This review contains spoilers.
6.9 The Better Half
Like a chef composing a Michelin-star meal, Mad Men knows a thing or two about structure. After the previous episode’s unsettling acidity, this week we were served a satisfying, skilfully constructed staple. The Better Half reset this season to its factory settings. Frantic and trippy were out, measured, deliberate, and damned smart storytelling were in.
The episode’s title was even more help than usual in decoding its theme. It was an instalment preoccupied with mirror-images, fractured wholes, and imitations. The opening spat over butter and margarine gave way to soap ‘twins’ Colette and Corinne, Don and Betty Draper mark two, and Bobbies one-five; before culminating in Peggy’s realisation that Ted and Don are peas in a compartmentalising pod.
“You’re the same person sometimes” Peggy told Don after refusing to side with him or Ted on the Fleischmann pitch, a line she must have mentally repeated after Teddy gave her that chipper brush-off and both men retreated symmetrically into their offices. After two months of working across the corridor from each other, not only has Ted’s optimism failed to rub off on Don, but the former has morphed into a mirror-image of the latter. After declaring his love for Peggy, he pressed the Draper-trademarked “This never happened” button, and, with a line and gesture we’ve seen from Don countless times, breezily asked her to “round up the team”. Plus ça change eh Peggy?
What has changed for Peggy of course, is her personal life. She and Abe started things in a closet and ended them in an ambulance, after their escalating neighbourhood unrest story climaxed in a bonkers spot of wounding without intent. (Lord, when the next round of Mad Men dolls appears, please let Peggy’s come complete with a knife-on-a-stick accessory.)
Peggy and Abe’s plot this week was part urban gothic and part farce, but in keeping with the duality theme, it positioned the couple on opposing sides of the social fight. To Abe, product-hawking Peggy represents the Man, and to Peggy “I’m not a political person” Olson, Abe’s refusal to separate the personal from the political is plain old irresponsibility. Stabbed twice in as many days, ambitious Abe’s not wrong; that’s going to make for one hell of a story.
In just one of the episode’s many elegant segues, the sound of Abe’s ambulance travelled all the way to the Drapers’ Manhattan balcony, adding to New York City’s impending sense of chaos and violence. Megan fended off her co-star’s advances against a soundtrack of police sirens, the threat of 1968 unrest rising in the background and, like Sally’s home intruder last week, trespassing even into the ‘better’ half of the city. Megan and Arlene’s scene gave way to the chirruping crickets of Bobby’s camp with another masterful transition as Megan’s would-be seductress exited stage right with the line “Status quo antebellum, everything as it was”. Cut to: Don and Betty’s trip back in time.
Don and Betty’s reunion, like so much of this episode, was rewarding viewing for long-time fans. On the subject of imitations and mirrors, this Betty was the physical image of her former Grace Kelly-alike self, but much more in control, and much less neurotic. She even gave us an uncharacteristically wise insight into Don to rival Dr Faye’s “…you only like the beginnings of things” with the Megan-referencing line, “That poor girl, she doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you”. The audience’s most revealing insights into Don’s character have ever come not from Don, but from the women who surround him. Betty’s absolutely right, too. It’s a cruel irony that whoever is married to Don at the time appears to have the least clue about his real nature. Not being Mrs Draper has given Betty the wisdom she lacked when she was his better half.
All this talk of halves and doubles recalls that doppelganger Don season six poster we pored over before episode one, which is humming with resonance after this week. Not only does it take in Don/Dick’s duality, and the aforementioned Don/Ted personality merger, but a third mirror has revealed itself from amongst the supporting cast, one wearing a natty pair of shorts…
No, not Betty – despite the episode staging a ‘welcome back’ party for the blonde of old – but Bob Benson. Curse me for not noticing until now, but from their alliterative, cadence-matching names, to both having inveigled their way into the heart of SCDP without anyone knowing the first thing about them, Bob Benson is yet another version of Don, the man without a past.
Since we first met Bob Benson being batted away like an irksome fly in the season opener, he’s carved out a niche as a fairy godfather for Pete and Joan, solving their problems and ingratiating himself into Joan’s personal life. Whatever is Bob’s plan? Or more properly, what is Matthew Weiner’s endgame for Bob?
Season six does feel as if it’s creeping towards an endgame at the moment. Ties have been cut, leaving Peggy (whose future with Abe and promise of future kids has evaporated), Pete (still playing musical chairs and struggling to have his voice heard), and Roger (the world’s worst babysitter since Henry’s mother gave Sally half a tranquiliser and told her that serial killer-themed bedtime story) unanchored and spinning in mid-air. Don and Betty’s hook-up was a wormhole to the past, signalling yet more carousel-like repetition for our leading man, who’s still slouching from one adulterous bed to another. “Something has to change” said Megan, and we’ve only four more episodes of this season to find out what.
Read Frances’ review of the previous episode, The Crash, here.
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