No one prepares you in life for envy. No one specifically ever tells you in school or growing up that you’re going to desire and want to pursue things that are elusive and forbidden; you have to figure these things out on your own. You have to watch a kid riding by on a nice bike, work all summer cutting grass to afford one, buy the damn thing, then realize you want skateboard instead. It only gets worse when you get older. You want the other job, you want the other house, you want the other woman, and it never ever ends. “The grass is always greener on the other side,” it’s cliché and overdone, but man, if it isn’t the truth.
In the season five finale, Don goes after Ed Burns with a fiery pitch making just this point, going further to say that it goes double for business men of their stature. In a roar, Don says that happiness is only a moment before you need more happiness, and this, along with several other mantras, is a pitch that Don truly believes in and falls to. Look at the man’s life. He’s always having affairs, falling in love with every woman he sleeps with, but only for a moment. Every time he feels his business is going stale, he “changes the conversation” and reinvent himself, starting and merging companies on a whim.
Don even wants things that he’s already had. At work, all Don wants his the validation and respect that he feels he deserves from his associates, mainly Peggy. When Don and Ted have opposing views on a pitch for margarine, Don looks disgusted when Peggy, after all of the things that he believes he has done for her, doesn’t choose his side. He pretends that he only wants Peggy to have her own opinion and make a choice, but Peggy knows better. After witnessing his pettiness, she compares him to Ted saying, “he’s interested in the idea, you’re interested in you’re idea”.
Peggy’s feelings run a little deeper than that. After her and Ted kissed a few episodes back, she’s been harboring a crush, and apparently Ted has been too. The apparent sexual tension between the two causes Ted to lose focus in a pitch, and he confides that he wants Peggy, but knows the two can’t be together. Peggy isn’t completely sold on this path. Her greener grass is a home in a safer neighborhood, possibly with a new man. After a few incidents and growing fear, Peggy accidentally stabs Abe in the middle of the night, causing the two to decide to move and ultimately break up in the back of an ambulance. Gaining freedom from a relationship, Peggy goes to Ted to tell him that she is newly single, but Ted totally ignores the advance and chooses to pretend that nothing ever happened. When Peggy walks from his office, she watches Don from across the hall and Ted simultaneously close their doors on her. She’s caught between the two mentors with both men starting to alienate themselves from her.
Back to Don. In his love life, he’s reverting back to his old ways as well. On his way to join Bobby at a parent’s weekend for Bobby’s summer camp, he stops at a gas station and finds himself entranced by a woman’s behind, only to find out that it’s Betty, also on her way to the camp. With Henry set to join them the following day, the two parents spend some time together, with their child, for the first time in ages acting like a nuclear family. They take that feeling a step further. When Betty asks Don for a drink, they start reminiscing about their past, discussing their children, and lamenting the life together that they had lost. When Betty goes to retire for the night, she leaves the door open for Don. Don cautiously enters inside and notices Betty, looking blonde and beautifully thin once again, undressing. He starts advancing, grabbing her neck, and then Betty finally asks, “what are you doing,” before Don coolly responds with, “waiting for you to ask me to stop.” The two characters truly seem like their old selves and share a steamy sex scene. Afterwards Betty assures Don that she’s not having second thoughts. She says that she’s happy in her life and doesn’t feel guilty because “we did this a long time ago.” She also tells Don that she feels poorly for Megan because, “she doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you”.
The grass is greener for Megan I guess you could say too. At work, she’s experiencing her first hiccup portraying twins. The director gives her constant notes telling her how she needs to distinguish between the two parts of a whole. In her personal life, these two halves are the version of Megan that acts that everything is fine, contrasted with the increasing loneliness she feels. When she finally talks to this with Don after his eventful weekend, he swears to her that he will be more present, but we’ve heard this speech before, many, many times.
The grass is always greener for the characters on Mad Men, and if we’re all honest, for the people in our lives and ourselves too. Wanting what you cannot have is an innately human flaw, and Mad Men is better at showcasing these flaws better than any show currently on air.