Mad Men: “The Better Half”

Every character in Mad Men is plagued with duality. Don Draper is quite literally two identities conflated into one. It’s his show, superficially speaking, but there’s also Peggy. Peggy is a great copy writer and a very professional employee, but she’s also living with a Jewish journalist whose life goal is to destroy the establishment. He’s everything a white, Catholic, middle-aged advertising pro should avoid. She sees herself as one person, but she exists as another.

Roger Sterling sees himself as a happy-go-lucky father, but he’s really just an absent father like all the rest.

“The Better Half” focuses almost exclusively on the duality of each character of Mad Men. Sometimes these displays work (Betty’s observation that Megan is wrong to think that loving Don will make him come closer is a particularly excellent moment), but sometimes they feel strangely forced for a show so controlling of its details (I’m looking at you, on-the-nose sexual tension between Megan and her co-worker).

But perhaps the best, and most effective, investigation in duality is January Jones’s Betty. She’s lost all of her weight (and returned to her blonde hair) and gained all of her confidence. But something’s different.

She’s not quite as foul as she was a few seasons ago. Her edges have softened. Even though she displayed a pretty inappropriate tone with Don last week after the break-in, Betty has shown true change when compared to Don’s relatively static personality.

Ever since Betty understood what it meant to not be the most desired woman in the room, she’s become much more understanding of those around her. But in returning to her form, Betty has learned to use her power over men as a weapon.

When seasons 1-3 Betty poked and prodded with middling success, season 6 Betty knows exactly what she wants and how to get it.

She wants Don on a hot night in the country, and she knows how to get him. Not with a passive-aggressive insult, but with an open door.

Watching Betty’s character evolve and devolve over the course of six years has been fascinating. She’s a volatile and dangerous woman who has no right to raise children, but just when we’re ready to write her off, she sings “Father Abraham” with her son in the middle of a crowded restaurant. Who is she? What is really going on below the surface? I don’t want to know, because guessing is too much fun.

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While Don and Betty reconcile, at least sexually, Megan (where’s she been?) has a b-plot revolving around her potentially doomed job on the soap opera she co-stars in.

Appropriately enough, Megan is playing her character’s French evil twin, which opens up all sorts of fun doors in the show. Megan, of course, is French-Canadian, which makes her duality perhaps the most obvious, but she’s also playing a blonde, “classy” woman who looks like Betty. Just a few episodes ago, Betty changed her hair color to match Megan’s. What is Weiner saying here? Surely it isn’t just a fun visual game. Are they the same?

The parallels go deeper than just hair color. They’re both performers at heart, Betty a model and Megan an actor, and they both met Don through his business. The most telling similarity is also the most tragic, both women asked Don for a favor in their respective fields, and Don lost interest in both of them immediately following their shoots.

Mad Men is famous for its intricately crafted framing and sound design, so nothing happens by accident. Most shows that take place in a city feature ambient “city noise,” like ambulances and car horns, but Mad Men is very careful about the ambient noises we hear. Did you notice that in every scene between Megan and Don in this episode, loud sirens could be heard? The whines of the ambulances were so loud that their dialogue was almost muddled.

You don’t have to be Pauline Kael to understand what that signifies, and it’s not necessarily subtle, but these details are, to me, what separates Mad Men from the pack. The details are everything.

The title of this week’s episode refers to a lot of things, but I like to think that this is Peggy’s episode. It begins with Peggy being unable to make a simple decision for fear of upsetting Don or Ted.

She doesn’t want to alienate Don, her old mentor, but her feelings for Ted are clouding her judgment.

At the end of the episode, after a pretty bizarre scene involving a knife and Abe’s stomach, Peggy sees that Ted is in love with the Chase, but that he’s not willing to sacrifice anything.

She’s stuck between two worlds, and she never even had a say in bringing them together. It’s a tough position to be in. But I like to think that her look of complacency at the end of the episode is a hopeful one. She doesn’t have to choose. Neither of these guys are doing a great job because of the other, so this is her time to swoop in and do the heavy lifting.

She’s her own mentor now, and that’s the hero’s journey she’s taking.

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  • Terry Barr

    Didn’t the director say to let the weight carry the role? Another Peggy duality: the physical weight she’s carried, lost, and has now transferred to the emotional side. Didn’t think her look at the end was as much complacent as it was unclear, though I do agree that she is weighing her choices now, and now is the time to act.