Written by Ross Scarano (@RossScarano)
After demonstrating how it does crazy better than any other TV drama out, Mad Men blessed us with a quiet, impeccably written episode in its classic style. No lawnmowers, no acid, no brothels, no speed, just men and women talking. And a stabbing.
Last night's episode, entitled "The Better Half," focused on couples and coupling, the longing to be with someone who knows you, which isn't easy in the world Matthew Weiner has built.
Managing to both put butts in seats by hearkening back to the show's past, while also giving us one of the strongest scenes this season, 'The Better Half' reunites Betty and Don for an overnight stay at Bobby's camp.
The opening continued the Ted v. Don battle, a competition where Ted has been coming up strong by virtue of not being Don. (What with all his ordering women around and tweaking out over lousy oatmeal ads, Don has not been anyone's hero as of late.) Called in during an argument about how to tackle margarine, Peggy's forced to chose between Don's approach and Ted's. She makes no decision, resulting in strong scenes with both men.
Peggy and Don: After the argument, Don comes to Peggy with all of their history, and he's upset because it seems that Peggy's choosing to ignore that history (see "The Suitcase," a top 5 dead or alive episode). "He doesn't know you," he spits at her. You know what, Peggy? Don's right. To prove it, bring on Ted Chaough...
Peggy and Ted: Revealing himself to be a lowly coward, Ted snaps at Peggy for touching his hand and smiling at him during a presentation. Peggy's got Teddy so open, he's crumbling. To thank her for it, he shoves his amorous feelings onto her, which makes it look like he's trying to be the strong, mature adult while she's sighing and fawning like a junior high school kid with a crush. Way to go, Ted. You suck right now.
From this conflict, the episode opened to include all of your other favorite couples, including:
Betty and Henry Francis: Stepping into the role of campaigning senator's wife, Betty is back to her old self, quietly confident and stunning (like she was in Rome, in the third season). Henry notices another man noticing and, in the cab on the way home, starts to berate her for it—BUT it turns out it's just part of their sex play. They sex.
Betty and Don: Managing to both put butts in seats by hearkening back to the show's past, while also giving us one of the strongest scenes this season, "The Better Half" reunites Betty and Don for an overnight stay at Bobby's camp. At lunch, Betty and Bobby are singing a better rendition of the Sunday School classic you can hear in this YouTube clip (on the show, they sounded far less like robots), when Don sits down. Bobby is children's electricity, wanting to show off for his dad by ordering for the table, even asking if his dad wants a drink. (Remember when Sally made Don breakfast with bread and booze? His children really do know him.) Then, he wants Don to sing with him. He starts in about the seven sons; Betty joins. As a viewer, you feel it in your guts: He's not going to sing. You want him to, it would make for one of those small moments of kindness that make the wall-to-wall failure all the more poignant, like when Don lets Glen drive the car—but you're sick with knowing that he might not. And then he does.
This lays the groundwork for the eventual hookup between Betty and Don. They share a drink, and everything feels so easy and natural, the antithesis of the moment earlier in the episode, where Don and Megan take a drink at the same time after dinner. Betts leaves the door of her cabin open. Don does what he always does, and pursues. In the dark room, in bedsheets, they talk to each other. They talk about sex and intimacy in such a mature, illuminating fashion, it must be a first for that level of romantic candor between a man and a woman on Mad Men. It's heartbreaking and magical, like a fantasy of time travel. Betty demonstrates compassion and intelligence, practically erasing the memories of the childish and mean things we've seen her do in the past, when she says that she feels bad for Megan. "She doesn't know that loving you is the worst way to get to you," she says. We know this is true because of Anna and Peggy.
The brief encounter ends with Betty having breakfast with Henry Francis, and Don sitting alone, at a table set for two.
And then Peggy stabs Abe.
Peggy and Abe: Things have not been going well for these two since they decided to gentrify. Abe gets knifed by some kids coming off the train one night, but he's more disgusted by the behavior of the cop—excuse me, fascist pig—and Peggy. He hates the cop, because he knows his description of his attackers will just result in aggressive stopping and frisking for any black male in the vicinity of their lily white pioneer outpost, and he hates Peggy for patronizing him about his injury. Say what you will about his overalls, Abe's always been the most radical character when it comes to race, and for that he deserves your respect. And then Peggy stabs him. Armed with a broomstick with a knife taped to the end like some kind of spear, she accidentally stabs Abe in the gut. Abe spills blood, Abe spills truth. In the ambulance, he tells her, "You're a scared person who hides behind complacence...You'll always be the enemy." It's over for these two.
What's Peggy do? She goes to Ted, saying, "Abe got stabbed," lapsing into the passive voice like Richard Nixon. Looking like she hasn't slept in months, she opens up to Ted about the end of her relationship. What's Ted do? Tell her it's a bright Monday—time to get back to work! Ted, you are awful.
Peggy leaves Ted's office, and heads to Don's, but he shuts the door without noticing her. The final shot leaves Peggy trapped behind glass, caught between two closed doors, alone. We're left riding high on the fact that Mad Men is the best show on TV right now.
RELATED: Don Draper Is on the Drugs
RELATED: Don Draper Wants Your Inner Goddess On Hands and Knees
RELATED: Does Don Draper Work the Slide Ruler?
RELATED: Everybody Likes to Be Sad
RELATED: Don Draper Won't Save Himself
RELATED: Don Draper and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Fearful Symmetry
RELATED: Don Draper's Pretty Face Is Going to Hell
Written by Ross Scarano (@RossScarano)