Mad Men: A Happy End, a Crappy End and a Coke Machine

By  · Published on May 11th, 2015


It took about 17 years for Coke machines to actually become Coke “machines.” At least in the way us 21st century folks consider a Coke machine a “machine.”

The original mass-produced, Coca-Cola-approved Coke machine was just a cooler, really. Moroccan green frame. Red Coke logo. “PLEASE PAY THE CLERK,” implored a placard on the side, because anyone could yoink a Coke out of the top of the defenseless machine and slink off into the shadows.

That was the Glascock “Standard,” first produced in 1929. After much experimentation, 1946 saw a whole new beast: the Vendo V-83. It stood upright. It was rounded, red-white and iconic. It required a nickel to get a Coke. It wasn’t the first coin-operated Coke machine, but the V-83 (and a few years later, the V-39) was the first to explode outward in popularity; hundreds of thousands of the things, all across the US. Vendo quickly became the gold standard for mechanized soda enjoyment. At least until soda machines became the generic plastic bricks they are today.

About halfway into “The Milk and Honey Route” the kindly old inn manager asks Don to stay just a little while longer. He’ll throw in the room tonight- and another night- if Don fixes the Coke machine (which, if you’re curious, looks to be a Vendo-81D). He seems nice.

We know in hindsight that Mr. Manager isn’t nice; that he and his good ol’ boys are a hair trigger away from beating Don with a phone book running him out of town; that Andy the hotel boy is pulling the real con and that Don’s own experience with double lives allows him to put the kid on a better path. All of it- from the vets to the con kid- gives Don a chance to do some heady Dick Whitman introspection.

Except, I don’t think “The Milk and Honey Route” is really about that at all. If only because Don’s done plenty of Dick Whitman introspecting in Mad Mens past. He did it in “In Care Of,” the season six finale when he blurted his life’s story to a couple of Hershey’s execs, and later told the same truth (although less prostitute-y, probably) to his kids. Heck, this little half-season opened with Don using his Dick Whitman sob story to impress a couple of auditioning co-eds (Roger adds, “he loves to tell stories about how poor he was,” meaning that wasn’t a one time thing).

Even before “The Milk and Honey Route,” starts rolling, Don’s already Dick Whitman-ed himself into submission plenty of times. Maybe it means something that Don confessed not to being poor and swapping names, but obliterating his CO with a lighter (usually, that’s the part he leaves out). Or maybe it’s because Don’s journey here is less about Dick Whitman and more about the Coke machine. And the typewriter. And the TV. And all those ‘70s-era book covers (I once read a copy of “The Godfather” with that exact same cover. For once, I can connect with a piece of Mad Men nostalgia). Maybe it was just me, being extra-hawkeyed because a week from now there’ll be no more slavish period-appropriate Mad Mens, ever, but “The Milk and Honey Route” seemed loaded up with period goodies.

Even the hour’s little slice of Oklahoma was vintage Americana- a place where folks in the motor lodge would offer you dinner off their own table. And beat you without provocation, just because you’re an outsider and outsiders are suspicious.

The actual phrase “milk and honey route” is an old hobo code term for a railroad running through a fruitful area with plenty of food and shelter. I think “The Milk and Honey Route” may be a literal milk and honey route. It doesn’t mean much- Don contemplates his inner Dick Whitman for the nth time and sheds himself of his car (having taken the mantra of “the best things in life are free” to heart). But it’s bursting with the stuff only Mad Men can offer. Period piece goodness. Dry, almost subtle insanity, like when an old man beats you with a phone book. Jon Hamm playing the charismatic stranger. It was a complete non-sequitur, like a backdoor pilot for Don on the Road that Matthew Weiner snuck in at the last second. I loved the hell out of it.

Were you expecting Weiner to off someone before the season was over? Congratulation, you were spot-on. Especially so if you picked Betty Francis for your dead pool. Betty’s cancer diagnosis is heartbreaking, but in typical Betty fashion, she barely cracks a frown (and no tears, of course). Everyone else does her emoting for her- Henry when they find out the bad news, Sally when reading her goodbye note. The only time Betty reads upset is when someone suggests she can’t die on her own terms. It’s weirdly uplifting, almost. Mad Men hasn’t forgotten the slow redemptive arc it’s set Betty on all season (remember? She was nice to Sally that one time), and Betty wanting to live out her last days going to school and enjoying life makes perfect sense. Hey, if you got a cancer diagnosis a few months after you finally started enjoying life, wouldn’t you want to live your last months doing the same?

A few things I wonder:

Betty was happy (for the first time ever?) and Mad Men gives her lung cancer. Pete is forever a dickface, yet he gets his family back, plus one of the ritziest paychecks in Mad Men history. And a private jet at his beck and call. Evil.

And not at all what I expected after Pete’s heart-to-heart with his brother about their family history of spouse-cheating. Dad did it because he was “always looking for something better.” Given the context, you’d think Pete would stop looking for something better, and accept that things are pretty sweet right now. Steady job. An ex-wife who still cares about him (“I think it’s admirable you haven’t poisoned [your daughter] against him,” says Trudy’s apparently horrible pal). Happiness!

Pete spits in happiness’s eye, because private jets are on the table and the certifiably insane Duck Phillips is whispering in his ear. And it works! Maybe because Pete’s sniveling personality masks that he’s actually a super competent ad man. Or maybe because one Pete + one Duck = one Don, more or less, in terms of ad skill/charisma. Either way, Pete’s end was sweeter than you’d think. Dickface or no dickface, it’s nice to see someone get a real, no-strings happy ending.

“The Milk and Honey Route” comes with a weird caveat. The episode’s split into thirds- Don, Betty, Pete- and like last week I’m assuming we’ll see Jon Hamm’s face in the episode that comes next. Betty and Pete? No idea. Mad Men doesn’t follow standard TV use-entire-cast-in-each-episode logic. We saw Peggy and Roger last week with barely a trace of Pete or Betty. This time, it was the opposite. Maybe next week’s finale will do a full-on Six Feet Under flash-forward for every single character. Or maybe next week’s episode is 100% Don (even better- 100% Don… in the future), and “Lost Horizon” and “The Milk and Honey Route” are meant to be our goodbyes to the everyone else.

Peggy continued to trailblaze even while fighting vicious hangovers. Joan quit and spent her life with Richard on a big pile of cash. Roger is out there, somewhere, stinking of vermouth. Pete took his reunited family on kickass private jet rides. Betty didn’t make it past the early ‘70s.

Say your goodbyes while you can. This time next week, we’ll be out of Mad Mens for good.