Review: 'Mad Men' - 'The Better Half': Climb every mountain
A review of tonight's "Mad Men" coming up just as soon as you give me a great ending to my article...
"I'm thinking about how different you are, before and after." -Betty
Last week, "Mad Men" gave us one of its strangest — and, to many, most frustrating — episodes in a long time. "The Better Half" was a much saner — if you can say that about an episode featuring Bob Benson in short shorts and Peggy stabbing Abe in the gut with a homemade bayonet — more focused, and ultimately more satisfying episode. But it wasn't a radically different show this week versus last; just the same one with different accents.
"The Better Half" was an episode about the two sides of ourselves — the person we think we are versus the person others see, or the person we are at work versus at home — and yet another sixth season episode loaded with doppelgangers and time-displaced versions of the same characters.
It's an episode where Megan plays twins, where the sleepaway camp has five Bobbys(*), Father Abraham has seven sons, where Duck Phillips (now a headhunter rather than an office vandal) can tell Pete "I've been you" in the same hour where Bob Benson does a fine impression of the young Pete (to Pete, in fact) and Henry is alarmed to see a man hitting on Betty while he's on the phone in the same way he once hit on her while Don was busy meeting Connie Hilton. Everyone has a copy, some better than others. Megan struggles to distinguish between Collette and Corinne, while Bob's young Pete Campbell is smoother and more assured than the original ever was.
(*) Bobby 5 notes how sad it is that there's no Bobby 1 anymore, prompting Betty to assume it's because Bobby Kennedy died. "No, he went home."
But it's also an episode where people and places seem to embody two extremes at once, depending on who's looking. Pete notes that the still-nameless agency is a mess, while Harry says the outside world sees them as the '27 Yankees: the Murderers' Row of Madison Avenue. Abe accuses Peggy of being brave at work and cowardly at home, and Peggy in turn gets into an argument with Don about how different Don and Ted really are. Don insists he and his partner/rival are exactly the same — that Ted is just better at hiding how invested he is in his own ideas — while Peggy notes that Ted never makes her feel as horribly as Don so often does.
"Well, he doesn't know you," Don replies — and is proven right at the episode's end when Ted makes a bad day for Peggy feel much worse by treating her only as a colleague and not the woman he confessed to love only days earlier.
Knowledge is power, as demonstrated in the episode's best sequence, in which Don and Betty — away from their spouses and still so familiar with one another — fall into bed together, then attempt to discuss their past, present and future over a half-smoked menthol. It's remarkable how much more in command Betty is than usual. She has no doubts about what she's doing (she leaves the door wide open for Don to follow), but also no illusions. She smiles throughout their post-coital chat, but she knows this was a one-time thing, because Don would go back to resenting her in a hurry if they tried for more, and she finally feels empathy for Megan, noting, "She doesn't know that loving you is the worst way to get to you." Both Betty and January Jones become easy punching bags for the "Mad Men" commentariat (myself included), but Jones is so rarely allowed to play this self-aware, assured side of the character, and it's one that suits them both. I'm usually of the opinion that the series would do well to leave Betty behind at this point, but she was a highlight tonight.
For a few moments at the diner, Don, Betty and Bobby are able to recreate the family they used to be, but it's not meant to last. The next day, Henry's in the booth with Betty, who's not the least bit uncomfortable to see Don — and to show him that, even factoring in last night, she's content with the life she chose. With Betty lost to him on top of Sylvia, Don makes an effort at home that night with Megan, promising to be more present than he's been, but it will just be temporary. He doesn't love her; he just doesn't have anyone else to go to.
Nor does Roger, who tries to duplicate Don's behavior by taking his grandson to see "Planet of the Apes," not factoring in the age difference between this boy and Bobby. His own son is lost to him — Joan may hate Greg, but she knows he's a better distant role model for Kevin than Roger will ever be — and now Margaret has made his (not much older than Kevin) grandson off-limits without his ex-wife as supervision. Roger wants everyone to see him as a responsible, caring paternal figure, and maybe he could be that with time and effort, but the history's too full and rough for his daughter or his former lover to cut him a break.
It's interesting to see Joan showing more of a soft spot for Pete Campbell, who pimped her out to Herb from Jaguar, than to the father of her baby. Her reasoning is pragmatic: Pete is "the only person there who's never broken a promise to me."(**) Like Betty with Don, Joan can make peace with a man she can understand and predict, even if he's done terrible things to her. Roger is too mercurial to ever trust.
(**) Footnote, take two: in the original version of the story written last night, I mistakenly wrote that Joan said Pete had never lied to her, which was interesting given what we know that she doesn't about the chronology of "The Other Woman." But "promise" is a more accurate description of their relationship.
The hour opens and closes with Don/Peggy/Ted scenes, and with more talk of margarine, as the agency tries to land Fleischmann's. In arguing over their respective pitches, Don notes that butter tastes better, but margarine is more durable. Margarine is a butter replacement that at this point in time has become more popular than the real thing, and it's an episode where various characters are fearful of being replaced. Pete is paranoid about his place at the revamped agency. Henry worries that Stu might do to him what he once did to Don Draper. But in many cases, butter has already been traded in for margarine. Betty ditched the dashing husband who spoiled on her quickly for the boring but reliable Henry. Joan is avoiding Roger and heading to the beach with Bob Benson and his shorts. Peggy has eagerly chosen Ted as her mentor over Don, believing he's ultimately a better man, if not a better talent.
But when Abe breaks up with her post-stabbing, and Peggy arrives at the office looking like a hot mess, Ted winds up hurting her just as badly as Don so often has. It doesn't seem as malicious, and it may not even be intended as such, but as a rumpled Peggy stares at her two composed superiors — each able to roll into the office like nothing dramatic happened to them since they were last in it — she begins to realize that there's not as much difference between then as she once assumed.
And given how our assumptions are often wrong or co-mingled with the truth, is it possible that Bob Benson really is a genuinely nice guy who's also adept at using that niceness to his professional advantage? Or is he both the good guy Joan thinks she's dating and the sociopath Ken called out in the season premiere? After tonight, I assume nothing.(**)
(**) UPDATE: As several of you noted in the comments this morning, in that scene with Ken in the premiere, Bob said his father was dead; here, he tells Pete that the nurse recently brought his father back to health. In the light of the morning, I think Bob Benson: Sociopath is winning again as the theory.
Some other thoughts:
* This week in "Mad Men" gifs (and I can only imagine the debate between Don, Ted, Peggy and Ginsberg over how to pronounce "gif"):
* Note how frequently sirens appear in the background of scenes, even from Don and Megan's high-rise apartment on the more genteel Upper East Side. The city in 1968 was not a happy place.
* On the other hand, I feel bad for Peggy that she's going to lose the fortune she would eventually have made if she'd hung on to that brownstone. A decade or two of potential stabbings could've really paid off if she'd hung in until the city cleaned up its image.
* Roger with another derisive nickname for a younger competitor: "Bob Bunson." I was also pleased that this episode implicitly confirmed Fienberg's theory from the podcast that last week's episode was really about what happens when Joan and Bob spend the weekend having sex, and therefore aren't around to prevent Vitamin B-related shenanigans.
* I always enjoy when Christina Hendricks lets her voice drop an octave — as Joan does when talking to Pete about her own problems at home — in what has to be how Joan really sounds when she's not in character as the most fabulous woman alive. A nice touch, especially in this particular episode.
* As break-up speeches go, "Your activities are offensive to my every waking moment; I'm sorry, but you'll always be the enemy" is pretty brutal. And I can imagine someone in a terrible relationship watching this episode and taking notes.
* Like Megan, I couldn't help but laugh at Arlene's pass at her — especially how Arlene kept misreading the signals as that conversation went along. (And Arlene's yet another person in the episode who's two things at once: into both men and women, but also the one who used to go back and forth telling herself "Arlene, you're wonderful" and "Arlene, you're kaka.")
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com