In the wise words of the J. Geils Band, “love stinks.” Love is different to different people. Some hold onto another person out of a matter of convenience. Some for lust. Some for nostalgia. Some probably don’t even know what “love” is really supposed to be – well, that’s probably most of us. And those at SCDP/CGC are no better off.
This week’s exceptional Mad Men, ‘The Better Half,” written by Erin Levy and Matthew Weiner and directed by Phil Abraham, examines the relationships of some of the characters, past and present. Between Don, Betty, Peggy, Ted, Roger, and Joan, feelings for old flames are stirred up and idealized or new options come into the mix, but are any of these feelings well-founded? Probably not. “The Better Half” provides a great balance of characters’ stories, some excellent writing (as usual), and such a striking examination of the interpersonal relationships on the show. This hour-long episode covers an impressive amount of ground and was one of the best of the season so far.
Starting with Peggy, Ted confesses his love to her in the office after she inadvertently touches his hand in a meeting. While she is surprised that he uses the word “love” and doesn’t exactly share his feelings, she hasn’t exactly forgotten about their kiss either. Her feelings for Ted have brought Abe down in her eyes by comparison, though their relationship has become really strained since buying their apartment – especially after Abe is stabbed by a street tough on his way home. Peggy gets back to their apartment to find Abe getting questioned by a cop and Abe will not divulge a description of his attacker for political reasons – he doesn’t want the cops racially profiling in their neighborhood. To Peggy, this is madness. She fell in love with Abe for his creativity and his ideals, though it would appear he took those ideals as far as he took his facial hair configuration. So, pretty far. When Peggy says that his attackers were animals, Abe snaps, “They were brought here by slave ships!” Peggy snaps back with the amazing lines, “And I was brought here by you! I don’t care if I take a loss, I’m gonna sell this shithole!” Yes, Peggy – sell that shithole!
Peggy and Abe’s relationship ends in a moment evoking the infamous “lawnmower scene” back in season three, in terms of its shock of comical violence. After someone breaks a window in their apartment, Peggy sleeps on the couch, petrified, beside a makeshift bayonet. She uses the “bayonet” to peer through the blinds and turns around when she hears a noise – that noise, unfortunately, is Abe, and even more unfortunate is that she stabs him in the stomach. He dumps her in the back of the ambulance. She tells Ted in the office the next morning that she and Abe are over – presumably so that he makes another advance at her – and it is as if nothing ever happened between them. Peggy leaves miffed and walks of his office to both Ted and Don closing their office doors.
While Peggy lived with Abe for some time, their relationship was never exactly a driving force in her life. The real “love triangle” involving Peggy is based in the office, between her, Ted, and Don. Since the merger, they have pulled her in opposite directions, expecting her to side with each of them, even though they are supposed to be a part of the same company. Both exult her creativity and passion for her work, which for Peggy, is the ultimate in praise. Though when Ted combines that praise with his sexual attraction to her, he becomes an even more idealized version of Don, a mentor that sees her as a woman too. So when he takes his love away, she finds it jarring. He is just another Don Draper, albeit a much nicer one. Coming back the ER with Abe to work the next morning, with limp hair and no makeup, Elizabeth Moss turns in such a fine performance as Peggy here. She is dazed from both the accidental stabbing and from getting dumped, and becomes even more shellshocked when Ted has apparently wiped his slate clean.
Though it is refreshing that Ted is actually a nice guy, and unlike most of the characters on this show, won’t cheat on his wife no matter how great the temptation.
Don reunites with Betty, which may or may not be a healthy thing. They cross paths at a gas station en route to visiting Bobby at camp, as the attendant is staring at Betty’s recently-reclaimed perfect ass. Later on, he and Betty sing “Father Abraham” with Bobby over lunch and the family unit that Don left behind is suddenly back and in an idealized state. After Don and Betty share some booze at camp that evening, they have sex – Don waits for Betty to tell him to stop, and she never does. Their brief reunion is spurred for Don by seeing Betty as a sexual object again through the eyes of the attendant, and also her mothering skills with Bobby. He first fell for Megan as he was watching her with his kids and this is evoked with Betty here. She looks like Grace Kelly again, and in this snippet of time, she is the perfect mother and the perfect sex object.
After sex, Don is transported back into a time when his marriage with Betty was good – he tells her he misses her and asks if their being together “felt good.” She says that it didn’t, that she is happy with her life. That she can “only hold his attention so long.” Don reveals to her that the sex act is fairly meaningless to him – he says, “Just because you climb a mountain doesn’t mean you love it.” He says that holding someone makes him feel close enough without the sex part… though that doesn’t stop him from a second round with Betty. For both Don and Betty, this brief reunion is an escape, but Betty is content with her reality. Don is not.
This new information, that Don is fairly unexcited by actually making love, is another wrinkle in the enigma that is “Don Draper.” Then why does he continue to pursue extramarital affairs over and over again? I suppose the chase is the exciting factor for him, as is solidifying his “alpha male” status. He comes home to disillusioned panties-wearing Megan (who just survived the advances of her lesbian co-star Arlene) and promises that he will be a better husband. And perhaps seeing the family that he could have had with Betty will make him a better husband for a short period of time. Though this is Don we are talking about, and he, sadly enough, seems doomed for a life filled with unhappy relationships.
As for Betty and Henry, judging from the height of arousal he experienced watching another man proposition her, even finding out about Don and Betty would likely provide him with more fodder for a night of passion with his wife. Also, might I say it’s great to see Betty like a movie star again – Janie Bryant’s costume design was in full force here with Betty all gussied up at Henry’s event and period-wear looks amazing on January Jones, dangling ball earrings, intricate hairstyles and all.
It would appear that Joan and Bob Benson have maintained their friendship as they set off for a beach trip together – though I still doubt Bob’s intentions, so hopefully friendship is where this ends. With his wounds still fresh from his monster of a daughter refusing him access to his grandson (he copied Don and took the four-year-old to Planet of the Apes), Roger makes a surprise visit to Joan’s apartment with a gift for their son… to find Joan and Bob packing for the beach. In classic Roger Sterling fashion, he later hilariously refers to him as “Bob Bunson.”
You really have to feel for Roger in this episode. While perhaps he shouldn’t have taken his grandson to the movie, his actions were hardly worthy of his daughter’s cruel hissy fit. And while “Roger and Joan” would probably be a bad idea, he will always hold Joan on a pedestal as his feminine ideal. He will always love her, in his own way and comes to her to right the wrongs that he created with his own grandchild by-proxy, via his own son. Joan is right to not confuse Kevin by allowing Roger into his life, but it would appear that Roger is grasping at straws for a real human connection here. And sadly, like Don with Betty, it seems that he is looking into the past with Joan for a connection that isn’t there any more.
Finally, that brings us to Pete, who now lives in his bachelor pad… with his ailing mother. Pete is unhappy at home, and at work and goes to see Duck Phillips about another job – and Duck suggests working on his family first. Salvation for Pete – kind of – might come with ass-kissing Bob, who finds out about Pete’s mommy issues from Joan and comes to Pete with a male nurse suggestion for his mother. Hearing the nurse’s name, Pete asks, “Is he Spanish from Spain? Because otherwise my mother will refuse.” Thank you, Pete Campbell. Never forget that a boy’s best friend is his mother. Pete is representative in this episode of having a lack of relationships – how his cheating on Trudie has bitten him in the ass to such great degree and how is he getting left in the dust at work.
For Pete and everyone else, love – or the lack there of – stinks indeed.
The Upside: In-depth character studies, great performances, and a tight theme. Overall, this episode was one of the best of the season so far.
The Downside: Pete’s storyline could have been developed slightly more, though a developed storyline in this packed episode seems like prime real estate.
On the Side: Betty and Henry could have offered Don a seat at the camp breakfast, right? While it would have been awkward, there’s no need to be rude.