Mad Men Season 6 Episode 9 Deconstructed

by: L.P. Hanners

The reunion of Betty and Don….in “The Better Half”…..

With a return to a more traditional patterned narrative1 the pungent aroma of nostalgia encompassed the office as this week’s episode brought us face to face with those that know us best. “The Better Half” revisited connections of days past, and displayed with intense resolve how much has changed with the characters. The series comes full circle2, then continues onward, only to come come full circle again3, before plunging further onward…..

In a moment long awaited by fans, Don and Betty finally had a chance to reconnect, engaging in a touching, and ultimately heartbreaking, encounter that clearly highlighted Betty’s maturation, and Don’s intensifying vulnerability. But, before this significant reuniting of the Drapers circa 1954, we were thrust once again into the middle of Don and Ted’s powers struggles, whisked uptown where Peggy and Abe’s vulnerabilities (on many fronts) were featured, and eventually sulked with Roger as he longed for that which he can never have.

We are introduced to a new Betty4 early on in “The Better Half”, one who once again attracts men like fish to a lure. Betty’s is back to her fighting weight and is armed with her always-sharp wit and a newfound confidence. Betty 2.0, has finally arrived.

Don and Betty run into each other on the way to visit young Bobby at Summer Camp, presumably upstate. We feel a spark immediately between the two, a sensation we haven’t experienced in many moons. This connection is intensified at lunch with Bobby where we see Don acting like a father and genuinely enjoying the experience. As the family sang “Father Abraham” in unison we see a softer, more endearing side of Don, paving the way for Betty to easily lure her ex-husband into her room.

The scene that plays out after they fornicate is the pinnacle of this episode. Here we see, through clear contrast, how much they’ve embraced who they really are. And, we see exactly who they have become. Betty has the upper hand, and relishes in the opportunity to emotionlessly seduce Don, and to be candid with him about his faults, and her happiness. Betty has come to terms with the end of her marriage to Don5. Thus its easy to assume Betty has been dreaming of the things to say and do to Don if she ever again got the chance. And Betty took full advantage.

Don and Betty talk about sex and intimacy in a mature, illuminating fashion, a level of romantic candor rarely found between a man and a woman on Mad Men6. The scene plays out heartbreakingly yet magical, like a dream of days past. Betty demonstrates compassion and intelligence; practically erasing the memories of the childish and mean things we’ve seen her do, and truly turns the knife in Don’s heart when she says that she feels bad for Megan. “That poor girl,” she says “She doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you.”

Don also offers some honest insight into his usually concealed feelings, revealing that having sex with her isn’t as meaningful as simply lying in each other’s arms. We learned last week how growing up in a brothel affected him, but this week we uncover that this has led to him disconnecting intimacy and true affection from sex. Sex is just aerobics to him, a power trip, further revelation into just what his nerves are made of, and why he’s so uninhibited in his sexual conquests. Don has now been manhandled by two women this season, both of which have had the power to see into who he really is – and this vulnerability has been Don’s undoing. We are left with a very telling truth that says so much about who Don Draper is: Now Don wants Betty, because he can’t have her.

The episode was as much about Peggy as it was Don7. Peggy is caught. She’s trapped between Don and Ted and their unceasing power struggles, and she is entangled between Ted and Abe. She is unwittingly stuck in losing situations and is burdened by more than her fair share of emotional catastrophes this week.

Embattled Peggy is manipulated and misguided by a confused Ted. Rattled by his feelings for her, Ted shows a lack of composure, and tact, for the first time. We are finally introduced to an unwelcome side of Ted, at long last a chink in his armor so to speak, as he leads Peggy on, and then dismisses her when she is at her most open and vulnerable. And this unexpected betrayal occurs soon after Abe breaks up with Peggy in the ambulance, as he reiterates things he said about her when they met, problems that he was sure would pop up again, declaring that she has always been the enemy8.

The final shot of the episode leaves Peggy trapped behind glass, caught again between two men who care only for themselves, and caught between two closed doors, all alone.

 “A Better half” ends with Lou Johnson’s 1964 hit “There’s Always Something There To Remind Me.” This brings the entire episode into perspective, and serves as a sobering reminder that although we cannot recapture the past and it is very difficult to move on, none of these connections can ever permanently be severed. Ties that bind are strong, and distancing ourselves from those in our lives that have meant so much to us isn’t easy. In fact it is often impossible, and we must figure out how these pieces fit into our life, because there will always be something there to remind us….

  1. As expected from an episode directed by Phil Abraham’s. He’s arguably the series best director, among the episodes he has directed is the series’ pilot. []
  2. Don and Betty []
  3. Peggy’s look of dread to conclude the episode channeled Season 1. []
  4. Aesthetically as stunning as the old Betty []
  5. Her weight is the tell-tale sign of this newfound acceptance. When she was unhappy she consumed her anxiety by the spoonful. []
  6. Sylvia, at points, excelled in communicating in this blunt tone. []
  7. There was also a significant moment between Bob Benson – this year’s wildcard – and Pete Campbell that assuredly will have impact as the season progresses. []
  8. Luckily it has always seemed that Abe was holding Peggy back from something bigger and meaningful. We may finally be privy to what that could be – yet it appears it will not be Ted. []

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