Mad Men 6×09 ‘The Better Half’: Two halves don’t make a whole

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Mad Men has consistently focused on the clashing forces that inexorably take hold of a person, whether it be business vs. family, past life vs. present life, or delusion vs. reality. It’s a strong thematic focus, given its universal nature and the depth to which it’s explored. This theme shines brilliantly through the lens of Don Draper, as his pull towards incompatible lives often ends up destroying them. This episode uses him, along with Peggy and Roger, to show how the drive to preserve all aspects of their lives just results in self-destruction.

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Source: AMC

The episode’s C-plot involved Roger witnessing the ramifications of mixing the business half of his life with the personal half. As the oldest focal character on the show, we’re seeing how his age is sinking him, draining the influence and the importance he may have held in the past. A lot of that past importance comes from his job, such as how he acts in order to get clients to like him. He’s neglected family for personal gain, both gain within the company and his own personal delusion. Because of that, he doesn’t really know how to act around his family. He takes his grandson to Planet of the Apes because he knows that Don took his son; he’s never been a present-enough father to know how to be a good one. That decision backfires on him; even though he tries to sweet-talk his daughter into forgiving him, that businesslike demeanor just alienates him from his family. So he tries to be a part in Kevin’s (his and Joan’s son) life. He brings over a present for the boy, a football, another indication that he doesn’t know how to be a father. But Joan doesn’t need him. There was once a day that she did, but that day is gone, destroyed by his adherence to the other facets of his life. Once, the business half of his life was more important than anything else. But deeming that the “better half” only alienates him from his family life. And, now that he needs that half, it’s already gone.

Peggy also suffers from trying to decide what half of her life functions as the more important one. She’s trying to survive in this new apartment with Abe, watching the area decline and the man she’s with brush it off like it’s nothing, but she’s also living in the luxury of her Madison Avenue advertising job. She’s caught between two worlds, worlds that cannot co-exist because they pull her in two completely different directions. Peggy believes that there’s a chance that Ted Chaough, her boss, can give her the business satisfaction AND the personal satisfaction that she desires. So, in a fit of terror, when she accidentally stabs Abe with a spear (crazy, I know), causing him to break up with her, she thinks that Ted can be what she needs from both worlds. But he can’t. He wants her as part of his personal life, but he knows that it wouldn’t work. He doesn’t need her like she needs him. She’s ultimately left empty, without the personal fulfillment from a relationship that she needs. The last scene is just so powerful because it shows how, when you try to prioritize two different worlds, worlds that are completely incompatible, there’s no way to survive in both of them. That last shot just exemplifies how alone that prioritizing can truly make a person. When it comes down to it, nobody really knows how to prioritize. They may think that one portion of their life can give them everything, but that’s never true, no matter how deluded they may be.

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Source: AMC

Don has a past life that he’s unable to ignore. His life with Betty encompassed so much of his life that it bleeds into his present. He has three kids, all whom he is still forced to be a father to, all whom he still loves. His past life and his present life co-exists within the same space, even though they’re two lives that he cannot seem to compromise. When he sees his son Bobby and his ex-wife Betty at Bobby’s day camp, he assumes the role that he had played for so long. With Megan away, he has sex with Betty and acts as a father to Bobby in what seemed like a harmonious moment. But things aren’t the same. Betty doesn’t love Don like she used to. She knows that loving Don is poisonous, that sex doesn’t mean to Don what it means to other people. Don wants to see an escape route, but there’s not really one there. What’s there is a remnant of a life that he once lived, one that isn’t really there anymore. It’s the result of deeming that section of his life lesser than work or lesser than even his own delusion. And now we see Megan, now the biggest part of his personal life, taking the back burner to everything else. This episode juxtaposes the charred remnants of Don’s past life to the dying nature of his present one. Megan’s lonely, alienated from her husband, feeling herself losing Don more with each passing day. And even when she tells Don that, when she says that she’s lonely and that things need to change, it doesn’t feel like anything is going to change. The more we see Don unable to change, the less we believe that anything will. Just like the rest of this season’s great episode, this one radiates doom and fatalism, that people can try to be good but succumb to their imperfections and failures. It’s easy to fall, but it’s infinitely harder to get back up.

Whatever half of our life we deem to be the “better half” doesn’t remain that way forever. That balance shifts and contorts itself faster than we can fathom it, leaving destruction behind as we struggle to adapt. Adaptation is even more difficult when we live with delusions in our head that keep us from acknowledging the brutal realities of our life. Just as Peggy lost Abe, just as Roger lost Joan, Don is moving towards losing more sections of his life. We’ve already seen him lose Betty because he was unable to cope with the reality of what was truly necessary to keep everything above water. Unless he can acknowledge what part of his life is most important right now, unless he can learn from his mistakes, nothing is going to change. He’s just going to keep on losing.

Did you think this episode lived up to the high quality of the rest of this season’s episodes? Let me know in the comments!

Michael St. Charles

is just a Michigan State University grad who loves a good story. If he’s not off teaching the young ones how to solve quadratic functions or to write an expository essay, he’s watching old-school HBO shows, indie horror movies, or he’s playing Resident Evil 4.

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