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Mad Men Season 6 Ep. 9 Recap: ‘The Better Half’

Photo: Michael Yarish/AMC

As always, spoilers are ahead….A decidedly more sedate episode than last week’s “The Crash”–though anything would be more sedate after that epic fall down the rabbit hole–”The Better Half” had Mad Men‘s major players facing the reality relationships either in the process of being lost or already lost, both past and  present. Starting with Don and Ted quibbling over margarine, the story arcs revolved around characters being torn by two choices put in front of them that were at were once different and the same.

Don and Ted are going back and forth about margarine, and the gist of their disagreement appears to be whether they should emphasize the premium taste of margarine (Ted) or the taste and low cost of margarine (Don). Peggy’s called in to give her take, but is obviously put out having to make a choice between her former mentor/brother/father’s and current mentor/crush object’s ideas and proceeds to flail spectacularly. Don goes to her office, and after throwing a little shade her way about her indecisiveness, Peggy reveals her true feelings: about her two bosses.

“You’re both demanding, you’re both pigheaded. You’re the same person sometimes.” Ladies and gentlemen, we have our theme. Peggy goes on to say the difference between the two is Ted’s interested in the general idea while Don’s interest lies only in his idea. Don calls BS and says Ted’s only interest is in pushing his own ideas as well, but Peggy snaps back Ted manages to do this without making her feel like crap. “He doesn’t know you,” Don says, smirking before walking out, and we get our other theme of the night.

Peggy’s choice of better halves goes beyond Don and Ted’s competing egos though. After coming home to find out Abe’s been stabbed, her worry turns to anger when he refuses to give the cop a description of the kids and goes on a rant about fighting against the racist police state. Look, I’m all for calling out crooked cops and condemning racial profiling, but Abe honey, you got stabbed. You can’t fight the power if you’re lying a pool of blood. For Peggy, it’s just another thing to strengthen her feelings about Ted, who dips into a bit of Don-style berating after she got too touchy feely in a meeting, but also acknowledges his own conflicted feelings about starting something up with her.

Later on after a window gets broken in their place, Abe caves and tells Peggy he’ll move with her somewhere else. This temporarily smooths things over between them, until Peggy, spooked by happenings outside and holding a homemade weapon, accidentally stabs Abe in the stomach. If that’s not “oh snap!” enough, Abe’s gushing wound must have unlocked some truth/jerk serum, as between gasping breaths he calls Peggy out for not being as liberal and progressive as she presents herself to be, and breaks up with her during the ambulance ride. The jerk side coming for his harsh delivery (“Your activities are offensive to my every waking moment” is just one gem he lets rip). Though Abe is blind to his own hypocrisy; he is perfectly willing to embrace the system when it suits his own personal ambitions (covering the post-MLK assassination riots for the New York Times for example), so he’s not exactly Huey Newton.

In the end though, the house symbolized the broader power struggle in their relationship, with Abe wanting to be anti-establishment, live right in the heart of social upheaval and help change the status quo, and Peggy wanting a life similar to Don’s Upper East Side existence, wanting only to engage social change as it related to her career (having Phyllis as a secretary, fighting for respect as a female copywriter etc.). The morning after the breakup, she confides in Ted that it’s over, and with a heartbreaking look on her face, waits for him to mention something about his feelings for her. But like Don so often does, he’s moved forward, brightly telling her she’ll find someone else and it’s time to get to work. The final shot of her gazing back and forth at Don and Ted’s closed doors is apt visual metaphor for her work existence, stuck between two men who are both so different yet so much alike.

Though she was pretty much left to her own devices for the majority of this episode, Megan’s story tied in well with the others. We see her shooting a soap scene with Arlene in a blond wig as Colette, the twin sister of maid Carine who’s sleeping with Arlene’s character’s husband. The director isn’t happy with her acting, and she tries to talk to Don about it, but he can only offer empty platitudes (“Tomorrow’s a new day”).

Of course what Megan doesn’t know is she isn’t just talking about the two characters she playing, but herself and Betty. Betty like Colette, is blond and classy, effortlessly giving off an air of sophistication that no doubt springs from her privileged background. She is keenly aware of the power of her beauty and trades on it.  Sure Megan is a clothes horse and can go full on glamour puss/sex kitten when need be, But she, like Corrine, often comes across as sweet and unassuming at first; a scrappy, earnest upstart fighting to earn her keep and make her own way, both in her career and in her relationship. This type of woman is fine for Don in the short term (Rachael, Sylvia, Faye and so on) but being in a long-term relationship with one is still a threatening, foreign concept to him. With that in mind, the scene between her and Arlene can almost be taken as Arlene the brunette (Megan) feeling threatened and suspecting Colette (Betty or another woman) is taking something that belongs to her.

She opens up to Arlene about her struggles with Don when she comes over to read lines, but ends up having to rebuff her co-star yet again when she misreads the wine and her “I’m lonely” confession as an invite to make out. Megan keeps searching for an honest connection with no sexual tension (Arlene), judgement (Sylvia) or emotional distance/abuse (Don) attached, but keeps coming up empty. After Don comes home, she tells him she can’t pretend things are great between them anymore and something needs to change. “I don’t know where you’ve been,” she says “but I’m here.” Don pledges to be better, and with the options of an affair with Sylvia and Betty closed, he might just keep that promise.

Megan’s and Peggy’s speeches about two halves of the same whole and wanting the same thing also applies to Don and Henry. That scene in the limo between them certainly gave us a new side to Mr Francis. An adventurous, lite S&M-side (at one point he took her hand in his chin in a way that looked vaguely threatening). Henry did fall in love with Betty when she was skinny and model-esque, but loved her and continued to find her attractive when she was overweight; he doesn’t bang anything that moves, go on days-long benders and really makes a consistent effort to be there for the kids. He’s unlike Don in a lot of ways. But like Don taking Megan after firing Herb in “For Immediate Release” he seems to get off not only on his wife’s appearance but the idea that other men may lust after her, but only he gets to sleep with her. It was power, not love that lead to them going at it in the backseat. Is Henry just Don in a gentler package?

I would never attempt (more like could never attempt) to go in as much depth about the costumes on this show as Tom and Lorenzo do on their fantastic Mad Style blog, but it’s worth noting that in the car scene with Henry, Betty’s dress is the same bright, bold splash of yellow as the bikini she wore in season two’s “Maidenform,” when Don chastised her for possibly being ogled by other men and basically insinuated she looked like a desperate whore, before kissing her all-father like on the forehead and walking away. Though in this instance she’s wearing the same color when on the receiving on what’s probably the best sex she’s had in ages.

Speaking of Betty, she has gotten her groove back hasn’t she? But I digress. Was it a coincidence she switched from indignant to flirtatious on a dime to a man wearing a white tux, the same kind Don once wore? Or that she beams when Don walks in wearing a collared shirt and khaki pants at Bobby’s summer camp, an outfit similar to one he wore when they were married? Then again, those things could remind her of the affair with Bobbi Barrett, so I could be diving into the deep end of wrong with all this, but whatever. For the moment they obviously didn’t, because after reminiscing over babies conceived on crappy trips involving the in-laws (Sally the first time, and baby Gene during season two if you’re keeping score), and pondering who their children remind them of, she tumbles into bed with Don.

Though she enjoyed the fling, she’s not getting swept up in delusions of riding off into the sunset; time has given her startling clarity about who her ex-husband is and what the nature of their marriage was. She recognizes now that, as Doctor Faye once said, Don only likes the beginning of things, and while their camp “reunion” is nice in the moment, if she chose to turn it into a full fledged affair or more, things would eventually turn sour. She can see it isn’t her, but some deep dissatisfaction within Don that drives him to jump to from one mistress or marriage or job to the next. “That poor girl,” Betty says, stroking Don’s face, “She has no idea loving you is the worst way to get to you.” Though Betty doesn’t seem intent on imparting such hard-won wisdom to her successor as she and Don start up round two, the fact that she doesn’t even throw a wink or anguished glance in his direction while sitting with Henry the next day is telling. Maybe she really has moved on. Or maybe Henry’s growing political power and getting back to her Grace Kelly peak has her feeling invulnerable to Don’s pull these days.

Pete continues to feel left out at the office, with Don and Ted practically ignoring him in meetings. He secretly meets with Duck Philips, now a headhunter, at his apartment to discuss other opportunities. After shooting down several options, Duck tells Pete he needs to do better and spend more time at home. “I didn’t understand the well spring of my confidence,” Duck says. “Gin?” Pete nastily shoots back, but Duck’s not deterred, saying it was family that brought he back from the brink–and what a brink it was, once trying to take a drunken dump in what he thought was Don’s chair. “My family’s a constant distraction,” Pete grumbles, but Duck reiterates that if can’t manage that he can’t manage anything.

He commiserates with Joan about his personal problems, and while she doesn’t offer much in the way of a concrete solution, it’s a nice, vulnerable moment for what can often be a loathsome character. Despite initiating her prostitution last season, Joan has a certain amount of respect for Pete, as he’s the only person at the agency who’s always kept his word to her.

Word gets to Bob Benson via Joan about Pete’s predicament, and he gives him the name of a nurse to help him deal with his mother. I still don’t trust Bob all that much, but the longer the season goes on and the other shoe has yet to drop, the more I’m inclined to believe he isn’t out to destroy SCDPCGC.

Roger’s story was minor but still poignant. After taking his grandson to see Planet of The Apes, he gets an angry call from his daughter Margaret saying the kid has been having nightmares ever since. Roger tries to defend himself by saying Don took Bobby to see it, then says he saw a scary film as a child and it’s not his fault. Damn, I thought Roger was supposed to be good with people, but I guess we all have off days. Margaret tells him he can only see his grandson if Mona is there, and in a remark that cuts straight to the bone, says ““You can keep up your fantasy of acting like a father, but you’re done being a grandfather.”

Which is the reason why he pops up unannounced to Joan’s apartment, only to find her and Bob Benson gearing up to go out for a day at the beach. Looks like someone took mother’s advice. He awkwardly slips into business mode and Joan follows suit, until he leaves with his gift bag in tow. Bob’s way too savvy not to know something’s up, but doesn’t push the issue. The next day Roger gives Joan the present and almost pleads for her to let him be a part of their son’s life. However, Joan shuts him down, explaining she’d rather Kevin look at Greg as a heroic, albeit distant, father figure than get attached to one who may dip in and out whenever it suits him. Looking utterly defeated Roger slumps away, crushed his second chance at being a good father will never happen.

Knowing someone well, as well as knowing yourself, means realizing the place people should occupy in your life. Just as Betty’s pillow talk revealed her deep insight into Don, Joan knows Roger all too well, and while there is no malice in her decision, there is the knowledge the best place to keep him is at arm’s length.

Other Thoughts:

—Pete to Harry after the great margarine debate. “Oh it speaks!”

—”You want your balls tickled. Go see a head hunter.” Did Ari Gold have an Uncle Harry we never heard about?

—”You invited me over to discuss a scene even a child could understand. You invited me over and there were two bottles of wine! What was I supposed to think?”  Dang after she broke it down like that I’d almost be on Arlene’s side if it wasn’t already established that Megan really is that naive.

 

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