I don’t know that I can write this recap without gushing over how excellent Elisabeth Moss and January Jones are as an actors. Mad Men has often put their characters at odds, though rarely in the same scene, not just as Don’s wife and Don’s protege, but also as icons of what a woman could do with what she had in the 60’s. To cheapen the distinction: Peggy has brains, and Betty has legs. (One’s a Marilyn, the other’s a….) Betty’s considerable talent for being coquettish at one moment and forceful at the next is what made her successful as a model and even more successful with men. She can play many enticing characters. Peggy’s ineptitude at being anything but herself is often redeemed by her powers of observation. She can see what would entice, but she can’t replicate it. Remember that excruciating scene where she imitated Ann Margret in Bye Bye Birdie? There’s something so naked yet internal about that dance she does in the mirror. Vulnerable, but still hiding some of the cards.
Before I get to Peggy, though, let’s look at Megan and Betty. “The Better Half” was a Peggy episode, but it was also about Don and Ted, Megan and Betty, really all the twin-sets you could name. In the play-within-a-play portion of the episode, Megan is having trouble playing twins on the set of her soap. One is that French maid we saw several episodes ago, and the other is a cosmopolitan blonde with a comical French accent. Her director tells her to ignore an impulse to clean up the drink she’s instructed to spill, as the blonde twin wouldn’t do that. “I need you to make these women different, honey,” he says. Megan, we see, is awful at receiving criticism. (Has this always been true?) She all but shivers at the sound of the director’s voice. Her swinging co-star Arlene advises her not to worry about it. But it’s clear that she can’t play two roles at the same time. She can’t embody someone else’s expectations.
Betty, meanwhile, has always been excellent at this. In this episode, we first see her at some event with Henry, waiting for him while he uses the bathroom, and some weasel in a white tux tries to pick her up. (Side note: Henry did the same with Betty three seasons ago.) Good lord, I love when they give Betty something to do. Betty plays so many sexual roles in this episode. With the white tux loser, she flirts aggressively without letting him get what he wants. “Look at me,” she says, “Do I look like I’ve had three kids?” (Not anymore!) With Henry later, in the car, she acts like the young lady who needs to be punished for flirting. With Don later, in the motel on the way to Bobby’s camp, she is alluring and in control without diminishing Don too much. It’s great to watch. Betty’s ability to read signs has always been just as good as Peggy’s, I’d say. An open door, a held chin. Taking off your earrings, turning off the lights. Betty knows the steps to the dance.
Peggy does not know the steps to the dance. Don and Ted are at odds on the direction of the margarine campaign. Ted thinks that price should be mentioned, and Don thinks that taste alone will sell the product. Ignoring Pete’s vote for Don’s perspective, they bring in Peggy to choose between the ideas. She’s too “diplomatic” to come down on one side, but she makes it clear throughout the episode, in her conversations with Don and in her reactions to Ted, that she would rather go with the latter, because she still sees a difference. When Don comes into Peggy’s office to talk to her about work, as colleagues, they fight about this very thing. She is cold; he makes a very thinly veiled comment about their earlier tiff; and she gets to unload her theory about what makes Don terrible and what makes Ted wonderful:
“What you’re really saying is there’s you, and there’s him…You’re both demanding, and you’re both pig-headed. You’re the same person sometimes. The difference is that he’s interested in the idea. And you’re interested in your idea.”
“He’s interested in his idea,” Don replies. “Don’t let him fool you.”
“Well, he never makes me feel this way.”
“He doesn’t know you.”
This is the way exes speak, no? Layers upon layers of subtext, banal dialogue, and then an explosion of real talk? Don’s insinuation that knowing Peggy requires treating her like shit is just awful. What a horrifying thing to say to a person, even when you’re feeling hurt. When it comes to Don Draper and Peggy Olson, the key exchange for me has always been when Peggy asks Don to say thank you for her work. He replies, “That’s what the money is for.” Their symbolism is not in line, and it never has been, not since she put her hand on his hand in the pilot episode and he rejected her. Peggy insists that work is about more than money; Don has discovered that it isn’t and it never will be. Later, when Ted says that he is in love with Peggy, she must be thinking back on Don’s ideas—of boundaries, of that crucial relationship between protege and mentor, of her and him.
Okay, so back up, yet again. Peggy and Abe are fighting about fear, about cowardice, but what are they really fighting about? They’re fighting about their competing ideas. Her idea and his idea, and which one is the idea. Abe is writing an article about how racist everyone is after immigration laws have changed (presumably; the script isn’t specific about New York law as much as it loves pointing at “Prague” and “Paris”). His work is important to him, and he’ll never see how important Peggy’s work is to her. But he’ll ask her to type up his notes because his arm is out of commission. Elisabeth Moss, yet again, is wonderful here. The way she angrily closes the sliding doors to their bedroom after Abe asks her to get his Olympia! I love her unconditionally. Anyway, Abe and Peggy broke up for the reason they should have broken up a long time ago. Abe wants change, and Peggy wants things to stay the same as they always were. (Only one of those things is true, I think. Who knows what Peggy actually, truly wants.)
Ugh. What else happened in this episode. Harry gives Pete the idea of defecting because, to the outside world, the offices of Sterling Cooper, etc., look like a Murderers’ Row of talent. Pete goes to Duck, who is a headhunter now (!), and asks for advice. Duck says that Pete should learn to manage his family so that he can manage his career better. Pete talks to Joan about his mom problems, and Joan blabs to Bob (who is reading as gay, but might not be?), and Bob refers Pete to a competent nurse, further blurring the lines between brown-nosing and being straight-up helpful. Roger messed up his grandson time by taking Margaret’s four-year-old to see Planet of the Apes (“Don’s kid loved it!”), and Megan got hit on by Arlene, her swinging co-star. “I’m fine with being a tease,” Megan pouts. Ha! Betty is the better tease. Always has been, always will be.