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Mad Men Character Study: Sympathy for Betty

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Jordin Althaus/AMC

Spoilers for last Sunday’s Mad Men (and the season so far in general) below:

I was traveling over the weekend and had to watch Mad Men late, but if the reports I got over my Twitter feed were any indication, “Dark Shadows” was possibly fans’ least favorite episode of the season. And while I can’t speak for everybody, it seemed as if a major reason was the episode’s focus on Betty.

Myself, I didn’t think the episode was so bad. It may just be that, on some level, I like different things about Mad Men than other Mad Men fans do. I wasn’t gaga over this year’s much-praised “Signal 30″ or “Far Away Places”; and I loved sections of season 3 that seemed to bore a lot of people, yet didn’t really love that season’s fan-fave season finale.

And sue me, but I like Betty Draper/Francis as a character. Not as a person, sure. It’s as plain to me as anyone how horrible she is to Sally, for instance. But how and why she’s horrible is fascinating to me.

Mad Men, it’s a ’60s cliche to say but true, is a show about change–among other things about the changing modes of success and validation for women. There’s a quick-changing generational spectrum that runs from Betty (who tied herself to one husband and another) to Joan (who has a career but couldn’t have her talents recognized beyond being an office manager) to Peggy (who is able to emulate, somewhat, Don’s career path) to Megan (who is talented and yet also feels free to reject Don’s career path). That Betty, who let so much ride on her looks and her marriages, is now seeing her life stagnate and curdle as a result, is a compelling idea in a season where so many other characters also face falling short of their dreams.

The problem is not Betty but the way Mad Men treats her now: since the divorce if not earlier, the show seems to have lost her thread and any ability to empathize with her. (It wasn’t always so: the image of her lighting up and taking aim at the neighbor’s birds at the end of “Shoot” remains one of the show’s greatest character moments.) Mad Men is generally gifted at seeing every side of everyone: it can manage true, moving sympathy for Pete Campbell, for Christ’s sake, and he’s a snotty, cheating rapist.

But Mad Men just seems to have developed an emotional blind spot where Betty’s concerned. Where every other character adds layers as they go on, Betty has added only, well, pounds, and become more of a caricature. Each episode with her dials her cruelty up and her emotional thermometer down, and with her weight troubles, the show now simply seems to be out-and-out punishing her. Oh, wicked, vain, fat Betty! Why must you ruin the happiness of people more innocent, thin and full of life than you! Why don’t you just go away?

For all that, indeed because of that, I want to see her more and know her better: there’s a terrible loneliness to the idea of a woman, having lived her life the best way she was prepared to, sinking into a cycle of sourness and disappointment that she may be dimly aware of but can’t break anyway. Her walking into Don and Megan’s new apartment was like being teased with a glimpse of the future—one she’s not allowed to visit, while she’s moored in a life where her worth is measured once a week on a scale.*

*(That she’s trying to lose weight, by the way, would seem to undermine a persuasive theory I’d read earlier: that she lied about the doctor’s phone call and actually has cancer—and that her eating the ice cream at the end of that episode meant that she accepted, even welcomed it. But who knows? Maybe we’re just being set up for a double-reverse reveal by the end of the season.)

I feel all that–but I also feel like I have to do all the work to feel it, as the show itself constantly directs me to see the effects of her awfulness on poor Sally or undeserving Megan. Betty’s not the worst character on the show, but she’s probably the worst-served.

If you can identify with Betty, even a little, her story works better in the context of “Dark Shadows,” which was not an all-time great Mad Men but did a good job advancing the season-long theme of characters facing their plateaus, possibly hitting their ceilings. TV dramas condition us to expect all-or-nothing scenarios. At the outset of season 4, for instance, we wondered: would Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce be an expensive failure, or would it be a massive success?

But life doesn’t usually work that way. What if SCDP just muddles along, never quite going out of business, never quite able to land the big fish that Don and Roger longingly trolled for at the American Cancer Society banquet? What if Don–as the episode suggested–is never going to quite have the creative spark he used to, and that people like Ginsberg have now? What if Pete can have his house in Connecticut, but never his profile in the New York Times magazine? What if Henry backed the wrong horse taking a job with Mayor Lindsay? (Historical spoiler: he did, though Nelson Rockefeller won’t be President either.)

What if life is going to continue–pretty comfortably, in a relative sense, for these folks–but it won’t continue to improve the way it did when they were younger? What if they’re just going to keep getting older and fatter while the rest of the world advances? What if that’s all there is?

It’s a rich and unusual theme for a TV drama to explore: the idea that the world is done with you, would just as soon you went away, and yet you just have to keep on living and living. But it would be better if the show were able to show more empathy when exploring it through Betty. That would be the whipped cream on Mad Men’s sundae, and I for one would not spit it out into the sink.

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