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‘Mad Men’ Looks at Desire and Commitment By Way of a Stab Wound and an Unexpected Tryst

'Mad Men' Looks at Desire and Commitment By Way of a Stab Wound and an Unexpected Tryst

The article below contains spoilers for “The Better Half,” the May 26th, 2013 episode of “Mad Men.”

That was one hell of a breakup. “The Better Half” was an episode with all sorts of enjoyably sharp edges to it, one notable for an utterly unexpected dalliance between Don (Jon Hamm) and Betty (January Jones), a venture from Roger (John Slattery) toward his own ex and the woman who bore his child Joan (Christina Hendricks) and a reappearance from Duck Phillips (Mark Moses) in a new gig as a headhunter. But these developments, interesting as they are, pale beside the dramatic end of Abe (Charlie Hofheimer) and Peggy’s (Elisabeth Moss) relationship. There’s apparently nothing like accidentally stabbing your boyfriend in the gut to get him to tell you what he really thinks, and in an instance of the black humor that “Mad Men” can do very well — the episode was written by Erin Levy and Matthew Weiner — Peggy did just that after waking up and arming herself with a DIY spear to check out the latest turmoil in the couple’s new neighborhood.

Abe may have been willing to keep silent earlier in the episode to protect the kids who mugged him, but his pain-addled monologue to Peggy in the ambulance holds nothing back — “Your activities are offensive to my every waking moment,” he muttered after spitefully assuring her his words had nothing to do with the knife in his gut, adding “you’ll always be the enemy.” It was a brutal, bizarre and very funny end to an increasingly mismatched pairing, witnessed by an ambivalent paramedic who capped off the moment with a unreassuring shrug when Peggy asked him if Abe would be okay.

Abe’s willingness to martyr himself (in the pursuit of what will, despite his good intentions, end up being gentrification) was just the latest and, it turned out, final manifestation of the distance between him and Peggy. Abe is a genuine believer in countercultural ideals, while Peggy has tended to only sometimes espouse them, and her interest has always been in getting ahead in the system, not upending it. Abe may have sustained a stomach wound, but verbally, he landed some solid blows in return, including his (journalist’s special) threat to turn Peggy’s act into the symbolism-friendly end to the thinkpiece he’s writing. (The horror!)

As dramatic and judgmental as Abe was acting in that scene, he wasn’t wrong about Peggy’s fear — she’s climbed the ladder this far, but still tends to allow her life to be guided by others, reacts rather than taking action. This has been true even in her relationship with Abe, who unknowingly hurt her proposing they move in together without marriage and similarly gave her hope when talking about the kind of neighborhood in which he imagined their children growing up, both moments suggesting how uncomfortable Peggy was with initiating conversations about their future together.

The opening sequence demonstrated her dithering rather broadly, as she refused to choose between Don’s margarine idea and Ted’s (Kevin Rahm), saying instead “they both sound good” — an opinion that had nothing to do with what was on her mind and everything to do with her refusal to get involved in the continuing power play between her former mentor and her new one. Similarly, despite her fantasies about Ted, he’s the one who confesses to having fallen for her while clearing any chance of a relationship happening off the table not once but twice, the second time booting her out of his office with a chipper reminder that it’s Monday morning — “a brand new week!”

Peggy ended the episode doubly rejected, by the man she was getting tired of and the one she’d idealized, but she wasn’t alone. As Duck advised to Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), it’s never good to be “filling the room with desperation,” and we were given different romantic pairing in which one party held clear emotional higher ground over the needier other.

One of those couples was Don and Peggy, both having driven out to see Bobby (Mason Vale Cotton) at camp. Having been through divorce, a health scare and weight gain, Betty managed a return to her coolly confident, impeccable self in this episode, a woman who takes pleasure and finds security in being coveted. (Fittingly, at home in New York Megan (Jessica Paré) dabbled in a similar but more prim exercise in self-affirmation by inviting her swinger coworker Arlene (Joanna Going) over for intimate drinks in order to be kissed by and then to reject her.)

Betty allowed Don into her bed — presenting him with the open door he’s been in search of — as a flexing of her regained strength and as an affirmation that he has no more hold on her, and her postcoital words to him were quieter and less aggressive than Abe’s to Peggy, but even more cutting. “That poor girl. She doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you,” Betty said to Don of Megan, because she knows him and has the benefit of a new life from which to look back at him. And she’s right — it wasn’t just her looking like she did when they met that pulled in Don, it was the fact that she no longer longer to keep his attention, no longer saw sex with him as a sign of genuine intimacy, and put no stock in his talk of missing her.

There’s power in not needing anything, in being the one who’s asked, a theme also underlying the encounter between Roger and Joan about the baby they had together while pretending they didn’t. Roger has gleefully and for the most part unrepentantly imploded all his romantic relationships, not suited to being a man relied upon by spouses or family members, but every once in a while he gets maudlin or lonely and tries to charm his way back into their lives.

It’s a fight over Roger’s taking his four-year-old grandchild to see “Planet of the Apes” (inspired by Don, whose son Bobby is, to be fair, over twice that age) that directly sends him to seek out a substitute for his spate of paternal impulses, showing up on Joan’s doorstep with a present for Kevin. But Joan, like Betty, knew better, knew that the moment of softness couldn’t be counted on to translate into something lasting, and that an absent but “heroic” Greg was a better father figure for her son than a biological dad who would show up when he felt in need of temporarily indulging parental instincts. Joan seems to have given her trust to Bob (James Wolk) instead, giving him another indirect bump at work by allowing him to do Pete a favor in suggesting a nurse for his senile mother.

Bob remains difficult to parse, despite (or because of) his unyielding upbeat and considerate act. Here’s hoping it turns out to be sincere, since this episode presented an otherwise largely unflattering look at the intentions and dispositions of its male characters as unreliable, fickle and inconsistent, bewildering the women in their lives with mixed messages and empty promises, or teaching them that they don’t count in the long run. It’s amusing that Ted, in his cheery consolation to a bedraggled Peggy that “you’ll find someone else, and whoever he is, he’s lucky to have you,” may be the first faithful guy in the office after the show’s seasons of infidelities — part of what Peggy loves about him is how unlike Don he seems to be, the unfortunate payoff being that because of that and his preexisting commitment he wasn’t about to whisk her away or offer her the kind of comfort she was hoping for after being kicked to the curb by her bleeding boyfriend.

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