Monday, May 27, 2013

Mad Men Season 6, Episode 9, “The Better Half”

After last week’s disappointment, this week’s episode is a return to form: a masterful hour of television, through and through. There are so many great developments it’s hard to know where to start, but I’ll begin with Peggy’s storyline, which is the most symmetrical of the episode. Finally, Mad Men is paying off the promise of the merger in episode six with the kind of Don-Peggy-Ted professional “love” triangle storyline I had been hoping for, one that places front and center the conflicting personalities, loyalties, histories, and egos that inform these three characters’ relationships. Peggy starts the episode in the uncomfortable position of being fought over by her two mentors, and ends the episode with both of them boxing her out physically and emotionally, literally shutting their office doors on her. In a wonderful touch, the complete reversal of her relationships with them is emphasized ironically through her starting and ending the episode in the exact same physical location: midway between Don and Ted’s offices, just outside of the conference room.

Ted and Don each want Peggy to endorse their opposing approaches to Fleischman’s margarine, but Peggy tries to navigate a middle path, refusing to take sides. The discomfort of her position is transparent: side with Ted, and she risks facing Don’s abuse; side with Don, and she risks alienating Ted, whom she respects and cares for, both as a mentor and a possible romantic partner. Unfortunately for her, by the episode’s end, she inadvertently manages to alienate both mentors.

Shortly after she abstains from a decision on the Fleischman campaigns, Don seeks her out in her office, and we get some fireworks. Don is angry with her for not choosing sides, but Peggy will not be easily cowed, and she makes good on the promise of the self-assertiveness she demonstrated in her scene with Don two episodes ago, telling Don that it’s not her job to smooth Don and Ted’s collaboration, and then pointing out that Don is always only selfishly interested in his own ideas, rather than the best ideas (as we saw last season with his and Michael’s competing Snoball pitches). At the scene’s end, she finally musters the courage to imply that Don should not treat her as poorly as he does, and compares him negatively to Ted: “He never makes me feel this way.” Don, snide bastard that he is, replies, “He doesn’t know you.” This is Don at his ugliest – petty, defensive, and cruel – and it wounds Peggy, who is noticeably flustered and upset when he leaves.

If Peggy manages to alienate Don by pushing him away, she alienates Ted by trying to draw him in closer. Midway through the episode, Ted and Peggy have an exchange that is the inverse of Peggy and Don’s earlier argument. Ted reveals that he is also upset over Peggy’s refusal to choose sides in the first scene. However, rather than wounding Ted’s pride, instead, her attempted neutrality inadvertently makes him search for meaning in Peggy’s behavior, and later he overreacts to Peggy’s innocuous gestures during their pitch to Fleischman’s: she accidentally touches his hand, and then smiles at him, throwing him off his game. The two rehash their kiss from a few episodes ago, and we see how guilty Ted feels about it, and how much he feels for Peggy.

Later, after Abe dumps Peggy (more on this below), she runs back to Ted to tell him the news, thinking this will be all he needs to throw his guilt to the wind and embrace her. Sadly, Ted seems to have overcome his moment of weakness earlier in the episode. His face is an immaculate mask of professional neutrality as he tells Peggy he’s sorry to hear it, and that, “You’ll find someone else. And whoever he is, he’s lucky to have you.” It would seem that Ted is not about to let himself lose control the way Don did last week (although who knows how Ted would behave if shot in the ass with speed). Ted ushers Peggy out of his office, and as she walks down the hall toward Don’s office, Don closes his door. She turns around, and then sees Ted do the same. Poor Peggy. She started the episode being pulled in opposite directions, and ends it alone, stranded between her two former mentors.

Shockingly, my other favorite part of the episode involved none other than Betty Francis. It was a return to form for this character, both in terms of January Jones finally shedding the last vestiges of the fat suit she had been in since the beginning of season 5, and in terms of Betty once again becoming the kind of complex, moderately sympathetic character she used to be in seasons 1 through 3. This character turn is mostly a product of her newly-shed weight. She’s absolutely thrilled that men regularly lust after her once again, as we see in a scene at one of Henry’s fundraisers. I had the first of many laugh-out-loud moments when Betty fended of the advances of one of Henry’s colleagues, Stu, while simultaneously exulting in her desirability. She tells her would be suitor that she has three kids, and when Stu replies that he doesn’t care, she elatedly retorts, “No, look at me. Can you believe I’ve had three children?” If this were all there were for Betty in this episode, it would have been amusing, but not much different from her behavior in the past two seasons: self-absorbed and self-conscious, her happiness largely dependent on how others view her.

However, Betty suddenly becomes a wise and sympathetic old salt when a visit to Bobby’s summer camp thrusts her and Don back into the same orbit again. Even Don, it would seem, is not immune to Betty’s rejuvenated charms, as the two are not only civil to one another, but rekindle some of what they once had together, making love in Betty’s cabin. Their scenes together are remarkable for a number of reasons, one of which is that this is the first time we’ve seen them be civil with one another since the divorce. A part of this civility stems from their running into one another unexpectedly at a gas station; they don’t recognize each other initially, and view one another with fresh eyes.

Another part of their civility stems (once again) from Betty’s weight loss; she’s extremely pleased that she can attract someone who had previously been so repulsed by her. Don and Betty’s mutual civility also stems from their meeting on neutral ground. Thrust into unfamiliar surroundings, they naturally gravitate toward one another, as we can see when they both sit down for lunch with Bobby. Bobby asks if Don wants to drink, and Don glances around the restaurant incredulously, wondering if they serve liquor. He turns to Betty and asks, “Is that possible?” and she radiates amusement before saying no. When Don asks her what’s good to eat, she replies conspiratorially, “I’m afraid nothing.” Strangers in a strange land, they become unlikely allies through their shared familiarity.

Their lovemaking scene, however, is a truly transcendent moment for Betty, and perhaps an eye-opening one for Don. She displays a newfound understanding of Don, one that could only come with divorce and distance from him. In possibly the wisest line of dialogue Betty has ever uttered, she remarks that Don is like two different people “before and after” they sleep together: “I love the way you look at me when you’re like this,” she says, “but then I watch it decay. I can only hold your attention for so long.”* Even more remarkably, she has genuine sympathy and pity for both Megan and Don, two people for whom previously she had nothing but spite and bitterness. Betty knows from experience how closed-off and distant Don is in marriage, and she can easily imagine what Megan is going through once she infers that Megan and Don are in a rough place. She tells Don, “That poor girl. She doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you.” It’s a wonderfully powerful moment, both because it is touching and insightful, but also because it comes from such an unlikely, unexpected source.

* This line recalls another from earlier in the episode, when Megan tells Don what her show-runner says about the twin sisters she’s playing on her show: “They’re two halves of the same person and they want the same thing, but they’re trying to get it in different ways.” This line has particular thematic resonance for Don, whose life can be described by this statement: Dick Whitman and Don Draper are each different parts of who he is, the latter an attempt to achieve the happiness he never quite grasped with the former.

What I find most remarkable about this turn for Betty’s character is that it is completely in keeping with everything we already know about her: Betty’s chronic unhappiness often poisons her interactions with everyone in her life, but in those moments where she manages to feel good about herself, she becomes human. She’s in a better place now than Don is, and rather than lord it over him, instead she’s moderately saddened by Don’s restlessness, which she knows all too well. It’s a wonderfully played scene, and the best that Betty has been written in ages. If Betty had this much going for her every week, she wouldn’t be such a drag on the show, and I’d be happier she’s still around.

UPDATE: Tom and Lorenzo also have some nice insights into Don and Betty's interaction, convincingly arguing that their amicability here is partly a product of the the contexts of the previous episodes, in which Don has felt vulnerable and Betty confident.

Perhaps Betty’s insight into Don’s restlessness is the kick in the pants Don needs to finally try again with Megan. The state of their disconnection is reiterated earlier in the episode when Megan tries to have a conversation with Don before dinner. Don is so disinterested, however, that Megan can’t really ignore it anymore, and by the episode’s end, she seems all but ready to quit on Don. His conversation with Betty still on his mind, he acknowledges to Megan that he hasn't been there for her, but stops short of telling her he’ll change and try harder. I’d like to believe that his conversation with Betty made him realize that he is the source of his own discontent, that it's unfair of him to be so emotionally absent, and that he’ll try harder with Megan from now on, but given Don’s tendency to fall into old patterns of behavior, I have little optimism.

In other interesting developments, Joan seems to have taken as genuine Bob Benson’s acts of kindness two episodes ago, as this episode has the two of them going to the beach together. It speaks to Bob’s charm and charisma that he’s so easily penetrated Joan’s guardedness; very rarely does she let anyone from the office into her personal life, and within the space of two episodes, they’re already going to the beach, and are presumably dating. This scene is full of nice touches:
- Roger doesn’t even recognize Bob when he stumbles upon him in Joan’s apartment (later he refers to him as “Bob Bunson”)
- Roger quickly realizes that with Bob standing there, he can’t reveal that his true purpose in visiting Joan was to give their son a toy. He recovers with a poor excuse about paperwork, but it was still a nice save.
- Perhaps the nicest of touches: Bob and Joan are drinking coffee out of the same paper cups Bob carries around the office as a prominent token of his sycophantism. He sure knows how to get his foot in the door.

While this scene offers some insights into Joan, it is really more a part of a story about Roger. Roger gets to spend the day with his four year-old grandson, and takes him to see Planet of the Apes, which terrifies the grandson. Roger’s daughter suffers the consequences and realizes her error in judgment (she let “a four year-old watch another four year-old”), and rescinds Roger’s grandparent privileges, which is what prompts Roger to seek out the son he has with Joan. However, Joan refuses to let him into their son’s life. Even though she might not know Roger’s precise motivation, she knows Roger better than he knows himself, and correctly recognizes that his interest is fleeting, and that she can’t count on Roger’s transient feelings of responsibility. Sad news for Roger, but good on Joan for not even letting him have the opportunity to disappoint her.

Joan also had a scene with Pete, which is interesting because the two seem to be growing an unlikely rapport, one that has been brewing ever since the merger episode. They make for somewhat odd compatriots, considering that it was Pete’s idea to give Joan a partnership for sleeping with Herb from Jaguar last season. However, the possibility of taking SCDP public, along with their mutually hostile reactions to Don’s combustion of the Jaguar account, seems to have drawn them somewhat close. This week, Pete asks for Joan advice about coping with his family. Joan isn’t able to offer much help, as she shares his problems, but Pete thanks her nonetheless, and when she asks, “For what?” he replies that he doesn’t know. It seems to me that his thanks is for her leveling with him and offering a him a modicum of sympathy for his plight, something he’s always been in short supply of around the office.

And finally, everything Abe touched turned into comedy gold. He dumps Peggy after she accidentally stabs him in the gut with a homemade spear, but this isn’t even Abe’s first stabbing of the episode – earlier he’s assaulted on the street, and is first seen being badgered into a filing a police report. He's reluctant to give the cops evidence that would lead to his assailants’ arrest because to do so would fly in the face of his political and moral views. He doesn’t want to live in a "police state" that persecutes minorities who were “brought here by slave ships” and who have “no other recourse” but to rob (and stab) people. Later, the paramedic shrugs apathetically when Peggy asks for reassurance that Abe will be okay, and Abe dumps Peggy with some hilariously highhanded rhetoric. Farewell Abe; I enjoyed the rapport you had with Peggy, but I won't miss your zealous political commitments.

Other thoughts:

- There were a lot of other nice bits between Betty and Don, including their debate over which parent Sally is more like, and Don’s bewilderment and surprise when Betty invites him into her cabin. The look on his face is like that of an animal suspecting a trap.

- The scene of Don gazing at Betty and Henry happily chatting over breakfast nicely recalls and reverses a similar scene from season 4, when Betty and Henry run into Don on a date, and Betty festers with jealousy over Don’s unconcerned nonchalance. Here, perhaps shocked into some introspection by Betty’s insights, Don seems to be contemplating exactly what it is he wants from a woman as he looks at his ex-wife.

- Really good work from January Jones in this episode. A grace note: as Henry interrogates her during their car ride home, she her fidgets with her purse and looks at Henry out of the corners of her eyes, the perfect picture of facetious innocence.

- Other grace notes to Don and Ted’s dual for Peggy: I love how when Don calls Peggy in to get her opinion on his and Ted’s differing approaches, she tries to get out of it by pointing to the folder she’s carrying and mouthing “I’m busy!” Also, both Ted and Don motion Peggy into the conference room with identical “come here” gestures.

- After Peggy’s wild night, she’s a mess in the office the next day. We’ve never seen her look so disheveled at work (except perhaps after her all-nighter with Don in “The Suitcase.”)

- Megan always rocks stylish clothing, but that short blonde wig she sports for the role of the twin sister on her television show is extra-rocking. If only she were as adventurous as her characters, she might save herself some discomfort. She reaches out to her swinging co-star Arlene, only to have Arlene try to take advantage of her vulnerability with repeated come-ons.

- Given Don’s experience at playing parts and being two different people, one would think he’d be able to console and council Megan over her difficulties with her show, but he has little interest in doing so.

- Roger’s excuses for taking his grandson to see Planet of the Apes include, “He wanted to see that,” and “Don took his kid.”

- This week’s episode also featured the not-so-triumphant return of Duck Phillips, who is now a headhunter. Every time the show brings back this character, I’m amazed that he’s still on his feet, because at the end of each of his stints, he seems to be even lower in the depths of despair. Apparently, Duck has stabilized this time around. His secret: family! Shocking, considering that his first appearance had him turning loose the family dog onto the streets of New York, and that his second appearance had him engage in an affair with Peggy. Duck’s one scene ends with him telling Pete that Pete had better manage his family, or he won’t end up managing anything at SCDPCGC; perhaps this is advice that is also applicable to Don.

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