Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Mad Men: The Better Half

Last week's Mad Men kind of got on my nerves for being a little too on-the-nose about spelling out its themes. But that was a minor complaint since the idea at the center of the episode -Don being high on amphetamines- was so crazily entertaining. I really liked that episode, but a lot of people found it too confusing and nonsensical. And yes, in a way, I complained about the obviousness of the flashback that introduced us to Don's deflowering prostitute. On the other hand, the whole conceit of the episode was so sketchy and dream-like that besides getting the overt implications of the flashback, the whole message of the episode wasn't necessarily clear. After all the tripping, I didn't expect "Man with a Plan" to be followed with something like "The Better Half". 

Mad Men has been strangely reactionary this year. This is especially surprising for a show that had its whole season written and (mostly) shot before it even premiered, but there you have it. The first few weeks, people were complaining about the show being slow and Don being too unlikable. Then we got "For Immediate Release", a great episode that in many ways could have been read as fan service. And now, after last week's outcry of confused people, we get what is probably the neatest, more carefully plotted episode the show has ever done. The extreme cleanness of "The Better Half" is, in my opinion, what keep it from being a great episode of television. 

By this point in the show's run, I think we know enough about the characters to let space open to interpretation and delve into more experimental storytelling. The show is never going to get too subtle about the themes it wants to touch on every given episode (it never has been and it never will), but it has also never been obvious on this regard to the point of viewers having to roll their eyes. The conceit of "The Better Half" however, in which the characters encounter difficulties in their personal lives and go for their second option only to find it won't be quite that easy, was a little too much. Maybe it was the fact that it happened to so many characters in the same episode, but to me, it felt carefully plotted to a fault. 

Don and Betty
We ended last week with Don miserable about being stuck with Megan once he couldn't have Sylvia anymore. We knew it was unlikely he would just sit and bare his married life, but it still was a little shocking to see him hook up with Betty. Not that I didn't see it coming from the second he saw her at the gas station, but it felt like an especially desperate (and very Great Gatsby-y) thing to do. 
On the other hand, hooking up with Don must have been an enormous ego-boost for Betty, who must already feel pretty great about herself having gone back to her ideal weight and being once again flirted at by married men at parties. 

Roger and Kevin
Roger tries to connect with his grandson. He takes him to the see "Planet of the Apes" (just like Don did with Bobby), but the whole thing backfires on him when the four-year-old can't sleep due to movie-induced nightmares. And so, he goes to Joan and Kevin (who is probably his child) and is once again rejected. I guess the thing with Roger is he is feeling more lonely every time at a time when all the doors are closing on him. 

Pete and Duck Phillips
Not much to say here this week, but the difficulties in his marriage and the uncertainty of his importance to the new Agency, Pete is looking for other options, which don't seem to look all that bright.

Peggy and Teddy
Now, the whole "other option" thing isn't quite as neat with Peggy in the construction of this episode, but it is very clear in the context of the season. She had to choose between Don and Teddy, and in case we didn't know already, Don questioning her about Margarine vs. Butter made it crystal-clear that she has chosen Teddy. In almost every way, Teddy seems like a much saner pick to be your mentor than Don Draper. Everything indicates he is a much healthier human being. However, the one thing that benefited Peggy in her relationship with Don (whether she knows it or not) is the fact that he didn't want to have sex with her.
Her relationship with Teddy, however, seems to reach an uncomfortably new level when Abe breaks up with her and she goes to Ted only to find he isn't quite willing to have her as his lover.      

The other big theme of the episode (and of the season as a whole so far) was duality. It starts with the debate whether Margarine or Butter is better and it obviously is present in the character's choice of going for one alternative instead of the other. In many ways all this going for Plan B's is about trying to choose the other option once the initial choice didn't pan out. Don's double life with Sylvia, the two agencies becoming one, Teddy Chaough as bizarro Don Draper, so many things have spelled out duality, I couldn't conceive the whole thing not having a pay-off as we enter the season's final stretch of episodes. 

Also... Joan and Bob Benson
So, yes, obviously these two have become a couple. And so far it seems like Bob is in it with truly good intentions, taking Joan and baby Kevin to the beach and all that. And while he does use information Joan feeds to him to amp up his image in Pete Campbell's eyes, he doesn't seem to be hanging out with Joan for that reason. I mean, he obviously helped Pete out with his mother as a power move, right? I mean, that guy can't be that nice, can he? Anyway, my watch on what will become of Bob Benson continues. 

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