1968, within both broad, linear history and the Mad Men microcosm, is when the post-war consensus, long under strain, finally ruptures. Illusions are shattered. People feel untethered. The characters’ first inclination is to reach out for a more comfortable past. In “The Better Half,” they discover that past no longer resonates.
Don visits Bobby at camp. He reunites, for an evening, with Betty. Mrs. Francis has ditched “Fat Betty” and is back to being blonde, thin and titillating to men. She feels empowerment in her own life (even if its in a demeaning way). Betty and Don relive being parents together. They relive becoming parents together. The whole affair seems dated. Betty is wearing 1950s pinup shorts. Don has slicked hair and a dapper shirt tucked into khakis casual ensemble. It feels five to 10 years before (or the set of Dirty Dancing).
The physical chemistry remains between Don and Betty, but so do the reasons they separated. This time it is Betty who is the insightful one. She is not reconnecting with Don. She is serving a function for him. When she has served it, his feeling, such as it is, “decays.” This time, Betty is the one using him.
Roger tries to connect with his “family.” He wants to be a doting grandfather. He tries to imitate Don by taking a too young kid to see Planet of the Apes and it backfires. He wants to rekindle his relationship with Joan. He fixes himself up in a coat and tie and brings a gift for his biological son (from his own childhood era) Lincoln Logs. He finds the much younger “Bob Bunson” already in his place, in tiny shorts. Despite their history Roger gets Joan’s characteristic shooing from her office, albeit with a longer, more anguished look.
Don and Roger both fall flat for the same reason. As Duck points out to Pete, the family is the “wellspring of confidence.” Don and Roger “can’t manage that, so they can’t manage anything.” Their relationships are margarine, not butter. They are superficial and instrumental. The only true feeling they engender is not being the real thing. They aren’t “mouthwatering, savory and delicious.” You just keep repeating that. If there is a way forward for Don and Roger that is not booze and only death, they won’t find it looking backward.
Everything coalesces with Peggy. At work, she’s torn between her past mentors Don and Ted. Both put her through an emotional wringer, cause her to become disillusioned and end up, literally, shutting the door on her (You ready to get to work!) At home, she’s looking for comfort through her antiquated vision of domesticity. It is not working.
Abe is too much of “a pioneer” for her in one way and nowhere near enough of one in the way she needs him to be (Fetch the typewriter. The man has thoughts that must be recorded for posterity.). The doomed relationship gets put to death with fear and an improvised bayonet. With both narratives dried up, Peggy must forge a new identity for fulfillment. Personally and professionally, it looks like she will be doing so alone.
* The most intriguing matter yet to be resolved seems to be the Bob Benson mystery. He’s too insistently present to be an ancillary character. He’s too unnatural to be taken at face value. The major kindling added this episode, is he lied about his father. He told Ken Cosgrove in an earlier episode his father had died. In this episode, he tells Pete he found a nurse who brought his father back to full health. Generic name. Ambitious. Eager. Inactive in a whorehouse. Is Benson Don Draper 2.0?