One big, heartfelt goodbye to Sally Draper

To say goodbye to a long-running television show is to see the characters you most adore fade away into a black screen and out of your life. For Mad Men and my attachment to it, that character is Sally Draper — in past, present and future tense — so it’s appropriate now to bid adieu to this show, which has one episode left, because, to me, it was always a Sally Draper special. “The Milk and Honey Route” was her farewell.

Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner chose a less celebratory, more judicial to slowly ease the show and its characters away, and not until Joan’s exit in “Lost Horizon” did I catch on, though I’m appreciating the technique.

(Since then, I’ve grown rather fond of what Don’s abrupt McCann exit did for Ted’s final scene, with him looking over his shoulder, cracking a peaceful smiling as Don walks out seemingly unnoticed by everybody except him.)

“The Milk and Honey Route” includes stories coming to an end for Sally, Betty and Pete. For Campbell, it’s a surprising but nice end. He’s swayed away from McCann (unbelievable, really), for a high-paying job with a private jet company in Kansas. He’s attracted to how much he’s desired, of course, but the opportunity lands him back invested in a reborn relationship with Trudy, which I actually admire.

(The city always had a stigma about it, like the place relationships go to die.)

For Sally comes a bitter end, spurned by Betty’s aggressive lung cancer. In no way is what happened fair on any level, in this instance focusing specifically on Sally. First, she must carry Henry’s burden because he can’t face it. He shows up at school unannounced to tell her the terrible news and weep at her side to be consoled when he should be the one doing that for her. She’s so rattled by it, she quickly covers her ears (not quickly enough). Such a gesture is painful to watch, especially for a character I adore so much.

Second, she must take on the responsibility of organization after Betty passes. But neither of these dramas can Sally not handle. She’s had enough familial scuffles to last a lifetime and she’s only approaching the good parts.

Her experiences through seven seasons of Mad Men, or life under a Draper or Francis roof, hardened her to her core, but that’s one of the reasons why I found Sally so appealing. She harnessed the rough-n-tough attitude of a bitter, argumentative, independent young woman of that generation. It’s what made so many of her sassy interactions with her parents and subtle retorts so on point.

And yet, as we recognize from watching her grow up, she’s taken on more traits from her mom and dad than she cares to know. Betty references it in her heart-warming letter to her, that attitude to go against the grain so to speak. That’s what Betty’s doing in refusing treatment and often what Sally did, this or that in spite of Don or Betty. She’s a gritty one, but she’s smart and intuitive. That’s why I know she’s going to be all right, even though the last we see of her is the saddening image of her crying bedside through Betty’s letter.

(Of course she’s going to open it before Betty dies, if not only for flat-out teenaged intrigue regarding what’s written but also for narrative closure on those characters’ lives.)

I’d be remiss in saying goodbye to dearest Sally not to consider where the character would be headed.

(Even though I’d certainly pay to see a spinoff divulging what Matt Weiner had in mind for her, I don’t think it’d be the strongest career choice for Kiernan Shipka, who’s warranted a terrific career after Mad Men.)

Generally, I think Sally could do whatever she wanted. I don’t think she’d ever end up like Betty — I don’t want her to, and I don’t think she wants to either. What Don says to her at the end of “The Forecast,” before she gets on the bus, emphasizes that. He tells her she’s very beautiful and smart and it’s up to her to be something more than that. I hope she blazes a trail through the world in whatever way she chooses.

One day I’ll watch this series again and enjoy once more all of Sally’s moments. We saw her with a plastic bag over her head first and as a cute ballerina. She threw a tantrum at SC&P and met a stranger claiming to be a relative in Don’s penthouse. She knows all of her dad’s secrets, from his torrid affairs and where and how he actually grew up. The way she looked up at him at the conclusion of that episode (“In Care Of,” season six) is unforgettable, and the way she poked her head back into his car to say “I love you,” (“A Day’s Work,” season seven) visibly throwing him for a loop is both sweet and perfect.

And while I’ll miss Mad Men as a whole, a show too smart for my own good sometimes, I’ll most miss that sassy Sally. So often, people wondered if this was Sally’s story all along. That’s always how I experienced it.

At times, its characters were groggy, and although that was fun to follow, what Sally proved Don had and, most importantly, what she provided the show is something nobody else could. She gave Mad Men a heart.

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