Mad Men: “The Better Half” (Episode 6.09)

TV Reviews Mad Men
Mad Men: “The Better Half” (Episode 6.09)

Perhaps it’s because it’s so character-driven or because every last detail is there on purpose, a crucial piece of the puzzle for the audience to assemble and decipher—but Mad Men has never really been much for self-referential humor.

That’s why, for a moment at least, it’s jarring when young Bobby Draper points out another kid named Bobby to his parents at camp and says “I’m Bobby 5—it’s sad. There’s no Bobby 1 any more.” It plays as a meta joke about the fact that the role of Bobby has been recast so frequently on the series (although if you want to get technical about it, actor Mason Dale Cotton is actually the fourth Bobby). But because this is Mad Men and things rarely have just one meaning, it also fits in perfectly with this week’s recurring imagery of twins, doubles and yes, those “better halves” alluded to in the title.

“The Better Half” wastes no time in introducing its concept, as we open on Don and Ted duking it out over margarine strategies. Harry knows better than to play sides, saying “I feel strongly both ways,” so Peggy’s called in to cast her vote. She refuses to choose, however, and when Don later insists that “there’s a right, and there’s a wrong,” she seems to land on Team Ted, telling Don “he never makes me feel this way.” “He doesn’t know you,” Don responds, and the implication is that the reason he feels entitled to treat Peggy the way he does is because they share a long history. She certainly knows more about him than anyone else does at work, and he knows more about her past than anyone outside her family. In fact, their relationship is decidedly familial—while it’s not romantic, at work Peggy is Don’s better half, and he’s unwilling to sit idly by and watch her get closer to Ted.

Meanwhile, Megan’s been given an extra role on her TV series. She’s now portraying twins, and it’s not going so well. When she relays her director’s advice about the characters to Don over dinner, she inadvertently delivers the line that summarizes all the action in this week’s episode: “They’re like two halves of the same person. They want the same thing, but they’re trying to get it in different ways.”

It’s the perfect explanation of the Don/Ted relationship, but it also speaks to the interesting developments taking place with many of the show’s couples. The most shocking of these is a brief tryst between Don and Betty. They’re at Bobby’s camp for a family weekend (and Betty’s skinny and blonde again), and for a bit it seems that it’s just like old times. They eat together. They smile. Betty and Bobby even get Don to sing. Then, later that night—perhaps because nostalgia’s biting at him the way those pesky mosquitoes are going after Betty, or because as we learned last week, Don’s got a thing for moms—Don makes his move, and the two wind up sleeping together. Afterwards, they set some kind of record for Saddest Pillowtalk Ever with gems like “Is this what it would have been like if we had stayed together?” “Why is sex the definition of being close to someone?” and “Poor girl. She doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you.”

The thing is, no matter what happens between them, whether they’re together or not, Don and Betty are two pieces of a unit. They’re bound together as part of a family—albeit a dysfunctional one—and that’s something he doesn’t have with Megan or any of the other women he’s slept with.

Peggy, on the other hand, finds herself without her “better half” after he dumps her. Sure, she bayoneted him in the gut, but it was an accident! To Abe, it’s just further evidence that she’s cowardly. “You’re a scared person who hides behind complacency,” he tells her. “Your activities are offensive to my every waking moment.” Then, when she asks him if he’s breaking up with her, he says “a part of you will always be inside me.” Yes, it’s funny because he’s literally got a knife inside him that she put there, but it also fits with the show’s idea that history affects us. Some people just get under your skin and stay there.

When Peggy returns to the office the next day, she walks into Ted’s office to tell him she and Abe broke up, but she doesn’t get the reaction she was hoping for. He tells her she’ll find someone else—read: not him—and any man would be lucky to have her. Then as he ushers her out of his office, he and Don exchange pleasantries and good news about the margarine account before both closing their office doors, shutting Peggy out. Twinsies! We end on Peggy’s incredulous look as she realizes her two mentors, now suddenly chummy, have moved on. She didn’t make a choice, and now both of those doors are closed. She wasn’t bold enough to choose Ted over Abe when she had the chance either, and now she’s alone. “Always Something There to Remind Me” closes the episode, offering Peggy the same reassurance Abe did: “You’ll always be a part of me.”

Stray observations:
-Roger’s also desperate to connect to someone who’s a part of him—first his grandson, then his son.
-The doubles/twin imagery continues with Pete’s storyline when Duck Phillips returns and tells him “I’ve been you.”
-This is probably a stretch, but when I was a kid, my mom used to tell me mosquitoes were drawn to me because I was “so sweet.” Maybe that’s why my mind immediately went here, but is it a coincidence, then, that Betty says “you know mosquitoes ignore me” but then winds up getting bitten up as she’s being warm and friendly to Don?
-Bob’s calculated move (hiring a nurse for Pete’s mom after Joan mentioned his need for one in passing) confirms my suspicions that he is, in fact, evil. Watch out, Joanie! He’s using you!
-Of course Roger took his young grandson to see Planet of the Apes. Of course he did.

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