Last weeks episode of Mad Men seemed like more of an experiment for the writers than a slam dunk like we’re used to. It was impactful in the sense that we’ve never seen the show through that lens, but also disappointing for some viewers because it veered a little too far off the road that we’re used to traveling with this show. This weeks episode completely redeemed any wrong doings on Matthew Weiner’s part. Not only was episode 9 more traditional in its approach, but also indulgent in a way. Like eating a large piece of cake that you’ve been eyeing for a couple of years (though I wouldn’t recommend that). The new Don and Betty story line is one of the more interesting of the season. Episode 9 continues to explore the relationship between parent and child. And the idea that your relationship with your family helps to determine how succesful you’ll be throughout most of your life. Most of the characters in the show have strained relationships with their family members, which causes trouble in their professional lives. The episodes title “The Better Half” is also explored, and the idea that there are two prominent sides to each of the characters.
Joan can either be seen as vampy, sexy, and manipulative or motherly, protective and non-judgmental. Though we appreciate her for all those things, her “better half” would be considered the one that stands up for Pete Campbell in a boardroom meeting or lends an ear to Don in his office after a hard work day. Joan catches a glimpse of Roger in the office playing with his grandson and can’t help but imagine him to be tossing their son up in their air instead. Seeing Roger that comfortable with a little boy so close to Kevin’s age makes her question whether or not she’s making the right decision in keeping him away from their child. She is also exploring the idea of a relationship with Bob Benson. Joan is seeking reliability in her life, and Bob has proven himself to be just that. Roger on the other hand is the complete opposite. Which is exactly why she turns him away when he makes an effort to see Kevin. I also find it interesting that Pete and Joan have become such an unlikely pair. Pete now feels comfortable confiding in Joan about topics like his mother’s illness. And Joan has taken a responsibility in making sure Pete is treated fairly in the office. They are pretty much traveling up the totem pole at the same speed, so it only makes sense that they would look out for each other.
Roger is feeling like a failed father on numerous levels. His daughter doesn’t see him as fit to care for her child without supervision, and his relationship with her has been strained for years on top of it. Split down the middle, Roger can be seen as either kind, funny and charming or selfish, manipulative, and self-centered. The “better half” of Roger would be the part of him that allows himself to be vulnerable, and that doesn’t hide behind his sense of humor. He’s looking for a second chance at successfully fathering a child and comes to the realization that he has a perfectly healthy baby waiting for him in Joan’s apartment. He shows up unannounced carrying a bag of lincoln logs for Kevin, which is ironic given the fact that Lincoln Logs are used to build tiny homes. He’s shocked to find that Joan is actually there with Bob. He catches them just as they are about to leave for the beach. You get the idea that Roger was maybe hoping for Joan’s life to have been paused since they had stopped sleeping together. As if she would open the door and suddenly they would play house with the baby he’s not been in the same room with for more than 15 minutes. He’s seems shocked, not only by the fact that Joan kicks him out hastily, but that Bob is there, and dressed like an extra in the background of a Beach Boys music video.
The jury is still out on whether or not we can trust Bob Benson. There are certain things about him that make you wonder whether or not his actions are genuine. A perfect example would be the scene where he confides in Pete about his knowledge of Pete’s mother’s illness. He doesn’t know Pete very well, but is completely over the top in his concern. He also carries around two coffees at all times looking for a person to hand one out too. From time to time he comes off as a bit of a schmoozer. On the other hand he seemed extremely genuine when he made sure Joan was able to get to the hospital and see a doctor the day she was feeling ill. Many fans of the show believe he could be the 1968 installment of a gay character. Not since Salvatore Romano has a gay, male character walks the halls of SCDP, or whatever it’s called now. It would make sense when you consider the fact that Bob has never once made a sexual move on Joan. He seems like more of a confidant than a love interest for her.
Ted finally opens up to Peggy about his feelings for her, and this time for more than 5 minutes. He’s never been secretive about his love of work, in fact he and Peggy have that in common. It’s always been that way for the two of them. He’s decided that it may be best for them to put an end to any thoughts of them ending up together. There has been a non-verbal agreement between the two of them that one day their relationship would end in an affair. He seems to harbor a great amount of guilt for being in love with her. The thought of being that much of a cliché, a man in love with his protégé, weighs too heavily on his conscience. Peggy’s attraction to him is based on the fact that he comes off as such a nice guy. So the idea that he’s ending their relationship out of kindness makes it that much harder for her. The “better half” theme is revisited slightly with Ted, expect in his case it’s a little more complicated. Ted is generally nice to everyone all the time. The only time you see the negative side of him is when he’s around Don. You can literally watch him go from compassionate, humble and all around nice to jealous, competitive and desperate after 15 minutes of being in Don’s office. This is frustrating for Peggy because she’s the only one who sees it, and resents Don for it.
Peggy is definitely being tested, both at home and at work. She has completely fallen out of love with her boyfriend, she’s constantly forced to be around Ted but can’t have him, and her relationship with Don is more complicated now than it’s ever been. Not to mention she’s stuck in an apartment that requires her to tape a knife to a broom stick in order for her to feel safe. She has also become the main casualty between Don and Ted’s ego war. Don is constantly forcing her to choose between the two of them, which she refuses to do. Even though it’s clear that Ted would be her obvious choice. The man she once saw as a mentor has become the biggest challenge in her life. There’s a great shot in the very end of the episode of both Ted and Don exiting their offices as Peggy stands directly in the middle. The conference room is empty and she realizes that she’s totally alone in this situation. She started off the season hopeful and confident that being away from Don would be her golden ticket to true happiness, and she is now right back where she started. She’s spent the last few years trying to escape from under Don’s patent leather shoe.
The writers have struggled with where to place Betty for the past few seasons of the show. Her story line has focused mainly on her being overweight or fighting with Sally. It’s refreshing to finally see Betty happy again. The dueling personality theme is extremely relevant for Betty this season. There’s the thin, blonde Betty that’s used to being wanted by men and getting by on her looks. Then there’s the fat and angry Betty who’s bitter towards world (especially if you’re a teen violinist). It’s been years since we’ve seen Betty and Don have a civil conversation. The only time they speak is when she calls him to remind him of how horrible he is as a father. Most of her anger towards Don can be traced back to her lack of confidence. Don represents a time in her life that was painful, but also happy because it was before she had every struggled with her weight. Don runs into Betty at a gas station on her way to taking Bobby to sleep away camp. He’s pleasantly surprised to see that Betty has gotten her body back. No matter what happens, Don and Betty will always have a weird attraction to one another given the history between them. She, Don and Bobby end up spending the day together as a family for the first time in years. They even sing camp songs together over lunch. For a minute it felt very much like 1960 again. Betty’s confidence in her appearance is her sanity, and now that it’s back she’s able to finally see her relationship with Don, past and present, for what it really is. The difference between Betty and Megan is that Betty understands that Don’s affection is more of a temporary high. It’s like doing an extremely powerful drug that only last for a short amount of time. She also understands that loving Don as a wife is worst thing you can do to try to get close to him. After a few sips of liquor from a can and a walk down memory lane, Don and Betty end up sleeping together. This was an empowering moment for Betty on many levels. She has always been shamed by that fact that Don cheated on her with other women while they were married. She has taken control of it by now becoming the other woman. It was also a great confidence boost for her. A confirmation to herself that she is officially back in her original, and more comfortable skin.
The most interesting thing about Don and Betty reuniting is the fact that we learn so much about Don in the process. After they finish having sex, he explains to her that the sex itself is really unimportant to him. Don is more interested in intimacy than the actual act of having sex with a woman. That can be traced back to his constant search for a mothering figure in his life. He would be just as happy, if not more, laying in bed and talking. The “better half” theme is nothing new in Don’s story line. Aside from the fact that he has split personalities, he also has two different names. On one hand Don is powerful, stubborn, and can command the authority of any person who stands near him. On the other he’s extremely sad and vulnerable. A part of him will always be that 12-year-old boy, living in a brothel and wishing for a mother.
The “better half” theme is the most on the nose when it comes to Megan. She is literally playing twins on the TV show she’s staring in. There is a scene in the episode where Megan is describing the characters and says “They’re two halves of the same person and they want the same thing but they’re trying to get it in different ways” That couldn’t be more true for Megan this year. There’s the devoted wife side to Megan that packs Don’s bags without him asking and picks up the slack for him when it comes to taking care of his children. There’s also the selfish, career driven Megan who leaves the children at home alone so women like Aunt Ida can come in and make them eggs. She has spent a large portion of this season doing everything she can to get Don back. He’s only with her physically, and even that is seldom. In an earlier episode this season Pete describes Don as “only liking the beginnings of things” which is true. He only liked the beginnings of relationships and he only appreciates the beginnings of great ideas at work. He tends to check out emotionally as soon as he gets comfortable in a situation. While Don and Betty are in bed together she asks him about Megan. You can hear in her voice that she asks about her more out of pity than concern. Pity because she knows Megan will end up as hurt as she was by the time the relationship is over. Sleeping with Betty forces him to reflect on the currents state of his marriage, and just how badly he’s been treating Megan. When he returns home he walks out on the balcony and hugs Megan in a way we haven’t seen in ages. Megan tells him that she knows he checked out of their relationship, and that she’s there waiting for him to return.
The episode ends with a song called “Always Something There To Remind Me” by Burt Bacharach, famously revived by Naked Eyes in 1983. The song is playing as Peggy is standing in between Don and ted, and it references the fact that as soon as she thinks she’s rid of Don Draper in her life, he comes right back. It also references Don and Betty’s relationship, and the fact that they will always have an attraction to one another.
Well, how can I forget you, girl? When there is always something there to remind me. always something there to remind me. I was born to love her, and I’ll never be free. You’ll always be a part of me.