‘Mad Men’ review: Let the wig do the work

Nostalgia is a powerful drug. Although the more acute effects of last week’s “crash” and burn seem to have worn off throughout the SCDP/CGC offices, lingering long-term dissatisfaction and insecurity with the present moment still has our weary Mad Men (and women) yearning for that ever-elusive happiness in Sunday’s “The Better Half.” The difficulty of having to choose between two equally disparaging options in any situation makes the decision all the more daunting, but the building urgency surrounding the personal and professional dissatisfaction of most of our characters leaves them stuck, as usual, looking for answers in all the wrong places.

MadMen5.26(1)An inability to navigate the evolving cultural zeitgeist has been a persistent difficulty for Don Draper, a man whose reputation as a forward-thinker in his career is negated by a stubborn emotional attachment to his troubled past. As society begins to embrace and reflect the progressive, anti-establishment revolution of the late 1960s, Don’s deceptive, noirish man of mystery only appears more out of touch than ever. Despite an increasing sense of alienation, Don’s actually far from alone in his current confusion. Pete’s only floating further adrift as his options continue transitioning from merely unpleasant to virtually nonexistent, while Roger and Peggy desperately cling to the remnants of relationships either long dead or never realized in the hopes they still have choices left to make for themselves.

“The Better Half” opens at the conference table, where the debate over how to best advertise margarine serves as the most pointed metaphor for this week’s central theme. Everyone’s struggle with looming decisions amid rampant insecurity permeates through work concerns and into personal ones, but Ted and Don’s dueling perspectives provide the narrative with a jumping-off point to explore the fundamental reasons we look in every direction but inward for the source of our discomfort. For the Fleischman’s campaign, Ted wants to focus on margarine’s market value as its most viable selling point, while Don thinks consumers will respond more to a product they’re told tastes good. Regardless of margarine’s cheaper overhead, Don argues, it will always fall short when directly compared to butter. After all, he points out, “Butter is fresh. Margarine is indestructible.” It might be the Chivas Regal of synthetic condiments, but when pitted against the real thing, it’s just Budweiser.

The question of whether taste outweighs cost in the eyes of the clients’ wishes speaks to the larger dispute of what matters more in life: satisfaction or value? Peggy is called into the boardroom to give her opinion on which pitch she thinks is best, but her refusal to decide only highlights the difficulty she has in distinguishing the subtext from the subject. Ted and Don represent two wholly opposing forces in her professional life that offer varying degrees of validation and self-worth, but her burgeoning romantic feelings for Ted and dutiful sense of obligation toward erstwhile mentor Don make the personal nature of her current work environment all the more conflicting.

Both men are demanding and pigheaded, Peggy admits, but the key difference lies in their respective attitudes toward views other than their own. Ted, she says, is interested in the idea, while Don remains firmly planted within the confines of his idea. Gee, tell us something we don’t know. Her point is inarguably solid, but Don reminds her of a crucial element in their relationship Ted hasn’t yet reached. “He doesn’t know you,” he sneers, all too aware of the dangers created when making yourself vulnerable to criticism. What Don’s forgetting to mention, however, is the inherent value of true honesty when compared to the superficial satisfaction of thinly veiled appeasement. Guess which one is Ted’s specialty? The truth might hurt, especially coming from Don, but for Peggy it’s worth a lot more than any projected fantasy. Yes, even if Ted’s wearing his aviators.

The truth is especially painful for Roger this week, as he’s not only permanently rebuffed from young Kevin’s life but he also has to come to terms with the fact Joan has chosen a pod person like Bob Benson over his silver-haired witticism. Bob might be the closest thing to human margarine Earth has ever seen, but despite Roger’s palpable charms Joan has always been able to believe he’s not butter.

Pete’s fear for his job is a direct extension of his distractions at home, and his admission to Joan he’s “being pulled in a million different directions” is made especially poignant when he adds that none of them will ultimately make him happy. His predicament sounds familiar when aligned with Don’s terminal misery, but unlike our stubborn antihero, Pete’s actually willing to accept an idea outside his comfort zone. Harry comparing the newly merged companies’ disheveled state to the Yankees’ legendary 1927 lineup might sound delusional, but his insistence he’s “content in reality” instead of silence gives Pete reasonable cause to take action. He enlists the placating skills of Duck Phillips, whose new calling as a headhunter gives Pete the idea he’ll be reassured of his professional worth. “It’s good to know the water’s still warm out there,” Harry had told him, but instead Pete’s only reminded just how big the pond is.

Don’s in for a similar surprise when he runs into Betty on his way to visit Bobby at summer camp. Her resurgence as the trim, blonde bombshell of Mad Men yore was revealed during the Grandma Ida burglary scare, but the real fruits of her labor are depicted in detail this week when it’s impossible for anyone to take their eyes off of her. Henry is turned on by the realization other men find her irresistible, but Don’s slower to warm up and first seems genuinely startled to catch a gas station attendant ogling her from afar. The ease with which Don and Betty exchange their initial pleasantries lends itself well to a remarkably cordial and even endearing lunch that afternoon with Bobby, who’s clearly thrilled to have the simultaneous positive attention of both his parents for perhaps the first time his memory will allow.

Betty’s empirical beauty isn’t enough to pique Don’s full curiosity, but that familiar sting of wistful regret is what makes hindsight such an enticing, if irrational, indulgence. The two meet again later that evening and exchange anecdotes over a contraband bottle of whiskey. Betty remembers their trip to Lake Champlain years ago, when Don argued with her father over carrying their luggage. Don, on the other hand, recalls sneaking off into the woods and conceiving Sally. Discussing memories of their marriage stirs latent emotions in both of them, and Betty quietly leaves her cabin door open as a silent invitation. Don accepts.

The physical nature of Betty and Don’s reunion, while noteworthy, is perhaps the least important aspect of this monumental storyline and what it means for their relationship as exes and co-parents. Don uses the fleeting reconciliation as a way to both gauge and escape his current ambivalence with Megan, but like his usual indiscretions this isn’t just about the void in Don Draper’s soul, but also Dick Whitman’s. Betty’s discovery of Don’s former identity is what ultimately dissolved the suburban Stepford existence they tried (and failed) to emulate, while the chic, urban lifestyle he subsequently embarked upon with a younger brunette couldn’t have been more inversely proportional. The fact Don was comparatively upfront with Megan about his checkered past only further illustrated the gaping disparity between both marriages, at least initially.

Now, the tables have turned and Betty is the buttery, beguiling alternative to Megan’s mundane margarine. It can’t be a coincidence on the show’s part that Betty’s flirtation with dark hair ended just in time for Megan to be awarded a new part on her soap that requires a blonde wig. The imagery is a bit heavy-handed on its own, but wisely doesn’t serve as the primary allegorical source for Don’s newest predicament. He might have thought that fleeing back into bed with Betty, however temporarily, would have provided a familiar comfort. Instead, she uses her knowledge and understanding of Don’s tortured psyche to explain his choices and insecurities more succinctly than he ever could. His admission that he considers sex a merely superfluous obstacle en route to real intimacy appears to spark a revelation for Betty. “Poor girl,” she says about Megan. “She doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you.” Don, after all, is enchanted the most with what is available the least, something Megan hasn’t quite grasped but Betty knows all too well. She and Don’s undeniable connection might not be fresh, but it certainly is indestructible.

Peggy is also in the midst of witnessing the deterioration of her current relationship, but her attempt to take solace in the arms of another would-beMadMen5.26(2) suitor fails almost as spectacularly as the actual breakup itself. Her decision to buy an apartment in a decidedly unsafe neighborhood was rooted in good intentions, just not wise ones. Abe’s declaration that he’d pictured their kids growing up around more diversity than what the Upper East Side could offer propelled Peggy into making an impulsive real estate decision that only exacerbated an already festering problem. She’s right; the place is a shithole, and Abe knows it. While no amount of handiwork or innovative use of space can make it the home either of them had imagined, no apartment in Manhattan can substitute for the lack of compatibility in their relationship. The increasing vandalism and thievery on their street leads to an incident with unnamed hooligans attacking Abe on the subway, after which he unleashes white liberal guilt so hilariously excessive it borders on parody. Abe’s staunch, self-proclaimed devotion to equality prevents him from describing the thugs who mauled him, but later his clear disapproval of Peggy’s success suggests the women’s movement isn’t among his collection of progressive priorities.

Peggy’s inability to follow through on her frustration with Abe grows only harder to watch as she deflects the real problem by taking initiative in every other facet of their living situation. Abe, admitting defeat, agrees to put the property back on the market, but until it sells they’re stuck with the unsettling activity outside their door. The real issue is finally addressed through the series’ most shocking display of sudden violence since the lawnmower incident in season three, when Peggy accidentally impales Abe in the gut with her makeshift bayonet. It’s every bit as horrifying as it is hilarious, and perhaps just the kind of desperate measure they need to facilitate an honest discussion about their future, or lack thereof.  Peggy had assembled the weapon as protection against potential intruders, but it ended up driving away the one trespasser she’d already let inside her house, and heart. “You’re a scared person who hides behind complacency,” Abe tells her in the ambulance, before admitting her ties to the corporate world defy everything in which he claims to believe. “You’ll always be the enemy.” Ouch. Apparently Abe took liberty to twist the proverbial knife in response to Peggy’s literal one.

Abe’s verbal jabs are likely still stinging Monday morning when Peggy slithers into the office with all-nighter hair, but she’s got enough adrenaline left to march straight into Ted’s office anyway and inform him of the breakup. His earlier confession their impulsive kiss from several weeks ago wasn’t a fluke had thrown Peggy for a loop. She wasn’t prepared to hear Ted was harboring actual romantic feelings for her, but she mistakenly interpreted his disclosure as an open invitation. It wasn’t. Ted’s politely indirect dismissal of her advances leaves Peggy agape at the sudden lack of options before her, especially after recently experiencing a spike in local admirers and career options. Now, the fact she originally thought the merger was for her sake sounds more embarrassing than ever. After Ted all but shoos her out of his office, a stunned Peggy turns to look toward another source of guidance, but Don’s office door slams right in her face, too. So much for full speed ahead.

Doorway metaphors have been consistent throughout Mad Men’s tenure, but their use in this week’s installment illustrates a whole new depth of potential meaning for the current narrative. “The Better Half” alludes to multiple interpretations, the most obvious pertaining to the two parties in a relationship and the more abstract relating to the transitional phases each character is preparing to enter. The less appealing alternative can be wryly referenced as margarine, while the perceived ideal, of course, is butter, but the doorway between the two is where the crucial decision to either move forward or retreat backward is made. The wisdom in knowing which side of the door holds the better half is probably where the secret to happiness, or at least advertising, likes to hide the most.

Were you happy with this week’s more straightforward Mad Men? Or are you still recovering from Dr. Feelgood’s energy serum? What shocked you more, Don and Betty’s fling or Peggy stabbing Abe? Most Awkward Moment: Roger bumping into Bob at Joan’s house, Peggy throwing herself at Ted and getting denied, or Don facing Betty and Henry the morning after? Is Bob Benson the devil? Was he kidding with those shorts? Is a four-year-old seeing Planet of the Apes that big of a deal, even in 1968? Sound off on all things Mad Men in the comment section below!

Season 6, Episode 9: “The Better Half” (originally aired May 26, 2013)

Mad Men airs Sunday nights at 10/9c on AMC

Images courtesy of Michael Yarish and AMC

Follow Erin on Twitter: @ErinBiglow

One Comment

  1. The morning after is always a bummer. Where is Dr. Feelgood when we really need him. This episode was hangover, cold shower, cold light of dawn, etc., all rolled into one. Like reality it was a needed corrective, but I didn’t like it much.

    And enough with the butter/margarine metaphors. You are right of course. The writers are pushing them as hard as they can to illuminate all of these, seemingly infinite, relationships. But as a long-time resident of a state that banned margarine as long as it could, warming to this metaphor is difficult. Margarine was smuggled into this state, like hooch during prohibition, from Chicago.

    But I digress. Viewing this episode was like going back to work on Monday morning. Had to get busy taking notes on all of the relationships, subplots and, yes, metaphors in play. It was exhausting. We need brackets. How about Cliff’s notes?

    I’ll be back next week. Which of these developments will be on the quiz, you think?

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