On ‘Mad Men,’ the big weigh-in

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The hand-off. (Michael Yarish/AMC)
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Starlee Kine

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Betty weighs her breakfast on a scale and then spends the rest of her day weighing her life against everyone else’s.

Her fat suit has gone down a few sizes, so now it’s just some extra padding and a too-thick jaw which makes the illusion much more palatable. Even if she manages to shed it all, we’ve now seen her in this new, uncool light, looking not all that different from the women in her Weight Watchers meetings. Betty’s probably had a friend like Judy all her life, a less pretty girl who wasn’t a threat and to whom Betty could feel an easy, shallow superiority. It was always a competition but Betty isn’t used to being on this other side. Judy’s lost her appetite while Betty is just feeling like a loser.

This was one of those episodes where the themes were broadcast through a loudspeaker mounted to an opera singer’s throat. The connect-the-dots in Roger’s office was already filled in, in ink. The bluntness only really bothered me in two scenes, “the grass in always greener” one with Pete on the train and Henry’s “I think I chose the wrong horse.” I wanted to take a red pen to both of those, just scratch them out.

There’s an elasticity to the scenes between Megan and Sally that isn’t found anywhere else on the show. Their exchanges are so loose and fun. As Sally points out, Megan started off as her friend first and it’s the only friendship we've seen that isn’t fraught with layered jealousies of any sort. When Megan kissed each Draper kid on the head (you know Sally and those two little boy extras) and blithely sent them on their way, all bundled up and healthy and happy, I thought that maybe she really is one of those girls who can do anything. Even simple parenting gestures like that have always been such a strain for Betty. She doesn’t know how to enjoy being with her kids, only how to enjoy the fact that she has them.

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For Betty, having children is part of the checklist, just like the successful husband and the low-calorie foods that now fill her refrigerator. As sad as she looked in that final scene, as she tried to savor her one bite of stuffing, it would never occur to her that there are other ways to lose weight, like having a more active lifestyle. She grew up drawing pictures of stick figure families inside triangle-roofed houses. The only way she knows how to broaden her horizons is by adding more square feet.

Jane had a similar plan. She thought if she changed the scenery, she could have a fresh start. The problem is that Jane is a hybrid, stuck between the eras. She’s financially dependent on a man, like Megan, but she resents it, like Betty. When Don left for work, there wasn’t the faintest twinge of guilt on Megan’s face. She’s got a new job now, teaching the future women of the world how to fake cry so that they can grow up to have it all too. Jane is not nearly at that level of peace.

When Roger apologizes for taking advantage of her moment of weakness, he looks dazed. I don’t think he knew he had it in him still, that level of competitiveness, the desire to take back what is his. Earlier he offers his services up to a client: “You golf with me, you’re going to win every time. Because I’m terrible.”

We’ve been watching him get swatted around like a cat toy by even a weakling like Pete Campbell, who has power over no one. It takes being under the influence with Jane for Roger to get his swagger back, only this time it’s not acid but Manchischewitz wine. Seeing how the clients look at Jane makes him look at her that way too. All the relief he felt about being free drained out of his system and was replaced by pure, undiluted survival-of-the-fittest competitive edge. There’s a "Fantasy Island" quality to these advertising dinners this season, go out for a meal with your wife and a client and all will be revealed.

Betty spraying that whipped cream into her mouth seemed to me to be an homage to "The Sopranos" (that was Tony’s favorite late-night treat) as did the dynamic between Don and his creative team. In "The Sopranos" Tony suspects that he has no real friends but is instead surrounded by a bunch of yes-men who laugh too hard at his jokes. A younger Don would’ve been concerned about this too but now he seems to welcome it.

It’s a shame this storyline was embedded in a whole episode about everyone feeling obsolete, because it’s a pretty major turn of events. We might have thought that Don was a fool at the end of last season for marrying Megan, but now that we like her, that sort of goes out the window. He went from acting so self-aware last episode to acting so out of touch in this one, and I’m not sure I’m entirely buying the leap. Or rather, like I said, I needed for it to be more on its own. Having him do it in this episode, feels like a switch was activated that turned all the characters into cavemen at once.

I did like when Don read the Devil part out loud, because you know it’s the voice that Betty hears in her head too. It’s the voice that made her spit out that whipped cream, the one she imagines him using with skinny young Megan. It’s curious that when Don and Betty were living in their dark home, he had light-bulb epiphanies at the office daily. Now that he’s with someone whom he wants to shine his full attention on, his creative life is dragging in the dust.

Maybe he needs some of that toxic air that Megan is trying to shut out, that Betty provided for him in spades. Or else he, like everyone else, needs to start make some difficult choices about what matters to him most. I would wager, though, that the sad scene that Megan pictures in her head, the one that makes her cry the hardest, has nothing to do with losing him.

Starlee Kine is a a frequent contributor to PRI's "This American Life." She writes The Girl, a weekly look at "Mad Men," every Monday this season. Previously: The alien invasion at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.