Dear Television is Jane Hu, Evan Kindley, Lili Loofbourow, and Phillip Maciak. This season, they'll be posting weekly letters about AMC's "Mad Men." While this is not a full recap, there are still plenty of spoilers. Read the last installment here.
Dear TV, Poor Peggy. While Matthew Weiner seems to have reasserted January Jones as Hot Betty, any interest in reaffirming Peggy’s choices seems to have vanished. Remember when Peggy was leaning in during this season’s pilot? It’s been all downhill since then, personally and professionally. What’s more sadistic: the leaps between Hot Betty and Fat Betty, or how Peggy has somehow become the silent dash between SCDP/CGC? Betty has settled on her man—and she’s let her ex-husband know it—but will Peggy ever be free of Don?
It is one of “Mad Men”’s great strokes that Don and Peggy have not had and would not ever have a sexual relationship, but it comes off as increasingly less imaginative when the show also refuses to depict Peggy’s romantic life as anything but sad glances and humorous fantasies. Peggy’s multiple rejections this week are directly connected to one of the final scenes of last-week’s episode, “The Crash,” in which she spies Stan in his office reaching enlightenment with young and nubile Wendy on his lap. While Peggy chose to refuse Stan, his quick ability to move on—and her resulting disappointment—anticipates the rhythms of “The Better Half.” This week, Peggy’s life has become a series of self-satisfied men closing doors.
The final scene has a very sweaty Peggy staring into the empty, darkened central conference room, while Lou Johnson reminds: “How can I forget you, girl, when there is always something there to remind me?” This scene, of course, reminds us of the one that opens this week’s episode, where Peggy’s opinion is fervently desired by both Don and Ted (much to Pete’s chagrin; someone listen to Pete!). Called into the conference room, Peggy feigns a soft-spoken impartiality that verges on incoherence: “I don’t know ... they both sound good.” This is clearly not the right answer. But the right one, at least in this situation, isn’t as clear-cut as marketing data might anticipate.
Peggy, too, has an investment in this circular desire and one-up-manship.
Later, Don confronts Peggy in her office, telling her, “your opinion matters—now what do you think is the best way to go?” Her answer (“it’s somewhere in the middle”) is, again, useless. “No Peggy,” Don presses, as though explaining morality to a six year old, “There’s a right and there’s a wrong.” For Don, and Ted, the key isn’t that Peggy give the right answer, it’s that she simply give one. If Peggy is the embodiment of the merger—the employee that spans both companies—then Don and Ted have predictably placed her, as she puts it, “in charge of turning this into a collaboration.” Peggy triangulates the bro-y desire between Don and Ted to outwit one another, preferably via a woman. And it works because Peggy, too, has an investment in this circular desire and one-up-manship. For Peggy, office attention has almost become foreplay, and who can blame her: Her move to CGC was predicated on seduction. (I keep thinking about her meeting Ted in a restaurant, lipstick and hair-did, wearing a colorful scarf.) All this is, of course, channeled through the pretense of business talk. Don asks her to be professional, but, really, Peggy has absolutely no model of professionalism.
Instead, she assumes the moral high-ground by way of the middle-ground, even if it means acting naïve. This might have worked three seasons ago, but since then viewers, and Don, have seen Peggy use her supposed unimpeachability in her favor. Peggy’s well-rehearsed mousiness has been well-honed into a way to test the waters. (Her conversation with Ted quickly turns from “I forgot it” to “I think about it.”) As her prior collaborations with Duck and Ted have shown, Peggy certainly isn’t against testing waters. Or, to put it another way, the middle-ground isn’t always an ethical cop-out void of opinion; sometimes, the middle-ground is exactly how one gets to have it both ways. (“You’re a tease,” Arlene tells Megan. Peggy is kind of a tease too.) That Peggy’s disloyalty to Don hinges on being seduced by another man isn’t a coincidence, and while Weiner did good by giving her a romantic partner outside of the office, that all turned nightmarishly south this week.
While Abe and Peggy’s decline has been telegraphed throughout this entire season, as long as they were still together, Peggy has been able to use Abe to emphasize her own sturdy principles. She wouln’t cheat on Abe with Ted or Stan. Now that Abe is out of the picture, however, Peggy’s advances toward Ted suddenly leave something to be desired. Without Abe, the obstacle that made flirting such fun is lost. Desire loses its path, gets dispersed.
As Phil writes this week, “the questions of what-we-were-like or what-are-you-thinking or what-is-happening-now are all boiled down to desire.” Even more than usual, desire (rather than consummation) drives “The Better Half.” Episode title aside, this week was aggressive in its doublings: Hot Betty and Fat Betty; the twins Megan plays on her TV show; Arlene’s youthful assessment of her own talent: “Arlene, you're wonderful,” and “Arlene, you’re caca”; Don Draper and Dick Whitman (see ESSO attendant). And the only way that doublings really work is for someone else to recognize the difference. At the gas station, Don has to see Betty from the perspective of the ESSO attendant (aka Dick Whitman, aka Don as he was when he first fell in love with Betty) to comprehend just how much he could want her. Then, as Phil writes, there’s a whole game of “what did you think when you saw me [then]?” that further magnifies the various Bettys and Dons that inhabit this fanciful camp scene. Add on that other layer of “remember when we were on vacation way back when and we made Sally?” and these two can barely separate then from now. “This happened a long time ago,” says Betty, and it did. Depending on how—and from when—we look at it, it’s almost romantic.
But Ted is not Peggy’s Henry, and for her, revisiting the past is harder to differentiate from regressing back into it. That she’s essentially returned to the same office where she began doesn’t help—even if it’s been remodeled, there is always something there that reminds me.
Sorry Bob, I guess we're all a bit out of context right now,
Jane Hu is a cultural critic, mostly at The Awl.