|Betty (January Jones) Michael Yarish/AMC|
Not gonna lie, this one felt like the good ole days. Thus far into Mad Men‘s sixth season, many of the episodes have felt completely random and purposeless, namely last week’s “The Crash” in addition to early episodes “Collaborators” and “To Have and to Hold”. Now I think we’re finally back to the Mad Men we all know and love, one that simply features our favorite characters bouncing dialogue off each other while also surprising us at the same time. “The Better Half” is an exercise in demonstrating what happens when we cling to the past for comfort and security above all else. After all, these are rapidly changing times, especially for a group of characters that aren’t used to seeing such upheaval. In this episode, we see characters like Don, Betty, Pete and Peggy trying to find comfort in other people, to the extent that they start to take advantage of the people or things they once loved. They largely do it to give themselves assurance that they’re okay. That version of safety may be through the reigniting of an old flame, a former co-worker promising better opportunity elsewhere or a simple friendship.
The biggest development in “The Better Half” is the reunion of Don and Betty. The two had not really seen each other since the divorce aside from transporting their kids back and forth. Through much of season 5’s unfortunate “fat Betty” storyline, Don made no inclination that he had any sort of interest in her, sexually or otherwise. In fact, it was vehemently the opposite. Now that Henry is getting on the campaign trail again, Betty is given a new purpose to slim down and get back to the old skinny blonde Betty seen in the show’s first four seasons. Her slimmed down figure is on full display in this episode, and Don notices right away. As seen in the picture above, January Jones now looks exactly the same as she did in her prime, as if she stepped out of an episode from season 1. So it’s no surprise that the lingering shot of Betty from Don’s POV leads to what it does. After a charming scene of Bobby teaching his parents a song he’s learned, the spark between them returns and Betty leaves the door open to her hotel room, inviting her former husband in for a night of fun. Don reveals how much he missed Betty, whose response is as classic ice queen as ever. “That poor girl,” she says, referring to Megan, “She doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you.” Much as Betty’s been an irrational child over the course of the series, this is a moment of great insight about her former husband. This is, after all, the same man who lost his virginity through a whore forcing herself upon him to the point of rape. Of course someone like that is going to have a warped view of sex and love and women. Megan thinks she can fix things by pouring as much love into Don as she possibly can, but it’s very apparent that that affection has created the exact opposite effect.
The next day rolls around, and Don goes to have breakfast with Betty, but his seat is already taken by Henry. This is a great moment on many levels, especially for giving Don a taste of his own medicine. In this scenario, he is basically “the other woman”, the one that’s good for a night or two of passion but doesn’t last beyond that. If it sounds familiar it’s because the show kind of beats the audience over the head with the “see now he knows how it feels!” device. I’m not saying it isn’t a rewarding scene to have play out, but it certainly felt like the writers were underlining the themes of the episode and surrounding it with arrows and gold stars. Right after I viewed the episode I felt that the Don-Betty storyline was shoehorned in very randomly, since we weren’t given any indication that he still felt anything for Betty, skinny or otherwise. The more I think about it, however, the more I see it as one of those chance encounters in life that neither person really prepares for but they go along with it anyway. Don and Betty are at different levels of their own self-confidence by the time they reunite, but their brief encounter in the hotel room helps them, only if for a night.
Meanwhile, Megan is distraught from a bad day at work and seeks comfort in co-worker Arlene. Megan is particularly down in the dumps because of her recent difficulties connecting with Don, so it’s easy to see why she would call Arlene to come over and listen to her vent about the various problems in her life. Arlene, who we’ve previously discovered is a swinger with her husband, comes on to Megan and attempts to kiss her. Megan is confused and upset by this, which causes Arlene to call her a tease. Though we have no reason to believe that Megan would ever want to kiss a girl, it’s curious that she flips out about the kiss, especially after revealing how lonely she is. It reinforces how strongly she feels about Don that he is the only one for her. She is not lonely for love itself but for Don’s love. This makes it all the more devastating to see him going off with his old wife, a woman they both openly mock and hate. Things aren’t looking good for the Draper marriage, so I have a feeling Megan will have a lot of crying ahead of her. Betty was right: “That poor girl.”
Pete tries to gain his own sympathy in this episode, leaning on former co-worker Duck Phillips (Mark Moses) for advice. Duck tells him that there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians at SCDP-CGC, which is true just from looking at its seven-letter acronym. He tells Pete about a new potential opportunity in Phoenix but I doubt he would ever make such a drastic move. Pete seems to be heading down a dark path, with his failed marriage and his now constant humiliation at work but I don’t think he has it in him to remove himself from this world. He may rely on people like Duck to help him work through problems, but it just ends up being a therapy session except the patient doesn’t listen.
Former flame Peggy has similar troubles in getting her message across to her boyfriend Abe. With crime becoming increasingly out-of-control near the couple’s apartment, Peggy begins to question the amount of sympathy Abe allows for criminals. Abe’s version of events is different from reality after he gets stabbed in the hand while walking out and about. He withholds telling the police who the perpetrators were so that he can write about the experience himself. After another noisy night on the streets, Peggy hears a noise from the window and goes to investigate with her makeshift spear. Abe startles her and she accidentally stabs him in the stomach, which gives him a moment of clarity that he hates everything she stands for, and the couple breaks up. Again, a very random scene but I think it works if only for the performance given by Elisabeth Moss, who plays the scene with the right mixture of comedy and tragedy. Peggy goes in to the office to tell Ted that things were over between her and Abe, but he doesn’t give her the response she’s looking for. After their kiss earlier in the season, a certain amount of unresolved sexual tension has been ruminating between the two, but Ted shuts it down and dismisses her by saying she’ll find the right guy one day. Again, we have a character relying on her past relations to help sort through her problems, but she isn’t satisfied with the results.
At its core, Mad Men is a show that can carry itself through entire episodes by just having the characters bounce off each other, and “The Better Half” shows how talented this ensemble can be. There are many one-on-one scenes in this episode (Don-Betty, Peggy-Abe, Peggy-Ted, Pete-Duck, Megan-Arlene), and each scene manages to propel the plot forward and enrich the characters by mere dialogue. This isn’t Mad Men trying to show off (“The Crash”) nor is it a basic transitional episode (“Collaborators, “Man With a Plan”). Director Phil Abraham shows that the strength of Mad Men lies in the actors’ ability to deliver some of the best dialogues on television, and “The Better Half” serves as a step in the right direction.
MVP: January Jones
Lead Actress in a Drama Series: Elisabeth Moss
Supporting Actress in a Drama Series: January Jones
Directing for a Drama Series: Phil Abraham