“We’re both two halves of the same person. We want the same things.”
“The Better Half” – a self-deprecating phrase often used by husbands in the 60s to describe their wives. Ironic, really, considering the second place wives always took to the ‘Master of the House’. Here, it meant that and more in a thoughtful, incisive episode of Mad Men that examined the characters’ relationships with their families and their partners, and asked, just who is the ‘better half’?
Not only that, the title also referred to the literal concept of duality; how characters reflected, complemented and even rivalled each other despite their obvious similarities. This was signposted a little clumsily early on with Megan’s new role in soap opera To Have and To Hold – she’s playing her own twin sister, in a fairly ridiculous wig. And having to fend off the unwanted sexual attentions of her castmate Arlene to boot.
But the most obvious duality was, again, that of Don Draper and Ted Chaough. The ep opened with a Friday business meeting, and already SCDPCGC’s two alpha males were at each other’s throats, quarrelling over the best approach to advertising margarine. It fell to Peggy to play peacemaker – asked to decide between Don’s idea of emphasising the taste and Ted’s idea of emphasising the price, she prevaricated, satisfying neither one.
It was a very Peggy-centric ep this week, something that’s always welcome with Elisabeth Moss on such good form. A few weeks ago, she seemed convinced that Don had orchestrated the whole merger just to get her back in his office; he pooh-poohed the idea at the time, but now I’m beginning to wonder if there was something to it.
Especially now that her stolen kiss with Ted Chaough was back on the agenda. “The oldest tune – the boss in love with his protege,” he mused, and straight away we were back to the resemblance between him and Don, whose feelings for Peggy have never been entirely straightforward. It was the first time either had mentioned the kiss since it happened, way before the merger, and it turned out he’d taken it way more seriously than she had, even contemplating taking it further. In the end, it was the thought of his family that had stopped him – as, for her, it was the thought of boyfriend Abe.
That’s something she’ll likely come to regret. For some weeks now, the show has been subtly showing Peggy and Abe drifting apart. It started with her reluctant acceptance of his idea to buy a house in a rundown neighbourhood on the East Side; like many a patronising middle-class liberal, he wanted to mingle with the socially deprived he thought he could help.
Peggy, for her part, is an upwardly mobile career woman – quite an achievement in 1968. Unfortunately, it’s distancing her ever more from her would-be ‘angry young man’. That reached crisis point this week as they began to find that the neighbourhood wasn’t as ‘gentrified’ as they had thought. Abe was stabbed at the subway station, but like a good little hippy wasn’t going to trust the pigs with the full story.
To be fair, he had a point – the cop’s first question being, “Were they coloured, or Puerto Rican?” But Peggy, a more conventional establishment woman, found his reluctance to pursue the matter baffling. From his perspective, she Just Didn’t Get It. Never mind that she had reason to worry when rocks started flying through their bedroom window.
The issue came to a head when Peggy, hearing shouting outside, began prowling the apartment with a crude spear fashioned from a broomstick and a kitchen knife. Thinking she heard an intruder, she whirled round – and promptly stabbed Abe in the stomach.
It was one of those shocking yet blackly comic moments that Mad Men does so well – remember the time that guy got his foot shredded by a lawn mower in the office? It’s a measure of this show’s ability to turn on a dramatic sixpence though that, after having guffawed out loud seeing one of the characters seriously injured, the humour turned to pathos as he finally broke up with her – from a gurney in the back of an ambulance.
To be fair (again), I saw his point. Peggy, like Don before her, used to embrace the counter culture, open to new ideas. And also like Don (there’s that duality again), as she became more successful she became more establishment. “You’re in advertising,” gasped Abe. “Your every waking moment is offensive to me. You’ll always be the enemy.” That’s a pretty decisive break up right there. And so once again, Peggy found herself back at work, torn between her (and each other’s) male equivalents Ted and Don. With both of them shutting the door on her.
The other family given the lion’s share of screen time this week was (quelle surprise) that of Don Draper. Or, to be more precise, his two families – the old one and the new one. For some time, we’ve seen Don drifting away from Megan just as Peggy drifted away from Abe, unable to sympathise with or even grasp her choices and problems. He went back to his old womanising ways, but even that didn’t fill the void for him. Has he been truly lost ever since he gave up his old, suburban family existence?
And yet, surprisingly, Betty seems to be in a similar quandary. Husband Henry barely seems to pay her any attention any more, focused on his political career; she’s so starved of admiration that she seemed grateful to be slobbered over by a lecherous lounge lizard at one of his fundraisers.
So it was that, visiting Bobby at summer camp, Don and Betty were brought together again, and sparks flew. Bonding with their son (“I’m Bobby number 5!”, he excitedly exclaimed in, presumably, an in-joke about the amount of actors who’ve played the part), it wasn’t long before it was just like old times. Talking led to drinking, and drinking led to bed.
Their post-coital discussion was another insight into Don’s fractured psyche. “Why does closeness always have to mean sex?” he asked rhetorically, before comparing lovemaking to an arduous mountain climb. It’s as though, for Don, constant sexual activity feels like something he has to do; something socially obligatory in his role as a male. Turns out he’d be just as happy snuggling contentedly.
It was a moment of unguarded honesty the like of which we seldom see from Don, and it’s significant that it was his ex-wife he shared it with. Both seemed more content in that one night than we’ve seen them in several seasons. You could say it was rose-tinted nostalgia, perhaps; or that these two people genuinely do understand each other better than the replacements they’ve found. But social mores got the better of them again; Don awoke the next morning to find himself in bed alone. Betty was having breakfast with Henry and studiously avoiding his gaze, while Don slunk to the other side of the restaurant to stare forlornly at them.
Everyone’s family is dysfunctional, but few more so than Pete Campbell. “My family are a constant distraction,” he confessed; what with his senile mother and estranged wife and child, you could see his point. This was his riposte to a sincere statement about how important family should be from a familiar face – recovering alcoholic Duck Phillips, who we’ve not seen for several years. As an interesting aside, these are both men who’ve slept with, and hurt, Peggy Olson – Pete got her pregnant, leading her to give the baby up for adoption, and Duck toyed with her affections from the depths of alcoholism. She’s lucky the thing with Abe lasted as long as it did, with that track record.
Roger too was musing on the importance of family, as in familiar fashion, he botched a day out with his grandson. Promising to take him to “the zoo, and maybe the movies” (“a normal workday then,” was Joan’s sarcastic opinion), he earned his daughter’s ire by taking the four-year-old to see Planet of the Apes, much as Don had with Bobby recently. Unfortunately, Roger’s grandson was rather terrified by it. “We’re going to have to get rid of the dog now, he’s so terrified of fur,” was his daughter’s angry but hilarious assertion in the aftermath. “It’s like letting a four-year-old look after a four-year-old.” Too true.
Having failed at being a grandfather, Roger decided to have a go at being an actual father, popping round to Joan’s to see his son. Given that he barely seems to have given the child a second thought, and certainly won’t acknowledge that it’s his, you can see why Joan was less than keen. So much so in fact, that she’d rather little Kevin viewed her rapist ex Greg as his father. At least Greg’s off doing heroic things in Vietnam.
Where’s Bob Benson?
Well, blow me down if SCDPCGC’s genial mystery man hasn’t formed a ‘friendship’ with Joan, much to Roger’s distaste. Turning up with a gift for Kevin, Roger was taken aback to find Joan and Bob preparing for a trip to the beach (though he still couldn’t remember who Bob is). No indication how close their ‘friendship’ is yet; as Joan commented the other week, he is a little young for her.
It’s also still a little unclear exactly what he does at work, though he’s clearly some kind of PA to Pete Campbell. He put on an epic display of kissing the boss’s ass this week as he recommended a nurse for the harassed Pete’s troublesome mother – “Your well-being is important to me.” Way to suck up, Bob. Nobody could be this nice, especially in this show – what’s he up to?
“All the teenagers of the world are in revolt,” asserted Don, unknowingly echoing Abe’s earlier comments about Prague and Paris. Paris had calmed down by this point, but Czechoslovakia was still trying to break free of the strictures of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union. Communist Party secretary Alexander Dubcek was trying to liberalise and democratise the USSR satellite state. Unsurprisingly, the Kremlin didn’t take this well, and on August 5, Czechoslovakia was invaded by Warsaw Pact troops. It would remain occupied until 1991.
The scary movie that Roger defensively referred to having seen as a child was presumably 1915 German horror movie Der Golem, or one of its several sequels. Surprising that Roger Sterling, previously so anti-Semitic, is familiar with a movie based on Jewish legend.
Some lovely classic cars this week – Don was driving a ‘68 Cadillac Coupe de Ville, while Betty was leaning provocatively over a Ford County Squire station wagon.
Dedicated Followers of Fashion
As you might expect from such a Peggy-centric episode, Elisabeth Moss got some good outfits this week. Starting with what looked like a castoff from 2001 A Space Odyssey, she progressed on to a blouse and then a dress that seem to indicate a predilection for polka dots:
On the male side, Roger was back to that old favourite – the Eye-Burningly Hideous Checked Sport Coat. Unfortunately for him, he couldn’t hold a candle to Bob Benson’s beach wear:
Nice legs, Bob.
This was a languidly-paced ep, after last week’s drug-addled psychedelia, that had some interesting insights in the script by Erin Levy and Matthew Weiner. Again, there was a theme – family and duality – that reflected on and gave insight to the regular characters. It goes without saying by now that the performances were top notch, but mention must be made of the excellent camerawork this week from director Phil Abraham. The repeated motif of duality and relationships that couldn’t quite meet up was effectively and subtly visualised – it was an ep full of side on two-shots between characters who were not – quite – touching. A nice representation of the themes not just this week, but of the show as a whole.