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Mad Men – The Better Half Review: Entertaining Exploration of Character Relationships

After last week’s frenzied and awesomely bizarre episode, watching “The Better Half” feels like winding down from the previous, insane high; there is definitely some vestigial weirdness and residual crazy lingering in the storyline (Peggy’s entire depressing ordeal, Don’s unexpected dalliance, Megan’s awkward encounter with Arlene, etc.), but it is still a much more grounded hour of Mad Men. It is certainly one of the most successful and enjoyable episodes of the season so far; even though most of the storylines are character-based instead of focused on the office, they were handled in a compelling way and even a storyline like Megan’s (which had been growing tiresome) is fun and interesting to watch as it ties in to Don’s story arc appropriately.

The episode opens with Peggy’s dilemma (something we have anticipated since the merger was initially brought up): having to explicitly choose Don or Ted, being able to settle discussions and debates between the two, and encouraging them to collaborate. Peggy feels loyalty to both of these men and is uncomfortable making such decisions, which leads to a great non-answer from her in the great margarine debate of ’68. The writers aren’t exactly subtle as they have both Don and Ted argue over Peggy’s approval, either. It is clear that this discussion is not just about Fleischmann’s. Peggy is convinced that, while sharing similarities, Ted is a more honorable person than Don, saying, “you’re both demanding and you’re both pigheaded. You’re the same person sometimes, the difference is that he’s interested in the idea and you’re interested in your idea.” By the end of the episode she realizes that Ted is capable of hurting her much like Don has in the past, thus proving Don’s point. Peggy let her guard down with Ted because she thought that there would be no harm done. Granted Ted’s rejection, although seemingly cruel, does come from a noble place; he refuses to morally degrade either of them with an adulterous affair, something we have seen Don do willingly time and time again. Peggy is struck with reality in the closing scenes as both her mentors literally shut their doors in her face; she realizes than that they are two sides of the same coin.

This is not a good week for Peggy, poor thing, not only is her situation at work made even more awkward and uncomfortable, but her personal life completely implodes. She stabs her boyfriend in the belly (with a makeshift spear)! There’s no coming back from that. That horrifyingly gruesome, yet darkly comic sequence is something that could have definitely come out of last week’s drug induced episode because it was so over the top, but it totally works in this installment, especially given Peggy’s growing attraction to Ted (things with Abe were bound to go downhill). Abe was beginning to be a grating character; he was depicted way too much like a leftist/progressive caricature in these last few episodes that it was hard to take him seriously. His characterization changed drastically from what we had come to know of him back in seasons four and five, in which he seemed like an actual human being who happened to have liberal views. Lately, he has hardly felt like a real person, particularly in the most recent episode. With that, I'm not sad to see Abe go, though he did give the best break-up line ever, “Your activities are offensive to my every waking moment. I’m sorry, but you’ll always be the enemy.” Ouch! Is this relationship "rock bottom" for Peggy? Abe’s brutal dismissal and Ted’s rejection so close together might just discourage her from seeking romance in her life, and make her prematurely resign herself to spinsterhood. Maybe she’ll wake up and realize that Stan is madly in love with her so they can ride into the sunset together. Right? Regardless of where her romantic life goes, Peggy’s advancement in the work field has always been one of the most compelling arcs of the series, and the office stories are always much more interesting. It will be interesting to see where things go now that Ted has made a deliberate move to distance himself from her. Don would certainly welcome any change that would make her his ally in the office in order to gain the upper hand with Ted.

Don is, once again, disinterested in Megan and his marriage in general, and he is able to escape for a while thanks to Bobby’s sleep-away camp. Okay, many viewers have speculated that Don and Betty would eventually have their own affair, and the theory has been out there for a while, so while it wasn’t an entirely shocking development, it was still a little surprising to see the writers actually go there. It makes sense for both the characters to act this way, Don always wants what he can’t have, and Betty (with her newly slim body) relishes being wanted and desired, as we see in the cab ride home she shares with Henry. It is clear to them both (emphasized by their reunion the next morning) that this is probably just a one night, chance encounter, but it gives them an opportunity to be honest and open with each other. Those scenes with them sharing conversations, both pre and post coital, are wonderfully acted, written, executed, just great. Betty is actually likable this episode (adultery notwithstanding) and January Jones is fantastic. What shedding a few pounds of prosthetic makeup can do for an actor! So often Betty/Jones is the source of many viewer grievances with the show, and for so long Betty’s presence in the series felt superfluous and unnecessary (add a ton of prosthetic make up and padding and voila, you’ve reduced a once-major character into a joke) but this storyline completely justifies why Weiner keeps her around.

Don and Betty’s conversation, notably Betty’s insightful observation, “she doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you,” seems to have sparked something in Don, and he acknowledges to Megan that he hasn’t been present in their relationship. Whether this is an attempt to rekindle the affection he felt for her in the beginning or if it is the beginning of the end for them is still to be seen. While Don was off engaging in an unexpected tryst, Megan is back home agonizing over her and Don’s relationship, and dodging advances from her acting colleague, Arlene. As Arlene makes her way in for a kiss for something like the gazillionth time, Megan’s exasperated “I ‘m fine with being a tease,” is perfectly executed by Jessica Pare. Megan is, of course, playing a set of twins in her soap opera, just in case you forgot that Don is really Dick, Megan can remind you. "They’re two halves of the same person and they want the same thing, but they are trying to get it in different ways,” she says describing her roles as well as Don’s situation. It also relates to Don and Ted’s relationship, as they both seek the same things (Peggy’s approval, Fleischmann’s, success) but go about getting them using vastly dissimilar methods.

“The Better Half” deals heavily with the theme of duality within a person, most aptly exemplified by Don. His double personality has been a major theme since the series’ inception, but Don is not the only one that embodies different personalities/selves. Whether it is Peggy battling with her own desires versus Abe’s ideals; Ted showing a different (very Don-like) side of himself to Peggy; or Betty slimming down and embodying a different attitude, these characters go through processes and transformations similar to those that we have seen Don go through.

Random Thoughts

-- Will Pete really leave the agency? My guess is no, but if you had told me at the beginning of the fifth season that Peggy was going to end up quitting, I would have had the same answer, even if it did make sense for the character.

-- Roger's ‘Pop-pop’ mode was pretty great, but soon came crashing down as he too was struck by reality. He is just not a reliable guy, restricted from spending time with his grandson and his own son. Will this be a wake up call for him, or just the inciting incident for a depressing downward spiral?

-- Still no name for the agency; this is just getting ridiculous. Are we at least going to get some brainstorming sessions with the creatives discussing the name? Just name it already.

-- Bob Benson is still a weasel, and I do not trust him. Joan is too good for him, and he seems to be using her to get the info on the agency. Although I do appreciate his bright blue suit, reminiscent of Pete’s old wardrobe in the Sterling Cooper days.

-- Peggy’s relationship with Abe ends the same way it began, with a potentially, not so flattering article based on/written about her. While the first one was written in a misguided attempt to woo and impress her, the latter was anything but. 



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