What a nice Memorial Day treat last Sunday’s episode was! “The Better Half,” which sounds like the title of a Doris Day movie, was a respite from the angst and pain of the assassinations, depression, and adultery of the rest of the season. Don may still be “lost in a dark wood,” as per Dante in the season opener, but he has potentially found his way again, right there in the forest itself.
“The Better Half” is a comedy in the classic Shakespearean definition, where mistaken impressions lead not to tragedy but to a more rueful understanding of humanity. In “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” the characters go off to the forest, where they are toyed with by the spirits and make romantic errors but come out unscathed. The episode is also in the tradition of Ingmar Bergman’s movie “Smiles of a Summer Night,” which also features urbanites who head to the countryside and engage in non-tragic romantic escapades. (Sondheim fans recognize this story as “A Little Night Music.”)
You know “The Better Half” is a comedy when one of the characters is stabbed in the stomach and lives; or when a bitterly divorced couple reunites for a night of passion with zero negative consequences. And by the final scene we just have to laugh at human foibles.
Unlike any of the other episodes this season, “A Better Half” has no discernible time stamp. Aside from Abe’s rantings about “fascist pigs” and the one fleeting reference to Bobby Kenendy, there’s nothing to place the episode in any year or decade. It’s just a generic, dreamy summer. All the characters are well-groomed – Stan and Ginsberg, with their long hair and beards, are absent as are hippie chicks like Wendy Gleason. There are no pop culture references either: no one’s reading a best-seller, watching a TV show or reading a newspaper. This episode could have been set anywhere from 1955 to 1970.
“The Better Half” opens with a debate about choice. Don and Ted are trying to decide the more appealing sales pitch: is it that margarine tastes good or that it tastes good at an attractive price? How do you choose between the two margarines, especially when there’s also the allure of the superior experience of butter? These are not life or death decisions and the rest of the episode is filled with similarly non-existential choices.
Consider the number of triangles in the story, each of which requires some kind of choice. Professionally, Peggy is caught between Ted and Don, but she’s also wavering romantically between Ted and Abe. Don is involved with Betty and Megan, while Betty is the object of desire for both Stuart and Henry. Megan of course is caught between Arlene and Don; and Joan has to choose between Roger and Bob Benson. Some of these outcomes are funny, some are sad, but none are heartrending
The Don story line is especially poignant. Megan cooks him a special Thursday night dinner but when she tries to engage him in conversation about their respective days, he blows her off and says he’d just rather relax in front of the TV. The next day, on his way to parents’ weekend at Bobby’s camp – somewhere out in those woods – he runs into Betty. In the strangeness of the forest, their bitterness falls away and they call a truce. The scene where they have dinner with Bobby and sing the “Father Abraham” song is both unbelievably sweet and unbearably sad. To the outside world they look like a perfect family (Bobby introduces them as “my Mom and Dad,” which is both an accurate and incomplete description of the family dynamics). And they do look perfect: Betty is more beautiful than she’s been since season three and Don is as handsome as ever. You get a sense of what this family could have been if Betty and Don hadn’t both been so narcissistic.
Betty’s recovered beauty reflects her apparent contentment with life and she’s able to talk to Don without rancor. Their mutual seduction is sexy, with him holding her hand too long and her leaving the cabin door open. Their subsequent pillow talk is the conversation of two people who know each other too well but are willing to suspend hostilities for a moment of peace.
As surprising as this (perhaps temporary) reconciliation is, what’s most unexpected about the detente between Betty and Don is that Betty becomes the voice of reason. Matt Weiner has dragged this poor character through the mud these six seasons, making her infantile, self-absorbed, nasty and vindictive, but tonight she finally gets her due. When Don tries to speculate on what it would have been like if they hadn’t broken up, Betty kindly but firmly reminds him that “I loved the way you looked at me, but then watched it decay.” She then delivers the episode’s money line: “That poor girl [Megan]. She doesn’t know that loving you is the worst to get to you.”
That night with Betty, combined with the follow-up scene the next morning where he observes her contentedly having breakfast with Henry, seems to trigger some decency button in Don. When he returns the Megan that night, he admits that he hasn’t been mentally engaged in the marriage for some time and the implication is that he will work on it. Time, as they say, will tell, but it’s entirely possible that we’ve reached a turning point in the story arc where Don gets his act together. Or not. One thing “Mad Men” is not is predictable. Much of the season has been a dissection of how Don has lost his bearings as he enters his mid-40’s. One potential storyline for the rest of the season could be how he gets his mojo back; or another could be his continued descent into irrelevancy.
Don’s story in “The Better Half” was played for poignancy but Peggy’s was deployed for comedic effect. In the first scene of the show she is asked to choose between Don and Ted’s margarine campaigns. This is extra funny because Pete self-importantly tries to mediate the pair and they completely dismiss him; even when he says he agrees with Don’s approach, Don swats him away and wants to know what Peggy thinks. But by the last scene of the show, she is literally standing equidistant between Don and Ted’s offices on Monday morning as they cheerfully yell back and forth about the success of the client meeting and we never even know which slogan they used. Who cares? It’s just business.
What’s hilarious about the scene, though, isn’t just that the once crucial margarine pitch is no longer a sense of tension between Don and Ted but that Ted, who had proclaimed his love for her on Friday, seems to have cooled over the weekend and reacts extremely professionally when she announces that she’s broken up with her boyfriend. Instead of immediately calling the Sherry Netherland to make reservations for an afternoon tryst, as she expected, he offers her the blandest words of comfort: “You’ll find someone else, whoever he is.” And then, with that Ted Chaough exuberance: “Ready to get to work? It’s Monday!” Cue Lou Johnson’s version of the relentlessly upbeat “Always Something There to Remind Me.”
In between those two book-ending scenes in the office, Peggy’s personal life falls apart, sort off. But again, it’s not the end of the world. A prim, middle-class Catholic girl, she has never enjoyed urban homesteading in the jungles of the West Side. She comes home to find Abe recovering from a stabbing and being interviewed by a cop. It’s not clear what Abe and Peggy have in common anymore because he’s become so radicalized that won’t help the police identify his attacker.
Just a few months ago Abe was optimistic about the future, predicting that Gene McCarthy, or “at worst” Bobby Kennedy would be elected President and stop the war, but with Kennedy dead that cheery attitude soured. He proclaims that they are living in a police state and that the people who stabbed him “have no other recourse” since they were “brought here in slave ships.” After someone throws a rock through the window Peggy improvises a spear (because that’s what you do in a jungle) and in one of the most unexpected developments in a show full of surprises, she accidentally stabs Abe.
The subsequent ambulance ride to the hospital, with the tip of the spear still sticking out of Abe’s stomach is another bit of dark comedy. “In case I don’t make it,” is usually the cue for a sentimental reconciliation or confession of love by the potentially dying party, but in this case, Abe uses the occasion to denounce Peggy for her reactionary views: “I don’t know why I thought you’d be braver. You’re in advertising…. You’re a scared person who hides behind complacency. Your activities are offensive to my every waking moment. I’m sorry but you’ll always be the enemy.” “Wait,” she asks, “are you breaking up with me?” Duh.
Peggy’s hardly heartbroken, though, since she’s been fantasizing about Ted ever since he kissed her in the office. And just two days earlier Ted had reaffirmed his love for her. Unfortunately, she forgot one of the great lessons of love: “You snooze, you lose.” When Ted asked whether the romantic feelings were all on his part, she responded, “Let me think about it.” Unfortunately for her, Ted appears to be the one who “thought about it” over the weekend and by Monday they were back to boss and protégé.
Overall, this episode feels like someone hit the reset button. The Sylvia affair is completely over, as is Peggy’s relationship with Abe. Peggy’s flirtation with Ted is done, and we can only assume that Betty’s most vitriolic hatred of Don will now be tempered. Matt Weiner could have easily ended the season with “The Better Half,” but there are still four more episodes left to go. Clearly the last third of the season will have entirely new plot lines.
Some other observations:
- The episode was chock full of surprises. In addition to Don and Betty’s camp grapplings and Peggy stabbing Abe, we were shocked by the reappearance of a sober Duck Phillips and the growing closeness between Joan and Bob Benson. And how about those Benson shorts?
- One thing that was NOT surprising was Roger messing up his play date with his grandson, then feeling sorry for himself and showing up at Joan’s. After urging her to abort his baby and never paying attention to the kid, he suddenly shows up with Lincoln Logs trying to reclaim his patrimony. Just like Betty observes that Don’s gaze decays, so does Betty declare that she can’t depend on Roger and wants him to stay away. Don was born dirt poor and Roger with a silver spoon but they have remarkably similar problems with women.
- Don claims that the sexual act doesn’t mean intimacy to him and likens it somewhat charmlessly to “climbing a mountain.” At first I thought this was him bullshitting Betty but upon reflection it’s clear that the Draper chase is more important than the actual conquest. As anyone who’s ever climbed a mountain knows, when you get to the top, it’s like, “now what?” so the analogy makes sense. He has got to be completely kidding himself, though, when he says he’d be happy simply to hold someone in his arms. When have we ever seen that?
- “I’ve missed you.” Don says this to both Betty AND Megan. Reminds me how Bill Clinton gave “Leaves of Grass” to both Hillary and Monica. Maybe someday someone will compare the charm and caddishness of these two rogues.
- Bobby reveals to his parents that he’s “Bobby Five.” Is this Matt Weiner’s sly joke that this is the fourth child actor to play the part?
- The mystery of Bob Benson continues and week by week he seems less dweeby and more handsome. The actor who plays him – James Wolk – is like a young John Hamm and a really young Harry Hamlin. All his scenes are inherently funny because he’s so obsequious and eager to please. He seems to be getting better at it, too. Sending flowers to Roger’s funeral and offering to pay for Pete’s prostitute were not very suave, but getting Joan to the hospital and finding Pete a nurse? Very smooth. I never expected to say this, but I want to see more of Bob Benson.
- Also very funny was the scene in which Megan unknowingly encourages Arlene to make three passes at her in three minutes. That really took some doing and highlights that she really is still young and unsophisticated. I mean, really, what did she think was going to happen when she invited into her empty apartment someone who has already proposed wife-swapping?
- What’s up with Pete inviting Joan out to “supper?” What is on his mind? Certainly not some kind of dalliance with Joan? Eww.
- The scene where Bob Benson helps Pete find a nurse is brilliant. With his references to “something has come to my attention” and “office gossip,” you think he’s going to play office politics and confide about Joan and Roger, but then it turns out just to be the nursing recommendation. Extra smooth.
- As usual, the funniest moment on the show wasn’t a line of spoken dialogue but the shrugging response from the paramedic in the ambulance when Peggy asked if her bleeding then-boyfriend would live.
- So Duck Philips is back. Does that mean we’ll see the triumphant return of Sal Romano?
- Something is bubbling with the name of the company, which has been commented on for the last two episodes. Which reminds me that when I worked for a PR company that merged with a similar-sized firm, the partners couldn’t agree on a name so we went for months under the moniker of Robinson, Lake, Lerer, Montgomery/The Sawyer Miller Group. No lie.
- Still no African American characters this week except the off-stage assailant who stabbed Abe. Hmm.
- “Well that’s a Yankee wrinkle.” This must be Duck-speak because there’s no reference to it on Google.
- Next week: chaos returns with the Democratic Convention in Chicago, when the police rioted against the Yippies. I had previously predicted that Abe would get his head bashed in there but it doesn’t look like it now.
It’s the status quo antebellum.