Mad Men Season 6 Review “The Better Half”

Mad Men Season 6 Episode 9 The Better Half (2)

Last night’s episode of Mad Men demonstrated that even as things change, people remain fundamentally the same. When the episode opened to the battle of the butter raging on, I expected another humdrum, agency-centric storyline. I was wrong. Instead, “The Better Half” delved back into Peggy’s and Don’s psyches, and the discoveries there were downright depressing.

We should start with the most shocking moment of any Mad Men episode to date – Don and Betty sleep together. I’m not sure anyone could have seen that coming. For Don/Betty fans, there is still no hope of reconciliation. This was mostly about Betty regaining her power now that she has lost weight. She revels in being the center of attention: Henry’s coworker propositions her, Henry is more aggressively amorous, and even a teenage gas station attendant can’t help but ogle her. Her vanity is what ultimately brings her back into Don’s arms.

Don probably feels something similar. He tells Betty that he misses being with her. As is often the case with Don, when he says it, it feels like he really means it. The problem is that his emotions change so quickly that you can’t count on him for consistency. Betty recognizes this. She tells Don that she feels sorry for Megan because, “She doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you.” The next day, Don walks into the restaurant and Betty and Henry are enjoying breakfast together. Don is relegated to sitting by himself at a table in the corner. You almost want to feel sorry for him. But, he is the architect of his own misery.

Don’s struggles don’t end when he returns home. Megan looks at him with hopeful eyes as she explains that their relationship needs to change. She feels like Don has checked out. He has, of course. That was Betty’s point – it’s impossible to keep his attention because he’s an emotionally broken man. His many relationships are Band-Aids that will never allow the underlying wound to heal. He tells her what she wants to hear, but we all know that nothing will change. He loves Megan as much as he is capable of loving her. Which isn’t a whole lot.

Don’s relationship with Peggy also continues along its rocky road in this episode. There is affection between them, but also a persistent power struggle. Peggy started out as Don’s secretary and because he helped elevate her from that position, he wants her to forever remain the grateful protégé. Don also realizes that Peggy is enamored with her more recent boss, Ted. As Don and Ted struggle to establish dominancy in the office, they place Peggy in the middle and demand she choose a side. Peggy understands the game and resents being used as a pawn.

Yet, Peggy seems to find comfort in her position. By being in the middle, she receives attention from both men. For that privilege, she tolerates Don’s nasty comments and Ted’s advances. Does she do this from a desire for power or is it a desperate need for attention? It must be a bit of both. With Don, she tolerates his behavior because in return she receives a modicum of respect and responsibility. With Ted, Peggy has a smoldering infatuation that is stoked by his outlandish behavior.

Ted brings Peggy into his office to berate her for brushing against his hand and smiling at her during a presentation. Then he states that he regrets having kissed her. Peggy tells him that she has forgotten that incident and wonders why he’s dwelling on it. Ted proceeds to manipulate her emotions in a moment worthy of Don Draper. He sighs dramatically and bemoans that he’s become a cliché: “The boss in love with his protégé.” But, he tells her they can’t be together because they each have significant others. Peggy is floored by his confession and even offers to quit her job so as to not make him uncomfortable. Ted may have some feelings for Peggy, but this feels more like his subconscious trying to win her over because he still thinks she’s on Team Don.

Ted’s protestations of love come at an inopportune moment for Peggy. She is vulnerable and her relationship with Abe is falling apart. Not only does she have to put up with Don’s digs at work, at home she has to listen to Abe telling her that she’s “the enemy” for working in corporate America. Abe is filled with anti-establishment rage and clearly unable to maintain a relationship of mutual respect. One evening, Peggy accidentally stabs Abe in the stomach because she believes he’s an intruder. The actual stabbing was ludicrous and unnecessary. But, on another level it feels like a crude way for Peggy to regain some of her power. She doesn’t seem that upset that Abe has a knife in his stomach and acts like an apology takes away her responsibility. It’s unclear why she’s surprised when Abe breaks up with her.

It needs to be said that Peggy is not a victim. She ultimately tolerates the behavior of Don, Ted, and Abe for various reasons and every once in a while pushes back. At the same time, the behavior of the men in her life is reprehensible. They all seem to know what button to push and show no restraint. At the end, Peggy, looking worse for the wear, goes into Ted’s office to tell him that she and Abe broke up. She’s hoping for another protestation of love. Instead, he tells her, “You’ll find someone else and whoever he is, he’s lucky to have you.” Then he pretty much kicks her out of his office. As she stands in the hall, Ted and Don shout congratulations to one another over the success of the butter account, and then shut their doors. Peggy is left standing in the middle like a chump.

Aside from the main character struggles, the side stories this week were interesting. Megan struggles in her acting role while fending off lesbian advances from her costar. Roger goes overboard in his role as grandfather and tries unsuccessfully to establish a relationship with Kevin. Pete got a lead on a caretaker for his mother.

It will be interesting to see if there is any fallout from the Don/Betty hook up. It’s hard to say. Don doesn’t like to be left, because that shows his loss of power in a relationship. Betty’s done it once before and he may not want to let her do it again. However, Don may think twice about trying to sabotage her relationship with Henry, because that would ricochet back on him and Megan. It will also be interesting to see Peggy’s next steps. I would like to see Peggy stand up for herself and walk out on Ted and Don. The problem with that is she would find another Ted and Don, because ultimately she is who she is – just as Don is who he is – and people don’t change.

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