Mad Men: Legionnaire's Disease
In honor of Mother’s Day, Mad Men presents a very special episode!
Don, wearing his suit and tie, is on the road in the dark listening to “Okie from Muskogee.” He’s pulled over by a cop, unimpressed with his suit and white privilege, who ominously informs him that “they” have been looking for him. The cop then says, “You knew it would catch up with you eventually.” Don wakes up in some shitty motel room. It was all a crazy dream that was far too on the nose, including the musical selection.
Later he’s checking in by phone with Sally, talking about his aimless travels and mentioning he’s going to call the boys before they go to bed, so it looks like he hasn’t shed his Don Draper skin and disappeared like that gent in his ill-fated Hawaii campaign just yet. She talks to him like he’s a peer, which emotionally he kind of is.
Pete runs into Duck Philips in the elevator and guesses he must be there to help find a replacement for Don. This wasn’t hard to figure given that Duck’s business cards say, “Duck Philips – Sadsack Drunk and Don Draper Replacement Specialist.” Duck asks Pete to have dinner with a muckity-muck from Learjet, convince him that his company needs its own internal marketing man, and then sell Duck to him as the guy to find the guy. Learjet is not a client of McCann-Ericsson, but Pete agrees, mostly to get Duck out of his office because no one likes to be seen with a loser.
Betty is ready for her first day of psychologist school. She trudges up some stairs, stops to take a breath, and a college boy asks her if she’s lost. It’s totally not a come on because she is ancient in lady years, and in the 1970s, 40 was not the new 30, and even 30 was old. Then Betty falls down on the stairs and cracks a rib. The campus doctor tells her to call her husband because he found something “serious” on the x-ray, but he won’t say what it is without her legal owner’s presence.
Don’s car breaks down somewhere in Oklahoma, turning his dream into a prophecy. Get out, Don! Get out while you still can! His car is taken to the local service station, and he winds up at the Sharon Motel, owned by Del and Sharon, two salt-of-the-earth types, who take a liking to him, but not in a creepy let’s make him our sex slave kind of way. Hmm, a handsome, lecherous, hard-drinking, rich stranger, stranded in a small town awaiting auto parts, sounds a lot like a movie plot.
Pete meets Duck’s potential client, Michael Sherman, the Learjet executive, for dinner. Turns out, Patti Stanger has nothing on Duck Philips! These two were meant for each other. You can tell Michael is thinking Pete really gets him, and even makes him laugh. Plus, Michael has always dreamed of finding a genuine ivy-league “knickerbocker” who could impress those powerful executives he knows he should be courting. Pete is thrilled he can be himself around Michael. Michael offers Pete the job right then and there. They both get nervous. It’s all happening so fast! Pete politely turns him down as he really does have other commitments—like the contract with McCann-Ericsson and the million dollars he’d lose if he leaves. Then they decide to just be friends and have dinner anyway.
You knew not everyone was going to make it out of alive. So who’s going over the rainbow bridge? Not Roger despite his previous heart attack. Not Megan who wasn’t killed by the Manson family. It’s Betty, which means no way will Don die too. Betty has cancer, which is an epidemic for women on this show. It killed the first Mrs. Don Draper. It probably killed the first Mrs. Henry Francis too (unless Henry has a dark secret). We learned a few weeks back it killed Rachel Mencken, who at least, according to her sister, had “the life she wanted.” Did Betty get the life she wanted? Doesn’t look like she’s going to now. Turns out cigarettes were the real Chekov’s gun on the mantelpiece, and Betty just took the bullet.
Don is in his bed with the curtains closed reading a paperback. Someone opens the door with a key. Will it be the matronly Sharon looking for some comfort? Or maybe Del? Could Don’s soulmate Diana have drifted to this very hotel and taken a job as a maid? Nope. It’s Andy, a local youth. He apologizes, telling Don he thought he was out of the room. In addition to being there to clean up, he has a message—the car needs a part, and it’ll be a few days before Don gets out of this backwards hellhole. Don gives him $10 to score some whiskey—because on top of everything else, this is a “dry” county. Don goes out to the pool, which according to Andy has enough chlorine to bleach out the piss. There he spots a lean and long brunette in a chaise lounge reading a paperback. Diana had a book in the pocket of her apron the first time he saw her. This one is just his type, a beautiful dark-haired woman who’s breathing, but before he can even say, “Hi, I’m Don Draper formerly of McCann-Ericsson,” her husband and kids show up.
Back at the Francis household, Henry is telling Betty about the two top doctors he found—one a surgeon—who could treat “it” aggressively and maybe buy her more time. Betty, to her credit, for once in her life is being the adult in the room. She heard the diagnosis even if the physician was talking to her husband and not to her. She’s not going to spend her remaining time prolonging her dying. She’s more concerned with the practicalities, like breaking the news to her kids.
Over at the Not-the-Shady-Rest Motor Inn, Andy brings Don his booze and a couple more paperbacks. He wants another $10, which Don reluctantly gives him.
That night, Don is watching The Flip Wilson Show, where Redd Fox is starting a bit about the sadness of couples without children—but before he can get to the punch line, the screen goes black. Just like the way some television show ended forever that one time. But fortunately, this was another Mad Men fake-out, and there’s more to come. Don goes to the front desk to tell the Managess, who talks about some previously mentioned legionnaires’ event that Del is going to the following evening. Sharon says Del would love someone new to tell his war stories to, and there’ll be booze. War stories, booze, sounds like a fun evening for a man with a secret past involving desertion! What could go wrong?
Pete gets a call from Duck, telling him he got the job he didn’t want. A hundred grand a year and benefits. It means moving to Wichita. Michael wants another dinner. This time with wives. Pete reminds Duck about the money he’d lose and also that he doesn’t have a wife, but accepts the dinner date anyway. Later, Pete is carrying his sleeping daughter Tammy to bed after a visit. Trudy tells him he needs to eat the pie Tammy baked for him with apples they’d picked together on a previous visit. He asks Trudy if she’ll be his “date” to the dinner. She turns him down but doesn’t slap him upside the head for asking, just mildly marvels at his inability to remember she was the injured party and only tolerates him for Tammy’s sake.
Henry breaches Betty’s confidence and tells Sally her mother’s diagnosis. He says it’s all right to cry. She doesn’t, but he does. Then she gets to be the adult and awkwardly touch his back as he breaks down. Henry cannot lose another wife! Sally returns home, where she sees her brothers, who have mysteriously stopped growing. Seriously, Sally is graduating high school, and Bobby is still about ten and Gene barely walking. Then again, this could be a metaphor. The men on Mad Men never grow up. Bobby asks what she’s doing back, and she lies to him—having inherited the ability from both parents—saying she got in trouble again at school. When Betty sees her, she gives Henry a “How could you?” look and walks out.
Pete blows off the dinner for which he doesn’t have a date and meets with his banker brother instead. Pete wants help assessing the opportunity before him, but instead they wind up talking about adultery—mostly the brother’s, but also his own, and his father’s. Are they dogs because that’s just the way it is? This is a new Pete, a deeper Pete, who philosophizes, “I think it feels good. And then it doesn’t.” He also asks why are we always looking for something better, for something else? This from an ad exec who wouldn’t have a job if people weren’t always ready to change brands and move on to the shinier object. He also tells his bro that his wife totally knows about the cheating, and he’s such a downer about it that his brother goes to make a phone call, presumably to cancel his hot date.
Don’s car is finally ready, but Del asks him to help him fix his vending machine and offers to throw in two nights free if he stays and goes to the legion hall event. It’s an old Coca-cola machine. Don looks at it, referencing the dream-account he will pursue no more forever.
At the legion hall, Del confesses he was dishonest. The event is a fundraiser for some guy who had a kitchen fire. Don contributes $40. Del’ll pick up the drinks, and barbecue is included. These are some wild and crazy guys (even though SNL won’t debut for another five years). They even have a lady jump out of a cake in a red, white and blue, glittering, not-very-low-cut costume, who takes off her garters and stockings.
A drunk Duck Philips pounds on Pete’s door. Pete thinks he’s angry because Pete stood up Michael, but it turns out Duck’s bringing glad tidings—Duck told Michael that Pete didn’t show up because he was “insulted” by the job offer, so Michael sweetened the deal with stock options worth the million he’d lose leaving McCann-Ericsson. He also talked to Jim Hobart, who’d love to have Learjet as a client. Plus, there’d be access to a plane whenever he wants to get out of Wichita, but why would anyone ever want to leave Kansas?
Back at the legion hall, the men are getting very drunk and telling war stories. How close will Don come to being exposed? A fellow veteran of the Korean conflict, Jerry Fandango (truly the greatest porn name ever), comes over, and for a moment it looks like Don may actually recognize him. He tries to turn his head away, avoids giving his last name, and won’t say what unit he was in. Does any of this seem suspicious? It turns out to be a bigger tease than the lady that jumped out of the cake (and she was pretty big healthy farm girl). Don claims to have served before Jerry even went over, and Jerry doesn’t recognize him. An older grizzly WWII vet tells his own war story about being stuck in a forest with two other Americans in the middle of winter. They were so hungry they were boiling tree bark, and then they came across four German soldiers in even worse shape who surrendered to them. According to Ol Grizzly, the Americans made the Germans dig their own graves and “bounced” them. But it felt like he was leaving something even worse out—something involving the fear of starvation and willingness to do whatever you could to survive another day. Don, who either wants to get caught or just has terrible judgment, tops him by opening his own war story with, “I killed my CO.” He gets more honest than he’s been since the day he lost the Hershey’s account. He talks about coming under fire and dropping his cigarette lighter onto the fuel, then watching his commanding officer being consumed by the flames. Like Ol Grizzly, he’s holding something back; in his case the part that begins, “And then I switched our dog tags.”
Betty comes into Sally’s bedroom. Sally accuses her mother of refusing treatment because she loves “the tragedy.” Betty convincingly makes the case that that’s not it. She knows when to move on. She gives Sally a letter of things to do after she’s gone and warns her that Henry won’t be able to handle it. Remember the Betty who was shooting birds in the backyard—tough as steel, resolute Betty? She’s back.
Don is still asleep and hungover when Del, Ol Grizzly, and Porno Name enter his room. The $500 they collected for the fundraiser is gone, and they are sure the stranger in their midst took it. Sharon is there too, telling him he should’ve been on his way after the car was fixed, even though she was the one who begged him to stay. Del grabs his car keys. Ol Grizzly—the cannibal killer—hits him with a telephone book twice. They tell him he’s not getting his car back ‘til they get their money.
Back in Connecticut, where it’s four in the morning, Pete knocks on the door of his former home. Is he making a booty call? Nope. It seems the out-of-the-blue job offer and the conversation with his brother have shaken loose some cobwebs in his brain. He then pitches better than Don Draper ever did, making the case to Trudy for their getting back together and moving to “wholesome” Wichita. Trudy is rightly skeptical. She admits she loves him but won’t let him hurt her ever again. He promises to be true, and not only does she believe him, but even we believe him—or at least believe that he believes…and that it’s just as good to know when it isn’t over as when it is. Trudy wonders what she should tell Tammy. Pete says, “Tell her that her birthday wish came true.” It’s a line so corny, so commercial, and at the same time so Pete, that you either have to throw up, throw something at the television, or just embrace it.
Don is icing his non-existent bruise the next morning when Andy drops by with more booze “on the house.” Don knows it was Andy that took the money and set him up. He knows Andy is there to find out what Don told the men. Don tells Andy he has “shitty instincts for a con man” and he orders him to give him all the money. Then we see Don hand the money in a paper bag over to Del, who gives him back his keys. Andy wants a ride to the bus stop. Don, who never ratted him out, tells him to get in.
Betty gets ready to go to class. Henry asks her why she’s doing that. She replies, “Why was I ever doing it?”
Sally opens up Betty’s letter because who amongst us would have waited? It’s written by the mother she could only wish she had had, someone who actually admires her adventurous spirit. It mentions how Betty wants her hair to look and the blue chiffon dress she wants to be buried in. Sally cries, as do we all. If there’s anything there about who is getting custody of the boys, we skip that part, but won’t someone think of those poor mutant boys who won’t grow up?
Back in Oklahoma, they get to the bus stop, and it’s Don who gets out of the car. He tells Andy the “pink slip” is in the glove box. We leave him waiting for the bus—a blissed out look on his perfect face. The implication is that somehow the previous night’s events—the confession and his punishment—have cured him or at least put the cancer eating his soul into remission. He was accused of being a fraud and a grifter, and he survived.
But why give Andy the car? Was that 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 hoboes written in 1931. This episode is a companion to S1:E8, The Hobo Code. In season one, Don recalls the hobo who, in exchange for dinner, a couple of nights lodging in the barn, and the promise of a quarter, does some chores on the Whitmans’ 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 Whitmans’ fence.
Don was offered “leftovers” his first night at the Sharon. He helped out with some chores, fixing a typewriter and that Coke machine, in exchange for those extra two nights. Del admitted to being “dishonest” about the nature of the event at the legion hall. In both cases, 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). 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.
What’s next? Will Don’s newfound peace be a lasting one? Who will we or won’t we see again? Thoughts, feelings, and speculation welcome in the comments below.