A lot of people make plan B’s. They have these little safety nets they’re going to leap into, these ripcords they’re going to pull, if everything goes south. Actually, I’d wager that everybody has these safety nets in one area of their lives or another. If the dream job never materializes, you can always stick with [insert job you hate here]. If you never meet the right person (or the person you’re convinced is the right person never notices you), well, you can love the one you’re with. Maybe you make compromises to appease others in your life, move to a building you never really liked in the first place or agree to go along with a lie about your secret love child’s parentage (okay, that one doesn’t come up as often). Life is what happens when you’re making other plans, or so John Lennon would have it, and boy, so much of your life is making sure those safety nets have just the right amount of give.
There are characters diving into their safety nets all over the place in “The Better Half,” and for the most part, they’re stunned to realize that those safety nets are no longer really there. This is one of those episodes where Mad Men gets a little too cute, a little too neat, practically underlining all of its symbols and thematic content with red ink, then going back over it with neon yellow highlighter for emphasis. Despite that, the episode is exquisite on a pure, scene-by-scene basis, so I can’t get too mad at it for leaning a little too heavily on all of the points it wants to make. By the end of it, with Peggy standing there in the offices of this unnamed behemoth ad agency she works for, realizing how alone she is, even though the hive continues to buzz around her, the episode has mostly attained all of the emotion it’s aiming for, even if it does clumsy things like have one scene show Megan playing two different characters on her soap opera, then immediately follow that with a scene where it’s suggested that Ted and Don are basically just the same dude anyway.
Those notions of people realizing the others they took for granted have finally taken the hint as well as notions of duality are liberally sprinkled throughout “The Better Half,” as opposed to how the show (at its best, at least) usually suggests its major thematic points. On the one hand, this approach led to some great moments—like Betty and Don’s talk in bed together, or when Don returned home and saw his worried second wife (third? do we count Anna?) standing on the balcony, overlooking a city brimming with police sirens. On the other hand, it led to the aforementioned sense that the show was sticking exclamation points after everything it wanted to say. This can sometimes work if the actors are game, as they were here, but it’s not my favorite mode for the show to operate in.
What I most liked about this episode was the idea of evil twins. Megan is told to let the wig do the work when differentiating between Corrine and Collette, and she’s basically told to play the two characters in largely the same fashion later by Arlene. The idea here is fairly basic, but it comes up throughout the hour: We all of us contain within us our own evil twin, our own worst impulses. Roger, for instance, is upbraided by his daughter for being a 4-year-old that will get her own, actual 4-year-old into situations he’s not ready for (like seeing Planet Of The Apes, film of choice for the characters this season). Peggy is at once the wannabe Bohemian who moves with Abe into a not-yet-gentrifying neighborhood, then reacts in absolute fear once her boyfriend is stabbed. When she, herself, stabs him with a makeshift bayonet—this season is really turning up the “what?!” quotient”—he tells her in the back of the ambulance that he hates her and everything she stands for. But he doesn’t, really, because he obviously loved her long enough to make this home for her. Don, also, contains these two versions of himself: the guy who’s trying to get Betty in the sack and the guy who’s contented in the afterglow.
These dual natures come up again and again in this episode, as characters are paired and mirrored. All season long, the series has been suggesting that Ted and Don are alike, but for a few key differences. Now, Don tells Peggy that Ted is just the same guy as him, at least insofar as he just wants Peggy to pick his idea when it comes to Fleischmann’s. Peggy insists that this isn’t the case. Ted just wants the best idea, while Don wants everybody to choose his idea. When Don insists that’s not true, it tells us a bit about Don himself—he has a tendency of viewing the whole world through this competitive lens (though we knew that already)—but it also suggests an alternate reading of these characters than the one the show has been presenting us with. Or, rather: It suggests that Don’s reading of them as fundamentally unchangeable is correct.
But that’s not really true! All around Don Draper, people are changing. And this brings us back to the safety net thing, because there are moments in this episode that would have been unthinkable even two seasons ago. Think, for instance, of Betty having sex with her ex-husband during a long night after picking up Bobby at summer camp, rejuvenated by her renewed sexual attractiveness, by the fact that men once again find her desirable. (Even Henry’s carried away when he finds out another guy wanted to have sex with her.) When Don heads down to breakfast in the morning, after finding that Betty has slipped out of bed without waking him, he sees that she’s laughing happily with Henry, while his own wife is back in the city, left to fret about her career and the sirens wailing in the night. Betty’s gotten enough distance from her disastrous first marriage to realize she just doesn’t care enough to be angry anymore. She can fuck Don Draper and be happy with her second husband the next morning. Who she really feels sorry for is Megan, who doesn’t understand that having sex with Don Draper is the worst way to get him to love you.
Peggy, whom the show has used as a rough mirror of Don many times before, except that she actually manages to shift and change with the times, also finds herself not noticing how rapidly her safety net is unraveling. Abe may not be the guy she’s actually infatuated with at this point—I’d say that’s fairly thoroughly moved on to Ted—but he’s the reliable one who’s been there all along, the guy she bought a building with, for God’s sake. Except when it comes right down to it, he finds her rather conservative fear to be something he no longer wants in his life. Peggy’s fear, by any standard, is reasonable. After all, her boyfriend just got stabbed, and the city seems on the verge of exploding into the sort of violence that’s happened in Europe (something Abe seems excited about). But it’s also a dividing line between the two. Peggy likes Bobby Kennedy because she likes the Kennedys; Abe is ready for the revolution to get started. This divide seems only likely to get wider and wider—particularly once one of the two has stabbed the other with a bayonet—so Abe calls things off. It’s like the bayonet becomes the externalization of their issues, Peggy’s fear cutting into Abe and making him realize that she will never be someone who understands just why he wouldn’t identify the person who stabbed him, who takes umbrage at the police officer suggesting it might have been someone of another race. (One other nice thing about this storyline: It really shows us how and why these two were drawn together. Just as Peggy turns the whole of her life into fodder for her advertising, Abe is turning this whole incident into an article he’s just looking for the perfect ending for.)
It’s not just Don and Peggy who lose their safety nets, however. Roger, who’s always had Joan there as his ultimate fail safe, now realizes that she’s quite moved on with her life. Where once she might have been thrown by him showing up before her beach trip with Bob, she’s now simply willing to tell him that he doesn’t belong in her son’s life. He might be little Kevin’s biological father, but he’s also someone who will just confuse Kevin if he’s around too much. Greg has to be the man in Kevin’s life. Joan has decided that, and that simply means that if she’s going to date someone, it can’t be Roger. Indeed, it can never be Roger. And the more we see of Bob Benson, the more I think that the show intends for us to be incredibly suspicious of him but also will eventually have him simply be someone who means what he says and is who he appears to be. Is it any wonder that people who’ve worked in these offices with these particular men for so long would be flummoxed by that? I’ve argued with a critic who says that since Ken thinks Bob is bad news—and Ken is rarely wrong—we should keep an eye out. But I’d say that Joan has a fairly good eye for people, too, and she seems disarmed by Bob.
To have that safety net there is to always know roughly where you stand, at least in relation to one person. What I’m loving about this season of Mad Men as it goes on is how the characters find those once certain truths eroding out from under them, the turbulent nature of the outside world reflecting the much smaller traumas going on in their own hearts and minds. Nowhere is this more apparent than with Peggy, who increasingly seems like the season’s true main character. Her personal voyage has always been at the show’s center, but the more we watch as she simply tries to hang on for dear life in the middle of this turbulent work situation, the more she becomes central to what the show is trying to say. In an episode obsessed with duality, Peggy suggests that there is no right or wrong answer, no one correct approach that will satisfy everyone. Instead, there’s likely some answer in the middle that will ultimately result in everyone’s happiness. But that’s not good enough for Don—or for Ted, he insists—because Peggy has turned into a proxy in their battle. Whether she chooses the man she now longs for or the man who was always her mentor is the true contest here, and one wonders if Peggy’s near paranoia that Don did all of this to get her back under his wing is at least slightly justified.
Peggy ends the episode alone. Abe has left her, while Ted doesn’t react to that news in the way she might want. Just down the hall, Don is ready to go full steam ahead on the margarine account. All around her, activity is buzzing, but she’s a woman left adrift, at the center of this ’27 Yankees roster that the agency has put together but increasingly unsure of her position in the midst of that, because of the two men who keep making demands of her. There is, of course, another way. Pete’s exploring the idea of abandoning the agency altogether for something else. The best that Duck—now a headhunter—can do is offer him a Head of Marketing job in Wichita (presumably Boeing?). Duck tells Pete that there are more important things than work. There’s his family, which he should be building up as best he can—and, indeed, Pete’s home life has negatively impacted his work life in a very direct fashion this season. But that bit of advice rings slightly hollow coming from Duck, who not only largely left his family completely behind but sent the family dog out onto the streets of New York to fend for itself, like one senses Pete wouldn’t mind doing to his own mother.
This isn’t the only scene in the episode that rings false—I’m also not a huge fan of the “Megan’s soap opera” plot here and elsewhere in the season—but it’s the one that, to me, seems sort of like an outlier, to the degree that it makes me wonder just how much Matt Weiner and Erin Levy (co-credited for the script), as well as director Phil Abraham, are trying to undercut it. Are we meant to take Duck’s words seriously here? He’s certainly the kind of man who would have learned a lesson like this, but something so simple as “family always matters!” is a bit too clean for Mad Men, which I tend to prefer when it gets messy and weird and personal. Instead, I think, I’ll just approach this as yet another solution to an insoluble problem. These people will always long to fill the gap that refuses to be filled, and throughout the night, the sirens will wail, marking the smaller earthquakes only they can feel.
- Apologies that this is late and if it is inaccurate. I was away from my precious television all day, so I had to watch this streaming on a Slingbox, which is rarely the best way to appreciate Mad Men. That also made the whole thing sort of gummy in places. I checked this against my wife’s memory of the episode, but if I’ve missed something factual here, please let me know!
- I honestly had no idea there were alternate lyrics to “Father Abraham,” but thanks to Bobby Draper, I now do. So the kid is good for something!
- Megan must remember that Collette would never stop to clean something up. She is no maid! She is a blonde!
- I don’t entirely know which version of “There’s Always Something There To Remind Me” played over Peggy’s final realization that, well, there would always be something there to remind her of practically everything, but it was a great choice to close the episode on.
- Duck Phillips adds “Yankee whistle” to his list of weird colloquialisms I’m going to start working into everyday speech.
- Bobby’s summer camp was gloriously evoked from just a few locations and some fake mosquitos. I was practically ready to travel back in time to attend it.
- Next time on Mad Men: Everybody’s getting on a plane! Just after this meeting.