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The way we were

May 27, 2013 - Ray Eckenrode

“Mad Men” 6x09:

Episode title: “The Better Half”

Significance: Duality is everywhere in this episode with musings on butter vs. margarine and soap opera twins giving way to character essays on Don’s two wives and Peggy’s two bosses. Hey, Abe even gets stabbed twice!

Time passages: The episode takes place in the summer of 1968, but with no historical sign posts offered, we’re left to make an educated guess, based on the summer camp and Joan and Bob’s beach trip, that it’s most likely the month of July.

Episode essay:

“Status quo ante bellum.”

The state existing before the war.

While Arlene extends that Latin phrase (perhaps belying a Catholic school education?) as a peace offering to Megan after making a ham-handed pass (make that three ham-handed passes) at her, it’s clear in “The Better Half” that a lot of people are longing for the way things used to be.

Of course, that’s no more evident than with Don and Betty (whose weight loss seems stark in TV time but really occurred over the course of five months in 1968 time) who let a healthy dose of parental nostalgia (and alcohol) catapult them between the sheets while separately visiting Bobby at an upstate summer camp.

But, of course, when you have nostalgia for something it only means the original feeling is irretrievably gone, which is something Betty seems to know instinctively, while it takes a hit of a menthol cigarette to get the message through to Don.

Last week’s episode helped us understand how Don’s unhealthy attitude toward sex and love developed, and Betty (and those four knotty pine walls) finally get to hear him verbalize it when he literally compares sex to a conquest. “Just because you climb a mountain doesn’t mean you love it,” he says.

The sad, sad pillow talk leaves Betty feeling empowered about her own choices (she’s absolutely glowing the next morning at breakfast when Henry finally makes the scene) and feeling sad for Megan. “The poor girl, she doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you,” she says in a classic “Mad Men” moment.

Still recently dumped by Sylvia and now bested in bed (and life) by Betty, Don does what he usually does, he returns to his sweet, naïve wife and tells himself things will change. But as Betty knowingly noted, a woman can only hold Don Draper’s attention for so long, and as he makes another vow to be there for his young bride the unmistakable sound of sirens wail in the distance.

About last week: We’ve several times compared the direction of “Mad Men” in its penultimate season to what happened with “The Sopranos” down the stretch when David Chase’s vision of the show’s end game – heavy on psychological drama and experimental storytelling and light on whackings and Bada Bing girls – audibly upset the core audience. In that vein, last week’s surreal, amphetamine-driven weirdness sure put us in mind of Tony Soprano in the desert on peyote. “I get it,” he screamed to no one (and everyone). “It’s everything,” Don Draper answered last week.

Brand names: Blue Bonnet entered the margarine wars as the low-end competitor and Don compared Fleischman’s to Budweiser. Both Canadian Club and Seagram’s 7 got whiskey cameos while Skinny Betty turned heads at an Esso filling station.

Quick hits:
+ A few episodes ago, Peggy told Don that she hoped some of Ted Chaough’s qualities would rub off on him, but now she’s gotta be wondering after Chaough did the whole “I wanted you because I couldn’t have you but now that I can have you I don’t want you” routine on her.

+ Where do I get a pair of Bob Benson’s shorts?

+ And while we’re at it, what’s the deal with Bob Benson? He and his Eddie Haskell act have been hanging around too long and been included too prominently in this season’s doings for him not to save some larger purpose in the storyline. (Morning after note: Many are now pointing out that good ol' Bob told Ken his father was dead in the Season 6 premiere while last night he told Pete the Spanish nurse brought his father back to health. The thot plickens.)

+ Did you catch the cheeky nod from Matthew Weiner and the writing team to how many times the part of Bobby Draper has been recast? “I’m Bobby 5,” he tells his parents at a crowded summer camp. Actor Mason Vale Cotton is actually the fourth (and best!) Bobby Draper.

+ More duality: Both Duck and Arlene consider Pete and Megan to be younger versions of themselves. Duck even tells Pete, “I used to be you.”

+ Note to self: When someone says something in Latin in a TV drama, it’s important.

Historical notes:
+ How many of us knew that Naked Eyes’ version of “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me” was a cover? The 1964 original from Lou Johnson (written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David) was featured over the closing credits.

+ When Abe mentioned riots in European capitals while decrying the “Fascist state” he perceives he’s living in, we were reminded that 1968 was not just a tumultuous year in the United States.

Sweet tweet: From @wyethwire: “Can we fast forward to 1974 when Abe kidnaps Patty Hearst?”

Lines of the night:
+ “I feel strongly both ways.” – Harry Crane

+ “There’s a right and there’s a wrong.” – Don Draper

+ “I can’t solve those problems. I have those problems.” – Joan Holloway

+ “I can only hold your attention for so long.” – Betty Francis

+ “You can’t touch me like that.” – Ted Chaough

+ “Your activities are offensive to my every waking moment.” – Abe Drexler

+ “Who’s going to watch TV with him? Bob Bunson?” – Roger Sterling

I am looking for:

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Skinny Betty's denim shorts had jaws (and inhibitions) dropping in "The Better Half."


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