05/27/2013 02:51 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2013

Mad Men : Change Partners

"I love the way you look at me when you're like this. But then I watch it decay. I can only hold your attention so long."

"Why is sex the definition of being close to someone?"

"Your activities are offensive to my every waking moment. I'm sorry. But you'll always be the enemy."

It's pretty much impossible to discuss this episode of Mad Men without making it sound like a soap opera. The Better Half is about life on the flip side, of relationships, of work, of self, be it a new side or a renewed side.

What happens on the advertising front isn't about advertising, with the exception of, er, margarine. It's about a sense of uncertainty about the precipitously merged new agency, which is still unnamed, and about personal relationships.

Beware of spoilers, as always, and here's an archive of my pieces on the show, in The Mad Men File.

The suddenly merged SCDPCGC got big enough to win a big share of Chevy's business, but the growing pains don't inspire confidence. They also, unfortunately, don't inspire a glimpse at actual work to try to sell Chevrolet cars.

The only intrusion of history in this episode set in the history-laden year of 1968 is journalist Abe's increasing radicalization and a rising fear of crime. Which leads to a sudden and very sharp intrusion of another sort.

What's left is personal drama.

But the really good news is there are no heavy-handed flashbacks. Or even flashbacks with a light touch. There's also no deeply impending but never actually arriving doom of Don Draper. So that's good.

There are four episodes left in the season, 17 left in the series. Yes, the novel for television that is Mad Men is now just over 80 percent complete.

The Better Half efficiently moves the ball down the field on a few key elements of storyline. Peggy's relationship with increasingly radical journalist Abe -- who has moved on from Gene McCarthy's anti-war presidential campaign to imagining a coming war in the streets against Police State America -- is resolved and her life left unresolved. Betty is firmly re-launched as a major character playing a positive rather than relentlessly negative role that the show placed her in in recent seasons. (We even see Betty and Don and little Bobby happily singing a summer camp song as the indestructibly nuclear family that was not to be.) Betty's actually quite insightful now. See her quote at the top of this page. Meanwhile, Don is moved back from the all too frequently present abyss of supposedly impending destruction.

One good thing is that people in this episode actually have some fun having sex. Something which was not exactly unknown in the 1960s, but frequently does not occur in Mad Men.

And Don reveals that he does not equate sex with intimacy per se. Which is not an especially surprising revelation given his tomcat ways.

But while he has a unique intimacy with Betty, based upon their history, she is quite content to carry on her marriage with Henry Francis, a good guy with whom she is increasingly happy, again. (Henry, unlike Don, who exhibited a monstrous jealousy, is turned on by men hitting on his once again ultra-glam wife.)

Will Don work on his marriage with Megan, who fends off sexual advances from her co-star Arlene, wife of her TV show's head writer? He indicates that he will. And why not? She's terrific, and she's there.

Will there be repercussions from Megan again putting off her very kissy co-worker, as she and Don did early in the season when swinging reared its then increasingly fashionable head?

My hope is that creator Matthew Weiner has been using the more recent episodes as a way to clear away the show's cobwebs and position it for a strong stretch run to the finish.

The episode also sets up an intriguing relationship between Joan Holloway and the mysteriously ever-helpful account exec Bob Benson, building upon the chance encounter that led to him helping save the day during her sudden health crisis. That she is more interested in Bob, whom she barely knows, than a rekindled relationship with Roger, the actual father of her child, says more about the mercurial ways of the silver fox, whose own daughter judges him an unfit grandfather (after he takes a four-year-old to see Planet of the Apes, this season's go-to movie metaphor for the time!) than anything else.

But in terms of action, putting aside some very smoky moments between Betty and Don, the highlight had to be a nervous Peggy nearly gutting boyfriend Abe with her makeshift bayonet. He, as you know, insisted that they should be pioneers in living in a socioeconomically mixed neighborhood only to have to shut out some of the unfortunate realities, including getting stabbed while being mugged in the subway.

But he's finally agreed that she is right, that they probably can't be pioneers and must move. Only to nearly get killed by a badly rattled Peggy in what turns out to be the final incident of their relationship, as he memorably breaks up with her in the ambulance.

Abe: Your activities are offensive to my every waking moment. I'm sorry. But you'll always be the enemy.

Peggy: Are you breaking up with me?

Abe: I got to hand it to you. You gave me a great ending to my article.

The article presumably being about his experiment in living among the dispossessed and downtrodden. Though let us not forget that a few seasons ago he included her in a long piece he was doing on the corruption of advertising. I suspect that Peggy has a future as a literary character in Mad Men universe.

Her breakup with Abe, which she announces to her very friendly boss Ted Chaough the following Monday morning, clears the way to what she expects to be a relationship with him beyond their stolen kiss and his later protestation of love for her.

But Ted, who is married and not at all flighty, has decided, at least for now, to carry on in strictly platonic and professional fashion, instead focusing on the agency's just announced winning of the big margarine account that he and Don have been discussing over the last few episodes. After refusing to side with Don, her old mentor, or Ted in the not so great margarine debate as The Better Half began, then belatedly shifting her Abe-free affections to Ted, Peggy is left at the end to contemplate the closed doors of both her mentors and bosses, old and new, as the episode draws to its end.

For Peggy, there is no better half. While she has Ted and Don's professional support, she has only her own resources to fall back upon when it comes to her personal aspirations.

Which is not at all a bad place for a very capable young professional woman in 1968 New York to be.

Next week on Mad Men? A Tale of Two Cities. Catchy episode title. In which, as the description goes, the agency works to keep a client, and Joan is caught off-guard. Somehow, I think some more things will happen. Perhaps on a theme of divergence. Between, er, two cities in a city.

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