After last week’s cryptic offering, Mad Men returned this week with a very straightforward episode and a straightforward title. “The Better Half” was all about relationships, with a side note about choice, moving on, and recapturing the past. Not all of the relationships were romantic, though — Pete considers cheating on SCDPCGC (what a garbled mess) at Harry’s suggestion and at Duck’s (Duck!) prompting, while Peggy got caught in the middle of Don and Ted’s power struggle. Like Megan says to Don to close the episode, something has to change. But for most of the characters this week, the change has already come. Hit the jump for more, and why “margarine is indestructible!”
Predictably, Don couldn’t last more than an episode without cheating on Megan (now that the flood gates have been opened, at least. I will acknowledge he stayed within the marriage for most if not all of last season, my memory fails on the specifics). Most shockingly though, it happened with Betty.
Long-time supporters of Betty and Don’s relationship will have smugly mentioned tonight that they always saw the two reconciling at some point. But the way it happened and what was said during it was perhaps one of the best Betty moments of the series.
What “The Better Half” showed, in part, was how much some of the characters have grown. Betty has come to terms with the end of her marriage to Don — her weight proves it. While she was still in love with him and actively angry with him, she ate her feelings. She was on the brink of some real, fundamental change at the point when she dyed her hair brown, but then reverted back to her old self when she finally replaced Don with Henry.
The scene at the fundraiser where the man approached her for an affair was reminiscent of when Henry flirted with a pregnant Betty so many years before when Don was in the bathroom much like Henry this time. And like Don, Henry is turned on by other men wanting to sleep with Betty. Unlike Don, Henry has somewhat earned this position, having stuck with Betty and been incredibly supportive through everything.
Just because Betty has moved on from her marriage to Don, it doesn’t mean she can’t get satisfaction from seducing him, though. She also learned a fundamental lesson that she imparts regarding Megan: “That poor girl. She doesn’t know loving you is the worst way to get to you.” Don admits that sex does not mean intimacy to him, which is no shock, and claims he would have felt intimate just holding her. Don asks Betty the same question he posed to Sylvia: do you feel guilty? Betty doesn’t, and says “this happened a long time ago,” acknowledging that they are just recapturing a moment from the past.
Whether Betty really does still have feelings for Don or not, she doesn’t let it show, and her leaving him alone in bed and then leaving him to eat alone at the camp was a masterful power play. Now Don wants her, because he can’t have her. He looked like a wounded puppy in that scene, and then you remember he has a loving wife at home who is as lonely as he is.
Others tried to make things feel like old times as well, an idea which Megan brings up to Don. Peggy acknowledges her relationship with Abe is not (and never has been) what she really needed — he was always a stopgap at best, but it took her nearly disemboweling him to get him to man up and break things off with her, saying she’s always been the enemy (or at least, worked for one). Ted is right that Peggy will move on to a better man, but also makes it clear that man is not him, despite his mixed signals. Perhaps like Don with Betty and Megan in this episode, Peggy feels trapped between old and new, and doesn’t really belong with either (the closing doors were a nice touch).
Joan, looking fabulous in her beachwear, made her position with Roger clear, too. Even though so many fans, myself included, will always have a soft spot for those two, Roger is toxic for Joan, and she knows it. She’s clear about their boundaries, and takes up with Bob while Roger falters and pretends to be both a good father and grandfather, modeling his behavior on Don as his daughter rightfully scoffs, “oh yes, Don Draper, Father of the Year!”
Despite its straightforward themes and presentation, “The Better Half” was a satisfying and engaging episode that had a lot of payoffs for fans, like the brief return of Duck, Roger showing up at Joan’s door, and Don and Betty’s reunification. But most importantly, so many things have already changed in Don’s life, and so have the people. It’s time for him to change, too.
Episode Rating: A-
Musings and Miscellanea:
— As a Betty fan, I loved that she came out with the upper hand. She and Don shared some great moments talking about old times and the kids, and her personal change (even though she looks just like she did) is evident not only in the way she handled Don, but in the way she actually seems to be a good mother to Bobby, finally.
— I loved the reveal too when the mechanic turned out to be ogling Betty. Fantastic.
— Poor Peggy always has to go one step backwards for every two steps forward. The backwards steps are always her personal life, too, because her professional life has always been on the upswing (even though this merger has not been to her benefit).
— I liked the final scene with Ted and Don being so chirping with one another after their tense interactions to start the episode, when Don was particularly petulant. People move on, it’s all swept under the rug. It’s Monday!
— “He’s interested in the idea , you’re interested in your idea” – Peggy
— Ted is so dramatic. “The boss, in love with his protege!”
— Harry remains fat and useless.
— How dare you speak about family, Duck, when you let Chauncey out onto the streets of New York alone!!! /NeverForget
— Pete and Joan’s conversation was brief, but great. Pete has always antagonized her, but she surprised me when she acknowledged that he’s the only person in the office who hasn’t broken a promise to her. What a sad reality.
— Joan and Bob Benson! (and Bob Benson’s shorts!) I should have known better than to think he would bring up Roger to Pete. Bob seems too good to be true, and I hate being so cynical about nice guys on TV, but the cliche is always to make them nefarious. Weiner is not usually cliche though, so I’ll trust him on this one. I really like Joan and Bob together, though … which probably means they’re doomed.
— The minus in my grade was for Megan. Besides her admitting she’s lonely and giving some truth to Don, her scenes in this episode really dragged. It reminded me a lot of last season. With Megan, the care cup is full.
— Oh Arlene, will she ever learn??
— “I’m Bobby Five” – Bobby, a popular name.
— Apparently not even the mosquitoes could ignore Betty in those shorts.
— This break-up with Peggy and Abe has been a long time in coming, but the way it all just melted down in this episode was kind of epic.
— “I’m going to sell this shit hole!!” – Peggy