Have you ever described the pain of a breakup as a “knife to the gut?” In a deeply satisfying, darkly comedic, and deliciously twisted episode of Mad Men, I’d say Peggy and Abe give new meaning to the expression.
“The Better Half” hits a coy and classic high note, and (thankfully) without trolling for drama in Dick’s Deep Dark Psyche: Peggy is caught off-guard and stuck squarely in the middle by manipulative men; Joan is playing and being played; Betty is back in brilliant Hitchcockian style – blonde, beautiful, and coolly operating on her own terms.
They’re reactive rather than adaptive or entirely in control, in a finely tuned Episode 9, providing a surprising view into the personal lives of our favorite characters.
Boys Will Be Boys?
Our fearsome and flawed ad execs are dealing with evolving roles – professionally, as they continue to vie and spar for territorial rights – and with private lives that are even untidier. Pete is in a quandary over his mother with dementia, and his steely wife who refuses to put up with his antics any longer. Ted and Don are locked in creative battle, and Don is in need of something or someone he can’t quite put his finger on.
As for Mr. Chaough, one minute he professes his feelings for Peggy, and when she seeks his solace, he withdraws any such signs of affection.
Bob Benson is solidifying his position, apparently dating the magnificent Joan. But I wouldn’t underestimate her capacity for playing him far more slyly than he may be playing her.
Roger is left to stew in his own juice – his boyish charm and irresponsibility isn’t winning with the ladies the way it used to – not his daughter, and not our savvy Joan.
Abe? He ultimately sticks up for himself – though the circumstances are not what we anticipate! A terrified Peggy accidentally impales him on a makeshift spear, frightened by the violence taking place outside their window. As he’s rushed to the hospital, Peggy at his side, he tells off his Establishment girlfriend in words that sound like a political tract, with the knife still jabbed in his belly and the medical attendant rolling his eyes!
Oh, what an unexpected (but necessary) end to that ill-fated relationship.
“You’re breaking up with me?” Peggy asks.
Did anyone not burst out laughing?
The dialog in this episode is impeccable, and there are too many candidates for exchanges to cite them all. There are, however, a few I particularly savored.
As Don and Peggy continue to butt heads, she lets her former mentor know that she doesn’t appreciate being put in the middle. Referring to Ted, she says “He never makes me feel this way.”
Don retorts: “He doesn’t know you.”
Among the most telling of the lines occurs in a scene with Megan. It captures the gist of the theme about our “better halves” – be they the better self, the chosen partner, even the nemesis who may be more like us than not.
Mrs. Draper is playing dual roles now, not only the maid, but her twin sister. She’s struggling to differentiate between the two (amusing, given the man she is married to), and as she blows a scene on set, the director says:
They’re two halves of the same person. They want the same thing, but they’re trying to get it in different ways.
Yes indeed. We could say that of Don and Ted. We could even say it of Betty and Don. But we certainly wouldn’t say as much about the pairings of Don and Megan, Peggy and Abe, Betty and Henry, or Joan and Roger.
Joan and Bob Benson? Who knows?
We could also consider the same hypothesis when it comes to the women who have loved the emotionally elusive Don Draper. They want the same thing, but they’re trying to get it in different ways. Then again, isn’t Mad Men all about “wanting” and not “getting?”
To add to my personal amusement when watching Megan play “elegant” (and blonde) Colette, she doesn’t “work” with that mop of golden hair. Might we not say the same when it comes to Betty with raven locks?
Echoes of Earlier Mad Men: Just the Right Touch
If memory serves, the scene in which Betty is standing in her stunning yellow gown outside of heavily paneled walls is intended to stir a bit of déjà vu. Those moments are reminiscent of a scene a few seasons back. Henry’s colleague hits on Mrs. Francis, and much as Mr. Francis fancied Betty when she was still Mrs. Draper at the time. That makes for a lovely echo to her returning power and obvious enjoyment of flirtation.
What we don’t expect is culmination of that flirtation in the form of a dalliance with Don, and seeing these two together again is delicious for the audience. We witness their natural quality together that was once part of the shared magic. We understand the unspoken bonds that parents may share, even when it comes to the most abrasive of ex-spouses.
The scenes at the camp site between Don and Betty are more sentimental than sizzling, as the longtime couple briefly reunites and then reignites their old passion. Who doesn’t think Don is imagining Betty to be the truest and best “better half?” (And they would be right; they’re very well suited.) But the former Missus is more sanguine and pragmatic.
Don and Betty in bed offer us a sense of coming home; this is Betty of Season 1, his softening toward her when they’re intimate, and her lucid acknowledgment that sex is – for most people – the way to coming close. Yet she keeps her emotional distance that he seems to require of his women, as Betty mentions Megan and refers to her as “poor girl” followed by these heartbreaking words:
She’ll never know that loving you is the worst way to get to you.
There’s resolution in these moments, without encouraging the viewer to imagine anything other than a fleeting connection, much less excavating Don’s deeper past for hidden meaning with his former self. Instead, it’s rich while pinned tightly to “what you see is what you get.” And the “what we get” is wisely truthful.
Lying in bed, Don asks Betty if she feels guilty. Her reply is a simple “no,” as she qualifies that this is “the past.”
Doesn’t that open up the entire fascination with Ex Sex? The notion that if you’re sleeping with someone you’ve slept with before, in particular a former spouse, that it doesn’t count as cheating?
The next morning, Betty’s polite and chilly response to her former husband is no surprise. She sips coffee with Henry over breakfast, and Don takes a seat alone – elsewhere.
What’s Next for Peggy?
The gulf between Peggy and Abe has been widening, and their demise as a couple (despite her delusions?) has been a long time coming. After the comic break-up in the ambulance, Peggy seems to hold some small hope that Ted will step in. Poor Peg-o-my-heart. She watches in amazement at the office on Monday morning, as Don walks away and shuts the door on her, and Ted executes precisely the same move.
Two halves of a whole? It’s a cliché in and of itself. We are none of us a “half;” we are each of us whole – though we may not recognize it.
Peggy is more whole than she knows. Betty is more whole than she’s ever been. Joan has always been whole. Megan isn’t there yet.
Don and Ted as reflections of similar selves? “Wanting the same thing, but trying to get it in different ways?”
And my, how we love seeing Peggy put to the test of her own strength, and Betty up to her old tricks, this time, with the upper hand when it comes to her ex, in a marvelous episode – start to finish.
Check out the video of Don and Betty in bed, in “Talked About Scenes Episode 9.”
Image of Pete, AMC TT. Image of Betty (Episode 9), Michael Yarish, click to access original at AMC.