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Mad Men Recap: “The Better Half” (Season 6, Episode 9)

Posted By Julia Rhodes On May 28, 2013 @ 5:41 pm In Movies & TV,Television | No Comments

Poor Peggy Olson. She was doing so well, the last time we checked in on her. But in the world of Mad Men, no one gets to balance work, love, and happiness. It’s just not in the cards. (Let’s face it, it’s not easy in real life, either.)

Pete Campbell is in a bad place (again). Photo courtesy AMC.

The SCDP/CGC Creative team is still musing on Fleischmann’s margarine, and playing around with the pop psych advertising techniques that were appearing in the late ’60s. Ted insists that people will buy Fleischmann’s not in spite of, but because of its expensive price tag. There’s something to that [1], and advertising underwent a sea change in the 1960s as psychologists discovered the true reasons people buy stuff. As usual, Chaough is a little more progressive than Don. After all, he did say “Groovy” last week, much to Don’s chagrin.

Pete Campbell, still hankering for Don’s approval, says (rather petulantly),”Don, I agree with you.” Harry Crane is like, “eff this I’m out.” Don calls Peggy into the conference room to actually choose between his approach and Ted’s. She refuses. Honey, you can’t be Switzerland forever. Things just don’t work that way. She knows exactly what Don’s up to, and she lets him know it. Their relationship is becoming more complex and fun to watch as Peggy continues to climb the ranks. He respects her, and it’s refreshing. “Your opinion matters,” Don tells her. It’s a big statement, one that doesn’t come lightly to Mr. Draper. “Ted’s interested in the idea, and you’re interested in your idea,” she answers. “He never makes me feel this way.” “He doesn’t know you,” Don replies.

Here she is, Mrs. Francis, back to her old self. Photo courtesy AMC.

Betty Francis, who digressed momentarily into mundane housewifery and too much junk food, is back to herself, every inch the politician’s wife in a sparkly yellow dress, impeccably crunchy hair, and green eyeshadow. While Henry’s on the phone, a very classy gentleman tells her, “I’d like to be alone with you all night.” Betty, her face all icy goodness, first tells him he doesn’t understand, she has three children. This is not an answer to his request, obviously. She’s as good at cat and mouse as she ever was, and testing the waters appropriately. Always vain, she asks him, “Do I look like I’ve had 3 kids?” On the limo ride home, Henry lectures her, and appropriately enough she acts like a child (Betty has never been particularly mature). “I don’t want to get anyone in trouble,” she says, allowing him to clutch her chin and scold her. Their father/daughter dynamic is oddly sexual, and knowing that his wife is once again desirable evidently gets Henry in the mood for limo fornication.

In the West 80s, Abe was stabbed in the arm getting off the subway, and refusing to cooperate with the policeman. “This is a fucking police state,” Abe yells to Peggy after ushering the skeptical officer out the door. “It’s fascinating, the attitudes I’m encountering.” Peggy first treats him as though he has some weird variation on PTSD (which, I think, would’ve still been called “shellshock” at the time). He asks her (rightly) not to patronize him, to which she responds snidely, “I don’t care if I take a loss, I’m going to sell this shithole.”

Roger Sterling, unsurprisingly, has no idea how to be a father. When he takes Margaret’s son so the kid can have a “special day with Pop Pop,” Roger uses the child to flirt with the secretaries, then tries to impress Joan, and finally he takes him to Planet of the Apes. (This is an interesting juxtaposition, since that is the movie in which, a few weeks ago, Don Draper realized he actually loves his son.)

At Harry Crane’s grouchy suggestion, Pete sets up a clandestine meeting in his grungy apartment with headhunter and throwback Duck Phillips. Everybody’s seeing headhunters – so much cheating in this season. Pete, though, is really and truly floudering. When he tells Duck he just doesn’t think there’s more he can do at work, he gazes down into his whiskey with genuine sadness. Is it possible I’m actually feeling sorry for Pete Campbell? (Nah.)

At her job, Megan is playing two roles, sisters who want the same thing but go about getting it very differently. The maid, whom we’d already met, the cheating cheater that Don visited on set, is one half of this duo – and the other sister, evidently blond and named Collette, is also a cheating cheater. Infidelity: it’s the name of the game in season six.

Megan packs Don’s suitcase for his trip to visit Bobby at camp, and sends him on his merry way. Don pulls into a gas station to fill up, and is bemused by the attendant, who’s eyeing the derriere of an attractive blonde. When the lady leans out of the car again, it turns out it’s none other than Betty Francis, also on the way to visit Bobby at camp. “Are you lost, too?” she asks him; there’s more depth to that question than either of them realizes. Everyone on this show is lost.

Meanwhile, back in the office, Peggy is beginning to realize just how difficult it’s going to be to balance Ted and Don. After a presentation, Ted yells at Peggy for touching his hand, for smiling at him. She tells him she forgot about the kiss, and he replies he hasn’t. He’s “a boss in love with his protege.” It comes back to her assertion to Don earlier that Ted never makes her feel the way Don does – remember how, in the first season, Peggy briefly and embarrassingly propositioned Don? That was never meant to happen, but one imagines it stung – and Peggy’s feelings for Ted are jumbled with her feelings about Don and Abe, as well as her respect for him.

At camp, Bobby is ecstatic to see his parents, who are for once acting civilly toward one another (Don’s indiscretion, the one that allowed Betty’s kids to be held hostage by Grandma Ida, is evidently forgotten). Don, never the family man, finds himself very charmed by Betty’s interactions with Bobby. Bobby teaches mom and dad a new song about Father Abraham’s seven sons, and the Draper family, broken and busted such as it is, sings a children’s song while smiling at each other. It is one of the weirder (and more heartwarming) moments of the season.

Father Abraham has seven sons, and the Drapers are acting weird. Photo courtesy AMC.

Don and Betty are, of course, remarkably similar. After putting Bobby back to bed, they find themselves at the same hotel. Both of them crave booze, and they have a drink together. Betty, visually and developmentally, is very much like her first season iteration. Smoking too much, reminiscing about a trip the two of them took Lake Champlain with Betty’s parents. As any pair of parents is prone to do, they discuss the oddness of trying to parent a teenage girl. Betty doesn’t understand her and says Sally’s more like Don, but Don says she’s more like Betty. Both are correct. “When I saw you earlier today, I…forgot how mad I was at you,” Betty says, and she leaves the hotel room door open. When he grabs her by the back of the neck, we realize that Henry’s controlling, patriarchal behavior is really what Betty wants…and it doesn’t need to come from her husband. For the second time, Betty asks a flirtatious man for affirmation. She’s forever concerned about what people see when they see her. Aren’t we all?

While Don’s off having sex with his ex-wife, Megan’s getting drunk with Arlene (one half of the couple who propositioned her and Don a few episodes ago). Megan, unsure where to turn, tells Arlene she feels lonely. Arlene kisses her. Megan accuses her of taking advantage of a compromising situation, and Arlene accuses her, rather gently, of being a tease.

“I’m thinking of how different you are, before and after,” Betty tells Don as they enjoy pillow talk after they’re done with the lovemaking. Betty knows she can only hold his attention for so long. “Why is sex the definition of being close to someone?” Don muses. “That poor girl,” Betty says of Megan, touching Don’s face while she says it. “She doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you.” In these moments with Don, Betty is anything but childlike. She is, in fact, wise. Sometimes we forget that Don and Betty were married for a reason, that they’re far more similar than they’d like to admit.

Back in the City, Megan has successfully turned down a woman’s advances in favor of her rapidly failing marriage, which is something Don doesn’t ever manage to do. When he returns, she’s on the balcony staring out into the city in a t-shirt and panties. “I missed you.” The sirens are actually drowning out her words for the second time in the episode. She can’t be heard over the noises of the city. In a surprise move, Don agrees with Megan. “You’re right, I haven’t been here,” he says, and hugs her gently. He was clearly hurt by Betty’s coolness to him the morning after, while eating breakfast with Henry. He knows not to expect anything else – and something tells me he’s not done sowing those oats. However, perhaps his tryst with Betty, ill-advised as it was, will convince him he needs to be better to his wife. (Doubtful, really – but it’s lovely to think of it.)

No one can solve your problems for you, Pete. Photo courtesy AMC.

In another play for my sympathy, Pete asks Joan, “Do you feel my attention to business has been dilute?” Joan notes that she can’t solve Pete’s problems (a mother, son, job, and complex relationship), she has those problems. Indeed, she appears to be entering into a relationship with Bob Benson. They’re taking Kevin to the beach. Having been rebuffed (scolded, really) by his daughter after taking his grandson to Planet of the Apes, Roger makes another play to get into his true son’s life. He shows up at Joan’s door with a gift of Lincoln Logs (I loved those!). When he realizes what’s going on, Roger is upset. “I guess we’re all a little bit out of context right now,” he says. In other news, Joan tells Bob that Pete’s in need of a nurse for his mother, and Bob – who is entirely too good a character at this point, and I’m curious about his true motives – gets Pete the name of a nurse. “Is he Spanish from Spain?” Pete asks, taking the name begrudgingly. “Because otherwise my mother will refuse.” Oh, 1968. You’re great. “He’s very well bred,” Bob says, a slightly amused expression on his face.

Even as the sirens drown out Megan’s pleas for Don’s love, Abe is busily trying to convince Peggy that they’re in the best possible place for them. She can’t handle the danger. “Maybe we’re not cut out to be pioneers,” Abe says, admitting that maybe they didn’t make the right choice. Someone has thrown a rock through the window, and Abe has been stabbed getting off the subway. Instead of allowing the police to do their jobs, Abe, forever the counterculture instigator, tells Peggy she’s a fascist for trying to cooperate with them.

After Abe leaves her at home so he can work, Peggy hears a commotion. She goes to the window with a bayonet, and when she’s surprised by an “intruder” in the house, she accidentally stabs her boyfriend with a bayonet. In the ambulance, dripping blood and sweat, blue-faced, Abe tells her all the things he’s been meaning to. “You’re a scared person who hides behind complacency. I thought you’d be braver because you’re in advertising. Your activities are offensive to my every waking moment. I’m sorry, but you’ll always be the enemy.” Well, why don’t you tell us how you really feel? We’ve known for awhile that this relationship was unlikely to work out – but this minor, violent explosion was unexpected.

Peggy is also in a bad place. Photo courtesy AMC.

The next morning, Peggy arrives at the office looking like complete shit. Dark circles stain her eyes, her unwashed hair hangs lank around her head. She approaches Ted first, telling him firs that “Abe was stabbed,” then that he was going to be fine, then, “It’s over, we’re done.” Ted reacts with eerie good nature. “It’s Monday morning, Peggy!” he cries, smiling. “Let’s get to work!” Don tells her promptly to round up the troops for the Monday meeting, and the two of them close their office doors. The two most important men in her life (or at least, the most important ones she hasn’t accidentally stabbed) leavePeggy standing, stunned and alone, on the opposite side of two closed doors. This, the writers are telling us, is what not choosing a side gets you.

All things considered, this episode presented a lot of information and didn’t really give us a hint as to what we should do with it. Don and Betty have hit a point in their relationship where they’re able to interact again, which is great. However, only one of them knows that sex is “the definition of being close to someone.” Megan is alone, lonely, and unable to be heard. Peggy Olson suffered the most this week – but I suppose we knew that was coming. It’s certainly a blow, considering how well she handled last week’s office shenanigans. You get knocked down, but you get up again, I guess. Such is the way of the Mad Men ‘verse.

For more Mad Men recaps, please join me at the soon-to-be live site musingonmedia [2]. I’ll be continuing to write there, as well as with a number of other publications.

In the comments, share how you felt about this episode!


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[1] something to that: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veblen_good

[2] musingonmedia: http://musingonmedia.com