Mad Men Review: “The Better Half” (Season 6, Episode 9)

January Jones in Mad Men

Barring some kind of massive time skip, or the introduction of a flash sideways universe at the start of season 7, the creation of (the still un-titled) SCDPCGC might have signaled the beginning of the last major epoch in Mad Men’s life cycle. You could breakdown the show into numerous arcs and evolutions based on the status of certain relationships -Don’s love life chief among them-, or actual time periods (this being the Everybody’s Dying phase), but the names on the front of the office are what would be found in any real history books. With so little time left on the clock, it’ll take something cataclysmic (or a cheap pressing of the “undo” button) to find room for another big overhaul to New York’s most happening ad agency.

Tonight’s episode though, “The Better Half,” doesn’t seem like it’s of a piece with winter years Mad Men. It’s almost as if Netflix wasn’t the only one who decided to revive an old classic for the long weekend, because “The Better Half” feels so much like an episode from the first half of the show’s run, not its second. “Status quo ante bellum, everything as it was,” recites the returning swinger Arlene, almost like a magic spell, though as with many curses, it’s got some tricky wordplay to it. Sure, she’s partly referencing a return to sanity after last week’s bender, as “The Better Half” purposely opens business as usual. But the words make you wonder when the last time the status quo existed for anyone on Mad Men. Is Don Draper’s continuing search for peace leading him closer to a permanent solution, or is that search itself a kind of consolation prize for real satisfaction?

This is the third episode since SCDPCGC was conceived during a drunken bar encounter, and we’re still no closer to establishing what the super group’s regular functioning existence looks like. The merger has shaken up Mad Men’s office foundation in a major way, and months after the tectonic shift, routine still looks like a distant landmark from view of the driver’s seat, which Don and Teddy are still fighting over. Their animosity has shifted into a long tail game of passive aggressive attrition, and has centered itself not on control of an account, but of the person holding the whole damn building together by her fingertips: Peggy.

“What an old tune: the boss in love with his protégé,” Ted tells her, with just as much aw-shucks geniality as you’d expect of him, being the anti-Don Draper and all. Planet of the Apes might be the big sci-fi movie of the moment, but Peggy’s choice is getting operatic enough to warrant classification into either the “the light side” or “the dark side” of the advertising universe’s Force. You get two very different glimpses into that decision bookending the episode: the first sees Peggy having to pick which of Don or Ted’s strategies for the big margarine meeting sounds better, each man practically begging her to come over to their side, like she were a puppy picking who she loves more. By the end though, Peggy’s had the door shut on her by both men, her white knight sticking to the principals that come with chivalry, and the once tempting dark lord having found a new interest elsewhere. The conference room may frame her like she’s in a fishbowl, but it might as well be a window looking back in time, as this is the single, disempowered, frayed mess of a girl Peggy was eight years ago.

“The Better Half” marks one hell of step back for Ms. Olsen, made all the crueler by having spent three quarters of its run celebrating how much of a badass she’s become in those eight years. The inevitable tragedy that will be Don’s life has led many to believe Peggy is secretly the hero of Mad Men, something she’s been demonstrating week-in, week-out this season. It’s no coincidence that she’s taken on so many suitors lately, having learned from the master that confidence is what really attracts people. Pete and Duck (now there’s a blast from the past) may disagree on where the best source of self-empowerment can be found, but Peggy’s success comes from an unwavering belief in her abilities as an ad women; she’s become so comfortable while inside the office walls, she practically bleeds into them in some scenes.

No wonder she’s always looked so out of place in the rat’s nest apartment she bought with (for?) Abe, in a relationship that functions like a warm-up act to all the mediation work she has to do every day at work. The two are so starkly different in goals, and beliefs, they’ve arguably been the most doomed non-Don pairing the show has ever had. And it’s from Don, and the office that Peggy has learned to deal with being disappointed with how things turn out; she has a thing for Ted because he seems good in a way she believes herself to be, but that hasn’t stopped her from fantasizing about him all the same. Abe though, as an idealist, is so caught up in his causes and (understandable) paranoia about the state of the world, that it takes getting stabbed twice, once by hoods (making consecutive examples of Mad Men’s unfortunate deployment of black characters), and once by Peggy, for him to wake up to reality. Peggy and Abe breaking up in the back of an ambulance starts almost humorous, but turns bitter the more Abe turns out to be the one twisting a knife, haranguing Peggy’s character and career, which aren’t very separable these days.

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