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'Mad Men' recap: 'The Milk and Honey Route'

With all those cigarettes and all that puffing, there was always that lingering hunch that someone was going to get lung cancer.

From the very first episode, Don and the rest of the characters knew the dangers of smoking cigarettes. They came up with a campaign to keep people smoking, in spite of doctor's warnings.

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And of course, everyone kept smoking. Everyone.

Even after Betty hears the news about her diagnosis, she tries to light one up. That is, until Henry snatches the pack and crumples it up.

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Betty's cancer scare from Season 5 comes back with a vengeance. Only this time it wasn't a misdiagnosis. The cancer is real and the devastation is palpable.

With treatment, she'd be lucky to have nine months to a year left. But she doesn't want that. "I watched my mother die," she tells Sally. "I won't do that to you."

What a brutal episode. Matthew Weiner is downright cruel for introducing this storyline on Mother's Day.

That's not to say it wasn't a good episode. In fact, it was poignant and phenomenal. It makes it that much harder to say goodbye next week.

"The Milk and Honey Route" is one of those episodes that proves "Mad Men" to be a caliber show. They take the one of the most unlikeable and seemingly indispensable characters, and make you choked up that she's dying.

The second half of Season 7 might have gotten off to a slow start, but the past two episodes of "Mad Men" have been a triumph. The quality of the writing and storylines are on par with the first four seasons, when "Mad Men" was at its peak.

Truthfully, I've wanted Betty to get killed off since she divorced Don. But now I regret even thinking it. She meant more to Don and to Sally than being a cold and controlling perfectionist.

In spite of all his philandering and lies, Don and Betty have maintained a good relationship. That's astonishing maturity you wouldn't expect from such petty individuals.

But like Pete, Don's true love has always been his first wife. I wonder if he'll make it back to New York in time to say his goodbyes to her.

Betty's relationship with Sally, meanwhile, usually ranges from distant to combative. But at Betty's best, her maternal instinct kicks in and she and Sally have had some touching moments.

Like the time Sally started her period, and she rushed from Manhattan to the suburbs into her mother's arms. Betty knew exactly what to say to put her daughter at ease: "Even though it's unpleasant, it means everything is working right."

Or the moment when Betty's taking Sally to boarding school. Sally made a snide remark about her dad, and the two bond over cigarettes. So bittersweet.

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This tragic news makes me worried for Sally. Will she continue down her destructive, rebellious path? Or will taking charge of her mother's funeral (sigh, this part made my eyes well up) help her become a responsible adult?

My guess is that it will make her more mature. She'll have to learn how to take care of herself. Plus, it helps that she got closure from her mother in a heartfelt and heartbreaking letter.

"Sally, I always worried about you," her letter says, "because you marched to the beat of your own drum. And I now know that's good. I know your life will be an adventure." Cue the waterworks.

Betty is incredibly brave. She accepts her mortality, unlike Don, and has prepared every detail, from where to be buried to what to be buried in – an ice blue chiffon gown. Classic Betty.

Though she's a flawed person, Betty's an intriguing character. She closes people off and put on a happy face, so that they don't see her suffering. That's how she learned to persevere, climbing one step at a time until she gets to where she needs to go.

Seeing Betty slowly scale the stairs, the exact ones she collapsed on that prompted her rush to the hospital, was heartbreakingly wonderful.

When Henry asks why she's going to class in spite of her diagnosis, she replies, "Why was I ever doing it?" What a great way to go through life.

Don, meanwhile, has been on the road for months. It's now autumn, and the only person he seems to be in contact with is Sally.

When his car breaks down in a podunk Kansas town, he stays at a motel run by a vet in charge of the VFW.

One night the VFW has a fundraiser. Don tries not to say anything, but they pry him to tell a story. You're allowed to be yourself there. It's safe.

Don admits he killed his C.O. in Korea. It was by accident, of course, but it's still shocking that he would open up about that.

The vets are surprisingly accepting. "You just do what you have to do to come home."

But he didn't mention the part about how he stole his C.O.'s identity, and that was his new start in life. I doubt they would have been so accepting of a deserter.

I was worried Don would have run into a Korean War vet who would recognize him and blow his cover.

But the real trouble came not from a fellow vet, but from a like-minded con artist.

In the middle of the night, the vets come in Don's room, hold back his arms and beat him upside the head with a heavy book. They accuse him of stealing the fundraising money.

All things considered, that was probably a more pleasant way to be woken up in the middle of the night than Betty telling Sally that she's not going through chemo.

Don took the beating and denied it. Of course Don didn't steal the money. It was Andy, the con artist moonlighting as a maid, who set him up.

But when Don returned the money, he didn't tell them the truth. He wanted to give Andy a new start on life. "You think this town is bad now, wait 'til you can't come back," he warns him.

When he takes him to the bus stop the following morning, he tosses him the keys to the shiny new Cadillac and tells him, "Don't waste this." Don then takes his spot at the bus stop instead.

Don has downgraded from his search for Shangri-La from a cozy road trip to a truly transient lifestyle. He's living on the Milk and Honey Route, a term coined by 1930s hobos for the life on the road, free of all responsibilities.

At this rate, I don't think he's ever going back to his new apartment in New York. I hope he doesn't.

Just like his daughter, he marches to the beat of his own drum. I can't wait to see what adventures lie in store for him on the road ahead in the final episode.

MORE HIGHLIGHTS FROM “THE MILK AND HONEY ROUTE”:

Best Roger one-liner: None. Because Matthew Weiner and gang truly wanted you to suffer this episode.

Best Meredith one-liner: See above.

Best line: Duck: His name is Mike Sherman and he moved to Wichita from Philly four years ago. Princeton '52. You should have a lot in common.

Pete: I'm Dartmouth '56!

Duck: I know that. Don't pretend like you're not going to j--- each other off.

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Best Don one-liner: Andy: "So you don't have to work no more?" Don: "Anymore."

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Mother dearest: "As mother used to say, 'You're not that fat.'" – Pete to his brother after ordering only shrimp at dinner. Sheesh, again with the mommy issues.

Drunk logic: "Listen to me. You're on a streak. You're on one of those magic – we used to call it a trend. You know, because of the graph where the line just goes up!" – Duck to Pete about his career. Meanwhile Duck's life is plummeting down the Y-axis. The only good thing about Duck's cameo was knowing that schmuck fell off the wagon.

Onward and upward: Pete taking the job in Wichita was a surprise. Then again, McCann-Erickson is such a dump no wonder moving to Wichita is the better option. On the plus side, Pete will have a private jet so that he can leave the sticks whenever he wants. Call me cynical, but I don't think Pete and Trudy will have the happy nuclear life he's seeking, even if he thinks they're "entitled to something new." I just hope he won't keep looking for "something better" when Trudy's right in front of him. This is your second chance, Pete. Don't mess it up.

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