I spent the first few seasons of Mad Men wondering whether or not January Jones was a good actress.
Her performance as Betty Draper/Francis has always been understated, so much so that I wasn't really sure if she was tossing off her lines without a hint of emphasis on any single word was by design, or a reflection of her skill as an actor.
I thought I had my answer in "The Gypsy and the Hobo", the Season 3 episode where Betty confronted Don about his past and his identity. I'd put her performance in that show, along with Jon Hamm's, among the best I've ever seen on television. I had decided that she was, in fact, a good actor.
Then, I went to see "Unknown", the 2011 action movie she starred in alongside Liam Neeson. She spent the first two acts of that movie tossing off her lines the same way she did as Betty Draper. Then, in the third act, there was a scene that required her to emote. It wasn't very good. I had changed my mind again.
After seeing "The Better Half", the ninth episode of Mad Men's sixth season, I've changed my mind, yet again.
January Jones turned in a fine performance as Betty Francis in an episode where the title uncharacteristically spelled out the theme of the hour.
The common thread in the A, B, C and D stories, was the two halves of ourselves.
There's a part of all of us that we put forward to the public, a sort of ever-evolving persona that we reinvent as circumstances dictate. But, as Betty told Don after they shared an illicit night together at their son's sleepaway camp, there's another side, a side that's in a state of entropy.
We can be blind to that part of ourselves, as Roger Sterling and Pete Campbell seemed to be.
Roger has left a trail of broken relationships in his wake. and now he's old and alone. Maybe he realized that on some level here, as he went to Joan's house to try to establish some sort of relationship with the son that they had together, only to find that Bob Bunson, er, Benson, is sliding into that role. Pete has seen his personal and professional lives erode this year, so he turned to our old pal Duck Phillips to go on a job hunt for him.
Or, as we've seen Don battle all season long, we can be aware of our decline, but powerless as to how to go about stopping or slowing that decay.
In "the Better Half", we saw Peggy awakened to that part of herself, just a little bit too late. Her professional relationship with Don seems beyond repair, and after she accidentally stabbed her boyfriend, that relationship is done too. She turned to Ted, only to be shot down in an obliviously polite way.
Don returned to his apartment after his tryst with his ex-wife with a renewed sense that he should make things work with his current wife. He confessed to her that he had been emotionally absent. He held her and closed his eyes, perhaps thinking that this time, he would find the right way to stave off the decline of their relationship.
If the sirens wailing in the background in 1968 New York City were any indication, it's too late for that.
There's decay all around. In society, and in life, and in all of us.
Sometimes, like in Don's case, it takes someone that we used to know, someone that we used to love, to remind us of that fact.