Last night's Mad Men, an episode titled "The Better Half," was all about couples and family — who you choose to be with, who you choose not to be with, who you decide not to choose, and of course, how all those choices impact you and beyond. Don and Betty delve into the past, Joan and Roger and Bob Benson have a moment, Pete simmers, and Peggy and Abe reach an expected (but entirely unexpected) end.
We start with Don and Ted in the conference room, hashing out margarine. They've come down to two campaigns, Ted's and Don's, and they can't decide. Peggy is asked for her opinion, and she evades the question, with Don finally confronting her and telling her she was chosen to have to choose. Later, he again tells her she has to pick between his idea and Ted's. "There's a right and a wrong," he says. She tells him Ted never makes her feel this way, and isn't it Don's job, not hers, to do the "collaborating" given that it was his idea to merge the companies? "He doesn't know you," says Don.
Pete is plagued with worries, about his job, about his mother, about his life no longer resembling what he thought it should. His choices have changed everything (though he's not so self-aware that he's going to admit that). Later in the episode he seeks advice from Duck Phillips — a man who threw out his own dog — who tells him to spend more time with his family. "My family is a constant distraction," says Pete. On the family motif, at the office, it's a "Special Day with Pop-Pop." Roger is taking care of his daughter Margaret's son for the day, showing him off to Joan and others. "I don't want him running on the steps," advises Margaret.
Megan's been cast in another role in the soap opera. She's playing twins, and struggling to make them different beyond a blonde wig. She's yelled at on set for not being good enough, and her coworker Arlene comes to her aid. That night Megan's made dinner for Don, but when she starts telling him about her day at work — her characters want the same things, but they're trying to get it in different ways, she explains, a message that could apply generically to all of humanity, if not the characters of Mad Men — he doesn't want to hear about it and says he's tired. "Tomorrow's another day," he tells her. He still doesn't know how to be interested in someone else's problems that don't relate to his own.
Betty Francis has regained her old hair, figure, and confidence — and all that goes with it. She's out with Henry, and another man is hitting on her. Betty is not averse to a compliment. “Can you believe I’ve had three children?” she asks. On the way home in the cab, Henry tells her that everyone was watching her, which clearly is a turn-on. They kiss passionately.
Peggy returns home to find Abe with his arm in a sling. He's been stabbed, he says, but he and she have very different ways of dealing with that. More worrisome is what those ways reflect about their very different worldview. Abe's always been an idealist; Peggy is the practical one. "Why would you side with the cops?" he asks her. She reaches back in this moment to, perhaps, Stan and his cousin who died in combat, and the need for reassurance Stan had then. She pats Abe's head and tells him he had a traumatic experience, "not unlike combat." Abe doesn't buy it, and the fight continues until Peggy goes to bed.
Don and Betty meet en route to Bobby's camp, at a gas station. Henry, it turns out, is coming the next day. Don instructs Betty to follow him. In the mess hall, Betty, happy mom, plays a camp game with Bobby as he sings "Father Abraham." Don joins in, smiling. It's an unheard-of idyllic Draper family moment!
At the agency, Ted chastises Peggy for touching his hand, for smiling at him "like that." She says she forgot the moment they had, that he'd kissed her, and he says he hasn't, but that they can't do this "boss in love with his protege" thing. "Do you want me to work somewhere else?" she asks. "Of course not," he says. This is not the last of that, I do not think.
Pete asks for Joan's advice about his mother, and she tells him she can't solve his problems, she lives with her mother and has those same problems. Neither of them are happy with the current shape of their lives. It's interesting that Pete seeks some sort of balm to his wounds with first Duck, then Joan, who may be the only female figure he feels he can count on (and maybe respect. Maybe). Later Joan tells Bob Benson that Pete's the only one who's never broken a promise to her.
Arlene visits the Draper's apartment with wine, while at camp, Betty and Don are talking on the porch, sharing a drink sans Henry (yet) and the outside pressures of their typical lives. They talk about the kids, their shared history. "I don't understand her," says Betty of Sally. "She's a lot like you," they say to each other. The Betty-and-Don heart-to-heart continues, and she goes into her room, leaving her door open, after she tells him she's gotten all bit up by mosquitoes. He follows, and it's clear that while they've moved on to others, the old attraction is still there, all the better for Betty who can finally, at least metaphorically, have her cake and eat it too.
There's a flash to Arlene and Megan, drinking and talking about how Don is protective or "old-fashioned" in the words of Arlene. Megan confesses that she feels lonely, and Arlene takes that opportunity to kiss her. "I’m trusting you and you’re taking advantage of every private moment," says Megan. Arlene leaves, but not before trying again and again.
Betty and Don are pillow-talking in bed. "This happened a long time ago," she says of the moment, a non-moment in their history together, but a revealing new one just the same. He waxes nostalgic — "is this what it would have been like if we stayed together?” he asks, and maybe he's in some ways thinking about Sylvia, too, or any of the women in his lengthy list of past liaisons. Betty has newfound wisdom, though. She knows who Don is, "how I can only hold your attention so long." She knows and realizes and isn't going to be hurt by it, because she's moved on. He asks “Why is sex the definition of being close to someone?” and we realize, for all the sex, Don's struggling to find another kind of fulfillment, and repeatedly failing: “Just because you climb a mountain doesn’t make you love it,” he says. Love has always been a mystery to him. "Climbing a mountain, is that what making love is to you?” Betty asks. “I don’t know," he says. "The rest of it doesn’t mean that much.” Poor Megan, says Betty. "She doesn't know that loving you is the worst way to get to you."
At camp the next morning, Henry has arrived, and he and Betty sit together in a booth laughing. “Morning," says Don. “Good to see you,” says Henry. Don finds a table to eat at alone. Last night is a long time ago.
A rock has been thrown the window of Abe and Peggy's apartment. Abe is trying to board it up, with one hand since his arm is in a sling. Things are falling apart, and Peggy is scared; Abe, emasculated again, gives in and tells her they can put the apartment on the market. "You'll really do that for me?" she asks.
The Special Day with Pop-Pop has consequences. Roger had taken his grandson to see Planet of the Apes, and now the boy can't sleep. Margaret places a call to remind Roger that he's no father. "It’s my fault for letting a four-year-old watch a four-year-old,” she says, “your grandfather days are done." But maybe his fathering days don't have to be. He goes to see Joan, who's getting ready to go to the beach with Bob Benson. "I didn’t know you were friends,” says Bob, of Roger, whom she ushers out quickly. “Some people never stop working,” she says.
When Peggy is awoken by scary noises outside the apartment, she peers through the window, arming herself with a bayonet-like weapon. Behind her, there is noise, and she quickly turns and accidentally stabs Abe, but to her credit, Peggy will only stab you in the front, not the back. On the way to the hospital in an ambulance Abe tells her, "You're a scared person," "Your activities are offensive to my every waking moment," and "You'll always be the enemy." She asks if they're breaking up. He says, “You gave me a great ending to my article.” Uh oh.
Megan is outside on the Draper's deck, staring at the sky, when Don comes home. She tells him, "I don’t know where you’ve gone, but I’m here, and I keep trying to make things the way they used to be, but I don’t know how. Something has to change." Sirens wailing in the background, he tells her she's right. "I haven’t been here." Is this indeed a moment of change? Or just another brief placation until he goes away again?
Roger shows up at Joan's office with Lincoln Logs for her son, and she tells him she can't just drop in on her like that. It's too confusing, she can't count on him. Roger says, "but I’m his father.” "No, his father is Greg," says Joan, for whom the best intentions are not enough, nor should they be. Elsewhere in the office Bob Benson, whom Joan has told of Pete's dilemma, offers Pete the name of a nurse who helped his own father. And in the final scene of the episode, Peggy tells Ted that Abe was stabbed, though she doesn't say how. "He's going to be fine, but it's over, we're done," she says. Now, perhaps, their long-awaited love affair can take place. Now, maybe she can choose who she wants, and be chosen. But Ted (again, I don't think this is the last of this) is all business. "I'm sorry to hear that," he says, reassuring her that she'll find someone else, who will be very lucky indeed. "You ready to get to work?”
Peggy looks stricken, and Monday morning begins.