Commentary

Episode 609: The Better Half -- Or, He Climbed Her Because She Was There?

Mad Men Season 6 Episode 9A killer episode that takes a stab at some of "Mad Men"’s major themes,  “The Better Half” answers one of the leading existential questions of our time: “Who wears short shorts?”

Forget the struggle! Turns out, Bob Bunson (his name according to Roger) wears short shorts!  And what a pair of stems! Rim shot!

No, really, the episode brings up the ever-lingering identity issues of duality, twinship, threesomes, and third wheels. There are lots of parallel stories among characters, all centering on questions like: Is there really a better half? And can we choose it?

Indeed, is being able to choose between two (fake, indestructible) margarines (Blue Bonnet is cheaper, Fleischmann’s more costly) a real choice? Isn’t the true choice between margarine and the real thing, butter?

advertisement

advertisement

Speaking of which, how about the thin- and blonde-again Betty? She’s back, and she’s buttah! Or is she margarine, Imperial Margarine, while wearing that buttercup yellow gown with the beaded Cleopatra collar at the fundraiser? (At least “Cleopatra” via the Elizabeth Taylor movie.)

Mad Men Season 6 Episode 9Written by Matt Weiner and Erin Levy, and brilliantly directed by Phil Abraham with the best acting I’ve ever seen January Jones do, the episode also returned to the theme of rejiggering identity through family. The agency family remains nameless while the big dogs, and ostensible daddies, Don and Ted, mark their territories; Roger gets rejected as a papa by his daughter and Joan; Don and Betty reunite briefly at camp to go mountain climbing; while Pete worries about his place at work and his mother.  “Paint me a new portrait,” he says to Duck. (Duck skeeves me out.) Joan tells Pete they have the same problems.  (Is everything a mirror image?) And in the end, Peggy stands alone.

Let’s start with Megan, who is suffering in her double role as twins on her soap opera. (Yes, we get Don’s dual-identity issue triple danger alert, but also more meta self–mocking  from Weiner, who is constantly criticized for turning the show into an old-fashioned soap:  “I can't be a sister and a mother. That's bad writing!” says Arlene, the sometime lesbian and would-be foursome maker.)

Megan's dual roles underline that usual split in Don’s desires: blonde/dark-haired, Marilyn or Jackie.   Her trouble with separating the two, femme fatale/maid, and defining each, is exactly the role she struggles with in real life. (As underscored by the AMC flashback scene from last season of the new Mrs. Draper in her underwear in her living room, on all fours, cleaning.)  “They’re two halves of the same person and they want the same thing but they’re trying to get it in different ways,” she tells Don over dinner.

Mad Men
Season 6 Episode 9And perhaps the dawning realization that this is also the story of Ted and himself, or Megan and himself or herself, or of Betty and himself, or of Peggy and himself, or of himself and himself, makes him dizzy. Either way, he loses his appetite, and heads to the bedroom to watch TV and drink.

There was almost too much delicious stuff to analyze, so I’m going to stick to two scenes, each a masterpiece of sorts: Don and Betty at camp, and Bayonet Peg and the freshly gutted Abe.

As for the latter, I never really saw them as a pair. Hard worker Peggy never had the freedom that would allow her to break out like Abe. She sees the opportunity to rise as an executive at the agency as gloriously freeing.

The most literal equivalent of “bleeding-heart liberal” ever brought to the screen, Abe seems wild-eyed, wild-haired, and ridiculous. I remember when my cousin, newly long-haired and bearded, showed up to a family party in 1969, and told the middle-class elders there that in future he would line up people like them and shoot them. (Cuz is now a rich old guy, naturally.)

Mad Men Season 6 Episode 9Back to Abe and Peggy and their recently purchased “shit-house.” (There's a lovely cut from Peggy’s war-zone apartment to Roger’s quiet, palatial bedroom.) First, Abe gets stabbed in the hand (a callback to Stan’s getting stabbed in the arm last week) walking home from the subway, and refuses to ID his attackers to the police. Abe has no such problem, however, when Peggy, like a sniper, bayonets his gastric system by mistake with her homemade pole and knife combo. (That’s some demented version of “Romeo and Juliet” here.)

In a city filled with sirens, Peggy gets in the ambulance with Abe, and takes part  in one of the best break-up/near-death scenes ever written. "Your activities are offensive to my every waking moment." Abe tells her, knife still in his chest, gurgling blood. "You'll always be the enemy."  “Are you breaking up with me?” Peggy wants to know.

Peggy is indestructible, however, like margarine, and she goes from her all-nighter in the hospital to the only place that feels like home. That’s what you want in your employees: a woman who can go straight from a stabbing to the office, without showering!

Earlier, Don had treated Peggy badly, like one of his wives, and told her she had to choose. When Ted hears that she’s now single, he heads back to his comfort zone: his desk, and working with the door closed.  Seems like you lose whether you choose or you don’t.

Mad Men Season 6 Episode 9On the Betty front, she’s a femme fatale again. And sitting outside the bunkhouse/motel in shorts, she’s feeling young and frisky. The country air (or maybe it’s the booze that he alone was able to locate) has the same effect on Don.

As they reminisce, they return to Eden: Don mentions how they went “into the woods” to make Sally. Though bugs don’t like her, as she says, she starts “getting bit.” (By the love bug!) This is an interesting bit of uncharacteristic bad grammar and Don later joined her by saying, “if we lied here.” (Double meaning of “lied?”)

I didn’t expect her to keep her door open (!) but she does, and Don enters. The love scene is really interesting: they’re both so open. Don asks, “Why is sex the definition of being close to someone? “ and claims that for him it’s like “climbing a mountain.” When he reaches for Betty for the second time, she calls him on this. “You wanna just hold me?” she winks. Is “lying together” just as good?

Now seemingly much more mature, no longer jealous, Betty pulls a Don here: “That poor girl,” she says of Megan. “She doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you.” It’s true, and she’s beginning to sound like some of his other, knowing mistresses, like Dr. Faye and Rachel.

Mad Men Season 6 Episode 9Did Don sneak back into his own room in the middle of the night? I wondered how Betty could take the chance of having him in her room in the pre-cell-phone days, with Henry arriving in the morning. Don finds them happy and united in their coffee shop booth. He gets a table for one, which perhaps makes him think about being a man without a home, and the importance of families and relationships.

He returns home to Megan, who looks like a little girl, make-up free, standing in her T-shirt and Carter’s undies on her terrace, vulnerable to the big city.  (Oddly, Abe wears the same outfit when he’s stabbed, minus the star on the T-shirt.)

Megan says “Something has to change!” -- and Don agrees. He comforts her, and says he missed her. (The same line he used on Betty.) But it’s more of a father comforting his daughter. Can he change? Does he love her?

The final song, “Always Something There to Remind Me,” is a brilliant pick. Joan has her son, Abe has his abdominal scars, Don has his kids, Peggy and Pete have their secret history.

It ends with Peggy, the monkey in the middle, standing between the doors of the offices of the now strangely allied Don and Ted. All doors seem to be closed to her for now.  But we’ve seen her in action with a bayonet. She is Mother Courage.

28 comments about "Episode 609: The Better Half -- Or, He Climbed Her Because She Was There?".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Marke Rubenstein from Skull Communications llc, May 28, 2013 at 12:15 p.m.

    BL this review is amazing and insightful. The old Betty coming back is great and her reaction to the flirting that went on at the gala was interesting and maybe will foreshadow future actions? Loved that Weiner did not show Joan at the beach. He takes the high road.

  2. Larry steven Londre from Londre Marketing Consultants, LLC and USC, May 28, 2013 at 12:18 p.m.

    Great blog, as always. Loved the "Love Bug," and the bugs don't like Betty line. Another thought: Abe and Peggy. In newsrooms, Schools of Journalism, then and now, journalists and editors hated advertising. They were the enemy. It was church and state, even though the newspaper couldn't exist without advertising dollars. Think of today's newspapers. So when Abe talked to Peggy I kept thinking he was better, a journalist. More superior. More righteous. All the best.

  3. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, May 28, 2013 at 12:36 p.m.

    Thanks, Marke and Larry.
    @Marke-- Good point about not showing Joan at the beach! I did like her nautical outfit, tho; remember when Roger had his grandson on the steps at the agency and called him a little sailor?
    @Larry-- yes, there was an important wall between them. But anyone working at a newspaper had to have appreciated that ads paid their salaries. Abe was an extreme example. I loved that his final words in the ambulance might have been: "You gave me the perfect end to my story!"

  4. Dean Fox from ScreenTwo LLC, May 28, 2013 at 12:38 p.m.

    Brilliant analysis of a very interesting, well-acted episode, Barbara, although as I read it, I'm repeated wondering if the writers are really such cunning novelists when much of the audience won't reflect so thoughtfully after the show.

    I was struck by the recurring screaming sirens. Were they simply alerting us to the trouble ahead for these characters, or acknowledging the feelings of so many viewers who have turned off (pun intended) to the show. If surgical intervention was required to get MM back on its feet, this episode was at least 90% successful.

  5. Patrick Scullin from Ames Scullin O'Haire, inc., May 28, 2013 at 1:06 p.m.

    Another excellent recap. Barbara, you go so deep on these episodes I sometimes think I'll get the bends.

    Loved Bettie playing Don to Don and Don feeling like just another Don victim tossed aside the morning after. Also good to see Bettie sending the fat suit to the cleaners (and my, how it turns Henry on).

    Duck as a headhunter? Brilliant. He knows how to "tickle balls."

    It was a rich feast of an episode, buckle up, folks-- we're in for a bumpy ride to the finish of this season.

  6. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, May 28, 2013 at 1:09 p.m.

    @Dean-- thanks, and good point. The sirens might have been a little heavy handed. Danger, danger Don Draper! But lately Weiner seems to be including a lot of self -parody stuff. Like when Bobby says he's "Bobby no. 5-- the first one was too quiet and shy and never said anything so he went home."

  7. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, May 28, 2013 at 1:28 p.m.

    You could never do to much analyzing for me, Barbara. You do it better than anybody ever. Mr. Weiner (this one too) should be proud that you do him proud since you understand and appreciate all that he does....Betty does what she does best and about the only thing she can do. Larry is right about the journalists and in some cases just writers consider advertising. (sorry Barbara). If they could rid ads of the world, it would be a better place. I have heard their contempt more than once and they have put knives in our backs at union meetings while we walked the picket line for them. Most of them ignored us in the cafeteria. The journalists made rude comments to our advertisers if they called them to complain or tell them about their business to ask for a review. They had no respect even when we supported them. Abe will be missing Peggy's generosity even though we may never see it in this series. This is also a good time to thank all of the people who comment bringing lots of color and enhance the series for everybody.

  8. Rob Frydlewicz from DentsuAegis, May 28, 2013 at 2:02 p.m.

    The scene where Don loosens up (for the first time ever?) and participates with Betty (also the most carefree I've seen) in singing the "Father Abraham" song at Bobby's behest was a delightful surprise. After their one-nighter, what do you think the chances are that Joan might become pregnant with Don's child? Finally, I hope it doesn't happen, but I'm steeling myself for the perfect Bob Bunson turning into a bad egg.

  9. Rob Frydlewicz from DentsuAegis, May 28, 2013 at 4:23 p.m.

    Oopsie, I meant Betty might become pregnant with Don's child, not Joan!

  10. Cynthia Amorese from JAL Enterprises NY, May 28, 2013 at 5:04 p.m.

    Bob IS a bad egg, Rob, a smarmy, ingratiating, immune-to-insult bad egg. The giveaway was his use of the word "gossip" when revealing that Joan had told him about Pete's mother.

    As for the good words about Betty, I was struck by how unchanged she is -- posing for the gas jockey seemed a milder, passive version of flirting with the air conditioner salesman, the mechanic and her friend's underage son. And where others see carefree joy in her joining in on the Father Abraham song, I see her relishing the opportunity of showing off her newly non-flabby arms. Even the scene at the political bash reminded me of Henry's bold move on Betty during her last pregnancy. Betty is Betty -- she loves the power over men that comes with being strikingly attractive. And while playful Betty is much more fun to watch than spiteful Betty (I liked her most in Italy), I don't see that she has evolved all that much since we first met her.

    Sadly, Joan has DEvolved, becoming an irritating marginal character. As her visiting friend noted (and her mother agreed), power is hers for the taking. Instead, she continues playing office manager, whines about living with her mother (who actually lives with her), and is reduced to smooching anonymous young boys in public places and playing Beach Blanket Bingo with Bob Benson-Bunsen.

    Why is Joan still in her single-girl apartment? She shouldn't be short on cash. Aside from the salary she can command as a partner, she surely receives a child-support allotment from her "war hero" ex-husband. And she shouldn't be short on know-how -- when we first met her, no one was more shrewd, resourceful and well-connected.

    I'd like to see Joan renew her interest in TV and take over the department, kicking Harry to the curb (he expects a partnership?), buy an astonishing apartment or perhaps an entire building (but not in Peggy's neighborhood) so she can have a life again while honoring her familial responsibilities, and finally get her groove back with some grown-up, worthy men. Time to lose the trepidation (and the snow-cone bras) and make a move, Joan.

  11. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, May 28, 2013 at 5:06 p.m.

    Another great write up. This analysis could have taken a whole book, or a year of analysis. Why is everyone becoming like Don? Betty, Ted, Joan, they all compartmentalize it, and pretend it never happened (whatever their respective it is). Those who don't (Roger) get trampled. Is the end going to be that everyone becomes Don, and Don gets left out? And why is everyone trampling on poor Bob Benson. Face it everyone, back then, that was the style. My weekly confession: I owned a pair of shorts like that. I blame the times.

  12. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, May 28, 2013 at 5:07 p.m.

    I was wondering what you'd do with this episode, an episode that seemed very clear to me. In a way, therefore, your best column yet. And perhaps their best hour this season. It is a soap, but they do in 60 minutes what it would take Days Of Our Lives a couple of years. I liked Roger's imitation of the ape and his searching for his child after being admonished for his treatment of his grandchild. Abe's story (title: Bleeding Stomach Liberal) will touch everyone on the show, but I've been wrong about every other prediction

  13. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, May 28, 2013 at 5:49 p.m.

    Thanks for the fantastic comments, everybody!
    About Bob: Cynthia is right. Crafty and evil. At Roger's funeral, he said that his father had died. Then he said this military Spanish-Spain guy he has for Pete's mother was available only because he nursed his own father back to health.
    Yes, definitely the scene at the fundraiser with the creepy guy who hit on Betty definitely mirrored the scene when she was pregnant, waiting for Don at Connie Hiltons, and Henry rubbed her belly. And yes, she does live for attention from men. But because she feels better about her restored powers, she seems to be able to tune into Bobby a little better. And she knows that she's got a much better deal with Henry than Don: she'll get attention being a pol's wife, and she won't have to worry about his constant cheating.
    As for Joan, I was thinking the same thing. She got an enormous amount of money for being a partner. She didn't have to stay in her one bedroom with her mother. She could afford a baby sitter. And if, in all these years, she hasn't really moved up from the role of office manager, she should move on to a new agency.

  14. Larry steven Londre from Londre Marketing Consultants, LLC and USC, May 28, 2013 at 6:10 p.m.

    OK, Barbara. But not in a million years is Joan going to be able to move to another agency. She has limited power and no accounts. She is an office manager with some accounting duties. She's not a finance person. Sadly, she really is a glorified office manager.

  15. Larry steven Londre from Londre Marketing Consultants, LLC and USC, May 28, 2013 at 6:35 p.m.

    I wanted to add, as a partner. Joan, as a partner. Obviously she could go to another agency. She is bright and has been effective in the past. Part of the agencies dysfunction is the results from the merger and new Chevy client, but what about a shorter, better name. They are in advertising and branding. They could do a better job for themselves, but agencies have not been good at their own "branding."

  16. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, May 28, 2013 at 7:23 p.m.

    "she'll get attention being a pol's wife, and she won't have to worry about his constant cheating."
    barbara...you're being ironic?

  17. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, May 28, 2013 at 8:25 p.m.

    @Tom-- Do you think Henry will start cheating if elected to public office? Perhaps Betty won't mind-- she'll find her own fanboy!

  18. Mark Hornung from Bernard Hodes Group, May 28, 2013 at 8:42 p.m.

    @Tom, don't forget that in the late 60s it was still considered scandalous for a politician to have an affair. Nelson Rockefeller was handicapped by being married to a divorcee, Happy. Henry might be tempted, and he might even try a one-nighter or two, but anything beyond that would mean the end of his political aspirations, ca. 1968. Love this column, Barbara, and the great people it attracts.

  19. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, May 28, 2013 at 9:03 p.m.

    rockefeller recovered from that handicap to have a deadly affair with someone named (what was it?) megan? lindsay, the other guy henry works for, was just outed as a carrier of crabs by the singer he had an affair with very briefly in the late 60s...........forget her name now.....betty could become something of a pamela harriman.....

  20. Jodi Bornstein from None, May 28, 2013 at 10:48 p.m.

    How many more episodes left? Barbara, you are right - this episode was January Jones' shining hour. Only 5 more days till next Sunday. I can't wait to see what Matt Weiner has up his sleeve. I don't believe Bob is as evil as others think. I am so glad we are rid of Abe.

  21. mike SUGIMOTO from PEPPERDINE UNIVERSITY, May 29, 2013 at 3:05 p.m.

    I noticed that both Peggy''s and Don's apartments had sirens going? I was surprised to hear sirens at Don's, as I assumed he was way up away from the street though.

  22. Jeanne Fuller from Maverick, May 29, 2013 at 4:39 p.m.

    love your blog - fun fun fun. if you hav a sec chx out one of the original Mad Men Jerry Della Femina in this funny new show i am working with - Ivy League Crimelords. thanks. http://youtu.be/V-4kpV32ws8

  23. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, May 29, 2013 at 5:29 p.m.

    @Tom-- I knew that Rockefeller died "mentoring" Megan into the night. But I am shocked about Lindsay! (Really!)
    @Jodi-- 13 all together. only 4 more! Sniff!
    @Mike-- Well, the sirens were all over the city. The ambulances and police cars would ferry the shooting and accident victims to the East Side hospitals, I guess. But the sirens overhead, with Megan looking so small and young on the terrace, was supposed to show how vulnerable and unprotected in this world she felt.There were many mentions of her being "childish."

  24. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, May 30, 2013 at 7:18 a.m.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/26/florence-henderson-john-lindsay-crabs_n_884699.html

  25. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, May 30, 2013 at 7:25 a.m.

    I saw the sirens as a contrast in situations. Peggy and Abe with them right outside their window, and then actually in the ambulance. Don and Megan sitting on the East Siide high above the streets where Peggy and ambulances reside. Although, their relationship is no less in need of said ambulance.

  26. Jonathan McEwan from MediaPost, May 30, 2013 at 5:04 p.m.

    I think honestly, the sirens did both. They were alarming in a way and Megan was high above them in an ivory tower in very childish underpants and a t-shirt moping... I felt both things in that moment. And also, a sense that she was trapped there, on the edge of a precipice. For a moment I thought she might jump...

  27. Marla Goldstein from Around The Bend Media, May 30, 2013 at 5:15 p.m.

    I lived in the City throughout the '70s. It was a dirty, dangerous place, always teetering on the edge of a precipice. But, at the same time, a wildly fun and incredibly interesting place to be. What I remember most is the unending sound of sirens. So much and so often that they became like background music. Hell, New York is always interesting. But the city's financial problems and the intense racial divide made it even more so.

  28. Stephanie Cauthen from Meredith, June 3, 2013 at 10:18 a.m.

    Wonderful blog & insightful observations about this episode, thank you, Barbara.
    I think its fitting of Betty to drink a Fresca on the porch.."ice cold & sugar free"..a persona she has emanated since the first season.

Next story loading loading..