by E.C. Fish on May 31, 2013

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madmen_fullbodyIn a show whose very title focuses attention on its male characters, the women of Mad Men — Peggy, Joan, and to a (much) lesser extent, Betty and Megan — are often given short shrift, despite being some of the series’ most interesting and popular characters. This week’s episode, titled “The Better Half,” gives these characters ample screen time, but as the title implies, it treats them as halves of a series of couples both literal and metaphorical — that is, it defines them by their relationships with the male characters rather than as as complete characters in their own right. In short, “The Better Half” addresses gender issues with the sensitivity and insight that the show usually brings to race, with equally problematic results.

OH, BETTY: After a fifth season spent using the character of Betty as a food-obsessed walking weight issue and a sixth spent peeling off the layers of January Jones’s fat suit one by one (“I’m trying to reduce”), we now reach an episode insistently centered on what a hot little number she is, a veritable magnet for the male gaze in scene after scene. At a political fund raiser Betty and Henry are attending, a political associate of Henry’s makes a blatant pass. In the limo on the way home, Henry sternly interrogates her about it before becoming uncontrollably aroused and grabbing her roughly. At a gas station, where Don and Betty coincidentally end up together on the way to Parents’ Weekend at son Bobby’s camp, the pump jockey is far too occupied ogling Betty’s ass to pay any attention to his customers. Don joins him in the ogle, setting him on a course that leads straight to Betty’s motel room once they reach the camp.

While Betty’s successful weight loss could be interpreted as healthy and empowering, given the “reducing” regimes of the 1960s, it is more likely that she is at best somewhat malnourished and at worst nursing a physician-sponsored meth habit, and besides, empowerment and objectification are two very different things. Her weight-loss regimen has “reduced” her, despite her back story, to the familiar Mad Men role of “bit of tail.”

DON DRAPER JUST WANTS TO CUDDLE: As luck would have it, Don isn’t screwing anyone other than his wife these days (as far as we know), which means that Betty is bound to end up prone beneath him, because that’s what Don Draper does. So . . . a shared drink on the porch of the motel, a little reminiscing, and it’s game on, with Don swaggering into Betty’s room through a door she left invitingly open and waiting for her to tell him to stop. She doesn’t. While her motivation for that is given the somewhat facile explanation that she thought to herself, “Who is that man?” — the question that is supposed to still fascinate us all at this late date — and thus “forgot” that he was an emotional cripple who lied to her, cheated on her, and regularly neglects his responsibilities to their children, any motivation on her part is completely subsumed by the producers’ desire to stage another one of this season’s afterglow moments, wherein Don and his partner talk about . . . Don.

While this iteration of the expository pillow talk was mercifully free from whorehouse flashbacks, the insight it gave us into Don as a character — Don has intimacy issues — isn’t, from a narrative standpoint, so much breaking new ground as it is putting up another billboard a couple of miles down the highway. The only twist is provided by the fact that it’s Betty, who has always been a sort of distaff Draper, rather than Sylvia having the other half of the conversation. Thus Don’s “this never happened” to Sylvia a few episodes back becomes Betty’s “this happened a long time ago” to Don. Betty’s been there, done him, and learned from the experience, and she presents Don with a partner who mirrors his disengagement right back at him.

The one moment that tells us something we haven’t had pounded into our brains since since the season premiere is not so much revelatory as jarring. Puzzling aloud over the mysterious connection between sex and closeness, Don lets loose with a line that made me laugh out loud: “If we’d have lied here together with you in my arms, I’d have felt just as close. Not the rest of it . I don’t know . . . it doesn’t mean that much to me.”

Don Draper, it would seem, would just as soon cuddle. Sex doesn’t mean that much to him. This begs a rather large question: Why, then, has his relentless pursuit of it been allowed to dominate the last five-plus years of this television series? It is a question that Matt Weiner and company will have to address before the end of the season. Answers relying on dime-store psychology, symbolism, or whorehouse flashbacks will not adequately complete the assignment, and yet are probably in the offing.

Seriously, at this point, Betty could awaken to find Don in the shower and the last several years “only a dream” and I wouldn’t bat a fucking eyelash.

PEGGY — ZANY MADCAP WITH A KNIFE: It is Peggy — the only one in the series with half a lick of sense, the show’s most popular character, and our guide through this weird, weird world — who gets the worst of this week’s theme of dualities and divisions. She serves as “the better half” for three different (or are they?) men: former mentor Don, who responds to having her back by putting her in a subordinate role she has long since outgrown; new mentor and would-be affection-object Ted, who responds to the attraction between them by freaking out when she accidentally touches his hand at a presentation; and boyfriend Abe, whose idealistic notion of living among the masses in a west-side fixer-upper has soured into a nightmare of subway muggings and rocks through the windows.

After a day at work trying to negotiate the creative collaboration between Don and Ted (which has degenerated into a competitive free-for-all thanks largely to Don’s macho posturing) she returns to the “shithole” she shares with Abe to find that he’s been stabbed in the hand in a subway attack and is actively resisting the cop who is trying to investigate the incident, lest the “fascist pig” use it as an excuse to hassle his neighbors. (“Were they black or Puerto Rican?” says the fascist pig.) Abe — who up until now has been as much as one could ask for in a token leftist Mad Men character and who seemed an appropriate match for Peggy — is suddenly spouting radical-chic clichés like a hostile witness on Dragnet ’68, with neither Peggy nor the porcinely fat racist cop particularly qualified to give him the inevitable terse Joe Friday lecture on the system. This immediately sets him against Peggy, whose attempts to soothe him are taken as patronizing pacification, and whose escalating terror has her arming herself first with a broom handle, then with a knife taped to a broom handle. When Peggy is awakened by an altercation in the street, this latter weapon ends up accidentally plunged into Abe’s abdomen.

It could be either a function of the profound alienation from my usual “watching Mad Men” experience I’ve felt this season, or the writers’ attempts to write characters in the ’60s for a television show degenerating lazily into writing ’60s television show characters, but I’ve recently found myself flashing on other shows while watching this one. When Peggy got up to prod the window blinds with her makeshift spear, the “slowly I turned, step by step” stealthy walk she used hit me with a jolt of pure Lucy Show that had me scanning the shot for Vivian Vance.

The over-the-top breakup scene in the ambulance, with Abe denouncing Peggy as a “scared person who hides behind complacency” whose “activities are offensive to my every waking moment” — breakup as political gesture — could have been an affecting moment in the story line of two of our favorite characters, had the moment not depended on much of what we know about those characters being sacrificed to the demands of story.  But that wasn’t Peggy, and that wasn’t Abe.

Having been burdened the most by this week’s theme, Peggy gets the last word on it. When she returns to work and tells Ted of the breakup, half expecting this to alter the weird romantic stand-off between them, she is given a chipper pep talk and told to get to work. They step out into the front office to greet Don, and the last scene finds Peggy standing in the front office between Don and Ted’s closing doors, cut off not only from them, but from Abe as well. This seems to be the season’s version of a happy ending — she is, in terms of the episode, well shed of all three of them, and lucky at that — and where Peggy goes next is something I’m wondering about. Unfortunately, I also have to wonder if it will really be Peggy going there.

JOAN ALONE: While Joan (as is chronic for the show) is grossly underutilized this week, that gives her the long end of the narrative stick, given this week’s theme. While she too is defined this week in relation to the men in her life, those relationships are either figurative (Pete approaching her with the sort of “mommy-fix-it” plea she’s used to dealing with as the office manager), casual (a day of fun planned with walking Ken doll Bob Benson, who may or may not be the scary psycho-bastard he seemed earlier this year), or dead issues (Roger, whose post-“special day with Pop-Pop” with his grandson has left him banned from further unsupervised visits, and who tries to displace his daddy energy onto his biological son with Joan). Of the show’s women, it is Joan who comes off best this week, taking things strictly on her own terms, as usual, and of course, given short shrift because of it.

MEGAN — SHE’S COMING DOWN FAST: The one thing about this episode that made the biggest splash in the blogosphere was not a plot development but a wardrobe choice. When Don returns from his ex-sex weekend at camp, he finds Megan on the patio wearing a red star T-shirt and white panties, an ensemble some resourceful fan-person managed to trace back to a ’67 photo shoot of Manson Family victim Sharon Tate. Excited speculation that we might end the season on a shot of Megan’s lifeless corpse, lying on the floor of the Draper apartment with the words “POLITICAL PIGGIES” written in her entrails on the wall, has ensued. That a wardrobe choice could manage to overshadow everything else she did in the episode is a measure of how she was handled this week. While her dual role on her soap opera sets up the doubling theme in well-duh fashion, it is difficult to watch scenes from it without getting an uncomfortable reminder that you’re also watching a soap opera when you tune into Mad Men each week. The lesbian come-on she gets from soap-opera costar and would-be mentor Arlene is as close as the episode gets to comic relief, signaled by her own giggle at the end of it.

The role of Don Draper’s wife is a rather degraded one in the moral schema of the show in the first place, with his degradation of it rather central in the plotline. Her patio revelation to Don that “something has to change” nicely cues up Don’s version of the “I’ve been away” speech that Sylvia gave him, but it doesn’t really signal what form that change may take. As Betty noted back at the motel, loving Don Draper is the worst way of getting to him, and whether his end speech represents a real step towards that change, or is merely a Don Draper pitch designed to sell her some margarine, remains to be seen.

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E. C. Fish is the editor and publisher of The Spleen. He was six years old in 1968, and was warped by some of the attitudes presented above.

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