The days of the Don and Betty marriage on Mad Men feels like a distant, foreign memory. I can’t even distinctly remember the episodes or plot events that led to its end, it’s a haze. This echoing what it’d be for Don, perhaps.
Over that time Don has lost his creative and control fastball, before getting it back, before starting to lose it again. Betty’s looks, seductiveness and confidence likewise slipped, but this is her finest form in those areas in years, if not a decade of off screen time for her character. Perhaps the man hitting on her at the party is what she needed to at least carry that momentum for a day. The Don-Megan and Betty-Frank marriages are failing because Megan can’t quite the extent of the emotional damage in Don and Frank can’t see that far in Betty. Arguably, Don can’t see the emotional damage in Betty either just like he can’t in Megan. But Betty may be able to see Don’s. That is why Betty holds the balance of power in this episode.
The concept of a power dynamic as alluded to in the title “The Better Half” is throughout the rest of this episode. Abe has long felt Peggy holds the power in their relationship, as she pulls the financial cart. Abe tells Peggy in the ambulance he’s not breaking up with her because of the stabbing, but because his liberal, on the streets idealism contrasts with dating someone in advertising with money. But one gets the sense this is just a reason he aspires to for dumping someone. When what really led to the animosity, is Peggy’s power in the relationship emasculating him in a late 60s time period with far less relationships with the weight on that side than there are today.
Peggy is also caught in a balance of power between Ted and Don, emerging as something of a tiebreaker when they are at odds. Peggy prefers Ted personally, but Don is more talented and she owes more of her career to Don. Peggy would like to believe she’ll make every decision based on which of their ideas are better, but of course, it’s near impossible to be objective and without sub-conscience bias in a situation like this. In the last scene of the episode Peggy looked perhaps the most disheveled we’ve seen her. Maybe it’s a stretch, but the jump from Ted closing his door to looking at Don’s, made me wonder if they were alluding to a never-happened Peggy and Don affair, after he never made the move he’d done with almost every other secretary. Perhaps if Don’s door was figuratively open after Ted and Abe’s shut, she’d have been interested.
On a final note, Bob Benson in his scene in Joan’s apartment, seemed for once normal. Perhaps it’s because instead of bowing to worker’s needs, he has some power now, in having a stronger apparent relationship than Joan than Roger does. For Roger there is a power in youth and freshness that he cannot grasp anymore.
"The Better Half" is an excellent episode from Mad Men’s excellent season half to this season.
By Julien Rodger