All Pain and No Gain for Mismatched Lovers in Mad Men, Season Six, Episode Nine

by sweatermanifesto

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I have to admit, I’ve never been a fan of Abe’s.   I find his idealism to be an excuse to act smug and superior to others, and his egalitarian impulses borne of the need to lecture his fellow men about their own moral shortcomings.   I never believed he was truly proud of Peggy or understood what she did as advertising professional, nor did he much care about it.   And while Abe would practice what he preached about social injustice to the point that it literally almost killed him, he showed himself to be as graspingly ambitious in his own way as any Mad Man.  Peggy and Abe were as mismatched as they come, and the survival of their relationship over the years was as contrived a plot point as ever hatched from the fertile brain of Matthew Weiner.

But even I could not find a more creative- or invasive- means of severing that struggling relationship than Weiner did in the ironically named “The Better Half”.   In a sense, a terrified Peggy’s accidental stabbing of her nudnik lover was a fatal blow to a relationship that seemed on life support since their moving into the “gentrifying” neighborhood on the lower East side.    And while the blood flows in the ambulance, Abe tells Peggy what he really feels about her- which is she is a timid little flower who works at a job he despises in an industry for which he holds the same contempt as Midge’s lover Beatnik Roy did those many years ago.    But that’s all ok, because her stabbing has given him a great conclusion to some magnum opus that he’s crafting, ostensibly for New York Times magazine.   Well, Abe, good for you- have a great article and a nice life.   Game, set and mismatch is over.

We all hope that Peggy can do better, but given her history with men and the head fake at the end of the show that her recently confessed swain Ted Chaough gives her, we don’t hold much hope.   I’m laying better odds that Peggy is the first female CEO of a major advertising agency than she ever finds real love.   Peggy may be destined to always be the better half.

Meanwhile, another mismatched pair find their way back into bed, the original Mad Men fun couple of Don and Betty.   “Thin Betty” came back in full force with a vengeance in this episode, not only being her imperious, ego-driven (and Grace Kelly-gorgeous) self, but also looking hot enough to ignite the passion of both a major Republican donor and a gas station attendant looking like he’s wandered off the set of “Deliverance”, all in a 24-hour period.   (Of course, just to maintain Weiner-style attention to detail, “Deliverance” was several years later).   The ability of Betty to have men see her through the eyes of other men stimulates the two primary men in her own life- a rejuvenated Henry Francis, who jumps her in the limo after having to watch his donor friend do everything short of giving her the keys to his hotel room, and the suddenly amorous ex-husband Don.

Being out in the woods with a bottle of whiskey and mosquitoes hovering in the air have a bracing effect on both former spouses, but what is most interesting about the Don-Betty seduction scene is that Betty is fully in command (second most interesting is Don’s comparison of having sex to climbing a mountain).      She realizes that she will never hold his attention other than through sex, and so she uses that to get what she wants, which is validation from her original and most coveted lover that she is, indeed, still the desirable debutante that she was when she first met him.  Then, it’s back to reality and Henry, as her better half- whatever that is in the context of Betty- reasserts herself at breakfast with Henry the next morning.

“The Better Half” title is taken from the struggle that Megan is having trying to play a dual role on her soap opera.   She thinks she’s acting like two different people, but evidently not different enough, to the point where she fears she’s actually going to be fired from the show.  Meanwhile, everyone around her is acting like two selves, with the good one warring with the bad.    Arlene lets her inner lesbian out at Megan’s flat, after hearing Megan out and drinking parts of two bottles of wine that she interprets as a come-on rather than a plea for help from the younger woman.   Roger tries to act like a father and grandfather but ends up looking in need of parental supervision himself.  And Don and Ted continue their psychological warfare over dueling creative visions (for margarine, of all things,) finding it hard to put their rivalry aside and focus on those positives that make the two of them great advertising men.

While we wonder whether Pete Campbell even has a better half (and while his true better half, Trudy, continues to be offstage raising their child while Pete copes with his increasingly demented mother), he gets a pep talk that appeals to his better nature from the unsinkable Duck Phillips, back in the saddle and soberly (and successfully) pursuing a career as a headhunter.    Duck advises Pete in a depressingly lit interview at Pete’s sad city pad to get his personal act together, as it will help him give off a much more confident vibe as he searches for options beyond SCDP, etc.    (Great to have the smoothly professional Mark Moses back in the picture, no matter how brief.)

The big loser for the episode other than Peggy (although I think Abe’s exit is addition by subtraction) is Roger, who may be getting his groove back professionally but has let his Peter Pan act burn away any opportunity he may have to lead a normal personal life.   Roger’s rejection by both his daughter and Joan (the former after he ill-advisedly takes his four-year old to the movies to see- what else- “Planet of the Apes”) is appropriate but nonetheless heartbreaking.   We want Roger to be a better father and grandfather, but we know- and they know- that he can’t.

We’re perhaps less surprised than Roger to see the ubiquitous Bob Benson showing up at Joanie’s in his shorts for a trip to the beach, but while the two of them seem to be together, Bob shows none of the manly swagger that one would assume he’d take on if he and Joan were really an item.    Both of Bob’s halves just might be good, and we’re simply not yet buying it, continuing to believe there is a hidden agenda behind his do-gooding.    Credit James Wolk for creating a persona for Bob in which the text seems to be the subtext, unless it’s not– most brilliantly played in the scene with Pete, when he recommends a nurse for Pete’s mother and looks for all the world like he cares for Pete in a thoroughly unadulterated way.  It may be a while before we find out whether Bob is the realization of our ideals or justification for our cynicism.      But one thing seems apparent, and that is that Joan and Bob are a serious mismatch, especially with him in those shorts.

The irony is that the one person who is actually supposed to be playing two roles is really the most unitary character in the show.  Megan has been much maligned by other reviewers, but I believe that Jessica Pare has found the right tone for her character and has stuck to it steadfastly for the entire year, and in this episode it has paid off.   Megan is a fully realized person trying to bear her problems with equanimity and consistency.   She loves her job and loves her man, and is trying to balance each successfully.     There’s no better or worse half to Megan, and that’s what makes it so very difficult for her to play those two distinct roles.

Megan doesn’t give in to Arlene’s advances, even if it means that she gets fired.   She confronts Don when he comes home from camp when it would be easier to go with the flow and take advantage of his momentary tenderness.    Megan knows he’s been gone, because as she says plaintively to him, “I’m here.”     The question is at the end of the scene with Don (which Jon Hamm pulls off with enough ambiguity to make us wonder), does Don realize that Megan is his better half?

At the end of the episode, Peggy is in the same spot she was in at the beginning, wedged between two mercurial protégés, in some ways the two halves of her own personality, but cut adrift from a failed relationship and uncertain of her future.    The closing of Don’s and Ted’s doors leaves Peggy symbolically exposed, but perhaps in better position than ever to chart her own course and be her own person.    It’s Peggy time, and not a moment too soon.

Submitted by Harlan R. Teller

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