"Mad Men" recap: Don and Betty, the dance continues

"Two conventional beauty queens who never understood all the fuss about ideals and moral high ground"

Published May 27, 2013 1:18PM (EDT)


Well, who saw that coming? One minute Don is weeping into his hands over Sylvia Rosen, the next minute he's following his ex-wife Betty into her hotel room for a little nostalgic sheet-twisting. All Betty had to do was drop the extra weight and go back to blonde, and Don was all over her like cold bologna on white bread. And he wasn't the only one: Stu, Henry, Mike the gas station attendant: They're all in awe of Betty in this episode, aptly titled "The Better Half." (And you just know January Jones breathed a giant sigh of relief when she finally got a script that didn't require the fat suit.)

It's funny how Don and Betty's interaction goes from faintly intriguing to faintly repellent in a matter of seconds. "You'll get eaten alive out here," Don tells her, sounding extra sleazy. "You know mosquitoes ignore me," Betty answers, possibly referring to his tendency to ignore her. "In those shorts?" he asks, and then it's on. Don's pouring Betty booze, reminding us that these two go together like a pair of lying, cheating, remorseless drunks, a moment of mirroring that's echoed throughout the episode. When Don talks about teenagers in revolt, it's clearer than ever that Don and Betty are united in their old-school ways, two conventional mainstream beauty queens who never understood all the fuss about ideals and moral high ground.

Funny how Don's affairs have taken on a different quality since he married Megan. When he was cheating on Betty, his affairs always represented a search for a woman who could actually see him for who he was, who could serve as his intellectual equal, unlike Betty. The department store heir and the schoolteacher and the psychologist all had curiosity and smarts and soul. They promised to challenge Don, rather than withdrawing and lying to keep the peace the way Betty did.

Instead, Don chose Megan, someone he thought might passively accept him and be happy in her role as his accessory. (Or as Arlene's character tells Megan's blond twin character, "We're a lot alike. We're both interested in things that belong to me.") But Megan turned out to have dreams of her own, much to Don's chagrin.

Thanks to this, Don's affairs have started to look more like a move back to Betty: Sylvia was good at playing the lonely housewife, but really, she was incapable of becoming emotionally attached to Don. (She admitted as much herself.) And now a thinner, temporarily less remote Betty appears and Don is entranced. Will she get eaten alive? Does she feel guilty?

No such luck. In keeping with how things have been going for Don all season, Betty has the upper hand from start to finish. She may have felt faintly nostalgic over Don and competitive with Megan since their divorce, but she doesn't seem the least bit conflicted now. When Don asks if she feels guilty, Betty replies, "This happened a long time ago ... I'm happy in my life." (Arlene echoes this return to the past when, after making several passes at Megan and having Megan resist them, tells her, "Status quo ante bellum," meaning, everything will return to the way it was before the war.)

In addition to Don and Betty mirroring each other and Megan mirroring herself by playing her own twin on the soap opera, Stu, the older man who hits on Betty at the start of the episode, sounds just like Henry did when he first hit on Betty years earlier. Ted and Don mirror each other in their petty squabbling over margarine – a substance that's as cheap and fake as they are in their ego-driven oneupmanship. Although Peggy imagines that Ted and Don are utterly different, Don argues that they're the same. "He never makes me feel this way," Peggy tells Don, and he replies, rather nastily, "He doesn't know you."

This truly is the season of rooting against Don, even when he's right. Who ever thought that Don would not only go crawling back to Betty, but would also be reduced to a Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum routine with Ted Chaough? It's ironic that so many are proclaiming this season "same old, same old," when Don couldn't be straying further from his original ways. Instead of playing the dashing hero who gets his way at work and at home and among strangers through manipulation and raw charm, Don is reduced to gawking at his ex with the gas station boy (who's almost like a stand-in for a young, unsophisticated Dick Whitman; doesn't Don say something about how, when he first saw Betty, she looked as beautiful as she did the day he met her?). Don is a petty ego-driven loser at work and a sullen Archie Bunker at home who just wants to watch TV and tune out instead of hearing more about his wife's career.

Of course, Megan is mirroring Don's troubles at work when she says, of the soap opera set, "I think they hate me." She might as well be referring to herself and Don when she talks about how her twin characters are "two halves of the same person and they want the same thing but they're trying to get it in different ways." Megan wants love from Don, and she tries to get it by playing the sweet meal-cooking housewife. Don wants love, too, but he's only interested in someone who hardly wants him, like Betty or Sylvia. When Megan starts talking about her career, Don loses his appetite – for food, and for her.

Mirrored but disconnected: This seems to be the theme of "The Better Half." By the time we get to poor, idealistic Abe and poor, frazzled Peggy, the writing is already on the wall. Peggy hears shouting and accidentally stabs Abe in the stomach then winds up getting dumped – and insulted! – in an ambulance on their way to the hospital. "You're a scared person who hides behind complacency," Abe tells her, summing up Peggy, Don and Ted in one fell swoop. "Your activities are offensive to my every waking moment. But you'll always be in me."

Whew, talk about a heavy way to get kicked to the curb. Abe sounds like he's talking about his father, his country and his ex-girlfriend all in one breath, doesn't he? Still, there's something a little bit irritating about casting Abe in this martyr role, while Ted plays the chipper fake at the end of the episode. Isn't this choice a little cartoonish – between the soulless company man (Ted) who places his desire for success far, far above his desire for love and the soulful revolutionary (Abe) who is comfortable with getting stabbed by criminals and by Peggy if it means standing up for the underclasses? What an old tune, indeed. The contrast here feels slightly reductive, considering what we've seen of Ted up until now. In fact, Ted might just be the least consistent character ever to grace this show. Is he a reasonably good guy, or a jerk? Every other episode serves up a different story about him.

But Don's path is pretty consistent: He's sinking lower and lower, so much so that he can't keep lying about it. "I keep trying to make things the way they used to be but I don't know how," Megan tells him when he returns from his trip to see Bobby. "You're right. I haven't been here," Don admits, finally. Does this mean he'll try to save his marriage, at long last? Can Don overcome the fact that Megan's activities are offensive to his every waking moment?

Tomorrow's another day.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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