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

Vincent Kartheiser in Mad Men

With Peggy almost skewering her boyfriend, “The Better Half” still has plenty of the out-of-left-field surprises that have come to typify latter years of Mad Men, some episodes more than others. “The Crash” was crazy and looked like it was sprinting 10-miles an hour, but once the hangover was over, you realized it was just running in place. “The Better Half,” meanwhile, goes a little nutty itself, and gets almost as meta, but manages to escape the quagmire of Don’s ennui, and move things along in big ways for all the major female characters of Mad Men, not just Peggy. For some, that means going forward. We get an answer to the question of “where were Joan and Bob last week.” The answer: probably doing it. Well, it’s not yet known whether it’s sexual in nature, but the two have struck up an off-hours companionship. Really, nothing would make me happier than seeing Joan find someone she can count on that’s not Pete (though, that’s not really true, even if she believes), but I’m not holding my breath. Let’s not forget the last time Joan got involved with a tall drink of water who seemed, at first glance, to be a nice guy.

Bob Benson as the seasonal cipher continues to be fascinating, with his confession to Pete teasing a spilling of beans regarding Roger and Joan’s affair, before pulling a switcharoo, and adding another bulletpoint to his case for sainthood. Seeing as one of the few status quo elements in Mad Men is perpetual disappointment, I still see no reason not to expect a grand betrayal at the hands of Bob Benson at some point. Some have predicted he’s a mole for another agency (someone start working on a 24/Mad Men comparison chart), because with each kind act, Benson has wormed his way closer and closer into the personal lives of the partners. In just one afternoon, he learns that Roger and Joan likely had an affair, and that Pete’s living with his mentally unstable mother. Sure, he acts like a gentlemen in both situations, but that’s just letting Bob squirm deeper and deeper into everyone’s dirty laundry. How long is it before a drunken, scorned Pete (a fairly common occurrence) starts shooting his mouth off about how Don Draper isn’t the guy he says he is?

I grin with gleeful hate every time Benson show’s up on screen, not just because of how slickly unctuous James Wolk is in the part, but because through Benson, we better understand what’s becoming Peggy’s real weakness as her career advances. If she and Abe did share any personality trait, it was a belief in the ability to do and be good while operating in a system that thrives on cynicism and self-interest. Where Abe might prefer to burn down the establishment for the greater good, Peggy’s an accommodating, but fiercely strong-willed peacemaker, or at least, tries to be. But she’s still the foolish optimist in so many ways, as what the viewer is privy to makes you understand why distrust is the nature state of so many on this show. Even though Bob Benson seems, at every turn, the genuine article of what a decent human being acts like, a red flag goes up in your head every time he offers someone a coffee cup, or a sympathetic ear. The world’s going to hell, so why should a guy nicer than anyone from the time things were good suddenly appear?

It’s a pessimistic viewpoint that pervades the entire city, not just the office. Megan’s story continues to feel like it’s only got one real connection to the rest of the show, and that connection couldn’t care less about her. In her two scenes with Don, police sirens overpower her attempts to communicate, as if the entire world, not just her husband, wants to tune her out. Thematically though, the soap opera shooting lot is just as much a viper’s den as Madison Avenue, with Arlene coming over to the house under pretense of offering her advice, but really looking to follow-up on the sexual proposition advanced back in “To Have and to Hold“. Watching Megan friend-zone Arlene on three different makeout attempts offers some nice levity, but her refusal spells bad things ahead for Colette/Corrine, the double role she plays on her soap. One could argue the death of Megan’s career might mean the rebirth of her happiness at home, but her hope for a real marriage with Don continues to be the sad puppy the show refuses to put down just yet.

“That poor girl,” says Betty to Don, as the two stare at each other in bed. Yeah, I told you things got moving this week, and boy, I cannot tell you the last time a rekindling of old flames was this unexpected, and unexpectedly effective. In an episode that leans into soap opera theory hard, it’d be easy to draw comparisons to the torrid reuniting of Betty and Don, but every second of it is too damn perfect to complain. Now, instead of cheating on each other, the former poster couple of the nuclear family has reconnected by cheating with each other, and takes a first step towards what might be a whole new relationship era for Mad Men to be ushered into.

Are Don and Betty retuning to one another’s orbit on a more permanent basis, or was this a fling, a therapy session of sexual chemistry and soul-baring, akin to what Joan and Don used to do (except with some actual sex)? Could this be why Matthew Weiner has kept Betty around so much longer than her expiry date, or was this meant as a sendoff? Don’s lame attempts to repair things with Peggy clearly demonstrate him wishing things could be more like the old days, but has Betty encouraged him to look further back in time still? Of course, it would never work out; settling down has always been anathema to Betty, just as it has been to Don, so reuniting Mad Men’s first family would be setting up another disaster. But when that look of genuine happiness crosses both their faces as they sing “Father Abraham” with Bobby, you understand exactly why they might think a return to their previous status quo is the answer they’ve been looking for.

Mad Men, as always, is completely unpredictable, so there’s no real reason to save the date for the Draper-Hofstadt wedding Round 2, but that’s what made “The Better Half” feel like the season’s shot in the arm that “The Crash” couldn’t have been. Don Draper’s Pity Party Theatre takes a much-needed break, and nobody wound up dead. You can complain Mad Men has been repeating itself too much lately, but this return to the days of old felt fresh, because it could be a one-off, or a sign of major things to come. Will Peggy’s dream of having the job and the homelife ever be a reality? Has Joan finally found a good a decent man? Will Don and Betty ever make their relationship work? I doubt we’ll get the answers in the season’s final four episodes, but it’s those questions, not the “what does it all mean” musings that made Mad Men so rich to begin with.

  • Stray Thoughts

-That last scene made Elizabeth Moss look like she’d just walked in from filming on Top of the Lake. If Megan gets to play a twin on her show, I’m okay with Robyn Griffin popping in as Peggy’s time-displaced great granddaughter.

-Speaking of doubles, Bobby’s run down of all the other Bobby’s at camp is probably the best joke about the character’s constant recasting as could be imagined.

-And while “The Crash” was almost indulgently meta, “The Better Half” is far more self-deprecating. “I’m either his mother or his girlfriend. Now that’s bad writing,” says Arlene, though it’s unclear which show she’s talking about: To Have and to Hold or Mad Men.

-Can’t say I understood Margaret’s fury at Roger taking his grandson to planet of the apes. His Dr. Zaius impression was killer.

-Pete letting us know he prefers Don’s pitch might as well have been followed up by his announcement that water is, in fact, wet.