We can’t go so far as to call “The Better Half” an optimistic episode of “Mad Men,” but there’s an unusual sense of hopefulness to the little breakthroughs (and one big breakup) that occur throughout.
Don, Roger and even Pete have conversations that force them to confront uncomfortable realities about their relationships, while Peggy weathers a more direct hit to her personal life. As the show enters the home stretch — only four more episodes left this season! — the question becomes whether or not any of these events can get the characters moving in the right direction to improve their lives.
[Note: In the spirit of showrunner Matthew Weiner declaring
that this season is about Dr. Arnold Rosen telling Don, “People will do
anything to alleviate their anxiety,” we’re tracking the happiness of key
characters week by week.]
The “Mad Men” happiness index, week eight:
1) Bob Benson (unranked last week): He still seems far too good to be true, but Bob is happily romancing Joan and referring a nurse to help with Pete’s mother’s dementia, so this background player assumes Roger’s usual spot at the top for a week.
2) Betty (last week, #3):
Suddenly brimming with confidence now that she’s slimmed down, Betty casually seduces Don when they meet up for a parental visit at Bobby’s summer camp. She makes it clear that she’s perfectly content with Henry Francis and no longer has any hope of rekindling a relationship with her ex-husband.
3) Joan (unranked last week):
Things seem to be looking up for Joan, now that she’s found a man like Bob who wants to treat her right. Is he just using her for information to get ahead at work? At the moment, it doesn’t really matter. She’s even content to give Pete some advice and comfort. But she still has to deal with Roger sporadically deciding he wants to be somewhat responsible for their child.
4) Don (last week, #10): Don’s arc this week is arguably even trippier than last week’s drug-fueled weekend. He, Betty and Bobby are ever so briefly the portrait of a happy family at Bobby’s summer camp, singing along in unison to “Father Abraham.” But if Don allowed himself to indulge a fantasy of what might have been, Betty snaps him back to reality with her observation about Megan: “That poor girl, she doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you.”
5) Henry Francis (unranked last week): Poor, poor Henry Francis. Still the “Mad Men” regular we know the least about, he shows signs of jealousy at the renewed male attention Betty is receiving but probably has no idea she slept with her ex.
6) Ted (last week, #9): Still feeling awkward around Peggy since their kiss, Ted gets everything out in the open — he’s thought about something more but insists it’s not possible, even though Peggy confesses she’s thought about it too. Is it possible his wife is sick and guilt is holding him back, or is he professional enough to want to avoid office romance?
7) Pete (unranked last week): Yes, Pete Campbell is still a mess. But after he feels ignored by both Don and Ted in a work meeting, he takes Harry’s advice and meets with a headhunter (Duck Phillips!). Duck gives him more than just a professional assessment, warning Pete that if he doesn’t get his personal life in order he could have nothing left to work for. (“I didn’t understand the wellspring of my confidence,” Duck says. Which is about as good a description of Trudy as we’ve ever heard.)
8) Roger (last week, #1): Finally, Roger’s existential crisis returns as he’s forced to grapple with what a poor father he’s been to two different children — his adult daughter Margaret (Elizabeth Rice) and his secret son with Joan. Margaret forbids unsupervised visits with her son after he takes the four-year-old to “Planet of the Apes.” (“Don took his son!” he says incredulously. “Don Draper, father of the year!” she wisely retorts.) And Joan bans him from their son’s life because she knows she can’t count on him. In Roger’s world this is either time to sleep with another stewardess or time for a return trip to the shrink.
9) Megan (unranked last week): Stressed out about work and unhappy at home, Megan’s optimism is starting to unravel. It doesn’t help that the person she chooses to confide in — co-star Arlene (Joanna Going) — sees it as a sexual invitation. But it’s possible Don is serious about trying to recommit himself to their relationship, if it’s not already too late.
10) Peggy (last week, #7): We wanted to believe Abe (Charlie Hofheimer) was good for Peggy, just like Peggy surely wanted to believe Abe was good for her. But in the end, he was right. They’re not a good match (“You’re in advertising. You’ll always be the enemy,” he tells her in one of the harshest breakups we’ve ever seen on the show), and Peggy didn’t have to stab him to clear that up for us. But she did have to do it for herself. With Abe out of the picture, she can return her focus to her true love: work, where the distraction provided by her conflicting mentors — Don and Ted — hasn’t been great news for her psyche. Finding herself torn between two men instrumental in developing her career, we’d like to see Peggy carve a path for herself away from them both.
Falling off the index: Five major players from last week — Ginsberg, Stan, Cosgrove, Sally and Sylvia — were completely absent this week.