Mad Men – The Better Half
Phil Abraham (presumably no relation to the Father Abraham of the song) was the first person ever to direct an episode of Mad Men, with his work on the pilot he helped establish exactly how we see Pete, Don, Roger and the other male members of that titular posse. Recently though he has shown more of a fascination with the show’s equally strong women characters; directing last year’s Lady Lazarus and The Other Woman, whose title and episode number is mirrored in this episode. The Better Half is both a return to showcasing the series past male protagonists – who have been somewhat ignored of late – and another hour focused on the hourglass figures that flutter past the suits in the SCDP offices; almost exactly one half of the episode devoted to each. Which of these halves worked better is unclear because of just how well the writing welded them together (the episode scripted by writing pair Matt Weiner and Erin Levy); though the divide was there it was unclear at the beginning of each scene to which side it would slip. This was the first of many pairs that appear throughout the episode, none of which are possible to split in a straight, clean way.
Better Half, then, continues the season’s strong theme of doubles in the form of split personalities and partnerships and it does it from the very first scene. Don and Teddy arguing about some arbitrary element in an ad both gesture to Peggy at exactly the same time and in exactly the same way; Don more in sync with this man than he is his ex-wife and son when he later attempts to mirror their arm movements during a song. Both men are trying to seduce Peggy, the pairs shared protege, their shared better half like parents do a child, seeing which one she will side with, seeing who she loves more. Like a child confronted with such a large challenge she shrugs and gives a non-answer, satisfying no-one. She does what Don warns against when he shouts at her that there is always and only a right and a wrong , she attempts compromise and ends up alone somewhere in that middle she suggested as an answer. This is the danger of being a pioneer; to truly trod a virgin path you have to travel alone, there can be no partners.
The show’s other women all swing a little during the episode – in all senses – but eventually make their choice of man and aren’t necessarily any better off for it; the results ambiguously contradictory. Megan attempts to be her own other woman thanks to her dual roles in the soap, but finds that she can never convincingly split her personality in the way her partner does so prodigiously. She is then, quite ironically, approached again by her similar looking co-star and their many roles and the relative meanings of their words mix and match mercurial. Only Megan’s refusal of the romance and subsequent surrendering of herself to Don are clear, but we know too well that the later is tainted by his secrets and sleaze.
In particular their declarations are dramatically undercut by the fact that he has just returned from traveling back in time to sleep with his ex-wife in the kind of steamy, Sirkian sequence that one normally only see’s in Todd Haynes films. This is different than a simple affair because he is sleeping with the woman that she seemingly stole him from, forming a sort of Oroboros of adultery, something much more intimate. But to be clear it is Betty who chooses to leave Schrodinger’s cabin door open and elicit the illicit affair just as she chooses to forget it the next day and sit with her new partner, acting as if it never happened and allowing for the possibility that maybe it didn’t. Joan’s story was simpler, but followed a similar pattern: she had to choose the best of her babies two possible legacies and the best of the two Ad Men suitors to help raise him and she did just that; dejecting Roger both times at the worst possible time.
Roger, like Pete is having a horrible time of things recently; the more we see of them the further down they fall and so it’s almost a relief that Roger in particular has had so little screentime this year (as it was to see that he hadn’t died during last week’s drug trip). I’m not sure where their stories are going just yet, it’s a little too early to say too much on that front I think, but the episode does a good job of putting them into perspective. SCDP and the people running it all represent the ‘better half’ and their problems are made pitiful by us seeing how the other half live. The sound design during the scenes set in Don’s apartment does this well; the loud whining siren subtly carrying across the idea that the New York of the late sixties isn’t all sexy, isn’t all sheen, hell it isn’t all safe from the scene prior set in Peggy’s apartment.
I had some similarly small issues with the episode; it seemed a little loose and a little scattershot in comparison to those that have come before, especially since it was driven by a now over-familiar theme. It felt at times very much like an early season episode of Mad Men, which is fitting given its core but not really a compliment. All of this though disappeared during any and all of the episode’s many magical moments; during the episode’s own better half. Coming after last week’s Crash this isn’t the kind of episode that will be remembered, but its slow, steady storytelling is necessary for the success of those crazier hours – just as there is no right without wrong, this too is another intrinsically connected pair – and I respect it for that.