Most people don’t make decisions. They let decisions make them. But if they’re lucky, the decision doesn’t take the form of a bayonet in a boyfriend’s gut.
Bayonet in the gut. Bayonet in the gut!
I’d be tempted to say that Peggy ending her relationship with her hippie journalist boyfriend Abe by spearing him like poor Chief in Apocalypse Now was the last thing I expected to see on Mad Men, if we hadn’t already seen a guy lose his foot to a riding mower in season three’s “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Office.” Series creator Matthew Weiner, it bears repeating, cut his teeth as a drama producer on The Sopranos, and there are times when that lineage comes through very strongly, particularly in Mad Men’s moments of dreamlike perversity; “The Better Half” has that feeling. It’s my favorite Mad Men episode of this somewhat spotty year. Written by Weiner and Erin Levy and directed by Mad Men veteran Phil Abraham, it worked as both a housekeeping episode that advanced major characters’ stories and as a commentary on the soap opera and dark cable drama conventions that the show uses straightforwardly, when it’s not turning them inside-out. Certain sections of “The Better Half” reminded me of seasons two and three of The Sopranos, which teased and sometimes infuriated audiences by veering between sitcom shenanigans, painful domestic drama, mid-‘60s European art house-movie symbolism/dream logic, and the kind of willfully sick comedy that used to be all over American indie cinema back in the ‘90s, when directors such as Don Roos (The Opposite of Sex) and Todd Solondz (Happiness) made you care about sad, deluded characters, then humiliated and tortured them like vengeful gods.
Symbolism spotters didn’t lack for notebook material. Don and Ted’s curtain-raising argument about the margarine account was Exhibit A: It set up themes explored in the rest of the hour. What does a consumer think about when deciding which margarine to buy? Is the decision mainly about taste or price? Unfortunately, nobody buys margarine for the taste, and the stuff is so cheap that price differentials don’t really affect consumers, either. Hovering on the argument’s outskirts was our tantalizing friend butter, which costs more than margarine and actually has taste. But you can’t just tell a client, “We don’t know what would make a consumer choose one brand of margarine over another, so you’re on your own, pal.” The ad folks had to figure out (or invent) the reason why a consumer might choose, and one reason seemed as good as another.
That, in the episode’s first of many metaphors, is the dilemma faced by most of the major characters in this episode: Their personal and professional relationships came down to a choice between two or more unsatisfying brands of margarine, because butter wasn’t available to them – and sometimes the third, unavailable choice that looked like butter from afar turned out to be margarine, too.
All this margarine business echoes Megan’s trouble on the set of the soap opera — a soap opera-within-a-soap opera, if you believe Mad Men is a glorified soap opera. She was having trouble playing twin sisters in a way that made them easily distinguishable; in an early scene, the director’s voice came in via speaker to chastise her. “She’s blonde. Classy. We need you to make these women different, honey.” Later, Megan confides to Don: “They keep telling me they can’t tell the twins apart.” Don replies, “It’s not like it’s never been done before.” (The blurriness in Don’s response is intriguing. What hasn’t been done before? An actress making twins distinguishable to the audience? Or the audience figuring out a way to tell twin characters apart even though the actress isn’t special enough to help them out?)
Extending the metaphor in admittedly ridiculous fashion, Don is stuck with his matrimonial margarine, Megan (Megarine?), because he can’t have Sylvia-brand butter. Sylvia decided to stay with her own in-house brand of margarine, Dr. Arnold Rosen. He’s a tad boring and is away from the apartment too often, but at least he doesn’t trap her in hotel rooms like an imprisoned concubine while working through professional disaffection and mommy-whore issues.
Don can’t have Betty-brand butter, either, although she gave him a little taste when they were off in the woods together visiting young Bobby at camp. Poor Don, the romantic materialist bastard: Anything he can’t have looks like butter to him, and once he gets it, it turns into margarine, and he gets bored and starts looking for new brands of butter. Life is one big sexual supermarket for this guy, and judging from his post-coital conversation with Betty in the cabin — in which he admits feeling no particular emotion during sex, and likens the act to climbing a mountain — it’s all about the shopping, not the eating.
Peggy’s not happy with her boyfriend and fellow crime-plagued homeowner Abe, because he’s got career tunnel-vision, and because his self-righteous liberalism is verging on Mike Stivic caricature. (”They were brought here on slave ships!”) She’s known deep down for quite a while that the relationship with Abe wasn’t working. Abe is so incredibly grating throughout this episode – fudging details of a mugging out of misplaced Stick-It-To-The-Man sympathies, lecturing Peggy about her supposed reactionary tendencies, and repeatedly alluding to an article he’s writing that will quote her at length, one assumes unflatteringly – that I kept expecting (hoping!) that she’d break it off. (But not stick it in and break it off! Hi-yo!)
Alas, like most Mad Men characters, and most people, Peggy doesn’t have the nerve, or perhaps the presence of mind, to see what has to be done and then do it, even if it means being the bad guy. When Abe has a failure of nerve and says he’s OK with selling the house and moving out of their crime-ridden Upper West Side nabe, she’s relieved, and for a moment it seems as though the relationship will continue. But then she breaks it off by stabbing him in the gut with a bayonet lashed to a broom handle – an accidental injury that doesn’t feel that accidental when you remember her slamming the parlor doors on Abe after their earlier argument, and when you think about how she looks at Ted, and how she accidentally touched his arm in the workplace against his wishes, and how she fantasized kissing Ted while making out with Abe a few episodes back. (As my friend Tish Haley joked, “Nothing says ‘it’s over’ like a shiv to the lower intestines.”)
So many brands of margarine, so few real choices! Ted’s not happy in his marriage, but when Peggy becomes available at the end of “The Better Half,” he expresses non-sympathetic “sympathy”, and cheerfully but coldly advises her to get back to work. It feels like revenge against Peggy for not siding with him during the great margarine debate, and perhaps for not deciding to call him butter and choose him over margarine Abe immediately. Ted’s not as nice as Peggy thinks he is. Maybe he only seems nice; maybe her workplace crush on Ted blinded her to the fact that the guy only looks like butter.
The final scene between Ted and Peggy in “The Better Half” (Great title; reads like “the butter half”; which brand of margarine do you choose?) seemed to validate a bullying remark Don made in an earlier with Peggy argument, in which Don was fuming over Peggy’s refusal to choose between two brands of handsome creative boss-mentor margarine, Don and Ted.
Peggy: You’re both demanding, and you’re both pigheaded. You’re the same person sometimes. [Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!*] The difference is that he’s interested in the idea, and you’re interested in your idea.
Don: He’s interested in his idea. Don’t let him fool you.
Peggy: Well, he never makes me feel this way.
Don: He doesn’t know ya.
(* Editorial onomatopoeia added.)
The Peggy-Don argument and its bookend, Ted’s post-bayonet rejection of Peggy, tied in with one of Megan’s earlier remarks, from the dinner table scene in which she talked about her soap opera issues with Don. “They’re two halves of the same person,” she said of her twin characters, “and they want the same thing, but they’re trying to get it in different ways.” We aren’t given many details about the twin characters, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they were trying to “get” whatever they were after in a passive-aggressive or even unconscious fashion, just sort of blundering through life until a decision makes them.
I liked the slight rhetorical blurriness of “The Better Half,” which set up a series of striking different visual and literary patterns (mostly having to do with choices between fundamentally unsatisfying romantic or professional partnerships) but gave you just enough prompting to make you look for connections that might or might not be as strong as you thought. The two-brands-of-margarine motif and the twins motif were in the foreground of the episode, but they weren’t overdone; they weren’t photo-bombing the drama by jumping between you and the characters and making goofy faces so you couldn’t pay attention to anything else, as sometimes happens on Mad Men. One line of argument blurred into another, one decision or non-decision into another, one character into another, in a way that felt genuinely dreamlike. (“Everything in a dream is you,” a sage ex once advised me.)
The way that the episode kept verging on self-parody while somehow remaining “real” and deadly serious was dreamlike, too. When we saw the diminutive creative director Peggy stalking through her house with that bayonet-spear, listening for rancor outside, we were struck by the nightmare ludicrousness of the image; then we dreaded the inevitability that somebody would collide with the weapon’s business end; then were horrified and deeply, awfully amused by the stabbing itself (I laughed out loud; you did, too, right?). It was like a surrealist-nonsense send-up of the Chekhov rule: any bayonet-spear introduced in the third act will be used seconds later. The continuation of this gory accident — Abe breaking up with Peggy in the ambulance with the blade still stuck in his torso, followed by Peggy offering herself as a romantic option to Ted and being told, basically, “Too late, baby, you should’ve said yes sooner” — was funny and sad, unreal and somehow very real, in a classic Sopranos/Six Feet Under way. The final scene — Peggy in limbo between Don and Ted, two toxic margarine-men — was perfect; it tied everything together without saying precisely how it tied it all together.
It also made Mad Men’s dramatic center, the ever-expanding and self-reinventing ad agency – Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Cutler Gleason Chaough Homina Homina Sold! – seem as cursed as a haunted house. What a tragicomic bunch of characters, and what crazy twists: identity theft, love children, office rape, embezzlement, suicide, a riding mower maiming, an accidental bayoneting. The characters stick together, more or less, because it’s a TV show, and TV shows don’t work if the main cast is too widely dispersed. But there’s a more practical reason for these characters gravitating toward each other, until they eventually clump together in a protoplasmic mass of lust and ambition: they’ve collectively generated so much bad karma that I don’t think any one of them could withstand the due diligence of a rival agency’s personnel department. Peggy had better get used to that shabby office. Abe’s article will hit the streets soon, and she gave him his ending.
Odds and Ends
- I could have done without the predatory lesbian punchline to the scenes in which Megan’s costar Arlene came over for a heart-to-heart about her work problems. Mad Men is sophisticated about a lot of things, but awfully clumsy when it comes to writing people of color and gay/lesbian characters. This scene made the Mel-Arlene-Don-Megan swinger stuff in “To Have and to Hold” seem graceful in comparison.
- I liked that the episode gave a few good scenes to Roger and Joan individually and as a couple, but I didn’t think Roger’s scenes rose to the level of the rest of the episode. Roger’s daughter cutting off contact with his grandson because he took the boy to see Planet of the Apes felt especially arbitrary and silly to me — and not appealingly dreamlike-silly, either. It felt like a way of forcing Roger’s regrets over not being a dad to Joan’s baby to the surface of the episode.
- I did like Joan’s part of the Roger-Joan thread, however — particularly her forcefully telling Roger why he couldn’t be a part of his son’s life, and the awkward moment when Roger stopped by uninvited and saw Bob Benson there in his shorts.
- I’m becoming increasingly convinced that Bob Benson isn’t an evil guy, and doesn’t have a secret agenda – that he’s just really nice and considerate. Yes, there’s a professional benefit in his being nice, but a lot of Mad Men characters have risen far by being assholes, so I don’t necessarily buy the idea that it’s a viable strategy for career advancement. That we keep expecting another shoe to drop seems like Mad Men’s subtlest comment yet on its own adult-cable-drama-ness.
- Matthew Weiner probably laughed as he read the above bullet-point, while taking a break from writing the season finale in which Bob Benson strangles a hooker.
- Related: The cruelest thing in this already-cruel episode was Mad Men promising us footage of Joan and Bob at the beach in swimsuits and then not following through.
- Loved the pan up the now-thin Betty’s legs from Don’s point-of-view. It was cleverly staged. For a second I assumed it was some random woman that Don and the gas station guy were ogling; the shot’s foot-to-head tilt-up made the revelation of Betty’s face a visual punchline.
- Betty was the MVP of “The Better Half.” I was so glad to see her back, and acting rather than being acted upon. She seems to have acquired more intriguing layers; she’s been offscreen so much in seasons five and six that it’s hard to know what precipitated the transformation, but she seems tougher and wiser now, if no less psychologically tangled. Her icy flirtation at the black-tie dinner seemed a setup to get Henry hot and bothered (and it worked; he chastised her in the back of the limo, then jumped her). And it was fascinating to see Betty compartmentalize Don the way Don usually compartmentalizes the women in his life, Betty included. Don has used variations of the line “it’s just sex” so many times over the last six seasons that when Betty made that line real – screwing him in the cabin, then laughing with Henry over breakfast the next morning as if nothing had happened – it felt like long-deferred payback.
- Best bit of stagecraft this season: Don takes Betty’s hand on the porch. Betty lets it drop, opens the door to her room, and leaves it open. Sexy.
- The expression on Don’s face as he watched Betty and Henry at breakfast might have been the saddest image in a very sad episode. Don seems more hounded, exhausted and broken than ever this year. He returned to Megan and re-committed himself on the balcony not because he’d had a righteous epiphany about how wonderful she was, but because Sylvia wasn’t an option anymore, and Betty had made it clear that she wouldn’t be one, either. She used Don as a diversion, as Sylvia did Don until she started to fall for him, and knew Don well enough to know that it would be stupid to take things any further. I think we’ve all had a moment like Betty’s, where we act on affection for an ex, usually for selfish, momentary reasons, while seeing through their bullshit and protecting ourselves against succumbing to it. When she looks at Don, she seems to be looking through Don. She can believe he’s not butter.