Mad Men, Season Six, Episode Nine, "The Better Half"
This show has always been cynical, highlighting--week in and week out--the worst aspects of the '60s: thoughtless sexual behavior; overuse and abuse of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs; the crass materialism of the post-war economic boom; rampant sexism and sexual harrassment; racism; violence; and--though I know many viewers love them--some god-awful, tacky clothing and home decor. The noble aspects of the decade--like the Civil Rights Movement, the women's movement, the anti-poverty agenda--are either represented mainly through tragedy: the killings of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy, the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, or not represented at all. National leaders like King and Kennedy are shown to be worthy, but characters in the show who adopt Left principles represent the worst of Leftist movements (think the poser Paul Kinsey or Abe, who could only spout the us v. them, black/white thinking that some on the Left took on). The writers have hinted that the cynicism might be tied to the ad industry on which they focus. At one point early in their relationship, Megan complains to Don that everyone at SCDP is "so cynical." The focus of the show is on privileged, affluent people, whose issues are different than those on which '60s social movements worked. And, the '60s certainly did have its darker sides as well as its brighter sides. Of late, though, the series seemed even to give up hope that individual humans could change for the better. Part of Don Draper's appeal--through all of the ugliness, cruelty, and thoughtlessness he inflicts on others and the darkness to which his psyche subjects his own self--is that he seemed to have better angels dwelling with the demons. As a self-made man with an invented identity, he appeared to have the potential to re-make himself into a better person. And as someone dashingly handsome, yet brooding, moody, attempting at the same time both to protect and yet leak his own deep secret, he has always wielded the attraction that Byronic heroes have held for two hundred years. But, this season has shown him doing nothing but exhibit the same old behaviors again and again. His wish to Sylvia was that he could 'stop doing this,' but he demonstrates no capacity for learning from his mistakes or his past. It got to the point for me that the show was not just too cynical, but boring. This week's episode focused on some characters' searches for "the better half" of their selves. Given Mad Men's history of deep cynicism and characters' past histories of being unable to learn, I'm not holding my breath. But, it did make for a refreshing hour of television.
We briefly see a return of Duck in his new career as head hunter. His job now is to help people find better professional places to be. He tells Pete Campbell that he had to become aware of the "wellspring of [his]confidence--[his] family." While Pete admits that his family is a "constant distraction," Don and Roger (two of the show's lost souls) decide that this might be a good time to embark on a quest for family. Peggy too--as she's been doing for awhile--is trying to figure out with whom she belongs--Abe? Stan? Ted? None of these men are good options for her. Ted might not be a bad choice, but alas, he's married and for now, at least, isn't willing to be unfaithful. There were some lovely, sweet moments to this episode: watching Roger play with his young grandson (did I miss mention of Margaret giving birth? He seemed to appear a full-sized pre-schooler out of nowhere), Bobby's excitement at having both of his parents together with him at camp as all three of them sat at the table singing "Father Abraham." Yet the problem for Roger, Don, and Peggy as they search for their "better halves" is that they continue to look for what will fulfill them outside themselves, rather than within.
As we saw reinforced last week, Don is on a psychic quest for a mother, yet none of the women with whom he has relationships is willing to play that role for long. So, he quickly becomes dissatisfied with a wife or a lover and starts looking on the other side of the fence. Tonight he comes full circle back to Betty. I enjoyed the scenes between Don and Betty. While I suspect Betty--in large part--did what she did to see what it's like to be Don's 'other woman' for a change and to stick it to Megan, these two characters, when at their best with each other, have always been good. While Betty's manipulative half is never far below the surface, she seemed to be happy with Don there and Don has always been a gentle lover with Betty. Betty seemed more wise tonight too. Her observations about Don were spot-on. She recognizes that he can look at her one way after sex, but "then I see a decline." And of Megan: "She doesn't know that loving you is the worst way of getting to you." Don wonders, "Why is sex the definition of being close to someone?" and recognizes that "it doesn't mean anything to me," but he seems unable to connect those insights to his youthful past that we were shown last week. While I expect Betty enjoyed witnessing Don's hurt when he found her at breakfast with Henry the next morning, she's right not to want to go back to Don. He's too damaged. (Though Henry's possessive prying about his colleague when he and Betty were in the car was distasteful. Stuart's approach to Betty while Betty was waiting for Henry was quite reminiscent of Henry's first approach to a pregnant Betty while she was waiting outside a restroom). Don does return to Megan with an acknowledgement that he hasn't been present and an implicit promise that he'll try to do better, but we've seen this before. I'll believe he's genuinely working on himself when I see it.
Roger, this week at least, is not looking for his "better half" in a woman, but in a relationship with one of his offspring. He seems happy when playing with Margaret's son and after Margaret's reaction to the boy's "Planet of the Apes" nightmares (an over-reaction or one borne out of Roger's past behavior with the boy?), he moves on to try to see his child with Joan. He plaintively tells Joan, "I just want to be around." She wisely responds, "I know you want to. But I can't count on that." With Betty, she seems to be one of the few content people this week. Is that because of the presence of Bob Benson? Are they now lovers or still just friends? He seems to be a good guy, and perhaps it's just my cynicism, but I don't fully trust him. Or maybe it's that we don't know enough about him and what his motives are. He seems TOO nice in contrast to everyone else there.
Finally, there's Peggy. She, too, is looking for her better half outside herself. I'm glad that she and Abe are finally through, though I wish she had been able to take control of ending the relationship. From the moment he derided her appeal for women's rights, I haven't thought him good for her. He has some noble instincts, but is such a dichotomous thinker that it does blind him to a lot of what's going on. He is hyperbolic, of course, in his naming of Peggy as "the enemy," but he's right in seeing that they're not a good match. Her turn to Ted Chaough at this point, though, is not healthy. He's too perky in his "It's Monday morning!" "You'll find someone else and whoever he is, he'll be lucky to have you" speech, but he's right. The final shot of her, though, looking pale and unkempt with no make-up and her hair not done, doesn't portend good things for her character in the near future. I wish that she, too, would be able to look inside herself to figure out what she wants and needs--rather than hopping from man to man for the answers.
As the song goes, "You'll always be a part of me..." Betty will always be a part of Don; Margaret and her son, Joan and Kevin will always be a part of Roger; Abe and Ted--and Pete, for that matter--will always be a part of Peggy. But, if Don and Roger and Peggy are ever to be content and wise, like Joan seems to be, they will need to find the part of themselves that is their own self. And not always look for it in someone else. I don't know, though, that "Mad Men" can ever shed enough of its cynicism to allow that to happen.