“We knew we would catch up with you eventually,” a cop tells a dreaming Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in Sunday’s penultimate episode of “Mad Men.” It was a fitting nightmare for an episode in which the pasts of Don, Betty (January Jones) and Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) all caught up with them with a vengeance. Episode 13, “The Milk and Honey Route,” was an odd hour of television, considering the show has only one more to go, but a powerful one full of new beginnings and shocking ends.

The biggest bombshell of the episode would not be all that surprising if fans were not viewing these characters through the lens of a TV show. Betty, a chain smoker like most characters on “Mad Men,” is told she has lung cancer and has nine months to live. It makes sense that the sin of smoking – both a mainstay element of the period piece and a thematic cornerstone since the pilot’s Lucky Strike speech – would eventually be the literal death of someone. However, while viewers have been predicting Don’s demise since the opening credits sequence, it would be fair to say that almost no one saw this coming.

Betty certainly did not. The housewife was, after all, headed back to school for a psychology degree, eager to discover something new about herself. “Mad Men,” continuing a recent trend of unfair punishment of its female characters, dealt that dream a heavy blow. Betty, though, after some initial shock, takes the news in relative stride. To the chagrin of husband Henry (Christopher Stanley) and daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka), she decides to forgo any desperate, strenuous treatments, deciding instead to return to school and spend her remaining days living life as usual.

It is hard to say whether Betty’s motives are more pride and self-pity or a brave practicality, but the show seems to at least applaud her for the consistency with which she has stuck to her principles. Plus, Betty has learned something. Along with the inherent vanity in her postmortem instructions to Sally comes some unexpected wisdom.

“I always worried about you because you marched to the beat of your own drum, but now I know that’s good,” Betty tells her daughter in a heartbreaking letter.

Pete’s storyline, on the other hand, was, uneasily, about warming hearts, not breaking them. After Duck (Mark Moses) presents Pete with a left field job offer from Learjet, the show’s most notorious jerk makes an earnest, if partially delusional pitch to Trudy (Alison Brie) to get his family back. “We are entitled to something new,” he tells his estranged wife.

"Entitled" might be an ironic word choice. Though Pete seems genuine in his promises to remain faithful and present, the opportunity for a new career start is awarded to him, at least in part, for his Ivy League upbringing and family name. It’s the privilege of his past that is allowing him to start fresh. Time will tell if the reinvention will work out for Pete – if fans even see the character again – because if “Mad Men” has proved anything, it’s that reinvention is complicated.

Don, who has many times been pushed to a fresh start by fear, not privilege, spends the episode ruminating on the consequences of becoming someone new. After his car breaks down in Oklahoma, Don seems to be in a sort of motel purgatory between his life as Don Draper and his true Dick Whitman self. Here he fixes Coca-Cola machines instead of designing their television ad campaigns and eyes beautiful women at the pool, before ultimately resisting the temptation.

At a VA banquet, he makes his big confession when he tells a group of vets the truth about how he killed the real Don Draper, later indirectly paying for that sin when the same group beats him with a phone book believing he stole the dinner’s collection money. However, the beating is a baptism of sorts, and when Don hands over the keys of his Cadillac to the con man who actually did steal the money – a symbolic stand-in for the pre-Don Dick Whitman – he sheds the last piece of his ad man identity.

Don’s journey the past few weeks has forced fans to be patient, and spending the series’ second to last episode almost entirely outside of New York City, let alone an ad agency, may not be the most satisfying experience for many viewers. Even if Don’s self-discovery road trip makes sense in the character’s greater arc, it has not made for the most compelling television. Last week, there was Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), Roger (John Slattery) and Joan (Christina Hendricks) dealing with McCann to balance out Don’s hobo odyssey, but this week’s episode felt like too much of a departure from the world of “Mad Men” this close to the end.

Ultimately, the finale will determine whether Don’s road trip tangent was worth it. Maybe Don will continue west and end up retired in California. Or he could return to New York for some farewell scenes with Betty and Peggy. If that was Dick Whitman sitting on that bus stop bench at the end of the episode, where will he go?

Random Observations:

  • Betty is given nine months to live, a meaningful number considering the theme of rebirth and reinvention in the episode.
  • In an episode full of Don parallels in Pete’s storyline, the shot where Pete stands in the doorway while Trudy checks on their daughter was almost a mirror of the final shot of Don and Betty from the pilot.
  • If the episode was Henry’s swan song, he went out on top. Often a victim of just being “the guy that broke up Don and Betty,”  his “it’s OK to cry” breakdown with Sally was by far his best scene of the series.

What did you think of “The Milk and Honey Route”? Tweet your thoughts to @Ja9GarofaloTV