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Mad Men Watch: Betty Get Your Gun

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SPOILER ALERT: Watch Mad Men before reading this post. Residents of Illinois, fast-forward through all the laxative ads.

At last, a good Betty episode. In my Kid Nation column today, I have a paragraph comparing hands-on modern parenting to the way Mad Men shows the kids of 1960 as having more separate (and much less child-proofed) lives. All of which is true, in the sense that the parents of Ossining feel no guilt about sending kids off to play alone, turning them over to the household help, and not constantly torturing themselves over quality time and intellectual stimulation. But you can’t forget that the lives were not so separate for the suburban wives, spending their afternoons watching them fill the community-center pool to kill time. All of which Betty had a chance to escape last night–almost.

January Jones has sometimes struck me a little weird in this role, her readings of Betty’s lines a little too stagey and crafted. But I’m coming around to appreciate her performance because it reminds us that Betty’s life itself is a performance. The illusion of composure and control is important to her, which made it all the more effective to see her lose it, whether yelling at her shrink when he suggested she was angry at her mother, or going all Charles Whitman on her neighbor’s pigeons. Bonus points to Jones for her reaction in the scene in which she learned that Don’s rejection of McCann-Erickson would also end her modeling comeback. And the well-meaning consolation offered at the photo shoot–”Oh, honey, it has nothing to do with you”–when, of course, that was precisely the bad news.

It’s probably appropriate that the episode ended with gunfire, because Mad Men presents an awfully mercenary view of life–business life, married life, personal life. Every storyline is about a character trying to leverage advantage: Betty, trying to leverage her face (and Don’s career situation) to gain independence; Joan, trying to leverage her looks; Peggy, seeking to leapfrog Joan through her writing; Pete, failing to leverage his Nixon-campaign coup into status, getting snubbed even when he tries to celebrate by sexually harassing his secretary. (How pathetic, that last bit, by the way–as well as the scene of his relieving his fraternity glory days. The young men on this show already seem so old.)

And, of course, Don, leveraging the McCann offer to get–what, exactly? Not the money, although he finagles a nice score. (According to the BLS inflation calculator, his new $45,000 salary equals $316,670 today.) But what’s this “life” that he fantasizes to Sterling about reclaiming someday? What does Don actually want? Maybe his inscrutability, his standoffishness, his need to detach all come out of the same thing that seems to be driving the other characters on this ever-more-fascinating show: not wanting to end up as last year’s model.

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