Examining the sides of a character’s identity is nothing new to Mad Men, and certainly, when an episode is titled ‘The Better Half,’ all sort of situations seem to beg for attention. And this episode takes a somewhat gloomy, but frequently amusing look at how a character’s view of themselves and those close to them can alter his or her place in the scheme of things.
Naturally the identity that is Don Draper is only half of the man we’ve come to know and love (or love to hate). Don is a man who so wholly embraces rebirth he’s practically become a mythical beast who makes the phoenix look like a hapless upstart. He’ll do it whether he’s under fire in Korea or just trying to figure out how to land Chevrolet, while getting drunk in a Detroit hotel bar. And this ability to remake himself has a profound effect on his relationships – marital or otherwise.
This is part of Don’s love affair with beginnings; he practically re-creates himself every time a new relationship begins, but eventually reverts to the old Don when they inevitably end, only to start over again. We saw this recently, when Don took role-play with Sylvia to new heights (or lows, to help find and retrieve his shoes), and again during an uncomfortable elevator ride when he coldly brushed aside the recent object of his affection with a terse reply to her question of how he was doing. But the sordid goings between the Draper and Rosen households are, naturally, only part of the story.
The merger with CGC has put what’s left of SCDP’s staff on alert for their doubles. One of the first to suffer from this incursion was Margie, who saw her exit coming the second Peggy walked right back through the door, and right back into Don’s domain. Now that things have settled somewhat – especially after the vitamin-shot Jim Cutler (Roger’s double) helped everyone out with during last week’s ‘The Crash‘ – Peggy’s increasingly finding herself being asked to chose between Ted and Don, as when Don asks her which take on the margarine campaign she prefers. But rather than simply be about Peggy (or anyone for that matter) choosing between the two people who’ve shaped her career more than anyone else, ‘The Better Half’ is also a revisiting and reexamination of relationships for the characters of Mad Men.
There is a pervasive sense that out of an ending something will begin again, with everyone seemingly unaware it’s just the cycle that’s starting over. And because of this, many of these ostensibly new (or new again) relationships are destined to flame out faster than ever.
Which brings the episode around to its surprising star, in the form of the former Mrs. Draper, Betty Francis. Early on, ‘The Better Half’ telegraphs Betty’s run-in with her ex-husband by showing Megan on the set of her soap opera, as a blonde-haired twin of the character she normally plays. Certainly, though, it goes back a little further, to when Henry announced he’d be running for the state Senate, eager for people to meet the real Betty. Not long after, Betty was very much back to her old self, receiving not entirely unwanted attention from men everywhere she goes.
Don’s connection with Betty seems tied into her reinvention of herself – that is, on the outside at least, she appears to be new. But like Don, she’s really just new again. And even though they fall into bed with one another while visiting Bobby at camp, it’s not the beginning of something; it’s really more of a chance for Betty to see the man who broke her heart with a the kind of vision that’s only granted through time, distance and a renewal of one’s self. The event leaves Don alone and contemplative enough that he appeals to Megan on an emotional level, after she’s spent part of her weekend once more rebuffing Arlene’s sexual advances.
At the same time, Peggy’s relationship with Abe is crumbling in part because she can’t handle the crime-ridden neighborhood he talked her into moving to, and because of her growing feelings for Ted Chaough. After a succession of unpleasant incidents, Peggy’s desperate for change, to alter her situation. And sometimes, change requires something drastic to take place – which comes in the form of Peggy inadvertently stabbing her boyfriend with a makeshift bayonet. The aftermath sees Abe breaking up with Peggy in the back of an ambulance, spouting phrases like “Your activities are offensive to my every waking moment; I’m sorry, but you’ll always be the enemy,” while an indifferent EMT just shrugs along.
In the case of ‘The Better Half,’ change brings opportunity, and opportunity means making a choice. Peggy chooses Ted over Abe and Don, and eventually winds up standing alone with closed doors on either side of her. Meanwhile, Joan chooses the increasingly questionable Bob Benson over a frequent paramour and the biological father of her child. Considering Bob’s history seems to be as scattered and illusory as Don’s, she may have been wise to stick with Roger.
Mad Men continues next Sunday @10pm on AMC. Check out a preview below: