Mad Men S6 E9: The Better Half (updated)

AMC decided to be the only network that aired first-run episodes on Sunday, and, yes, that was problematic because it was Memorial Day weekend. But the real crime is that a new Mad Men aired on the same Sunday in which I (1) took a three-hour exam, (2) packed all my new birthday clothes, and (3) drove twelve hours before (4) moving the next day. I managed to catch “The Better Half” in between stages (3) and (4) of delirium, and I’ve only just now had the time to write. Hopefully you can find below a lucid (and thankfully shorter) review.

The obvious thematic hook explored this week, alluded to in the episode’s title, was not duality so much as dual allegiances. This is not uncommon to Mad Men‘s storytelling techniques, but, differently from most episodes, the magnetic push-and-pull felt by our protagonists this week faced outward, rather than inward. Phrased differently, the characters struggled to choose between people rather than personalities. Instead of watching as their true, hidden selves peek through their meticulously dressed, put-together, three-piece-suited exteriors, we saw their loyalties to their significant others, children, and bosses tested.

Starting from the end, the most blatantly symbolic frame—we’re always on the lookout for these during Mad Men—captured Peggy, stranded in the firm’s main hallway, halfway between Don’s and Ted’s offices. Returning to her old office (though she has a new literal office) must be confusing for her; she thought she’d left Don behind only for him to drag her along again and take her work for granted. At the other end of the rope is Ted, someone who recognizes her talent but pulls her in an emotionally awkward direction. Complicating matters for both, Chaough is no Draper in the smoothness department; Ted has a sound, ethical mind, but that attribute prevents him from engaging in the cold, unspoken psychological compartmentalism that the SCDP employees possess in spades. Ted acted at the end of the episode as if he and Peggy hadn’t shared their mutual affections just earlier, in a moment not unlike Don’s “It will scare you how much it never happened” line. Peggy’s no stranger to men behaving uncouthly in her presence—she was on the receiving end of that this-is-how-it-works monologue from Don—but her confusion runs as deep as those other two. Given a choice between them, Peggy would pick Ted, I’m sure—she likes him and he seems like a nice guy—but she has no guarantees with regards to how Ted will conduct himself around her, and it appears that Ted isn’t so sure himself. (Ted’s fight is still internal, even this week; he’s still struggling to develop office personality, and to distinguish himself from Don.) Don is a known quantity, but why spin back into his orbit so soon?

Don felt the pull of his old life, repelling away from Megan. This has been one of the more interesting, and unsung, developments of the season, especially following Don’s earlier confession that he’s only now beginning to love his children, when it may be too late. I doubt very much that Don enjoyed the “Father Abraham” singalong with his son; Don’s face wore a mixture of mortification and slight annoyance that he didn’t succeed in hiding, but hey, at least the dude is making an effort. A few years ago, he would have blown off the summer camp visit altogether. But if Don strains to choose between his old and new lives, wherever he ends up he still wants the same thing: a beautiful woman in his bed and a situation under his control. It’s no surprise, especially after the gas station attendant ogled her, that Don desperately wanted to have sex with Betty (on which he made good), and equally unsurprising that Don failed to win her back. That he thought he could, or at least thought he had a shot, is a chronically masculine, and therefore Draper-esque, trait. Don’s external battle is reflected by that of his children who like Peggy, are caught between their heart and mind, which currently lie with Henry and Betty, and a sense of obligation (Don, despite his finally giving it the college try).

Also caught is Roger, lonely and needy, rebuffed by his daughter and by Joan, and thus kept from the blood relations with whom he, unlike Don, wants to form a meaningful relationship; sadly, they’re his best shot at human contact. While he is trying, either it’s been too long since he’s been a parent or this is his first real go at it, he’s not yet up to the task. Outspoken on the subject I am, but I don’t know if I would even endorse taking a four-year-old to Planet of the Apes. It’s a cruel reality that people younger than Roger perceive him as the child, and that Roger’s legacy will be a name on a building, rather than good genes, would his daughter and Joan might render meaningless if they continue to stand in his way (albeit not unwisely).

Roger’s situation was the most melodramatic of a melodramatic episode of an often melodramatic show. The torn-between-two-lovers stories and illicit dalliances we glimpsed this week recalled an old Hollywood movie, and there was a certain stylistic cheesiness to “The Better Half” in particular: the comically accented cop who came to Abe’s aid, the comically surreal moment that was Peggy’s incidental stabbing of Abe, Henry and Betty’s back-seat make out session spurred by another man’s poorly contained forthrightness. It’s not saying much, but “The Better Half” was one of the more emotional Mad Men episodes I’ve seen, if only because it so obviously (at least from my perspective) paid homage to someone like Douglas Sirk, a director whose work inspired Mad Men both in form and in function. (In many ways Mad Men is a more slickly produced and more psychologically informed old movie.) In an episode that featured the characters expressing outwardly rather than inwardly, it was funny to see them grapple with their wavering fealty and, on another level, fight to stay cool in some rather corny situations. Each of them has a better half that they’d like to choose right now, and what’s amazing to them is how incapable they are of choosing in the face of those choices.

[kyra addendum]: I wanted to comment on this episode in particular because I thought it was fantastic and wanted to add a couple things.

Let’s not forget that the inspiration for the title and theme of this episode actually comes from Megan’s scenes. She is taking on a more prominent role on set since the last time we’ve seen her, which means the addition of a new character: a twin sister. For lack of a better comparison, this new role is meant to be a black swan to her first character’s white swan. Megan struggles to play the villain, as we see her clean up after the spill she intentionally makes in character. She cleans up unconsciously because that’s who she is: someone who wants to help, and fix problems. She doesn’t really seek confrontation unless it is thrust upon her, like the actress who comes over looking to be a little more than friends, or Don’s exceeding emotional unavailability becomes unbearable. Only then will she speak up and say things need to change. Megan clearly represents Don’s eponymous ‘better half’ to use marriage terminology, although as with all the women he has been with, he forgets this after a short period of time.

Don is definitely a victim of the ‘grass is always greener’ concept: he wants only what someone else wants or what he supposedly can’t have. Actually it’s really more than that. It’s even more than a lusting, because I think he truly loves these women in the first moments he is with them. He loves caressing them as they lie in bed together, as Betty astutely observes, another conquest completed. I actually disagree with Buckeye on one point. I think Don did enjoy singing the camp ‘seven sons’ song with Bobby and Betty because he was at that moment trying to sleep with Betty. He was in hunting mode, which allows him to do un-Don-like things to get the kill. However Betty also knows what comes next: complacency; boredom. Don is not really intimate at any time, although he can fake it well enough in the time leading up to sex. But afterwards, once the imagination of what will happen can be compared to the real thing, the dream slowly fades as reality supplants. Don goes back to being the successful haircut who doesn’t love his kids and won’t be there for you when he’s needed. Even though he might be a better lover, and more handsome, than Henry Francis, Henry will provide a much healthier home for her and her children, so Betty draws the line.

Strangely after this rejection, as opposed to Sylvia’s, Don goes back to Megan acknowledging things need to change. Of course the difference is that Betty straight up told him what his flaws were, and sometimes that needs to be pointed out. Do I think the change will last? If you’ve been watching Mad Men for the last 6 years, you know better than to even ask the question.

On a completely unrelated nit-pick: did anyone else feel like Henry Francis’ acting in the car with Betty was poorly ambiguous? It came off to me like he was very angry at her, but then he went on to make out with her rather than yell/scold. I was just confused and didn’t see it coming, but maybe it’s just me. Great episode overall.

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