“The Better Half” – Mad Men

image29-600x399There are some episodes of Mad Men which make it inescapably clear that theme is very important to its writers. The vast majority of episodes of the AMC hit show play into one theme or another, but some highlight it far more explicitly. This was most definitely one of those. “The Better Half” overtly focused on reappraisal and review. Each of the main characters featured in the episode went through some sort of self-examination, looking at who they are and what their lives have become.

We open, as we so often do, by addressing Don. So much for our theory about hitting rock bottom and clawing his way back up to some semblance of maturity. Turns out he has a ways yet to go and rock bottom is far from reached. We had hoped that recent events would drive him back to Megan, and to that all too brief display of faithfulness we witnessed in Season 5. We couldn’t have been more wrong. While the episode did feature more self-assessment than we’re used to from Don – which would ordinarily be seen as a step in the right direction – it came in back of a ‘reconnection’ with ex-wife Betty (who, in turn, was riding high on her rediscovered sexuality). The self-assessment was relatively major stuff, for Don. An appraisal of his skills at work (brought about by Peggy’s apparent preference for all things Ted) and an honest look at how the choices he’s made have brought him to where he is now. His acknowledgement that sex doesn’t make him feel close to someone, so quickly followed by his desire to keep having sex with Betty, paints the picture of a man who is not necessarily in control of his desires, and of a man who knows it.

Betty’s self-appraisal ties into this. It’s clear that her sense of self-worth is massively related to her looks. From the episode’s outset, we’re presented with an all-new Betty. Though that’s not quite right. This is the old Betty. Confident, flirtatious, in control. The Betty we missed, in short. Wicked streak still intact, she’s nevertheless far more likeable like this. Before anyone accuses us of being swayed by appearance, that’s not it. We’re solely swayed by her personality. And when she’s thin, her personality is far more enjoyable. She’s aware of the difference herself, but there’s more to it than that. This episode saw her finally letting go of that Don-shaped resentment she’s been lugging around with her for the past few seasons. She finally realized that she’s not angry anymore. She’s glad they’re not in a relationship and that they didn’t try to make it work. She knew it never would. This realization makes her happier and more affable. It also makes her the second woman in as many weeks to kick Don to the kerb. This is a marked shift in the show’s paradigm, and in Don’s character. Once the paragon of discarding women when he’s through with them, he has now become the discarded. Surely another rung on the journey to rock bottom, but we may still be proved wrong on that front.

This week saw Megan’s love for her job waver. After a few bad days at work, her confidence was completely shaken. Of course this all comes back to Don (and we wish it hadn’t). What could have been a perfectly fine arc about her struggles and fears became a diatribe about how she doesn’t feel fulfilled because Don has checked out of their relationship. Granted, that would be concerning for anyone in a marriage, but we feel like the marriage didn’t have to be the focus. It just made us wonder ifMad Men has a gender issue as well as a race one – are the women in this show there solely to remind us of the men in their lives?

Pete’s self-evaluation centered mainly on his position at SCDPCGC. Feeling underappreciated, and on the advice of Harry Crane, Pete met with a headhunter to assess his options. Harry seemed convinced that the agency was a sinking ship. Pete wanted to test the waters. This forced him to take a long, hard look at his home life, addressing his mother’s care and seeking advice from Joan. Pete has never been satisfied with his life (and likely never will be), but this was the first episode that caused us to feel as though he might actually do something constructive about it.

Roger’s introspection felt far more familiar to us. Once again, that arc addressed Roger’s failings as a father and grandfather, and his noble if misguided attempts to become a part of his and Joan’s son’s life. Roger ever seems to be on the cusp of becoming a good guy – he at least deserves props for trying – but always falls short. This story interested us least because it felt like one we’ve seen a dozen times before.

Strangely enough, this week didn’t feel like the Don show (for once). This was all about Peggy. Just as she unconsciously emulates him in her working life, aspects of his personality are filtering into her personal life – most notably a desire for things she doesn’t have (Ted) – and it appears as though the writers are content to show her as the second most interesting character on Mad Men.

Peggy’s self-evaluation was two fold. Most on the surface was her relationship with Abe. This has been on the rocks for a long time, even if Peggy didn’t immediately realize it. This week saw her truly looking at their relationship and finding it wanting. Even if she wasn’t the one to end things, it was clear that she was discontented. Following Ted’s admission of love, her attitude changed so slightly as to be almost imperceptible, but change it did. She no longer seemed so bent on fighting for her relationship with Abe. Of course, the fact that she stabbed him (hilariously) didn’t help matters. But we feel that, even if things hadn’t so dramatically come to a head, that relationship would not have lasted much longer. The lure of Ted was too strong.

And Ted played a big part in that second round of self-evaluation. Throughout “The Better Half”, Peggy was forced to play the child-of-divorcing-parents role, stuck in the middle of Ted and Don’s power struggle. This forced her to assess how she feels about each of them and, assuming the writers are doing their job well, the answer she came to is complicated to say the least. It’s apparent that she was hoping for something more than sympathy from Ted after her breakup, but it was the closing shot that was most telling. That shot was the physical embodiment of her position – stuck half way between Don and Ted, desiring each and ignored by both. It may be interesting to see how that plays out.

Stepping away from that overarching theme, it seems pointless to theorize about Bob’s role in this whole thing anymore. It’s enough to know that he’s more than he seems to be, and that we don’t trust him, though it’s certain that he’s trying to dig himself in deep with anyone he can. We do sometimes wonder if he’s just a new character who was introduced awkwardly, but we feel that the Mad Men writers are more skilful than that. He will be significant. But we’re getting to the stage now where we just want to learn the truth. We’re growing tired of the mystery.

In closing, an observation: Slate.com has argued that Don and Megan’s balcony is bound to serve as the site of some major cliffhanging disaster as this season progresses. That’s possible. But, for now, we think it’s there simply to serve as a narrative device. A physical-world mirror for the inner torment of Megan and (in particular) Don. You may notice that when their lives are falling apart (more so than usual), their oasis of calm in the apartment retreats somewhat. The noise from the street below becomes louder. Sirens peal and horns blare. The balcony is, for the moment at least, merely a strong extension of that. It’s raw. It’s real. It’s away from their clean and tidy and carefully sculpted world. It’s where Don goes when he feels lost. It’s where Megan goes when she reaches breaking point. It’s where they’re allowed and able to be honest. To let the façade drop. It’s an escape. That may be enough for now. – K

Quoteworthy: “You’re right. I haven’t been here.” – Don

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