Just when you thought Matthew Weiner couldn't be any more of a wiener, he hits us with "The Milk And Honey Route," the penultimate episode of Mad Men. (Fair warning, spoilers abound in this post.) The episode followed Don as he continued his wayward wandering through America's heartland, shedding his Draper identity and going back to being a dick. But more important than pathetic lonely DickDon is Betty Draper Francis, and the news that she has lung cancer. She doesn't have much time left. It was shocking and unpredictable and totally, wholly unfair; in a world where Don seems to get infinite time and second, third, and fourth chances, Betty discovers she's on her way out after being taken to the hospital by immature collegiate boys.
My reaction was the same as Sally's: hands over my ears in complete childish denial. Don, getting beaten up by fellow war veterans and releasing himself of his worldly possessions, still hasn't received the news that's left the rest of us reeling. What's going to happen back in the real world to Sally, Bobby, and Gene when Betty is inevitably interred in that chiffon dress?
The simplest answer is that anything can happen to the three heirs of the messy Draper-Whitman-Francis fortune. When people leave Mad Men, much as they do when they leave in the real world, they just sort of fade out. Megan's mother took all of Don's furniture, and he just had to grin and bear it and allow Meredith to play interior decorator and fill a new apartment with new things for him. When Don and Sally had an explosive goodbye before she boarded the bus for her teen tour, it seemed like that was the last time we would see her, and as sad as that made us, that seemed an ending fitting for her. Telling her father he is a total and complete disappointment and that she doesn't want to be anything like him was, ironically, a very Don move.
But Mad Men is determined to ruin our lives, so Sally returns from the tour to the news from Henry that her mother has given up on life, and then Sally's told of her mother's death sentence from Betty herself, without sentiment. Nothing is fair for Sally Draper.
Bobby asks her why she has come home, and she tells a white lie so as not to shatter his universe: "I got in trouble at school again." She takes Betty's seat at the kitchen table in Henry's vast kitchen, inviting Gene to come sit on her lap. Though she is Betty and Don's child, and still just a teenager, Sally is more adult than she deserves to be right now. Whatever happens after Betty's death (at least Weiner will probably spare us a tiny bit and not subject us to her funeral on-screen), it seems uncomfortably and sadly clear that Sally Draper is left to pick up the pieces.
Betty asks Sally not to open the letter until Betty is dead, but Sally opens it almost immediately, knowing that Betty has been long gone. Both Betty and Sally know that Henry will not be in a place to handle anything, putting responsibility on Sally, as if she does not have the weight of the world on her shoulders already. "I watched my mother die. I won’t do that do you. And I don’t want you to think I’m a quitter. And that’s how I know when it’s over. It’s not a weakness. It’s been a gift to me," she tells Sally, shooting down her idea to come home and stay by her side.
It seems like the length of the rest of Birdie's life is the length of what's left of Sally Draper's childhood, too. As for Bobby and Gene: their fates have never been too much worried about. Bobby Draper is the notorious character on Mad Men that has changed actors several times, but that almost adds to how little his childhood is paid attention to by Betty and Don. There are some tender moments between Bobby and his parents, but they are really, almost entirely about Betty or Don or Betty and Don reconnecting, playing Happy Family at Bobby's summer camp and hooking up in the cabin after dark.
One of my favorite Bobby-Don scenes is where they go to the movies and see Planet Of The Apes, which, of course, is the movie that Don would take his son to see: the apocalypse cometh. I guess if Don taught his children anything, it was that.
Season 6 seemed like the most death-obsessed trajectory until, of course, Season 7, and will we ever forget when the intruder comes to Don's swanky penthouse and pretends to be the Draper kids' Grandma Ida? It's terrifying, and Sally handles the small, scary fiction like the adult that she's forced to become, and tells her father dully after, "I realize I don't know anything about you." That was the fear that struck her, not the intruder; leading Don to finally take her, Bobby, and Gene to his family home, the whorehouse, finally earning some small modicum of her respect.
So will Don come back upon finally getting the news about Birdie and "do the right thing"? Will he redeem himself by returning, somehow, back to the east instead of trying to pursue his bullshit MANifest Destiny and take care of his children? If he does, good for him, I guess, but as Sally Draper once told Betty (who feels gone, even though she isn't): "My father never gave me anything."
Sally Draper is the only possible hope of redemption that Betty and Don have, and though we so unfortunately won't get to see her grow up, we feel safe leaving the fate of Bobby and Gene to her, even if it's a burden that is unfair.