Mad Men: The Better Half
“She’s blonde, classy. You need to make these women different.”
“You’re the same person at times.”
“They’re two halves of the same person and they want the same thing but they’re trying to get it in different ways.”
For all its complexities and sophistication, advertising almost always asks one question of consumers: Are you a butter person or a margarine person? Are you Chivas Regal or are you Budweiser? Does it taste great or is it less filling? Almost everything in advertising is a variation on the question or a variation on the possible answers to that question. The beauty of it is, it seems profound, but it’s actually banal and the responses tell us not so much about the person, but about how that person wants to be perceived at that moment. In other words, we’re all butter people and margarine people, depending upon whether we want to appear sophisticated (i.e., rich, extravagant, delicious) or morally upright (i.e., thrifty, health-conscious, salt-of-the-earth) to ourselves or others. It’s a self-flattering question with no wrong answers; every response flatters the respondent. Do you feel like a Corinne or a Colette today? Do you feel like cleaning up your messes or are you the type to leave them to others? “The Better Half” dealt partially with these internal dualities within people and partially with external ones, in which others are caught in the middle of dueling halves.
Who is Don Draper, to himself and to the people around him? Who is he to Megan? Who is he to Peggy? Who is he to Betty? Because he’s something of a sociopath, he’s the person in the story best equipped to cycle through his personae until he finds the right one; switching from butter to margarine; Chivas to Budweiser, depending on the situation. He withholds from Megan, punishes Peggy, and then, in a surprise (but not really) twist, gives himself up to Betty; opening himself up to her in ways he never could have managed when he was trying – and failing miserably – to be her husband.
Who is Peggy to herself and to the people around her? She isn’t so good at switching back and forth as Don is. She’s whip-smart, but she has no guile. She is utterly herself with everyone and that sometimes bites her in the ass. “I’d buy the cheaper one,” she says with assurance, when asked her thoughts on margarine. It’s the only thing she does say with assurance this episode because she knows herself well and can respond confidently when asked something about herself. It’s when she has to deal with the men around her and their various competing agendas that she finds things difficult. She’s not only stuck between the dueling egos of Ted and Don, she’s stuck between the dueling attractions of Ted, who she can’t have, and Abe, who no longer wants to be with her. Abe spoke approvingly of a revolution to come, so it was perhaps just a bit too clever of the writers to have her bayonet him in response, but you have to admit, Peggy stabbing Abe in the stomach was up there pretty high on the Mad Men Lawnmower Scale. We’re thinking 4.5 out 5 lawnmowers.
We’ve been predicting all season (based almost entirely on their costumes) that these two weren’t long for each other. Too many opposing agendas. Peggy would never have a problem with a revolutionary boyfriend with radical politics so long as he could excite her and treat her well. But Abe clearly can’t be with someone like Peggy and gave what has to be the absolute most declarative, definitive, brook-no-argument breakup line possible: “Your activities are offensive to my every waking moment. I’m sorry, but you’ll always be the enemy.” Yikes. No one’s coming back from that one. It’s 1968 and the personal is political. For someone like Abe, the idea of a real revolution coming to change American society was absolutely going to happen and there was no doubt in his mind that Peggy, with her status-quo ways and corporate-supporting career, would be on the losing side of history. We don’t doubt that he loves her, but his reality simply won’t allow for a relationship with her, knowing how unlikely it would be for her to change.
Back at work, she’s got Ted freaking out because she touched his hand (“It jarred me! You can’t smile at me like that!”) and admitting to her that he’s in love with her. On the other side of the office, she’s got Don, constantly getting up in her face and trying to get her to choose between her two mentors. When she tries to be diplomatic and tells Don that the best approach is somewhere in the middle, between the two men, Don won’t have it. “No, Peggy, there’s a right and a wrong.” As always with Don and Ted, it’s a big dick-measuring contest to see who’s going to be Top Creative Dog at the new SCDPCGCCalphabetsoup. Will Don’s butter approach or Ted’s margarine approach win Peggy’s support? Not that we doubt Ted’s feelings or even that Don needs Peggy’s support. It’s all grounded in real stuff, but it’s wrapped up in both man’s need to have Peggy be the one to validate him. She’s going to need to find a way to work with both men, because when they’re not using her to validate themselves, they’re ignoring her in a round of back-patting over their own comity. She’s going to get lost in this collaboration and she needs to recognize that immediately. Not even Ted’s supposed love for her is going to help her here.
Who is Betty, to herself and to the people around her? There are times when she wants to be seen as a good mother and a supportive wife, but there are just as many, if not more times when her needs are much, much simpler. Betty likes to be seen as hot, and she likes it even better when it drives her man to distraction. Remember her flirting with men and then role-playing with Don in Rome? Remember Roger putting the moves on her in her own kitchen and her being just thrilled enough to not quite know how to react? Remember Henry putting his hand on her pregnant belly before he even knew her name? She was raised to believe her worth came wrapped up in her looks, and after several years in a desert of unattractiveness, she’s got her mojo back in a big way.
We’re not kidding when we say Betty was never so hot as she was in that brief moment lighting a cigarette post-sex and allowing herself a small smile. This wasn’t about getting revenge on Don or trying to hurt him in anyway (athough, deliciously, she did). She’s feeling hot at the moment and she wants to revel in that. “Look at me. Can you believe I’ve had three children?” For the first time, Betty has self-confidence and it’s kind of an awesome thing to behold. What was almost too awesome to behold, like looking into the sun, was Betty calmly taking a drag from her menthol and then telling Don exactly who he is, with no pretenses and no agenda; just laying it all out because she’s known him well, known him long, and known him intimately. That combination puts her in a very distinct position in Don’s bed. “That poor girl,” she says sadly, of Megan, “She doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you.” There’s nothing bitchy in that line; no attempt to hurt any of the people she’s talking about. That’s incredibly rare for Betty, which should give you some idea of how much she’s grown up lately.
We said a couple weeks back that we should all have a discussion soon about why Betty’s still in the story and what purpose she can possibly serve anymore. We think with this scene we got our answer. If Betty never does another thing of significance during this story, her presence will have been justified by this scene alone. No one could tell Don who he is in this manner but Betty. There is no lover or protege or wife who can tell him what all his faults are in such a cool, detached, almost wry manner – and have him accept the truth of it without a bit of defensiveness or arguing.Of course it helped in that regard that Don himself has been through the wringer since their divorce and has recently learned some things about himself. This moment was an emotional perfect storm for both of them. She was right at a time when she felt good about her life and herself; and he just found out some very painful things about himself after once again almost blowing up his life. In other words; this happened because for once in their long, messy history together, she was the strong one and he was vulnerable. Granted, her confidence appears to be tied directly to her dress size, so we shouldn’t make the mistake of building her up too much, but working within the system she’s been forced into her whole life, this was about as empowering a moment as Betty could ever have. “Do you feel guilty?” Don asks her, expecting her to say that she does. “No. This happened a long time ago;” a fascinatingly obtuse line, showing that her ability to compartmentalize her actions can rival Don’s. “I’m happy in my life. Let’s just enjoy this.”
- Who is Pete, to himself and to the people around him? There was a time when he saw himself (and wanted to be seen as) the go-getting accounts man. He failed at being the husband and father. Looks like his last shot at personal redemption is doing right by his mother. To his credit, he seems genuinely concerned about doing the right thing. On the other hand, we can’t help thinking he’s trying to make a play for Joan, which is gross.
- Also kind of gross is the return of Duck Phillips once again to the story. Not that we mind the story development; just that the man skeeves us. Someday, someone wiser than us is going to write an essay about the wisdom of recovering alcoholics on Mad Men. We don’t know quite how clean Duck is at the moment, but his advice to Pete was pretty dead-on, and you could tell it came from experience; the experience of having screwed up his own life. “I had regrets because I didn’t understand the wellspring of my confidence.” “Gin?” “My family. You better manage that, or you’re not gonna manage anything.” A patriarchal system requires patriarchs, after all.
- Weiner & Co. are having quite a bit of fun with the soap opera setting. Either the within-the-soap-opera dialogue is somewhat cheekily on the nose (“I don’t know what your relationship is with my husband, but it’s over“), or the outside-the-soap-opera dialogue about the soap opera is somewhat heavy-handedly on the nose (“I’m either his mother or his girlfriend. I can’t be both. That’s bad writing”).
- Once again, Peggy shows how little she understands current events: “They were brought here by slave ships!” “Well I was brought here by you!” Not that we didn’t side with her in this argument. It’s the height of liberal white guilt silliness to not want to help the cops find the person who stabbed you just because you feel they got a bad deal from society. On the other hand, Peggy seems to always go to the “I have it hard too” well every time someone brings up civil rights or racial issues.
- The increasing sense of violence and danger in the city went through the roof this episode. There were wailing sirens in the background of practically every scene except the campground ones. We wonder if Peggy’s going to ditch that house she bought. If she was too scared to be there with only a one-handed Abe to protect her, she’s definitely not going to want to stay there by herself, especially when she can afford something quite a bit safer.
- We keep trying to tie “Father Abraham” to Abe getting stabbed but we can’t seem to make it work. Even so, Roger’s attempt to be a father to his various “sons” and then failing completely each time definitely tied back to the camp song. Incidentally, Margaret’s kind of a bitch. She acted like he took the kid to a porn theater.
- Joan and Bob Benson? Hmmmm. Quite tellingly, there wasn’t the slightest whiff of romance between them. When you combine that with Bob’s polite hallway-standing in the whorehouse a couple weeks back, we’re wondering if Joan hasn’t found herself a cute gay to help her with the baby. Honestly, it’s probably the very best thing that could happen to her right now.
- Having said that, Bob is still not to be trusted. He told Ken back in the season opener that his father died and then told Pete last night that his father was nursed back to health. It’s possible both statements are true and referring to different periods and events, but come on. Red flags are UP.
- ”Why is sex the definition of being close to someone?” “I don’t know, but it is for me. It is for most people.” We loved that Betty is simple, confident and declarative in this conversation; saying, in effect, “Don’t know/don’t care/not my problem.” We suppose we buy that the actual act of sex isn’t that important to Don. Anyone who pursues it that relentlessly and pathologically is obviously substituting it for something more important; in his case, true affection. Mama’s Boy Supreme.
- But Betty’s just amused by it all. When he moved in for a second round, she smirked and said, “Are you sure you don’t want to just hold me?”
Much more to say in our Wednesday Mad Style post – and sorry about no T LOunge last night. The holiday weekend kind of got away from us. Next Sunday, we promise.