Betty and Don get nostalgic, while Peggy mortally wounds her relationship with Abe
Not many of Mad Men‘s miserable cast of characters are afforded long-term happiness. Some are barely afforded short-term happiness. Marriages don’t last much longer than minor prison sentences. What couple could be considered happy and healthy? Perhaps that grinning beacon of contentedness Ken Cosgrove and his wife, but not many others. While the sex runs hot and heavy, true companionship is about as rare as a designated driver on this show.
In “The Better Half,” some relationships fall apart while others reassemble briefly. Peggy ends hers with Abe in about as final a way as possible. Usually a breakup only feels like you’ve been stabbed in the stomach. Don, rejected by Sylvia and bored with Megan, returns to the bottle-blond embrace of Betty before coming back to the homestead and unconvincingly declaring his devotion. Meanwhile, Roger realizes that his charm and panache can’t cover the fact that he’s very much alone: twice divorced, single, cut off from his son and grandson, and gently but firmly turned away by Joan, his favorite last resort.
Peggy is caught between two men not only in her emotional life (Abe and Ted, who professes his continued infatuation to a clearly flattered Peggy), but also in her professional life. Ted and Don’s tug-of-war puts her into the undesirable position of choosing a favorite parent. She clearly thinks Don’s tactic for Fleischmann’s margarine is better but she can’t bring herself to take a side.
“You’re the same person sometimes,” she tells Don, who warns her that Ted doesn’t know her like he does. (This is proven true when Ted’s flirtations are revealed to be unsubstantiated, lobbed from the safety of a relationship under the assumption that they could never come to fruition.) Peggy also learns that if you try to sit on the fence for too long, you’re just going to end up with ass-splinters. By trying to please both sides, she ends up caught in between, both men’s office doors closing on her. The same situation essentially occurs in her love life: Abe ends their relationship, but when she turns to Ted, she finds that door is closed too. The season premiere was named “The Doorway” and while thresholds have always held a thematic sway (think of all the times someone’s said “shut the door,” or Lane Price’s place of death), there were especially a lot of doors being shut with significance tonight.
And left open.
NEXT: Reunited and it feels so weird…
Don heads up to camp to visit Bobby, and when has Don ever been sans spouse and not done something he shouldn’t have? On the way there, he runs into the former Mrs. Draper. They just happen to see each other (or rather, he and a salivating attendant practically sounding an A-WOOGA! horn spot her first) at a gas station. He sees her again later at camp with Bobby, who leads all three in a rendition of “Father Abraham.” It’s as Kodak a moment as they’ve had in a while—one last spin on the Carousel.
Later that night, Don and Betty get caught up in the routine of it all. He offers her some Seagram’s 7 and they talk about the time they drove up to Lake Champlain, went into the woods, and conceived Sally. They both smoke and take bolts of whiskey as the crickets whirr and the frogs croak. It’s a bittersweet moment between two former partners, and then the moment continues into Betty’s room because neither of them is going to be the one to say ‘no’ first. “I can only hold your attention so long,” Betty tells him afterwards. That’s always been his problem, as Dr. Faye diagnosed. He only likes the beginnings of things. For Don, familiarity breeds little but contempt, and maybe boredom. So does the sex, apparently, because he tells Betty that it doesn’t mean much to him. He just wants to cuddle. If there’s one thing I never pegged Don Draper as being, it’s a cuddler. But Betty must be aware because she knows Don just as well as anyone, and she knows that Megan is going about things all wrong. “She doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you.” That’s the kind of line that can leave a bruise.
Don returns home to Megan, who is waiting in her underwear, and they make up over him being so distant, but it’s hard to have much faith in their marriage. I just can’t believe Don will be satisfied with his life. Don Draper is never satisfied and that’s what makes him Don Draper. A satisfied Don is a Don with a pot belly and a “Kiss the Cook” apron: unimaginable. Megan spent her time this week dealing with professional doubts and sapphic aggressions. She’s having difficulty playing Collette, the Warhol wig-sporting twin sister of her character on To Have and To Hold, as a separate character. The irony, of course, is that Megan, the actor, can’t play multiple roles while her husband, the ad man, is an absolute master at it. She invites Arlene over to help, but Arlene is more interested in having and holding Megan than running lines. She hilariously tries and fails three times to start something as Megan sends out more mixed signals than a drunk telegrapher.
Like Arlene (of whose free-wheeling ways he’d no doubt approve), Roger is also feeling the sting of unrequited affection. His grandson visits the office, which is an opportunity to underline the fact that Roger has a son that’s younger than his daughter’s son. He takes his grandson to see Planet of the Apes, but when the movie gives the kid nightmares, he’s stripped of all grandparental rights. He tries to visit Joan at home, to seek out the presence of his son or of Joan, or both. Again he is rebuffed, but not before an awkward exchange with Bob Benson, who was in the process of taking Joan to the beach.
There’s something about Bob Benson that creeps me out. Joan may have taken a liking to him, but from the start he’s been a Ned Flanders who you know has some bodies buries somewhere. It wouldn’t be a surprise to find out that he is some sort of brown-nosing Tom Ripley, hopping from ad agency to ad agency, occasionally killing one of the objects of his obsession. He’s like the dark side version of a How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying protagonist, an evil Robert Morse who would murder his entire brotherhood of man just to pull himself up one more rung. Or maybe he’s just a swell guy, who knows?
NEXT: For Pete’s sake…
Bob’s nice enough to give Pete the name of a nurse who might be able to help with his senescent mother, although this aid is hardly surprising considering Bob’s been Single White Femaling him for months. Pete has been having a pretty terrible, horrible, no good, very bad couple of weeks. He’s living in the Sex Pad with his mother, he’s away from his wife and child, he lost Vick’s, and he’s feeling like his career is leaking value. Pete talks to Duck, who he’s quickly beginning to resemble. (I always thought Duck’s abandonment of his dog was a very Pete Campbell-esque thing to do.) Duck’s been down the road Pete’s on and he knows it’s a bad one, so he advises him to draw strength from his family. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly possible at the moment.
Pete next goes to Joan for help, although he can’t quite formulate the question. When he tells her about his mother, Joan commiserates but tells him “I can’t solve those problems, Pete. I have those problems.” Even so, Pete thanks her because the conversation has helped him, even if he can’t say how. Joan later says that Pete is the only person never to break a promise with her. One could even see her valuing his forthrightness in the Jaguar affair when compared to the shallow false concern of the others. There’s not much that can be said for Pete Campbell, but it’s true that at least most of his negative traits are easily visible and not tucked away inside.
The most out-there storyline this week belonged to Peggy. Despite what I thought earlier this season, she and Abe were not meant to be. Abe had grown a stick-it-to-the-Man hippie persona as quickly as his hair, but it’s hard to maintain that attitude when your girlfriend is the Man. He gets stabbed on the way home to their ill-advised apartment built entirely out of good intentions, but his white guilt prevents him from even attempting to identify the assailant to the cop taking his statement.
I audibly gasped when Peggy swung around her makeshift bayonet and stabbed poor Abe a second time. It had that same “Whoa, did that just happen?” suddenness of many of Mad Men‘s acts of violence, especially the foot-mower scene in “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency.” They should have just taken the apartment on the East Side. Even if they still broke up, at least Abe could have saved himself some stitches and painful convalescence. Abe breaks the news in the ambulance and they both seem to know they need to go their different ways, writing their different copy for different deadlines.”You’re a scared person who hides behind complacency,” he tells her. Hopefully there’s some burn ointment in the ambulance’s first aid kit.
“We’re the ’27 Yankees,” says Harry Crane, who only resembles Babe Ruth in body type.
Henry’s pet name for Betty is “Dolly.” Not as endearing as “Birdy.”
“They were brought here by slave ships!” is exactly the line at which I knew they were writing off Abe. No one can say a line that obnoxious and get away with it.
At camp, Bobby is Bobby Five. I’m going to assume that’s out of five.
I laughed when Roger off-handedly referred to him Bob Bunson.
“(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me” closes out the episode on a note that’s technically ’60s, but feels ’80s.
Follow Keith on Twitter: @Staskijiwczejcz