Mad Men, Season 6, Episode 9: “The Better Half”
Written by Erin Levy and Matthew Weiner
Directed by Phil Abraham
Airs Sundays at 10pm ET on AMC
Peggy Olson is undoubtedly a feminist—arguably the most feminist character on the show, but she isn’t emblematic of the politicized second-wave feminism we associate with the term. She’s not out demonstrating or burning bras. She works hard and demands the respect of those around her on the strength of that work. Watching her evolve over the course of six seasons has been one of the most rewarding aspects of Mad Men. She’s also the clearest indication that Matt Weiner doesn’t adhere to the “people don’t change” philosophy that pervaded The Sopranos, despite the fact that Don Draper echoes Tony Soprano in that regard.
Her conversation in the back of the ambulance with a bleeding Abe seems to imply that even though people do change, they don’t move at the pace of the world that surrounds them. Peggy is significantly more progressive than Don, but even she is being left behind by the cultural shifts of the era. Abe expected more of her: “I thought you’d be braver, you’re in advertising.” Abe wants Peggy to be a second-wave feminist, but she’s not cut out for it. The dissonance generated by their opposing worldviews is what has made them such an odd couple, it’s also why her relationships with Stan and Ted this season have been more convincing.
Ted’s door is closed to her, quite explicitly, in the final scene. Don’s too as a result of the decision she refused to make in the opening scene (it’s difficult to tell whether that played into Ted’s choice to keep things strictly professional or not). Mad Men has never been particularly subtle with its visual metaphors, but it usually earns them. The final shot of Peggy trapped in an abyss between Don and Ted without Abe to comfort her is chilling. Everything we know about her suggests she will emerge even stronger, but this is the first time in her professional life she has been without a patriarch.
Closed doors, literal and metaphoric, are one of the threads that run through “The Better Half.” Roger, after being denied access to his grandson, makes an effort to serve as a father figure to the son he bore Joan. As wonderful as his refusal to acknowledge Bob is, it’s too little too late. Don is the only one that finds comfort as he returns to Megan after his sojourn with Betty. She is feeling vulnerable, and that is something that has always appealed to Don. If we learned anything from his relationship with Sylvia, it’s that he enjoys asserting his dominance over the women in his life. This would suggest his attempt to reconcile with Megan is sincere, but there’s no reason to believe it will be lasting.
His post- (and pre-) coital conversation with Betty is as enlightening as the conversation Abe and Peggy shared on the way to the hospital. “I love the way you look at me when you’re like this,” Betty says, “but then I watch it decay. I can only hold your attention for so long.” Betty has known Don as long as anyone with the possible exception of Anna Draper, so it’s only natural that she understands him better than anyone else. That knowledge informs her decision to give him the cold shoulder at breakfast the following morning, to refuse him a seat at the table she shares with Henry. Their conversations, the moments they share with Bobby (Who in a particularly meta moment states “I’m Bobby 5. It’s sad, there’s no Bobby 1 anymore.”), they recall better times. It’s fun to indulge them, but Betty realizes she’s better off without Don in her life. Sometimes it seems like everyone would be.