That is the word that best describes “The Better Half.”
That is not a bad thing. This season has been frustrating. It started out suggested some real, painful growth was in the offing for several of the primary characters. But as it has worn on, it has gotten hung up on Don Draper’s latest love affair, appearing to forget that the audience has seen and understood this aspect of him, and that spending yet another season on his sexual and personal peccadillos was not going to be interesting for anyone.
In Don’s wake, several promising plot lines involving underused characters have treaded water, doing their level best to avoid sinking. Finally, they seem to be making progress towards the shore.
Peggy has had a lot happen to her recently, but very little time to figure any of it out. This episode was hers, a time for her to make sense of who she was and where she really stood in the world. The fact that what she discovers is not something she likes only makes her character richer. She and Abe learn the intractability of their inherently different worldviews, and go their separate ways. She learns that Ted really, really likes her when she is unattainable, and that the charming, bright-eyed Mr. Chaough is not all that much different than Don Draper after all. While Peggy ends the episode on a down note, you feel like she will inevitably bounce back.
Roger Sterling finally continues the reality check he started in the first episode, but which fell by the wayside as the season progressed. He is running out of candy to eat, and the sugar crash might be close.
But two events this episode pop out.
Don and Betty sleeping together again is not as big a deal as many might assume. At first, it seemed as if the writers were substituting one derivative storyline—Don’s relationship with Sylvia—for an even more derivative story line—Don getting back with Betty. But what this event really signifies is Don’s realization that the security, intimacy, and support that he seeks so desperately comes from more than just sex. The scene from the next morning, where Don says good morning to Henry and Betty, then sits by himself and watches as they share a laugh over coffee, is arguably the key scene for Don this week. He may have finally realized that he has been going about his quixotic quest for comfort in entirely the wrong way, and it may be too late for him to learn the proper skills to get him to his destination. Now this is actual growth.
Bob Benson steps up again. It’s hard to trust Benson—he just seems too wonderful to be true. Not only is he apparently dating Joan, but he stumbles upon the knowledge that Roger is the father of her child. When he first appeared, he was set up as an ambitious sycophant, and everyone was expecting his scene with Pete Campbell to be when that nature finally surfaced. But then he turns around and…tries to help Pete out, without mentioning anything about Joan, Roger, or their child. He just may be the best man in the room…either that, or Mad Men fans are in for an even ruder surprise than they may have expected.
“The Better Half” abandons the gimmicks of recent weeks and gets down to the hard work of moving these characters forward. What took so long?