The Orange Couch Does Mad Men: S6E9, “The Better Half”
New Orange Couch! In the above video, Marc and I discuss the “two sides of the same coin” that various characters find themselves up against. One of the more interesting examples is the idea of two New Yorks—the one for the wealthy (and white) and the one everyone else has to live in—that started to emerge in the 60s. The first category of New Yorkers is finally having to acknowledge the second, and their reactions are realistically, if uncomfortably, portrayed.
Most of the emotional entanglements of this episode are clear enough, I think. Don hooks up with Betty in no small part because Sylvia dumped him, and he, being an emotional and sexual glutton, feels like he has to have one of each: A career woman and a housewife. Eminently pragmatic Joan is hooking up with Bob Benson, who, regardless of his motivations, is clearly a helpful person. What I really liked was the Peggy/Abe break-up, though, because while we all saw this coming from a mile away, it also was played out with more complexity than most of us suspected would happen. And more stabbing.
I’ve basically been Team Abe since he apologized to Peggy for jumping all over her on their first date. Abe has pretty consistently been portrayed as somewhat of an insufferable idealist, but also devoted and kind to Peggy. Unlike most men of his era, Abe doesn’t feel his masculinity is threatened by being with a woman that makes more than him, at least that I can see. When he dumps her, in fact, it’s hard not to be sympathetic to his point about how their worldviews just simply clash. (And how much did I love how both the cop and the EMT treat Abe like scum, which both shows you what hippies were up against as well as the lack of decent services in the neighborhood they’ve chosen to move into.)
That said, this entire season has been obsessed with the concept of selling out, or what Don would likely call “whoring”. Those who adhere to the belief that selling out is a thing you can do and that it’s very bad tend to also believe it’s easy to tell the difference between those selling out and those who aren’t. Abe clearly thinks that he’s on one side of the fence while Peggy’s on the other, since he uses his creative skills for political ends and she uses her immense talents to sell margarine. Questions of authenticity tend to get attached to this obsession with marking those who “prostitute” themselves and those who aren’t selling out. It’s reasonable to pinpoint the late 60s as the time that this interest with not just the concept of selling out but also figuring out who is and isn’t doing it blew up into a national obsession. Arguably, it stayed that way until at least the 90s, when Kurt Cobain’s very suicide note invoked concerns that getting a national platform and making a ton of money in and of itself constituted selling out and many hands were wrung over rappers suddenly embracing overt materialism in their lyrics and videos. I think we’re facing a gradual fading out of the obsession with authenticity vs. selling out, however, in no small part because of something that this season of Mad Men is increasingly touching upon: It’s not as easy to tell the difference as we would like to believe.
Which brings me back to Abe and Peggy. In Abe’s mind, it’s clear that he’s the real deal and Peggy is the sell-out. She’s in advertising! Accidentally stabbing him seemed to be the perfect symbol of how the world works, where those who pursue and endorse capitalism, whether they intend this or not, end up hurting everyone else. All of which is somewhat hard to deny, especially under the circumstances of New York’s rapid decline.
And yet, as we note in the video, Abe sells Peggy out for his article. He has spent years with this woman, gaining her trust and her love, and yet he’s downright gleeful at the idea that by portraying her as the symbol of clueless capitalist pro-fascist idiocy in his article, he will get tons of attention and acclaim that will forward his career. For those who love the history buff fan service in Mad Men, this was a delicious moment, because it’s fun to realize Abe has found success as a gonzo journalist. But it also complicates his notion that it’s so easy to see who is and isn’t selling out. He just sold his history with Peggy to increase his reputation. He justifies that it’s for the greater good. Bob Benson selling out Joan’s confidence to ingratiate himself to Pete is also for the greater good—Pete’s mother gets a nurse, after all—but we’re all pretty sure she wouldn’t feel good about it.
But, this entire season asks, should we care about these sorts of things? Or is it possible that selling out is simply an inevitable part of life, because there is no such thing as pure creativity, pure love, or pure altruism that is completely unconnected from a desire for personal gain? It’s an important question, and I look forward to seeing where this season ends up falling on it.