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'Mad Men' Recap: It's Peggy In The Middle, Again In 'The Better Half'

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Note: Do not read on if you have not yet seen Season 6, Episode 8 of AMC's "Mad Men," titled "The Better Half."

I'll start out with some speculation on where this season is headed: I wouldn't be surprised it Peggy heads out on her own and leaves SCDPCGC, or whatever it's going to be called eventually.

Much of the episode concerned characters who were trying to step into time machines and reset relationships to their own liking. Roger tried it with his grandson and Joan; Don tried it with Betty and Peggy; Ted tried it with Peggy; and even Peggy herself tried it with Abe. All along, she's been trying to believe that he's the kind of guy she can build a life with, when both of them ultimately knew that wouldn't work. Sometimes it takes a knife in the gut to realize that a relationship isn't going where you thought it would (what is this, "Game of Thrones"?).

For a perfect demonstration on how all these demands and desires are working out for Peggy, just look at her appearance in the first scene versus the last one. In the first, she looks cool and polished; she's well-groomed and is wearing a kicky but perfectly professional outfit. She tries to walk by the conference room where Dick and Ted are having their equipment-measuring contest, but they pull her into their drama, and she pisses off both of them by not playing the games they want her play.

It's easy to read the disapproval on Don's face -- didn't he bring her back to this agency to re-install her as his creative chew toy, after all? And though it's not immediately apparent that Ted is annoyed, he soon springs manipulative information on her when he's feeling off-balance after a pitch meeting. He still has feelings for her, apparently -- and he could have kept a lid on that information if he wanted to. But I'm getting the sense that Ted (who is less damaged than Don, but still a lot like him) enjoys having something unattainable in his life -- it keeps him hungry and gives him his edge. (Let's not tell Ted just how much of an edge Peggy brings to a relationship -- or how much it hurts when it ends up in one's sternum.)

I think he really does like Peggy as a friend and colleague, but I think his unconscious goal in telling her about his alleged feelings is to unsettle both of them. Both Don and Ted thrive on a kind of emotional chaos and love the hunt, the chase, the conquest. Peggy is starting to realize how dangerous all that is for her work life and emotional equilibrium, because once they "have" her, in an emotional sense, they lose interest and go back to kicking her around and treating her as a regular subordinate.

As long as she's ping-ponging between their need for professional and emotional possession of her, as well as their need for creative chaos and danger, she'll keep ending up the way she looked at the end of the episode: A worn out, washed out, sweaty, angry mess.

She needs to get out of there, and I think that's dawning on her. Abe, despite being something of a manipulative careerist himself (nice timing on the breakup, pal), isn't wrong about Peggy. She does have an intrinsic need for mastery, stability and she doesn't view a certain form of canny complacency as necessarily a bad thing. She's only had herself to rely on all her life, but that leads to a question that pivots off the scene between Duck and Pete (Peggy's two former lovers).

Duck asked Pete about the wellspring of his competence in work and life, and that's a question you might well ask of every character on display.

For Betty, the wellspring of her competence and self-esteem is her status as a wanted, desired, attractive trophy wife. The fundraiser scene in which she was hit on was nearly a carbon copy of the scene in which Henry first flirted with Betty, which gave her the idea that she didn't have to put up with Don's shenanigans to continue her career as a rich man's doll. Now that she's got her body and her status back, and now that she's got some distance from Don, she's at least learned what works for her, so of course she's going to stay a million miles away from her ex, once she got what she wanted from him. The wellspring of her competence is being a glittering prize that men -- including Don -- want, but can't ultimately have. And she'll stick with Henry just as long as he offers her a perch that allows her to keep on being the kind of cosseted princess she enjoys being.

Joan and Peggy are very different cases, and they've spent a lot of their careers figuring out that the methods and wellsprings that work for the men just aren't going to work for them. Joan's got a jump on Peggy when it comes to these realizations -- she long ago caught on to the fact that having a spouse would be more of a drag on her aspirations than anything else. She's also smart enough to know that Roger trying to be a part of their lives would be a recipe for disaster; he's no more dependable or selfless than Pete, Don, Ted or any of the rest of them. The way her life operates now works for her, more or less, and for her, family only means one thing: Kevin. Nothing else really matters.

But what does Peggy really have? She barely sees or refers to her family in Brooklyn anymore. The child she had with Pete is long gone. The men in her life have proved to be drains on her resources and time, not nurturing presences who allow her to achieve her goals. At the end of the episode, she was alone in the middle of the office, torn between two men whose demands on her could never be reconciled -- if they could even be fully determined.

I'll tell you what the wellspring of her competency is: herself. Peggy's perseverance and intelligence have gotten her this far, and there's no doubt that those qualities will get her even further. Abe may see her as complacent, but he has no real idea what she's had to battle to even get this far. Nobody truly does, because she's always been around a bunch of major-league narcissists who want to use her for their own ends. But our Pegs is too smart for that. If "Mad Men" turns out to be the story of Peggy's ascension and Don's quiet decline, I'd have no problem with that. As he proved in his escapade with Betty, he continually wants to reinvent or revisit a past that he can never quite fix.

Peg's got her eyes on the future. And I trust her to make the most of it.

A final list of bullet points:

  • This episode featured even more police sirens than usual (almost as many, I think, as the episode that revolved around the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.). The sense of unrest and unease in the city was contrasted by the peacefulness of Bobby's upstate camp (the sound design of the episode was often sirens versus crickets). But let's not kid ourselves; these characters would no more move far away from New York City (and its freely available booze) than Pete Campbell would move to Witchita.
  • It's a holiday weekend, so I'll give you the short version of why this quietly good episode -- which featured a lot of Betty -- didn't give me hives. Let me make it crystal clear: When the show writes well for the character and for actress January Jones, Betty can be an effective presence. Too often in recent years, the show has written her to be a shrieky, annoying, repetitive presence and has often merely shown us the limits of Jones' range (she can act, but she has a very limited range, as I've said a million times). You may want to sit down for this next bit: I actually liked how Betty conducted herself in this episode. Don was attracted to her because he saw her in that cute cardigan and shorts and once again viewed her as an ingenue that he could seduce. But their night in the country amounted to a form of role-playing for both parties: Don as suave hottie, Betty as naive yet shapely blonde. Those are roles both are comfortable in, but we know they're way more messed up than that. At least Betty, like Faye Miller, has learned that Don's attention is sporadic at best. So she had a game plan: She got what she wanted from Don -- revisiting the good parts of their relationship and enjoying some hot sex -- and then she went merrily on her way. Of course, she partly did it to revenge herself for Don's frequent infidelity, but that's the kind of wily Betty move that I actually don't mind. About time someone did to Don what he does to the women in his life all the time.
  • One more Betty thing (sorry, I couldn't resist): You can't tell me this show doesn't know how exactly to write Betty so that she comes off as someone we'd want to spend time with, as opposed to someone who is too often the human equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard. Her sweet scene with Bobby was adorable, and it set her up to be someone tolerable. Why the show so often has a blind spot about when her presence is utterly useless or annoying and what Jones' limitations are -- well, I'll never figure that out. Poorly-written Betty is sort of like "The Wire's" Season 5 newspaper storyline -- the major flaw that you can't quite figure out, given how good much of the rest of the show is.
  • I do enjoy Pete and Joan scenes. That is all.
  • Speaking of the women in the hour knowing their men very well, Roger's daughter couldn't be more right about her dad's mental age. I'd say four about covers it.
  • Not really an episode friendly to GIF creation, though I suppose that overworked field needs a little break from "Mad Men" once in a while.
  • Notice the Bob Benson brought two cups of coffee to Joan's apartment. It's a move we've seen all season, but what does it mean? I think it just means that Bob is considerate and likes coffee. But that's not deep enough! There must be another meaning! Pondering ... pondering ... I will get back to you on that.
  • Roger's faintly annoyed "Who are you?" when he spotted "Bob Bunson" was classic Sterling.
  • How ferocious did Peggy look in that scene with the homemade bear. I do believe she could pull off a Brienne and fight a bear. And I would pay a lot of cash money to see that.
  • Normally the ladies wear the most eye-catching ensembles, but I thought Bob's beach ensembles was to die for this week. Love those shorts.
  • I love how the show has allowed the mystery of Bob to unfold all season without giving away too much, and yet, it's certainly kept me interested. Is he a careerist brown-noser trying to suck up to those he can use? Is he just a nice guy? Does there have to be a right and wrong or can he be somewhere in the middle? Where is he getting all the coffee? But seriously, I've no doubt that Bob will figure prominently in the season's endgame, and somehow, he will collect on all the favors he's done in full. "Mad Men" loves nothing more than to let a storyline burble along in the background and then unleash some huge twist with that character when you least expect it. Except that with Bob, I do expect it -- and I think his moment at the center stage will arrive relatively soon. It's not a problem, mind you, that I expect big things from Mr. "Bunson" -- I've enjoyed how they've played out the string on this one.
  • Don't have much to say about Megan's scene with her fellow actress except that, yes, the woman hit on her way too hard, but Megan could have handled her rejection of the woman with more delicacy and grace. I have a feeling Megan's characters -- both of them -- will be falling down elevator shafts or eating poison soon.
  • Two weeks in a row, women that Don has slept with outside of marriage have referred to Megan -- you know, his actual wife. You're losing it, Draper -- these women are willing to sleep with you, but they're not so dazzled by you that they won't bring up your marital status. Perhaps it's sign of Don's completely bizarre form of growing up that he's willing to sleep with women who have his number and know what he's really up to. Neither Sylvia nor Betty, after all, expected anything to come of their rolls in the hay. And he didn't kick them to the curb -- quite the opposite. Perhaps, once again, the answer does lie somewhere in the middle -- maybe he's losing his touch a little, but maybe he's also yearning for intimacy with people who know him beyond the surface level. The besotted adoration of some innocent young thing may be fun for a while, but even he's realized how fast that decays.
  • Good riddance, Chairman Mao -- er, I mean, Abe.
  • Don's alleged "epiphany" with Megan at the end of the hour? Oh, please. It's only a matter of time before Don formulates another exit strategy. His marriage to Megan is over, I think. What Betty said was so very true: Loving him really is the worst way to get to him.

"Mad Men" airs 10 p.m. ET Sundays on AMC.

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