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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Review: Mad Men, The Better Half

Season 6, Episode 9
Grade: A
Verdict: This week's episode bounces back into reality and plays almost like a polar opposite of last week's offering, with thematic underpinnings almost slapping the viewer in the face. This would be an annoyance if the drama on display wasn't crafted *so* masterfully. With "The Better Half" we get a perfect encapsulation of every important character's station in life, where they could have gone, and perhaps where they're eventually headed.

In the opening moments of the "The Better Half", we're exposed to two juxtapositions. In the first, Megan is portraying the "evil twin" of her maid character on the soap opera in which she is a supporting player. In the second, Peggy has to choose between ideas presented by Ted and Don regarding the firm's Margarine ad pitch. Megan has a difficult time adjusting between her characters and when she spills something on the set, she immediately goes to clean it as if she were playing her French maid character. Megan cannot reconcile the difference between the two, and this is causing her strife. Peggy also refuses to make a choice between Don and Ted's pitches, responding with "they both sound good to me". Peggy too, cannot reconcile the difference between the two men save for their intentions. When Don confronts her about it, she indignantly states that while Ted wants to provide the best pitch, Don simply wants people to support his idea as the best. Don fires back that they're exactly the same, Peggy just can't see that. Based on Ted's conversations with his dying partner, there's probably a good deal of truth in Don's statement. Peggy is also blinded by her affections for Ted, which play a key role in the final scenes of the episode. To Peggy, Ted is the "good twin" to Don's "evil half", but to the audience, Peggy is really the mirror opposite of Don. Beyond the superficial, Peggy is a woman moving with the times, but what's striking about that is, she's moving in a direction that makes her personal life almost as bad as Don's (but not quite).
Peggy's relationship with Abe has been one of convenience of a sort for her. On paper, he's the perfect partner for her. Peggy has long considered herself someone that's proud of her ability to live a left-leaning social existence, particularly for that time period. Peggy owns her own building with Abe, they live together without being married, they reside in the bohemian part of the city. But often, she never seems terribly happy with Abe himself. The last time we saw her express actual happiness in his regard was when he expressed the desire to one day have children with her a few episodes back. Peggy is a woman torn between two paths, the lifestyle espoused by the late 60's, and the one in which she grew up in the early 60's. Free love vs. the nuclear family in a sense, and her attraction to Ted is an outward symptom of that. This internal struggle is heightened when she comes home to Abe writing up a report with a police officer about his stabbing on the train. Peggy is horrified, Abe refuses to give a description of the men that violated him for fear of creating a witchhunt amongst minorities. Peggy and Abe are at odds here, as Peggy sees what she thinks is the true cost of living the lifestyle she claims to be so proud of. It's perhaps too thickly laid on, when Peggy, now frightened for their safety is armed with a bayonet on a stick and accidently stabs Abe with it in the abdomen. It really is nothing more than an accident on the surface, but metaphorically it's Peggy's real response to the direction in which she is headed, and Abe is caught in the crossfire. Their relationship crumbles on the ambulance ride home, one road closed off to Peggy, and with little regret she attempts to create an option with Ted, her other possible path. This also fails, as Ted is already living in the "domestic bliss" that Peggy is now grasping for.

Speaking of two possible paths, "The Better Half" brings us another strange turn of events, when Don happens upon Betty at a fill-up station, both on their way to see Bobby at camp. In one of the earliest moments of the episode, Betty was regaling in her new-found appearance, having finally shed the extra weight that was a hindrance on her self-image. She is once again an object of sexual desire, to the excitement of a few gentlemen, especially Henry.  Betty was walking a path in one direction and she decided to take another in response to her own health, much like her failed marriage to Don (which too took its toll on her). When Henry can't arrive at the camp until the next day, she ends up spending a good deal of time with Don. For fleeting moments, we get a chance to see how things might have turned out had they not divorced, this even has a clear affect on both Don and Betty which leads to them eventually sleeping together that night. Don is a man split in how he handles he affections: he has no trouble bedding a woman, even his ex-wife, but he's still in the midst of an emotional struggle. Don is full of regret, and rather than enjoying the afterglow, he wants to ask questions just to see if he still holds any of Betty's affections. Unlike Don though, Betty has made her choice, she isn't sleeping with Don because she wants to rekindle the relationship. Betty makes her choice because she can, because Don is still an attractive man, and reliving that carnal desire is okay for her as long as she can return to her happiness with Henry. For her, it's just a fling, but that doesn't stop her from slightly digging the knife in her comment about pity for Megan. Don, for his part, wakes up the next morning to having to sit at an empty breakfast table, while Betty is happily chatting with Henry. Don realizes that road is forever closed, and now knows he must return to Megan and make that work or risk being alone.

While Don and Peggy are front and center as per the usual, we do get glimpses of this same theme with Roger, Pete and Joan. Roger's is the most overt, as his lifestyle is thrown into question due to chastisement from his own daughter after he takes his grandson to see Planet of the Apes (apparently the big movie to take kids to see in 1968). Roger's carefree ways have cut off his ability to see his grandson without supervision. This comes somewhat unfairly, as this is the same daughter who was begging him for money at the Season's beginning, and is clearly a case of biting the hand that feeds. But regardless, Roger's response is to renew his own responsibility and that is to try and get back into Joan's life and the life of their child. Joan rebuffs him, and this deflection isn't helped by the fact that Bob Benson is heading to the beach with her. Roger is unsure of his path now, as his perpetual Plan B is now off the table, and for Joan, Roger stopped being a viable option long ago. We also get a little bit of Pete this week, who is vacillating between staying at the firm and moving on to other options. He meets with Duck Phillips, who is now a headhunter, and other than offering him a Marketing position in the Midwest (which Pete immediately turns down, a road not even considered), Duck suggests that Pete should attempt to reconcile his relationship with his family. Duck should know, as he famously crashed and burned years ago at Sterling Cooper when he took a job that Pete himself wanted. Pete now has the chance to learn from Duck's mistakes, he may not have the ability to regain Trudy's trust (or affection for that matter), but he can certainly provide for his mother and make family his number one focus again.

Of interest here, is that Bob Benson touches both of these latter threads, not only through his friendship with Joan, but also in his interest in helping Pete. A few episodes ago, we saw Bob offering to pay for Pete's liaison with a prostitute, and now Bob is offering a nursing referral for Pete's mother to try and "bring her back to full health". Bob is a mystery, unlike any other character on the show, we don't have the fullest grasp on his intentions. Joan trusts him enough to allow him into her home and spend alot of time with him, even save his job. Ken is extremely wary of him, even threatening towards him. The question is, which path is Bob taking: that of good or ill? He's either a career climber that will step over whomever to get what he needs or he's a legitimately nice guy, something that's in very short supply at the firm. This mystery is by design and plays wonderfully in the theme of the episode. I just hope its not a question that lingers for too long, knowing this series, it shouldn't be.

The final scene has Peggy looking at two closed doors, the one in which she was walked out by Ted (and ending their possible romantic entanglement) and the one Don closes to his own office. Peggy has potentially ruined her relationship with Don, and now Ted is no longer an option she can take. Peggy is as alone as she's even been and will now need to forge a new path ahead. I look forward to seeing what that new choice will be, perhaps her relationship with Don has nowhere to go but up now that she's scorned by the "good guy". That would assume Mad Men is a show I can predict its happenings, something of which I can never actually do, I certainly didn't see any of this coming. I wouldn't have it any other way.

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