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Mad Men Season 6 Recap: The Better Half

Betty, arm raised, sings with Bobby; Don peers in from background

Welcome back to another exciting week of Mad Men's season six. Your faithful recappers are still recovering from whatever was in those vitamin shots last week, so this episode offered something of a nice woodland respite from much of the office drama. Join us as we discuss "The Better Half"—but, in case you need reminding, don't make any sudden moves with that homemade bayonet.

Better Halves
Toward the beginning of "The Better Half," Megan tells Don that Collette and Corinne, the Francophone, pen-stealing sisters she plays on To Have and To Hold, are meant to be "two halves of the same person." Considering the many pairings that went on this week, it's clear several members of SCDPCGC are in the same boat.

Take Don and Ted, for instance. They were both in charge at their old firms, used to the youngsters in the creative department hanging on their every word about beans or pantyhose—yet at the new Firm Who Shall Not Be Named they're two halves of a whole, both vying for creative control and Peggy's seal of margarine approval. Peggy can't decide whose idea—and by extension who—is better, Don's taste or Ted's price, but she seems to be leaning heavily Chaough. When he's all business after her Abe breakup/spearing, though, we see that she can't turn to either of her two paternalistic mentor-bosses. Does this mean our dreams will come true and Peggy will stage a coup, rising to power at SCDPCGCO? Probably not, but it does mean that she no longer feels a strong bond with Don or Ted, which could make for some interesting conversations in the weeks to come.

A classic Mad Men pairing returned this week: Roger and Joan. Though they barely interact at work these days, they share a bond and a baby, and after a failed attempt at a "Pop-Pop" weekend (was that a nod to the recently revived Arrested Development?) Roger wants some QT with young Kevin and his mom. Joan, the better half of this couple, isn't having it, and good for her: As much as the fan in me loves seeing Joan and Roger together, she's right when she says she can't count on him. (Plus, you know he'll choose age-inappropriate TV around the kid. Planet of the Apes? Pop-Pop, please.)

But what to make of Bob Benson?! He and Joan are clearly seeing each other and he can clearly rock a pair of '60s short shorts, but I still don't trust him. Did you see how quickly he took what Joan told him about Pete and used it to get ahead at work? He's up to something, and he's willing to use Joan in the process. Beware!

The episode's title refers to marriage—more specifically, to Don's marriages. The "Better Half" usually means just one spouse, but in Don's case he's wondering which of his better halves is, well, better. (Of course, Don is the worst of the three any way you slice it.) At Bobby's summer camp, he plays at being the fun dad at the center of a glittering, singing nuclear family unmarred by divorce/fake identities/infidelity/fraud/etc., and likes how it feels. He likes  it so much that he ends up in bed with his newly thin and blond ex-wife, Betty, who likes how it feels too. (And me three, by the way: Don and Betty are both sort of awful but now that they're older and wiser they're better together. Megan, on the other hand, would be better off alone.) After his last mother/whore figure, Sylvia, gave him the brush-off, Don is unsurprisingly attracted to the mother of his children again, even waxing nostalgic about the good ol' days through a pair of seriously thick rose-colored glasses. After he sees Betty with Henry the next morning, though, he realizes he's the odd man out at camp and returns to his other better half, Megan. I liked their reuniting hug scene on the balcony, but I'm not holding my breath for those two either.

In an episode of "better halves," we're reminded that just about every relationship on this show is doomed to fail. Some because of decades of lies, and others because of homemade spears to the gut.

Assorted thoughts:

• I can't tell if we're supposed to or not, but I love Arlene. She was rocking the hell out of that green caftan, and I could completely see where she was coming from when she called Megan a tease. Plus she was super cool about it after! In an alternate universe Megan would leave Don to be with her and I would cheer.

• That siren we heard while Don and Megan hugged on the balcony was poor Abe, don't you think? He might be losing Peggy, but I can't wait to read that article.

—Kelsey

I Can't Believe She's Not Bitter
With all the heated butter/margarine debating that kicked off "The Better Half," it's tempting to wonder if the show was attempting to draw parallels between the two hotly contested dairy spreads and Don Draper's hot-and-cold running romantic relationships. Is Betty—rich, blond, seemingly rigid, and the official "first" of the Draper wives—meant to represent butter, with Megan taking the role of margarine, butting in on butter's territory with attractive packaging and the promise of being "better" for Don?

If that's the case, it makes Don and Betty's tryst on visitors' weekend at camp that much more charged with meaning—and that's saying something, considering the scene already revealed how little emotion Don attaches to sex ("Just because you climb a mountain doesn't mean you love it."). Maybe it's the stinging of the still-fresh wounds delivered by Sylvia, but Don seems, for Don at least, overwhelmed by longing for his past life. The very fact that he could be bothered to show up to visit the son who probably gets the least of his already-minimal face time was the first hint; the second involved the public singing of "Father Abraham." And the third—well, he made that pretty plain in pillow talk with Betty. Margarine may come in a snappy new container, but nothing says love, family, and connection quite like that familiar stick of butter.

I'll admit I didn't buy this scene at first. After all, Don was pacing a groove in the linoleum outside his ex-lover's back door only last episode; why would he be pining for Betty so soon? Betty, meanwhile, hasn't had anything but vitriol for Don since their brief detente during her equally brief cancer scare in season 5; she knows she's looking good since recovering from her flirtation with hair dye, but you'd think she might be more inclined to stick to more of the flirty, no-muss-no-fuss exchanges that get parlayed into foreplay with Henry. (Speaking of which—did her opening scene with that Stew fellow remind anyone else of her initial meeting with Mr. Francis himself?)

But as the rustic-motel scene went on, it began to make sense: Don is an inveterate opportunist, a literal Mr. Right Now who comes most alive in concentrated, intense moments—in a pitch meeting, or on a whirlwind trip to Palm Springs or Disneyland. Way back in season one, when he told Peggy, of her childbirth and baby, "It will shock you how much this never happened," it wasn't a reassurance that applied to that one incident; it had the resonance of a credo, and he's still living it.

What made the scene so rich, in part, was that Betty knows it—and now that Don is no longer her problem, she can enjoy that aspect of him. Indeed, it seems that she's learned from him how to rationalize and storytell away all indiscretion; "This happened a long time ago," she says, and when Don sees her laughing with Henry the following morning, he looks for a minute like he's wondering if he dreamed it. Megan, on the other hand, as the margarine trying to convince everyone that it has as much to offer as its predecessor, is heading for a rude awakening. "That poor girl," Betty says. "She doesn't know that loving you is the worst way to get to you." Indeed, it's notable that in every scene at the Draper apartment, Megan's attempts to talk to Don are backgrounded by the urgent wail of sirens. It's a bit of an anvil, scriptwise, but it makes sense. In the end, both butter and margarine are beside the point if the bread is rotten.

• However you feel about Abe, you've gotta hand it to the guy for delivering one of the coldest, most pragmatic kiss-offs we've ever seen on this show—"Your activities are offensive to my every waking moment. You'll always be the enemy"—and doing it with a homemade bayonet still stuck in his torso. (Also: Don't sell the brownstone, Peggy! Stick it out—get it?—for a couple more decades!)

• Poor Roger. Speaking as someone whose own father thought Chuck Norris movies were appropriate viewing for a youngster, I think his daughter overreacted a bit by pulling all his Pop-Pop privileges. But regardless, the double dose of parental rejection Roger received this episode, combined with his creeping sense of general uselessness, don't bode well for our favorite office jester. Paging Arlene and Mel!

—Andi

"Status quo ante bellum, everything as it was"
"The Better Half" showed our Mad heroes caught between the idea of who they were and who they will be. This identity crisis starts with the agency itself, which still (really?) doesn't have a name. SCDPCGC, with its overabundance of disagreeing partners, is an environment nearly as toxic as the livers of those who work there. Inspired by Harry, Pete is questioning his work future, all the while suffering from a lack of home stability. Roger reaches out to two women from his past, his daughter and Joan (more on her in sec), but is ultimately left as more of a lonely mess than usual. After being promoted to an evil-twin plotline on her soap, Megan is fearful of a failure in her future, while worrying that she's losing her hold on Don. Following suit, we see Betty, Joan, and Peggy all be presented with men signifyng their pasts and futures; however, Pegs is the one the to emerge with less control over those around her as well as herself.

When we last left Joan, she was on the receiving end of Bob Benson's seemingly genuine niceness, so it's no surprise to see that their whatever-it-is is progressing to beach trip status. I agree with my fellow recappers in not entirely trusting BB's motives, but one can easily see why he's more appealing than nearly everyone else Joan works with. When Roger swings by to drop off an impulse buy of Lincoln Logs, he's greeted at the door by Benson, who appears to doubly confuse Roger, since he doesn't recognize the SCDPCGC employee in front of him and wasn't expecting anyone but a Holloway to answer. After his second attempt of gifting the toys to Joan, she lets Roger down the hard way. Not only does she deny him the father role that he's attempting to claim with Kevin, but she also goes so far as to say that she prefers Greg to fill the absent-hero/father role in her son's life. You know, Greg: That guy that raped Joan and later decided to leave her and their baby to reenlist. Harsh words, Joanie.

 Unlike her fellow Mad Women, Peggy's conflict between a man who represents her past and one potentially representing her future leaves her nearly as injured as poor Abe. Where Betty and Joan demonstrate control over their interactions with Don and Roger, respectively, Peggy is seen struggling all episode. When Don confronts her over her inability to pick a margarine-spread side, Peggy rightly argues that she can't be the glue holding this merge together. However, the tables turn and Don calls her out on her false sense of indecision ("I'm not paying you to be a diplomat"), in addition to challenging her idealized vision of Ted Chaough. While Ted has largely been painted in a favorable light all season, Don knows an ad man when he sees one and does not take all of Chaough's behavior at face value. He embarrasses Peggy by not only claiming that her take on Ted is likely inaccurate, but also by claiming that Ted doesn't know her at all (and, in turn, inferring that no one at the firm knows her better than Don). Peggy goes on this episode to see Ted in a moment of lovestruck vulnerability, only to later have rug ripped out from beneath her when her crush appears to be happier about it being Monday than about Pegs suddenly being single.

Ted puzzles over several sheets of notes
If you haven't noticed, let my shirt remind you that I'm a little obsessed with imitation dairy products right now.

Whereas Joan and Betty have clear designations of their past and future, of what's wrong and what's right, Peggy's worldview is clouded. The episode ends with Pegs standing between Don and Ted's offices, only to have both doors close on her. Ted doesn't represent much of a future, at least romantically, and Don's continued ability to control Peggy shows that he's not firmly in her past. While she has always been Mad Men's trailblazer, Peggy's lack of a traditional role appears to be leaving her without much direction. Betty is a wife to Henry and Joan is a mother to Kevin, and while they themselves are not without complications in their life, they do possess a level of stability and predictability. Having started her career as a secretary impregnated by Pete, Peggy has understandably never had a black and white view of the office. This season started off by showing Peggy kicking ass and taking names at CGC, despite her mixed feelings for Ted, so it's clear that it's her past that's currently throwing her off. We all knew that the merge only spelled trouble for Peggy, so it isn't surprising to see her struggle. However, since she's yet to show any spark work-wise and since Don still has such a strong hold over her, I'm worried about Peggy's future. She made the decision to do what's best for herself by leaving SCDP last season, only to have that decision essentially reversed by the merge. She's left the agency once, but where would she go now? Does the return of Duck Phillips signify more than Pete's need to, as Harry so charmingly put it, "have his balls tickled" by a headhunter?

Assorted thoughts:

• Betty and Don's initial impressions of each other appropriately reflected their powers of attraction. Don noted Betty's ageless attractiveness and Betty noted Don's mysteriousness. The more things change...

• The best line of the night has to go to Bobby Draper explaining to his parents that he's "Bobby 5." Mad Men, you made me LOL.

—Annalee

What did you think of "The Better Half?" Share your thoughts below in the comments!

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In the woods, society's rules do not apply.

One of the literary devices I'm most sensitive to in written works is that society's rules don't apply in nature. Once you pull the main characters out of their normal lives and into the woods, all bets are off. Despite knowing this well, I missed it completely in Mad Men until reading Andi's section of the recap.

OF COURSE it made sense for Betty and Don to put aside their years of strain and mutual frustration: they're in the woods! OF COURSE they could make love and talk freely and engage with their son in public: they're in the woods!

And I'm so relieved they've gotten Betty out of the fat suit and back into her groove as a narcissist tease. That scene by the phone bank really took me back to her meeting Henry for the first time by the bathroom, and then the scene in the limo! Those two like the dirty talk for sure.

I'm also wondering if Betty's smooth seduction of Don and frank evaluation of what Megan's doing wrong, coupled with her statement that she didn't feel guilty because it happened a long time ago and apparent clear conscious with henry the next morning, means there's been a shift in the Betty/Don power dynamic. That would be interesting!

This was a great episode, and I'm so excited for next week!