I Will Never Be Free

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“Always Something There To Remind Me”, Lou Johnson

The Better Half, Season 6 Episode 9

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            Sometimes, the right lyrics set to the right music are a Rosetta stone that unlocks everything a Mad Men episode is trying to say. The Better Half has the reverse: the message is already blatantly there in the script, and I had to work to understand the accompaniment. This hour so brilliantly pursues the same specific theme in all its many strands, that the closing tune falls right into place – maybe even a bit too glibly. But, after all the metatextual strokes of genius in my countdown thus far, a pure and simple catchy pop song can pack a punch when used well.

            By this point, Ted and Don have been established as strange bedfellows and occasional rivals, though they did cling together to weather out a crisis. But now they are beginning to butt heads at SC&P, since they’re both so talented and stubborn. The Better Half drops Peggy in the middle of their conflict. Considering her solid friendship with Don and her burgeoning infatuation with Ted, that’s a recipe for disaster.

            The two men open the episode debating the angle for a margarine account. They note that it’s better for you, but perceived as fake as compared to real butter. One is cheaper, the other has more history behind it as a product, and so on. In maybe the cleverest literary conceit in the series’ run, there are undeniable parallels here between Don’s relationships with Betty and Megan. Even the names sound similar (butter/Betty, Megan/margarine). And the allegorical debate about who is a better companion runs throughout the story. After a surprising one-night stand with his dismissive ex-wife, Don is charmed by her frankness and beauty. But his more logical, caring spouse is becoming indifferent to him. Which to choose?

            “Always Something There To Remind Me” is a classic tune which many (myself included) know better from the Naked Eyes cover. But the original is a wonderful pop composition, with classy muted brass giving it swing and charm. Its romantic, nostalgic lyrics about an old flame are a soothing counterpoint to the problems those romances are causing for our beloved characters. Memories of old love are everywhere in The Better Half, and they’re wasting away to various degrees, perhaps because they were empty all along.

            The common thread of this installment is the characters witnessing the fallout of the decisions they’ve made and the lives they could have lived. They have to make a choice between two options, neither fully satisfying. They begin to realize that picking one option can shut off other possibilities until you begin to feel trapped. To them, it may seem like the end of the world, but they have to keep soldiering on, because life is about gradually choosing the person you want to be. Reflecting on what could have been is a futile pursuit, yet this hour gives into its lure with fantastic results.

            Ted and Don are gambling for keeps with Peggy’s friendship and control of accounts, but they both end up losing. Across town, Betty attracts the attention of a politician at one of Henry’s events, drawing his ire. Her secret tryst with Don further complicates the issue, keeping her in limbo between that fruitless past and the problematic present.

            Joan begins to accept the selfless and charismatic Bob Benson into her life as a corrective measure for her failed marriage. If he doesn’t work out as a suitor, then at least he’ll be a more logical companion than Roger. Because of their history, Roger is prideful and wants to be the one parenting his own child. This leads to conflict, and once again, someone is caught in the middle of two opposing forces.

            During their hopeless butter brainstorm, Don realizes another dire ultimatum: he can either keep pushing SCDP until their tank runs dry, or give over control to Ted. Neither option seems admissible. Ted and Peggy are in a similar conundrum of their own, forced to pick their romance or their jobs. Peggy makes her choice, accidentally stabbing her boyfriend Abe in the chest, which leads to a breakup that was long overdue. It appears she is finally free to make advances toward Ted, who she’s been eyeing for a while. But with swift irony soundtracked by the peppy ending music, she finds herself in the midst of another battle between him and Don, both of them slamming doors in her face, caught as a pawn in their game.

            Everything is tied together in an unusually neat fashion in this hour, and I love it. The remnants of the past are piling up. Betty, caught between an ex and her beau; Joan, trying to forget two old flames by ushering in a new one; Don, fighting a battle at work that’s really about his wives; and Peggy, standing flabbergasted in the hallway. Love leaves some scars that are impossible to forget, and Lou Johnson croons a song to remind us.

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