Mad Men 6X09 – The Better Half


I was a little late to this episode, due to an avalanche of uni assessments that I left as late as possible to start tackling. A few day after it aired (in the US), I saw on my Facebook newsfeed (not naming anyone……SUE!) ‘Ugh.. Don and Betty. Yuck. And why!?’. My first thought was, ‘cool, someone who watches Mad Men’. My second thought was ‘Wait…..What????!!!!!’. So my whole viewing experience came down to waiting for that moment. It was to the show’s credit that it didn’t really feel like a big deal, or even a major faux pas for Don, who I think we all gave up on seasons ago, in the fidelity department. And for whatever their relationship lacked, Don and Betty always valued their sex life.

One thing that was a surprise in this episode: Betty was on fire. The Betty of season 4 and 5 seemed to really only exist to give Sally something to rebel against. Season 6 actually gave her a storyline (yes just the one) in the premiere that went a long was to making her relatable without sanding away all her edges and insecurities. Her flirtation with Don and their scene in bed together was one of the best sequences of this season. We can’t dismiss that fact that she really does know Don (if not Dick) better than anyone else, even though I’d say most of her intuitiveness came after their divorce. She rightfully and genuinely pities Megan who doesn’t realise that; ‘loving Don is the worst way to get to him’. When Don wakes up alone the next morning, and then sees Betty and Henry happily sitting together eating breakfast, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of ‘Ha, now you know what it’s like’ as Don becomes ‘The Other Man’. Don’s entire storyline has a real nostalgic ‘season 2/3’ vibe despite the characters being older and wiser now. The ease to which Don, Betty and Bobby slip into happy family roles as they all sing together is entirely charming and unforced.

The other major storyline focused on Abe and Peggy’s relationship, which has been slowly simmering in the background throughout the season. It was only a couple of episodes ago when Peggy’s affections for Abe truly solidified at the idea of starting a family, after a potential relationship with Ted was squandered by the merge. One stab with a makeshift knife on the pole later…….and it’s bye-bye Abie. Clearly he had been looking for an excuse to break it off. Their move to the dodgier ‘more alive’ end of New York was really a test to see if peggy shared his pioneering spirit. She does not. This episode also more or less puts a lid on the Ted-Peggy relationship (one assumes). This really was a strong episode for Peggy who like Pete and the rest of SterCooDraPry is starting to wonder where her place is in this new company (but on a more personal level). To me her relationship with Don is one of the backbones of the series, so it’s good to see that challenged, mostly because I enjoy when Don feels challenged and turns into a rather foul, petty person (See The Other Woman in season 5).

At first I thought this was going to be a Pete episode about his place in the restructured firm but that thread quickly makes way for the stronger storylines of the episode. In fact, both Pete and Roger’s storyline seem to exist to fit around the theme of characters who are seemingly adrift without their ‘better half’. Roger’s daughter chastises him for being a child and suggests Roger can’t be around her son without Mona. And Duck (a strange choice, one would think) suggests that Pete spend more time with his family. As Todd VanDerWerff suggests in his great Mad Men reviews, this episode is far too neat in its drive for thematic coherence among the disparate story threads. However for the Betty/Don storyline and Peggy’s shock break up, I considerably enjoyed this episode.

What I Likes:

– Betty doesn’t get off too easily. She still doesn’t know her left from right during the camper/scouts (I don’t know what Americans call what Bobby is participating in) song.

– Elizabeth Moss was especially fantastic in this episode. I loved the home-made bayonet. It made the whole scene slightly less horrific.

– The way Betty’s suitor was taken aback when she said ‘no, can you believe I’ve had 3 children?’

– Pete’s ‘my family are a constant distraction’. And you can tell he really means it too.

– It’s a bit cheap, but I did laugh a lot when the guy in the ambulance ambivalently shrugged at Peggy’s ‘he’s going to be okay right?’

– The last few shots of the episode were admittedly a tad arch and over-deliberate but they were still masterfully done. And I loved the use of the original version of ‘There’s Always Something There to Remind Me’ over the final shots.

What I Don’t Likes:

– I didn’t mention Megan’s storyline because I don’t have much to say about it. The play-within-a-play conceit of using Megan’s television show to comment on the theme of the week is just too obvious and I would think too easy for a show like Mad Men. I mean, to have her play dual roles that are two halves of the same person. Again like I say, far too neat. And her bisexual co-stars don’t really add much to the show.

– I still think January Jones is an inconsistent actress. Her first scene with Don was pretty poor, but her performance improves throughout.

– The Joan, Roger & Bob scene was a bit awkward and felt out of place to me (somewhat purposefully of course), but I always seem to forget that Roger is Kevin’s Dad. The show still hasn’t convinced me that I should care about Kevin’s parentage.

Overall Grade: 8 Mountain climbing sex metaphors

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