uncharacteristically passes up a chance to hit on an impossibly good looking woman sunning herself at the rustic motel he’s staying at, leaving us with two questions: how did a woman like that end up in a place like this, and who is this Don Draper of whom we speak? Another question might be, how did he cram into that bag a perfectly tailored, impeccably ironed and pressed sports jacket? The unanswered questions are piling up like flotsam, and there’s only an hour left for any answers. My prognosis is that very few are forthcoming.
Meanwhile, for Pete, Kansas is a destination, not another stop along the Kerouac road. Doing the sales pitch of his life (after a half-in-the-bag Duck does a sales pitch on him to accept a corporate job with Lear Jet), he sells his estranged wife Trudy on the joys of life in Wichita and she accepts his proposal. Thus the first married couple of the show gets back together on the second to last episode of the series run, and it feels right—although it’s hard to see how a couple of dyed-in-the- wool East Coast preppies will be able to cope with the heartland of America. (I can see the spinoff series now, called “The Campbells”, about how Pete and Trudy try to bring civilization to Kansas while finding fresh arugula, a decent private school for Tammy and some fellow Scots descendants without the surname MacDonald).
But the saddest, loneliest destination belongs to Betty, the character that has perhaps displayed the least amount of emotional depth. She meets her death sentence with a sense of grace and selflessness that perhaps underscores how little we knew about her. My wife and I thought for sure that the surprise was that she was pregnant, and the actual diagnosis (revealed in a dialogue between the doctor and stricken husband Henry, talking about Betty like she wasn’t in the room) brings a finality to this character that we’re not likely to see with the others.
Reactions to an impending death are always instructive. In this case, Henry’s behavior is the most problematic. His plea to Sally to talk sense to her mother, followed quickly by a emotional breakdown that puts the confused young woman into the position of consoling him rather than the other way around, is a case study in selfishness—no matter how heartfelt or well-intentioned. Sally finds some needed maturity, as she immediately settles in to the role of surrogate mother at the dinner table after her mother in a fit of petulance storms out of the kitchen.
While my prediction that we saw the end of Don last week was off-base, it may be true that we have seen the last of him interacting with the other major characters. As Bert Cooper’s ghost said last night, Don likes to play the role of “stranger”, and perhaps he becomes a Dr. Richard Kimble without the cops out looking for him; someone who passes through towns, gives a bit of himself to the locals, performs feats of heroism like reviving an old Coke machine and giving some hard-won wisdom (and a luxury set of wheels) to a young would-be Don, and then heads off into the sunset. Or toward the bus stop.
Again, I don’t see any big reveal in the last episode, only the quiet, intense moments we’ve come to expect from Mad Men. We all want some kind of emotional release that would come with Don confronting one more time the two women in his life that he may truly love, Sally and Peggy, but don’t be surprised if he’s just hanging out at another bus stop while life goes on as the screen fades to black. Or, perhaps he ends up sitting down on the plane he’s about to hijack, per some aficionados of the “DB Cooper” theory of Don’s identity.
And perhaps some more jarring notes, like the elderly veterans beating up on a groggy Draper when they think he’s robbed them of their five hundred dollars. Showing up at that VFW event was always a calculated risk for a man who is an impostor, who at any time could run into another veteran who knows he’s a phony. That’s why the scene between Don and the Korean veteran had such resonance; Don acts like an escaped convict in his reluctance to show his face. He’s so guilty for what he’s done that he assumes that anyone will know who he really is at a glance. It was good that the man didn’t recognize him; that would have been perhaps too pat a plotline. What was somewhat surprising—and poignant—was the vets’ reaction to Don’s reveal about killing his CO. They get it—you do what you have to do to come home, whether it’s killing a nest of unprotected German soldiers or taking on the identity of a dead comrade. Don seemed to find some solace in that reaction, although it was quickly blunted by the vets’ untimely nocturnal visit to his hotel room shortly thereafter.
The vets seemed to get the memo—this entire set of episodes has been open season on Don Draper. That he is still standing, or at least sitting at a bus stop, is a testament to his survival instincts. And after seven seasons, ten historical years , at least two identities, three incarnations of Sterling Cooper, two marriages, three children and countless affairs, that may be the punchline, the falling man in the credits notwithstanding. Don Draper survives.
Harlan R. Teller