"If your home life is crap, your racing life is crap." - Richard Petty
Don's home life is invariably crap, but his combination of incredible eloquence  and casual infidelity has sustained him for years on end. While his paramours rarely get the chance to engage in after action reporting on his behavior, the one person who can, his ex-wife Betty, is given the opportunity to do so in this week's episode, The Better Half, an hour that considered intimate relations - between Don and Betty, Abe and Peggy, Pete and well, the world, and the odd ménage of Roger, Bob and Joan.
Betty, resembling her former self, is back to being a woman who men desire, and a chance encounter as she and Don separately travel to Bobby's sleep away camp results in a boozy night of flirtation and frolic with her ex-husband. Of course, the last time Betty and Don had "desperation sex" they created little Gene  but their one off is more interesting for the pillow talk they engage in afterwards than their coitus. Don admits his ambivalence about the act of sex while desiring an emotional connection. His meditation is an interesting window into his psyche - he asks why intimacy and closeness have to be equated with sex, lamenting that the closeness he experiences just holding Betty in his arms is what is meaningful, while "the rest of it" (i.e., the act of sex) is not that important to him.
But Betty is too aware of Don's wandering eye to let him off the hook for being unable (or unwilling) to connect with women intimately - she pinpoints his shortcomings in ways only a spouse can do - that his gaze, penetrating and consuming, ebbs quickly (another way of observing that he only likes "the beginnings of things" ) and that his distance from Megan stems from her committing the offense of attempting to love him. That Betty is able to diagnose Don's dysfunction so crisply is a testament to the fact that although Don bends over backwards to lead dual (and sometimes multiple) lives, all of that misdirection does not fool the people who are purportedly closest to him. The following morning, Betty, satisfied simply with being the target of Don's passion for just one night, happily banters with Henry like the prior evening never happened.
And while Don is getting into hanky panky with Betty, Megan is pouring her heart out to Arlene, her co-star on To Have and To Hold about the emptiness of her marriage. Megan's lonely, having gone from shiny object of Don's affection to just another ship passing him in the night. Like Betty, Megan is attuned to Don's alienation and distance, but is at sixes and sevens as to how to solve that particular problem. Arlene misinterprets Megan's vulnerability as an opportunity to make a move on her, but Megan refuses. Megan, having taken Don's assistance in getting her career started, wants what we now call "work/life" balance in her marriage. When Don returns from his time at Bobby's camp, and having seen Betty and Henry chatting amiably in the camp cafeteria, he admits that he has been absent from their marriage, promising that he will attempt to reconnect with her.
Meanwhile, Duck Phillips has reappeared, not as a competitor, but as a head hunter providing sage advice to one-time protege Pete Campbell.  Duck, now sober, counsels Pete to spend less time in his gloomy pied à tierre and more time at home; that confidence does not stem from alcohol but from the love of his family. But Pete is non-plussed, calling his family an irritation, not a source of confidence. Here, Duck demurs, advising Pete that failing to manage those relations will stop him from managing anything else.  But Pete is across the rubicon with Trudy, having "pushed the button" about his father-in-law's whoring, resulting in a final "we're through" declaration from Trudy.  And his mother, never a source of support, is now in a dementia haze, just another problem that belies a solution for Pete, who can never seem to figure things out. Perhaps, in an effort to start over, Pete makes a ham-handed pass at Joan, but, as we will learn later, Joan is otherwise engaged.
Duck's advice contains a hint of irony. After all, he was once Peggy Olson's lover  but now Peggy is in over her head as the owner of a brownstone in a not-yet-gentrified part of New York City. After Abe is attacked near their home and rocks are thrown through their bedroom window, she is on guard for burglars and wielding a makeshift spear, which she buries in Abe's gut by accident when she mistakes him for a robber. Not since Lois ran over Guy Mackendrick's foot with a ride-on lawn mower  has such an unintentionally hilarious scene unfold, as Abe, a knife buried in his chest, castigates Peggy over her job in advertising and breaks up with her - IN AN AMBULANCE. But when Peggy tells secret crush Ted that she is now a single lady, he coldly rebuffs her.
Finally, the familial heart strings tug at Roger - who feels so comfortable being Pop Pop to his grandson Ellery, but fails miserably when the lad is haunted by nightmares after Roger takes him to see Planet of the Apes. And while his daughter Margaret bemoans "a four year old taking care of a four year old," Roger re-directs his attention to his son Kevin, but discovers, upon popping in on Joan unannounced, that she is now dating Bob Benson.  Roger's lame attempt at trying to shoe horn his way into Joan's (and Kevin's) life falls flat, and Joan dismisses him as unreliable and an unwise person for Kevin to think of as his father.
That sour note notwithstanding, The Better Half was an oddly optimistic hour of television. Family, marriage and children are almost always used as devices on the show to express limitation, claustrophobia and unhappiness, but here, they were utilized to suggest stability, comfort and support. In this way, Weiner tipped his hand at the little "c" conservative undercurrent of Mad Men, that even as times change, lapels widen and drugs become more ubiquitous, love, faith and affection are still the bedrock emotional needs we seek, even if do not always get them.
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1. Man With A Plan, Season 6, Episode 7.
2. The Inheritance, Season 2, Episode 10.
3. Noted by Dr. Faye Miller. Tomorrowland, Season 4, Episode 13.
4. When Duck was putting together the deal that would result in PPL buying Sterling Cooper, he was going to make Pete Head of Accounts. The Mountain King, Season 2, Episode 12.
5. And Duck should know. His ex-wife re-married and dumped the family dog on him. Duck couldn't stomach being poor Chauncey's master and abandons him outside the Sterling Cooper building. Maidenform, Season 2, Episode 8. From there, things went south quickly - Duck fell off the wagon, got muscled out of the PPL/SC merger (Meditations In An Emergency, Season 2, Episode 13), was dragged out of the CLIO awards drunk (Waldorf Stories, Season 4, Episode 6) and was caught trying to defecate in Roger's office before getting into a fight with Don (The Suitcase, Season 4, Episode 7).
6. For Immediate Release, Season 6, Episode 6.
7. Seven Twenty-Three, Season 3, Episode 7.
8. Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency, Season 3, Episode 6.
9. Roger's "who are you" to Bob was laugh out loud funny. He's only your employee, Roger. No big deal!