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, Is it just me, or did this episode feel just like old times? We had grisly comic violence. We had an unexpected moment of post-coital insight. We had Roger throwing himself—and his money—at Joan. We had Betty getting propositioned by a fancy stranger at a party. We had Duck Phillips! We’ve all noted that a major contrivance of this season is the repetition of old situations. From those exasperating flashbacks to Dick Whitman’s Last Picture Show to Peggy’s adapting of Don’s old pitches, the material of this season has been material we thought we’d left behind.
The pickle is that this constant resurrection of the past has often felt overly on-the-nose. “Mad Men” has always been laced with little dramatic ironies only legible to fans with Abe-like photographic memories. But, too often, the echoes this season have landed with a resounding thud. Designed to punish characters rather than reward viewers, recycled and reversed set-pieces like Don and Ted’s drink-off from two weeks ago have asked us to detect the reference—Roger and Don’s first-season oyster-eating contest—and then join Weiner in smugly laughing as the tables are turned. Our structural knowledge about Don Draper’s compulsively repeated mistakes has been fetishized as 20/20 hindsight.
Last week, however, we saw something quite different. As Lili (and Vulture’s Margaret Lyons) brilliantly argued, “The Crash” was an almost full-scale revision of the third season episode “My Old Kentucky Home.” But rather than trafficking in pat, ponderous references, “The Crash” playfully, energetically, and sometimes troublingly improvised with the themes and images of that older episode. The references did not feel like punchlines so much as meditations.
The speed, it turns out, worked. In last night’s episode, “The Better Half,” “Mad Men”began to explore the possibilities of engaging with the past in a way that is neither moralizing nor over-determined. This week, the backward-looking structure allowed us to indulge in the best part about looking backward: nostalgia. It felt unaccountably good, for instance, having Betty and Don back together. The little “Father Abraham” tableaux vivant with Don, Betty, and Bobby recalled the closing image of “Mad Men”’s pilot--something Norman Rockwell might have dreamed up after getting a shot of speed.
While this episode featured a number of echoes of the past—Peggy’s stabbing of Abe recalled the blood-spattered lawnmower episode from season three; Roger falls flat after trying to replicate Don’s epiphany at Planet of the Apes; Betty re-creates her original meeting with Henry Francis—it was the nostalgic reconstruction of the Draper family that had the most punch. Not only did this episode feature a somewhat adult conversation between Betty and Don about the personalities of their children, but—for all those Don and Betty ’shippers out there—we were treated to perhaps the most satisfying sexual encounter of the season when they tumbled into Betty’s bunk.
Even Betty’s body became a (lecherous) object of nostalgia this episode. It’s hard to tell whether Matthew Weiner more enjoys punishing January Jones by putting her in that fat suit or leering at her after she’s allowed out of it. But, either way, the nature of the gaze was the starting point for this episode’s most central meta-analysis. Sitting amongst the mosquitoes, Betty asks Don, “What were we like?” Don demurs, and Betty then confesses, “When I saw you earlier today, I thought for a second, ‘Who is that man?’ And I forgot how mad I was at you.” A few beats later, she asks, “What did you think when you saw me?” Don suavely, and likely honestly, replies, “That you were as beautiful as the day I met you.”
In these exchanges, the questions of what-we-were-like or what-are-you-thinking or what-is-happening-now are all boiled down to desire. Does Don want Betty because she’s beautiful again, or does he want Betty because of what that beauty recalls? Is the male gaze, so predicated on the momentary stirring of desire, a fundamentally nostalgic one here? After the act, Don himself confesses, “I missed you. Do you feel guilty?” Betty sagely responds, “No. This happened a long time ago.” It’s unclear whether she means that sex with Don is like reliving a memory that can never really be retrieved, or that a certain infidelity is a structural part of her relationship with Henry, or that this act itself can only be understood as part of a wholly separate temporality. This did not just happen, it happened a long time ago.
In the final episode of the first season, Don delivers what has now become an iconic speech about nostalgia, and Betty’s words here remind us of Don’s from so long ago. “Nostalgia,” Don says to the representatives from Kodak, “it’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek nostalgia literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.” Perhaps Betty cannot feel guilty about her pleasure with Don because it feels to her like that “pain from an old wound.” This is not a fresh trauma, but simply the physical memory of an older one. For Betty, who seems now fully in possession of her old powers of seduction and perhaps even a new confidence, this encounter was possibly the tantalizing recreation of a non-existent memory of happiness. There was always something awry in her relationship with Dick Whitman, but this act, in some way, improvises upon the latent possibilities of that relationship. Rather than this echo of the past ringing out in order to chastise the foolishly short-sighted actors in the present, Betty resurrects the past to ask, “What if?”
But while Betty acts to control her past, Don seems to be acting out of longing. His speech from the first season ends by claiming that the Carousel, the device he’s pitching to Kodak, “isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards. … It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel, it’s called the carousel. It let’s us travel the way a child travels—around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know are loved.” Betty is happy in her life. And, to her great credit, she’s able to make a complicated differentiation between the past, the present, and the illusory present of nostalgia. But Don, inasmuch as he believes in anything, genuinely seems to believe in this notion of “home” he pitched back at the beginning of the series.
Wedged in between Don and Betty’s tryst and the pillow talk afterward is a scene of botched seduction between Megan and her mentor. After failing to seduce Megan into a lesbian affair—not all the ’shippers got what they wanted this episode—the older actress leaves the Drapers’ apartment. She’s kissed Megan multiple times only to be rebuffed, and the fact that she’s married to the show’s director can only spell bad news, but, as she walks out the door, she tells Megan, “Status quo ante bellum. Everything as it was.” She speaks these words drunkenly, to save face, but then the scene cuts back to Betty and Don. We long for everything to be as it was before the war, but we know that, in every way, that’s impossible.
You gave me a great ending to my article,