Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "The Better Half" (season 6, episode 9)

Mad Men - "The Better Half" (season 6, episode 9)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of seasons four, five, and six. Both parts of season seven will be covered in the summer of 2022 (now updated to winter 2021-22). I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on May 26, 2013/written by Erin Levy and Matthew Weiner; directed by Phil Abraham): The grass is always greener on the other side, and switching back and forth doesn't help at all. Bored with Megan and spurned by Sylvia, Don finds himself beguiled by his own ex-wife once again. Reunited at a summer camp for Bobby, Don and Betty get to chatting outside their cabins and end up back in bed. The next morning, of course, Henry has joined them and Don is forced to eat breakfast alone across the dining room while the Francis couple enjoy their meal together. Don is lovelorn, wondering why sex has to be so central to the experience of attraction - for this tough guy and notorious womanizer, it's actually feeling desired and accepted that is more fulfilling. Betty, for her part, somewhat contradictorily expresses sympathy with Megan: "That poor girl," she sighs. "She doesn't know that loving you is the worst way to get to you." It's as good a diagnosis of Don's toxic neediness/alienation cycle as any, and reflective of some overall trends in the episode. Relations are further strained, in some cases broken, between Peggy and Abe (after she accidentally stabs him with a makeshift bayonet), Peggy and Ted, Pete and his mother, Roger and his daughter, and Pete and the rest of SCDP (with the help of Duck, now a headhunter operating with renewed confidence). Even Megan's soap persona is splitting as she takes on a second character - the chic blonde sister of her brunette maid. Just as Don turns to Betty for a combination of renewed excitement and familiar comfort, Roger shows up at Joan's apartment (and discovers Bob, currently ingratiating himself to both her and Pete). Really, he's there more for secret son Kevin than former lover Joan; Margaret has restricted Roger's visits with his grandson after a traumatizing trip to Planet of the Apes so he's seeking a new outlet for his paternal instincts (however misguided). But Joan is not so keen on her son playing the same compensatory surrogate role that she herself once did. Like Joan (and, eventually, Betty), Ted is also inclined to throw cold water on someone else's neediness; poor Peggy ends up the least satiated character of all in the final shot.

My Response: It seems odd to call this episode a breather given what happens in a couple cases particularly, yet after the heaviness of "The Flood," the gear shift of "Man with a Plan," and the intensity of "The Crash," we find ourselves in a more calm, contemplative mode. The most shocking moment - Abe taking a knife to the gut and then dumping Peggy in self-important fashion within earshot of an apathetic ambulance attendant - is also, let's be honest, hilarious. Don's brief reunion with Betty, meanwhile, is a wonderful character beat for both and a poignant callback without being overbearing. Narratively, however, it's little more than a bump in the road (or a pitstop in the night), serving to foreclose rather than discover a new avenue for Don while for Betty it feels like little more than scratching an itch, however soothing. The moment is most significant for reminding them, and us, of the continuity between the two very different Draper marriages. And when Megan finally speaks openly about the distance between them, it doesn't make anything better. The two must be heading toward a dramatic finish (this is Mad Men after all) but for now the unwinding is far more quiet. I'm also curious where Pete and Roger go from here; in Roger's case, perhaps nowhere...acid trips aside, that's been the case since his impulsive union with Jane petered out into boredom. This may just be who he is till the day he dies, opening up new doors and strolling through new rooms content with his own charming surface (if also discontented by his own lack of substance). Pete, however, is less graceful in his frustration; he can't find peace in treading water yet he lacks the extremism needed to either sink or swim. Ultimately, I'm most intrigued by Peggy's predicament: she is stranded between two bosses who are more than bosses but less than whatever she thinks she needs from them. Peggy has always been Mad Men's most dynamic character because a combination of compulsion and circumstance leave her no choice but to be dynamic, with only Don a rival in that regard. If others can eventually make themselves a nest (comfortable or otherwise) in the great in-between, those two never can.

Next (active on November 8, 8am): "A Tale of Two Cities"Previous: "The Crash"

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