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'Mad Men' recap: 'Always something there to remind me'

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As its title, “The Better Half,” would suggest, Sunday’s episode of “Mad Men” is an exploration of the complicated romantic and familial relationships in the lives of our characters, but personally, I will always remember it as The One Where Betty Seduced Don At Bobby's Summer Camp.  

So let’s all take a moment and put our hands together, slowly, for Betty Francis, because girlfriend has not taken charge like that in a long, long time. The only way it could have been more satisfying is if she’d gone out back and shot some pigeons afterward (though taunting Don with “Are you sure you don’t wanna just hold me?” is pretty excellent, too).

Since the Drapers’ divorce, Betty’s ongoing presence has been a polarizing issue for “Mad Men” fans. I’ve always maintained that Betty is an integral part of Don Draper’s story, even if the show has treated her like an afterthought for most of the past three seasons. I am confident that “The Better Half” will finally put that debate to bed. The answer is yes, this show needs Betty, and not simply because, having endured a decade of Don’s lies, she probably understands his limitations better than Megan or anyone else ever could. 

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There’s also her continued ability to surprise: This season has had plenty of creative problems, but Betty has been one of its consistent bright spots. In her handful of appearances, she’s managed to be not just interesting but downright enthralling, with her weird rape jokes, her impromptu East Village goulash parties and, of course, her sexy summer shorts. It’s a thrill to have the “old Betty” back, but an even greater thrill that “Mad Men” has finally figured out what to do with her. 

When we first lay eyes on Betty this week, it’s a shock. Once again thin, she’s gussied up in a bright yellow, caped dress and enormous hair that make her look like a groovy intergalactic princess. It’s the most attention-getting ensemble we’ve seen Betty wear since her trip to Rome with Don, and it seems to be working: She’s caught the eye of an especially aggressive fellow named Stewart Dell, which gets Henry jealous, then excited.

Clearly, Betty has got her groove back.

So yes, Betty’s sense of self-worth is still dependent on her ability to attract men – that’s unlikely to change --  but there are signs in “The Better Half” that she has evolved in ways that run a little deeper than her precipitous weight loss. It’s almost as if, having emerged svelte and stylish from her Bugles-and-muumuu phase, Betty has a renewed appreciation for her looks -- or, rather, the power they give her over the opposite sex.

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At the same time, though, she’s more acutely aware of the limitations of her physical beauty. She knows that no amount of crash dieting will magically transform Don into a good partner or, for that matter, that no amount of whipped-cream snarfing will transform Henry into a bad one.

Which is exactly why she leaves Don in bed the next morning to meet Henry for breakfast, without a trace of guilt. In other words, she pulls a Don Draper on Don Draper. Sometimes I wonder whether Don’s greatest power isn’t his ability to shape other people – Pete, Peggy and now Betty -- in his own image. To be fair, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen Betty give Don a taste of his own medicine (let’s not forget how Gene was conceived in Season 2’s “The Inheritance”) but five years later, she has a greater understanding of herself and Don.

In contrast, Don is as lost as ever, with no idea what he wants in a relationship. Having moved on with Megan and strayed with Sylvia, he’s now looking backward, wondering what it would have been like if he and Betty had stayed together. Having learned her lesson, she tells Don she doesn’t think about that “anymore.” She knows that sex is only a temporary cure for what ails Don, and that getting close to him is a guaranteed way to drive him off.    

“That poor girl,” she says of Megan. “She doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you.”

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For Betty, the night with Don is nothing more than a fun way to prove that she’s still got it, to get in touch with a part of herself she thought she’d lost to three kids, two marriages and 50 or so extra pounds. But for Don, despite his crude claim that “just because you can climb a mountain doesn’t mean you love it,” it’s something else entirely: a fumbling, subconscious attempt to bring his family back together disguised as a lusty romp. It’s clear that some part of him desperately wants to be reunited with Betty and, especially, his kids. Would he be willing to look like a fool singing “Father Abraham” in public if that weren’t the case? The problem is that he’s about 6 years too late. In an ironic twist, the very thing that drove his family apart – adultery -- is the one thing able to bring it back together, albeit temporarily.

While Don and Betty’s fleeting reunion is easily the most noteworthy development in “The Better Half,” the episode finds nearly everyone at a similar personal crossroads. “I guess we’re all a bit out of context right now,” Roger says to Joan when he pops by with a present for Kevin, only to discover that Bob Benson and his fishy swim trunks have taken up with his favorite redhead. Roger is, of course, speaking to his own sense of disorientation, but he’s also articulating a key theme of the episode, in which nearly everyone is struggling to retain a sense of self while dealing with unexpected realignments on the home front.

Roger, forbidden from seeing his son and grandson, is a father only in the strictest sense of the word. Pete is worried that his various domestic troubles have affected his standing at work, and turns to Joan for advice. “I can’t solve those problems, Pete. I have those problems,” she tells him, a witty reminder that the challenges that drive him to the brink of a nervous breakdown are for her, a working single mom, par for the course.

And of course, there’s Peggy, whose doomed relationship with Abe finally and hilariously comes to an end, thanks to a mishap with a makeshift spear and, oh yeah, their complete and utter incompatibility. “Your activities are offensive to my every waking moment. I’m sorry but you’ll always be the enemy,” Abe tells her in the ambulance, in what may be the harshest breakup  of all time. (And here I pegged him for a wuss.)

Peggy is shocked, but mostly thrilled to be free of the dead weight. The next morning, exhausted, ecstatic and sporting a bad case of bed head, Peggy rushes into Ted’s office to tell him the news. She clearly expects him to take action, given he’d confessed to being in love just days earlier. Instead, he utters some platitudes about how she’ll find a great guy, then abruptly changes the topic.

 “You ready to get to work? It’s Monday morning, Peggy!” he says with the kind of insistent cheerfulness that’s a sure sign of profound emotional repression.

As the episode comes to a close, she stands there looking bewildered as Ted and Don both close their office doors. The meaning is hard to miss: She thought she’d escaped Don, but instead he’s multiplied like a drug-resistant bacteria. I never thought I’d say this, but it may be time for Peggy to give ol’ Duck Phillips a call.

Stray thoughts:

--Not a coincidence: Megan first appears in this episode wearing a blond wig for a role as someone’s mistress.

--I'm not sad to see Abe go, but having Peggy literally stab Abe in the stomach is yet another instance of "Mad Men" hippie-punching. (See also: Paul Kinsey)

--Someone else this show has finally figured out is little Bobby Draper, a.k.a. Bobby 5, who’s shaping up to be just as much of a lovable weirdo as his big sis.

--I know “Mad Men” isn’t “real,” but one day I’d just love to slip into Joan’s office and confide my deepest personal problems with her over a conspiratorial cigarette. (And I don’t even smoke.)

--The budding Pete-Joan alliance (she tells Bob he’s the only person in the office who hasn’t broken a promise to her) is intriguing and worrisome.

--Even more troubling is Bob Benson. Do we trust him? We all thought he was going to tell Pete about Roger and Joan, didn’t we?

--Megan is shocked that Arlene walked across the park because of the shooting that just took place, which places this episode in July 1968.

--Did that scene with Stew remind anyone else of Betty’s first encounter with Henry?

--Where will Peggy move next? The possibilities are endless!

--Roger's response to Bob Benson's greeting at the door: "Who are you?"

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