May 27, 2013 1:13pm PT by Tim Goodman
'Mad Men' Deconstruction Episode 9: 'The Better Half'
I’m a firm believer that truly great dramas – ones that demand an active, not traditionally passive approach to watching them – have not only elevated television from its ugly cousin status in relation to films, but have also educated viewers along the way in what constitutes brilliance.
I teach a visual studies class at an art school and Mad Men has always figured prominently as a teaching tool because it’s smart, beautifully shot and wonderfully acted, and focuses on interior, emotional, adult issues. And perhaps more than any other series, it asks viewers to become more savvy about what they’re seeing on the screen and the motivations of characters (and the series creator).
That’s why Sunday’s “The Better Half” was pretty much a textbook example of Mad Men. At this point, it’s easier for many people to see the broader points Matt Weiner is reaching for in the series, so an episode focusing on duality, choice and examining who we think we are as opposed to how others think of us was pretty easy to decipher (as opposed to last week’s wilder approach in style and narrative).
Who is the better half? Husband or wife? What is the better half of Betty or the better half of Don? Margarine or butter? Will Megan decipher the two halves of her same soap opera character? Who is Bob Benson, really? Does Joan really think that Greg is a better role model for her son than Roger, his biological father? Why can’t Roger connect at all to the paternal side of his character – has he been a partying, pleasure-seeking, self-centered person too long to connect to the other side? So who is it going to be, Peggy, Don or Ted? Are they the same person? Or is there a better half there as well? Are you the kind of girl who plays at bohemia or should you just admit you want to live in the nice part of town? Is it better to work at – what the hell is the name of this combined ad agency? – or to test the waters outside?
All the dots that you want to connect in “The Better Half” are there for the connecting. Like I said, a really great drama presents these and over time an audience gets savvy to them and appreciates the gesture.
But what I really liked about “The Better Half” -- other than Peggy stabbing Abe with that ridiculously awesome spear she concocted -- was the resurrection of Betty. We saw the new, suddenly slim Betty ever so briefly in last week’s episode (and no doubt January Jones was happy to be out of the fat suit/make up). But this week, depending on which dots you wanted to follow, it was really all about her and Don. It’s important to remember that Betty can be something other than petulant, child-like and a cold mother.
She can also be smart about her place in the world. She’s happy she’s thin again – even saying proudly, “Do I look like a woman who has three kids” to the man who is so blatantly hitting on her while Henry is on the phone (what goes around comes around, Henry).
And she likes that she’s turning Don’s head again. Both at the gas station and at camp where he talks about her shorts. Letting Betty have power again – in the only way she’s been taught to use it – was a refreshing change for a character who had just turned mostly sour and useless. I think Mad Men had a chance to keep focusing on Betty’s mental health issues longer than it did in Season 1 and 2 -- there was a lot of parental damage to mine there -- but probably out of necessity the focus remained on Don’s interior issues and getting away from Betty was essential for his development, or lack thereof.
So here we are back with Don ogling Betty. We even get an extended scene with Bobby and it’s like they are a family again (see what you gave up for the other side, Don?). It was enjoyable not only because Betty was able to shine in a new way, but also because Don was made to suffer even more (and if Don’s not suffering in Mad Men, the series isn’t working on its core). The shot of him, post sex with Betty, coming into the camp diner to see Henry and her in a booth, talking and laughing and him on the outside, eating alone, was fantastic in its heartbreak.
It sent him back to Megan – because Sylvia is out, right? – and he had to confront his place with her. Two things here – whatever they did to Jessica Pare in this episode was impressive; she looked lovely and sexy without vamping or letting the clothes do the work for her and she was honest and emotional both about her work and about her relationship with Don, without sounding whiny and high-pitched. It made her more relatable and therefore made Don’s retreat to her with no other options that much more pitiable. She’s the sloppy third choice in Don’s life at that moment, but she’s the better half out on the balcony trying to piece together what has slipped from their marriage.
Of course, “The Better Half” proves that Don’s existential crisis continues in full-bloom but gives no true hint that he’s learning anything from it (yet again). I mean, are we to believe him when he tells Megan he’s going to be more present, having just come back from Betty’s bed? It’s been six seasons of not learning for Don.
The writing in this episode was, as usual, excellent. “No Peggy, there is a right and wrong,” says Don as he’s annoyed about her not picking between his idea and Ted’s idea. “He never makes me feel this way,” she says about Don’s demand. “That’s because he doesn’t know you.” Ah, yes. Knowing the true personalities of the people you’re involved with is a key factor in this episode. Part of that was done so deftly when Betty and Don talked in bed. What are you thinking, Don asks as he stares into the eyes of his ex, who is behaving just like he is.
“I’m thinking how different you are, before and after,” Betty says, with wisdom. “I love when you look at me like this. But then I watch it decay. I can only hold your attention for so long.”
What a perfect word choice - "decay."
“Why is sex the definition of being close to someone?” Don asks, since he’s always disconnected any feelings other than lust and pleasure from the act. He then uses a mountain climbing analogy that is pure Don. (I was so happy they wrote that...) Betty asks about Megan and says, “That poor girl. She doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you.”
That scene is certainly one of the best from this season. It works on so many levels. Betty really understands Don now and even acts like him. She has a firm grasp of the realities of marriage. Don gets to see Betty in this new light where she’s sexual and enlightened and not grouching at him about something. But in so doing, he has to hear the truth about himself.
And then, of course, he has to see that her enlightenment means he’s not the end-all, be-all (as Sylvia recently taught him). The past is the past. “I don’t think about that anymore. I’m happy in my life. Let’s enjoy this,” she says, as they savor their moment in bed. The next morning she’s laughing at breakfast with Henry. Don, looking lost and haggard, stares at them.
I liked this episode quite a bit, even the strangeness surrounding Abe, which was both funny and weird. Abe, perhaps thinking he's on his death-bed (and the editing in the scene let us think that as well, as the ambulance attendant just shrugged his shoulders when Peggy asked if Abe was going to be fine), delivers the most honest break-up scene ever. “Your activities are offensive to my every waking moment. I’m sorry, but you’ll always be the enemy.”
Well, OK then. I guess that’s Abe’s farewell (and he lives).
The only scene I could do without was the last one, as a frazzled, post-stabbing Peggy is in the office and Ted gives her no emotional support, or bites on her I’m-single-now sentiment. She walks out of his office and both Ted and Don are there, closing their doors with her caught in the middle. If we’re to believe my notion that Mad Men is among a handful of series that have made viewers more savvy about what they’re watching, then they didn’t need that anvil to get the point.