This week’s Mad Men brought to mind that old adage: The more things change, the more they fall back into bed with their newly thin ex but admit that sex is an empty act on par with a handshake or a tip of the hat. While we’re on the topic of traditional wisdom, how about “A stab in the gut and your relationship’s kaput” or “The shorter the shorts, the less certain the sexuality”? Feel free to come up with your own as we review the major developments in “The Better Half.”
BUTTER FACE | The episode opens with Don and Ted arguing angles to use on the Fleischmann’s account: They call in Peggy, who refuses to take a side. Draper follows his protege into her office and uses a very nasty tone as he says he wanted her to make a decision: “You should try it sometime. It’s what professionals do.” Whatever, Don. You really wanna get into a discussion of what’s professional? Just give me a minute to get Bobbie Barrett and Rachel Menken on the line, then come at me, bro. Peggy doesn’t take the bait and instead calls him on making her choose between him and Ted. They go back and forth a bit, and it ends on an ow note when she says, “Well, he never makes me feel this way,” and Don replies, “He doesn’t know you.”
Maybe Ted doesn’t know her, but he’s definitely thinking about her. That becomes clear when he accuses her of the heinous crimes of touching his hand and smiling at him during the Fleischmann’s presentation. “I never should have kissed you,” he blurts, leading Peggy to utter a line I’m going to start using in all uncomfortable situations: “I assumed we were forgetting about that.” She makes like she hasn’t thought about the smooch since it happened, but after Ted confesses that he’s in love with her (!) and that he’s thought about the (admittedly poor) possibilities for their future (!!), she admits that she’s maybe considered their amorous moment once or twice.
STABBING GUILT | But Peggy loves Abe, right? Right? After all, she’s very upset when he gets stabbed on his way home from the subway… but she can’t understand why he won’t cooperate with the cops and is stymied over his sympathy for the kids that assaulted him. Then, after someone tosses a rock through their bedroom window, she gets him to admit that it’s time for them to move somewhere a little less rough. “Maybe we’re not cut out to be pioneers,” he says before leaving for his late shift at the paper and advising her to sleep in the parlor if she’s still freaked. Oh she is, Abe, a point driven home when you surprise her later that evening and the long poking stick she’s fashioned with which to defend herself accidentally winds up lodged in your abdomen.
The ambulance ride is hilarious in that way that every time you think it can’t get worse, it does. Peggy assures her boyfriend that he’s not going to die, but the attendant merely gives a noncommittal shrug when she asks for backup on that opinion. (Ha!) Then, in between agonized gasps, a sweating, shaking Abe informs Pegs that, as an advertising professional, “your activities are offensive to my every waking moment.” She’s incredulous. “Are you breaking up with me?” Yes, honey, he surely is.
HOW BETTY GOT HER GROOVE BACK | It’s not enough for Betty, now back at her fighting weight, to don a canary colored gown and teased-out ‘do to attend a fundraiser with Henry: She wants undeniable proof that she’s still got it. So when a man all but asks her to sleep with him, and then Henry’s jealous/a little turned on that someone wants to bag his wife, Bets is feeling just fine, thank you. (Though maybe you shouldn’t step on a scale before taking off your makeup, Betty; there’s at least a pound of peacock eyeshadow dabbed over your peepers. We all know you’re back, girl. Tone it down a scooch.)
But Betty’s ultimate verification comes from her ex-husband, who’s also visiting Bobby at summer camp the same weekend she’s there. (Side note: “Bobby 5,” whom I normally find kinda annoying, was super cute as he proudly showed off his folks. And the “Father Abraham” scene that had the Draper trio all singing and making goofy arm movements = the first time all season I’ve not been grossed out by Don. That’s a far more impressive accomplishment than whatever stupid wallet you made in leather shop, kid.)
Later that night, Don and Betty hang out outside her motel room. “Did you find a bottle?” she asks. Of course he did; Draper’s GPS (Gin Positioning System) makes Garmin look like a blindfolded trek through foggy darkness. They drink, they reminisce… and even though Helen Keller could see what’s coming next, I just don’t care: It’s something. And it’s happening. And with those two categories checked off, it far outshines anything from last week’s episode.
So yes, Don follows Betty back into her room, and they have sex. Some of the episode’s best writing follows. “I love the way that you look at me when you’re like this,” she says across the pillows. “But then I watch it decay. I can only hold your attention for so long.” He counters that being close to someone is intimate, but sex is … nothing. Or, as he so eloquently puts it, “Just because you climb a mountain doesn’t mean you love it.” (Side note: Are we to infer that Don’s de-virginizing via hooker and subsequent beating with a wooden spoon made him unable to equate sex and love? Because if so, that rationale seems a little weak, no?) Removed from the anger that polluted their marriage, Betty studies her ex-husband with a kind eye and raises his hackles when she asks about Megan. “That poor girl,” Bets says, laying a palm along his cheek. “She doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you.”
WIGGED OUT | Meanwhile, “that poor girl” is fending off the affections of her co-star, Arlene. (You remember her, the star of the soap and the wife of the headwriter, aka the swinger?) But let’s back up a minute: Megan is now playing two roles on the sudser, and the new part involves wearing a blonde wig. She’s having trouble making the twin characters seem different, and just in case you didn’t get it, some of the episode’s clunkiest writing comes when Megan spells out tonight’s theme during a sullen dinner with Don: The parts are “two halves of the same person, and they want the same thing but they’re going about getting it in different ways.” Oy. Anyway, Megan invites Arlene over to work on a scene and winds up confessing that she feels “so lonely” in her marriage. So Arlene kisses her. And Megan says thanks, but no thanks — so her embarrassed colleague takes off and says they’ll pretend nothing happened. “Everything as it was,” Arlene says with a flourish of her hand. Hmm. Why don’t I believe that? When Don returns from Bobby’s camp, Megan stands on the balcony in her underwear and tells him that he hasn’t been present in their marriage for some time. He agrees and embraces her. Real change or just another chapter in The Drapers Are Doomed? You be the judge.
ELSEWHERE AT SCDPCGCWHATSITSNAME | Roger botches an afternoon with his grandson and wants to soothe his hurt feelings with Kevin, but Joan shuts that down (she later tells him she can’t count on him) and heads to the beach with Bob. (Thoughts on this storyline: 1) Does Bob always have at least one coffee on his person? 2) Roger’s “Who are you?” was a retread of an already-old joke, but it still made me laugh out loud. 3) Is Bob gay?) The third point – which I didn’t get any sense of earlier in the season and, I admit, may have been heavily influenced by the shorts he was wearing in this week’s episode – kinda sorta seems backed up by the way he helps Pete find a nurse for his ailing mother. When Bob says, “Your well-being is also an interest of mine,” it reads to me as more than either friendly compassion or corporate ingratiation; log your thoughts on the matter in the comments. (Side note: Isn’t it nice to see Herman “Duck” Phillips in a non-trying-to-turn-Roger’s-chair-into-a-toilet capacity?)
MOVING ON | Let’s end on an up note: At least Peggy is now free to possibly start an affair with Ted, yes? Nope. She marches into his office and announces her newly found singlehood, and her boss is all, “Other fish in the sea, you’ll find someone great, yadda yadda ready to work?” Slightly shellshocked, Peggy wanders into the hallway where Don has just arrived. He and Ted both step into their offices, closing their doors behind them, and Peggy is left back where she started the episode: alone and stuck between her two bosses. I’d make a comment about her limp humidity hair, but in the interest of not piling anything else on poor Pegs this episode, I’ll assume we’re forgetting about that.
Now it’s your turn! What did you think of the episode? Sound off in the comments!Follow @kimroots