So this is where the Don Draper spiral has taken us: right back in bed with Betty.
His affair with Sylvia officially put to rest, Don unsurprisingly got right back in the saddle this week – and continued riding in the exact wrong direction. Don can’t manage to even feign interest in his actress wife Megan’s life or career over dinner, but by golly, he’ll sing and dance and praise Father Abraham for a chance to sleep with his suddenly-hot-again ex-wife. Only as Don comes to find out, that’s no longer his affair to have.
“The Better Half” deals with our characters deciding whether or not to seize the moment, and the implications of those decisions. Compared to the thrill ride that was “Man With a Plan” and the drug-fueled fever dream that was “The Crash”, this hour wasn’t as immediately striking – Peggy and her homemade knife-spear may beg to differ – though it provided key moments for many of our characters that may end up being turning points. Scored largely by the ambulance and fire engine sirens of the post-MLK Civil Rights movement, “The Better Half” chronicled the ongoing existential emergencies for some of our characters while introducing new emergencies for others.
Let’s start with Peggy. Still empowered by Abe casually talking about the kids they will have a few weeks back (a few weeks in our world; in the show’s world, it probably happened 4 months ago), Peggy’s shocked to learn that Ted is having trouble moving on from their kiss. Leave it to Don Draper’s protege to immediately forget an event that Ted’s apparently been anguishing over for weeks. Peggy gamely offers that she’s been thinking of him, but everything else about her reaction says otherwise.
However, life with Abe in their new place isn’t exactly peachy. Peggy’s horrified to come home to find out that Abe was stabbed, then frustrated by his unwillingness to help the police identify the suspects. He’s more concerned with how everyone, including Peggy, has reacted to his plight and how he’s going to type up a story about it.
Later, Abe assures a clearly-terrified Peggy that they can move if she doesn’t feel safe, and all appears to be good. But when violence outside her window wakes her in the middle of the night, Peggy grabs a knife that she’s fashioned onto a pole. Abe enters the room and startles her, Peggy stabs him, and on the ambulance ride to the hospital, Abe leaves her.
“You’re a scared person who hides behind complacency,” says a potentially-dying Abe (thanks for the diagnosis help, shrugging paramedic!). “I thought you’d be braver. You’re in advertising!” Then he caps it off with, “Your activities are offensive to my ever-waking moment. I’m sorry, but you’ll always be the enemy.” Ouch.
Upon arriving at work the next morning, a frazzled Peggy bee-lines for Teddy’s office, only to find that he’s taken her advice and forgotten all about the kiss. With Don wounded that she won’t take his side on professional matters, Peggy’s suddenly left with the relationships she holds most dear either being damaged or severed entirely. Welcome to the beginning of the Don Draper spiral, Peggy Olson?
While Peggy and Don’s relationship appears to surely be salvageable, Megan’s relationship to him may have reached the point of no return. As Megan admits to her co-star Arlene, Don no longer seems to be attached to her, and she has no idea how to get him back. If only Megan was privvy to Betty’s advice: “She doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you.”
Arlene takes this as her cue to take another swing at getting down with Megan, and it takes not one, not two, but THREE failed kiss attempts for Megan to get the point across. Unlike her husband, Megan won’t even entertain the idea of cheating. Still, it’s another missed opportunity – if not for Megan, then at least for the audience who were deprived of what looked like an inevitable Jessica Pare-Joanna Going make out session.
Cheating on his wife is no longer chief among Pete Campbell’s concerns, seeing as Trudy has permanently separated herself from him. With his mother driving him nuts and his biggest account gone, Pete turns to everyone’s last resort: the one and only Duck Phillips (!!!), who is now a corporate headhunter.
At the urging of increasingly slimy Harry, Pete schedules a meeting with Duck not because he’s seriously considering leaving the agency, but because he needs his ego stroked. Duck provides no such assurance. A few months ago, Duck explains, Pete would have been a hot prospect; but now, he’s just another executive at an agency with too many of them, with a middling portfolio of accounts.
Finally, Roger is feeling the effects of not being careful with his own relationships. After he takes his four year old grandson to see ‘Planet of the Apes’ (pro tip: never look to Don for parenting guidance), his daughter Margaret is furious and bans him from any contact with his grandson without Mona present. So Roger turns to his attention to Kevin, his secret child with Joan, only to be rebuffed in much the same way. Lincoln Logs or not, Joan’s got no interest in having Roger play a role in her child’s life.
So who DID take advantage of their recent opportunities? Why, Bob Benson of course! Bob may have Pete Campbellian taste in shorts, but his particular brand of wide-eyed upbeat enthusiasm appears to have paid off in the form of Joan. The two are dating, and appear to be quite happy in doing so. What exactly Bob is going to do with his newfound sexual napalm (sorry, Jessica Simpson) is anyone’s guess, but God bless him for swinging for the fences and making contact.
And then there’s Don Draper.
Everything about this set-up screamed classic Draper. An excuse to be with your ex-spouse miles and miles away from where you live. A cozy, romantic room in the middle of nowhere. No risk of being caught.
Only, as we find out, it’s not Don who is having the affair. Not really. It’s Betty.
Betty is the wife of a would-be New York State Senator. Suddenly back to season one form, she’s drooled over by party guests (a fact that turns Henry on!) and has fully recaptured her hot model swagger. Don, just like Pete, is a rapidly-aging executive at a company with too many executives, married to his former secretary turned minor soap star.
So it’s not Don having an affair with Betty, it’s Betty having an affair with Don, to the point that she’s even got all the classic Draperisms down pat: she deflects his wistful sentiments about them staying together, she brings up the woman he’s currently with (shades of Don talking to Midge about the other guys she sees), and the next morning, she acts like nothing happened. I wonder if, while sitting alone uncomfortably at a table in the corner of a restaurant watching Betty and Henry happily eat breakfast, Don can at least appreciate the irony.
Many on Twitter immediately compared this episode to season three’s infamous lawnmower v. foot confrontation because of the scene at the end with Peggy and Abe. But while “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency” was built around the sight of blood spurting out of Guy’s severed foot, “The Better Half” was of very different construction. Peggy impaling her now ex-boyfriend was a thematic capper, an exclamation point to drive home the chaos occuring both in society at the time and in the lives of our characters.
Five episodes left in the penultimate season of ‘Mad Men’, and while I don’t know if we’re building towards a big finish or not, I’m 100% on board for the ride.