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"Mad Men" Explores What Happens When One's Better Half Also Is Their Worst Half

By Sarah Carlson | TV | May 28, 2013 |

By Sarah Carlson | TV | May 28, 2013 |

The direction Megan is given for her “To Have and To Hold” characters — twins Corinne and Colette — is a nice summary for the members of various couples and pairings in the “Mad Men” world: “They’re two halves of the same person, and they want the same thing, but they’re trying to get it in different ways.” I wouldn’t say Megan is the other half of Don. That role still belongs to Betty, which was made quite clear in Season Six’s ninth episode, “The Better Half.” The exes rendezvoused while their current better halves remained faithful and oblivious, but not everyone took the low road when it came to love or work.

The most interesting contrast of partners has to be Don and Ted, ambitious ad men who go about their business in different ways. Or at least Peggy thinks they’re different — Ted cares about the idea, she tells Don, while he only cares about his own idea. Don doesn’t buy that notion and tells Peggy not to be fooled. The unclear power structure of the new agency has everyone uneasy about taking sides in an argument, so when Ted and Don disagree on how to tackle margarine accounts, Harry is mum, Peggy is diplomatic and only Pete ventures out enough to say he agrees with Don the most. Peggy’s reluctance to engage and express an opinion is interesting considering her assumed preference for Ted over Don. But perhaps she is more cowed by her former mentor than she’d like to believe. Ted refers to her as his protégé, but that is probably because, as Don said, Ted doesn’t know Peggy as well as he thinks he does.

Peggy wants to be good like Ted, probably more than she even wants to be with Ted, but here is one person who is above the games most of the other characters play. Even though he reveals to Peggy that he loves her, he declares they cannot have a relationship outside of their professional one. “I didn’t know you felt this way,” she said to him. “I don’t want to, that’s the point,” he replied. His confession is jarring to Peggy, who for so long has hidden her emotions and tried to go with the flow of life and work. Abe calls her on it — after she accidentally stabs him with a knife taped to a broom handle. Her fear of their sketchy apartment and neighbor was warranted, as Abe was previously stabbed by in the neighborhood by “criminals” he ultimately shielded from the police. His second stabbing at the hands of Peggy is added to a long list of surprisingly violent developments on the series, but aside from providing humor the accident served as a catalyst for the two to finally end things. “You’re scared,” a bleary Abe told her in the back of an ambulance. “You’re a scared person who hides behind complacency. I thought you’d be braver; you’re in advertising. Your activities are offensive to my every waking moment. I’m sorry. But you’ll always be the enemy. … I gotta hand it to you, you gave me a great ending to my article.” Peggy had been trudging through the relationship and their new location as a way to prove she can be loyal, and it appears Abe was doing more of the same. It was an experiment, and it didn’t work.

Betty is back to her usual size and hair color, and she is loving every look she gets. As she waited for Henry, who was on the phone, at a dinner, she attracted the eye of a politico of some sort, Stewart (Michael Rose). He approached her exactly the same way Henry did when they first met at an event. She was waiting for Don, and Henry was smitten and said he wished she were waiting for him. Stewart’s pitch was more crass, but Betty was playful. “I have three children,” she said. “I don’t care,” Stewart replied. “No, look at me. Can you believe I’ve had three children?” Henry wasn’t amused, but as he forced Betty to recount the encounter word for word, he found himself turned on. Don was equally thrilled with Betty’s returned figure, and as the two visited Bobby at summer camp for a weekend, they both looked and acted as if they had gone back in time a decade or so to when their relationship (somewhat) worked. “When I saw you earlier today I thought for a second, ‘Who’s that man?’ ” Betty told Don. “And I forgot how mad I was at you.” “What did you think when you saw me?” she asked him once it was clear they were going to have sex. “That you are as beautiful as the day I met you,” Don replied.

Just how much of Betty’s self-worth is tied to her looks? And can she really be blamed for being so insecure, considering her upbringing? Henry was always sweet to her as she struggled with her weight, but his jealous behavior at her attracting attention from others only proves Betty’s power lies in her physical beauty. As shocking as the Don-Betty reunion was, there was something almost touching in the closure the two seem to have found. They see each other for who they really are, and their mutual attraction persists. “I love the way you look at me when you’re like this,” Betty told him in bed. “But then I watch it decay. I can only hold your attention so long.” “Why is sex the definition of being close to someone?” Don wondered. “… If we lied her together with you in my arms, I would have felt just as close. The rest of it, I don’t know. I don’t know. it doesn’t mean that much to me.” “Is it the same with Megan?” Betty asked. “Why do you want to talk about that?” “That poor girl. She doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you.”

Back in New York, Megan was batting away advances from fellow actress Arlene (Joanna Going), being dubbed a tease and being OK with it. Poor girl is right; Megan has no one to turn to or confide in. She tried with Sylvia, but that didn’t work out. She attempts friendship with Arlene, but the older swinger isn’t interested in connecting emotionally. “I can’t believe you,” Megan said after Arlene made a pass at her. “I’m trusting you, and you’re taking advantage of every private moment.” That sentiment would be better directed at Don, who at least comforts a lonely Megan once he returns from camp. As sirens wail in the background (the second time sirens punctuated a Don-Megan conversation in the episode), Megan told him she misses him all the time and admits she has been pretending “everything was sunny” for some time. “I don’t know where you’ve gone, but I’m here. Something has to change,” she told him. “You’re right,” Don said. “I haven’t been here.” Is Sylvia (not to mention Betty) out of his system? He doesn’t deserve someone so faithful, but I want to believe he can find a way to keep her.

Roger isn’t having luck caring for others, either. His foray into newfound fatherhood didn’t go over well, as he took his 4-year-old grandson Ellery to see Planet of the Apes. Daughter Margaret (Elizabeth Rice) told him his care-taking days of her now nightmare-plagued son are over. “We’ll probably have to get rid of the dog, he’s that afraid of fur.” Roger pivots from his grandson to his biological son, Kevin, but Joan isn’t interested in involving him in their lives. Greg gets to remain Kevin’s father, and a hero no less. And Bob, in all his tanned-leg glory, gets to be the one to escort them to the beach. For Joan’s sake, I hope the mysterious Bob Benson doesn’t turn out to be trouble. He did, after all, pick up on the tension present when Roger dropped by Joan’s apartment during the weekend on the pretense of a work question. Joan needs someone reliable, and for all Roger’s charms, he is anything but.

Peggy needs someone reliable as well, but Ted isn’t interested in breaking his marriage vows to be that support. Her shock as he rebuffs her that Monday morning, after she relays news of Abe’s stabbing and their subsequent break up, is palpable. Here is someone who isn’t ready to compromise his beliefs. As she stood in between Ted and Don, looking from one to the other, the contrast between the two men was stark. And yet, they are similar, putting on a Monday morning game face as if nothing is wrong. More importantly, neither can provide Peggy with what she needs in life. It’s time she serves as her own mentor.

Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.