I’ve written before about the duality found in this season of “Mad Men.” Sylvia vs. Megan. Don vs. Ted. Black-haired Betty vs. blonde-haired Betty. They all crash into each other this episode like atoms colliding, pulling and pushing on themselves until finally spinning out into the ether. “The Better Half” is a surprisingly sentimental episode with a number of loaded lines delivered with aching sincerity. Oh, and Peggy stabs her boyfriend with a makeshift pike. That happens too. 1
Don and Ted quibble over which direction to take Fleischman’s margarine. The product they are selling is fake and yet it manages to create very real tensions in the office. Peggy waffles on which idea to support 2 and her equivocations piss Don off. Peggy retorts that Don’s ideas are about Don. Instead of refuting her, he reminds her that despite her belief in the contrary, Ted is no different than he. Peggy is now exactly where she was at the end of Season 5, reaching a new level of her career while watching dogs fornicate outside her window. 3 In the end, Don gives in to Ted’s idea; his passion for his job seems to be waning.
Pete’s work, we learn, has also suffered from the instability at home. This message of needing family in order to function at work repeats itself throughout the episode. The split between work and home, as wide as possible in the ’50s and ’60s, narrows slightly. Duck Phillips, now a headhunter, tells Pete that his family is the “wellspring of confidence” in his work–something Pete seems to takes to heart. 4 Pete confides in Joan about his crazy mother and pissed off wife (it’s hard to have sympathy for this weasely, whiny version of Pete) and how it might be stealing some of his focus. Joan can’t give him much besides pat sympathy. Even sadder than Pete’s problems are the fact that he has no one to bring them to.
Megan, in a blonde wig, fumbles through a desk drawer in a scene eerily similar to Betty’s discovery of Don’s alter ego, Dick Whitman. 5 Megan is now playing twins on the soap opera, “two halves of the same person.” The parallels to Don/Dick are obvious. “Let the wig do the work,” her co-star tells her, but as we learned watching how Dick’s past has affected Don’s current proclivities, new clothes and a new name does little to change a man’s core. “We need to make these women different,” Megan’s director tells her, and it’s hard not to think of Megan versus Betty, especially in light of this season’s generational clashes. Raven-haired Megan is young, independent, and successful. Don is “old fashioned” and Betty is too. Betty was a model that gave up her work to be a wife, and only that. Don’s absolute need for control likes his wife domesticated and his dinners ready when he gets home. (Notice how surprised he was that Megan had made dinner for him). Sadly, Megan loves him. Megan is alone. Both times Don and Megan talk there are loud sirens blaring throughout the city streets below. Literal warning signs that their relationship is headed for a crash.
Don and Betty have what I call an ex-meet-cute. There’s a certain knowing, wink-wink familiarity that can only come from an ex. It often takes a while to get to this stage, but Betty and Don, after years of bitterness have made it there. They smile at each other and their shared history radiates back onto them. Don meets Betty and a precocious Bobby at camp. “This is my mom and dad,” he says, and for a moment, the past half decade just doesn’t exist. Don’s amused look, his eyes darting back and forth between Bobby singing and Betty joining in, shows why he fell for Betty in the first place. Don being Don, he makes a move on his ex-wife. Betty being Betty, she doesn’t invite him in, she just leaves the door open. It’s a subtle gesture, but I think Don appreciates the dissonance she is already building to justify her actions. “This happened a long time ago,” she says, when asked if she feels guilty. The split between wife and mistress are now, really, just two parts of the same person.
Perhaps the most important conversation of the season takes place in bed, between Don and Betty. Don asks why sex is the definition of being close to someone. For him, he says, just holding someone would be enough–sex doesn’t mean anything to him. Suddenly, Don makes sense. Growing up in a whorehouse, the intimacy of sex was stripped away, leaving only the physical act in this place. Don, then, wields a weapon whose power he cannot comprehend. Sex is an activity without the emotional weight most of the women he sleeps with assign it. Don’s danger is his ability to sell himself as the real thing, but, after opening the package, his lovers find only the fake stuff. After this soulful conversation with Betty, he wakes up to find her having breakfast with her husband–perhaps she learned from him how to separate sex from love. Watching Don ache as he watches Betty from afar was as heartbreaking as it gets, even if he did just cheat on his wife. Don goes back to Megan, confesses his love for her and, while not rebuffed, is certainly not embraced with open arms. Don is lost.
Peggy comes to work AFTER STABBING HER BOYFRIEND IN THE CHEST WITH A PIKE and is turned away, first romantically by Ted, then professionally by Don. Both their doors close and Peggy is left in the middle. Megan is left with a distant husband and nascent career. Pete has work and family, but barely much of either. Roger loses his grandson after being reminded again that he lost Joan. Perhaps “the better half” is simply the half you can hold on to. 6
- She stabs him! In the chest! With a pike! ↩
- Don and Ted both waving in Peggy against Pete’s objections was played perfectly. ↩
- At the end of Season 5, Peggy went on her first work trip. She stays in a shitty hotel room and watches as two stray dogs do each other outside. ↩
- To be fair, if Duck had told him to take more speed, Pete probably would have. He’s desperate. ↩
- See Season 3, Episode 10 ↩
- Bob Benson continues to play into the plot in the smallest of ways. He seems intentionally ill-defined. Is he gay? Does he like Joan? Is he from another planet sent to investigate humans? None of these would surprise me at this point. Maybe one day he’ll be more than just a footnote in these recaps. ↩