This Sunday, AMC’s Mad Men airs its fourth-season finale. It remains one of the sharpest, most confident series on television. I’ve got no complaints. Well, except for one: What is up with the writers and Betty Draper?
Since its first season, Mad Men has been a showcase for its female characters. There’s Peggy, the proto-feminist; Joan, the savvy bombshell; and Trudy, Pete’s ambitious wife. This season, there’s Faye, Don’s career-gal girlfriend. And then there are the constellations of secretaries (scheming, sensitive, senile), mistresses (heiress, hippie, junkie, whore), neighbors, daughters, and the occasional disapproving mother-in-law. Some of these women are mere sketches, others deep portraits, but the show is at its best when dramatizing the many ways female identity can wriggle and re-form in even the narrowest spaces. Even ditzes and schemers are lent a kind of cold-eyed compassion. Creator Matt Weiner’s world can be satirical, but it’s rarely cruel.
And then there’s Betty. While the ladies around her bloom, Betty hardens. Her character (in both senses) gets ever icier, vainer, more alien — nearly camp at times, like some hissable Barbie with the most cake. Early on, you could make a decent case for a Betty’s-eye view of the universe, but that was back when she was the fragile puppet of her husband and her shrink, still grieving the loss of her mother. Maybe Betty wasn’t exactly likable, but she’d been kept in the dark for so long, it made sense she had little insight.
But in the last few seasons, Betty’s opened her eyes. She’s had a third baby. Her father died. She’s divorced, remarried, become a political spouse, discovered Don’s past. And yet in the process, she’s also gone blind — morphing from a mere neurotic into a full-on textbook narcissist, and not incidentally, the worst mother on television since Livia Soprano kicked off in 2001. I felt the first strong twinge at this change during that bizarre sequence when Betty pushed her happily married friend into an affair. And then another when she abandoned her children over Christmas in last year’s finale.
Last Sunday, Betty managed to pull off a toxic two-fer: First, she manipulated her daughter Sally’s child psychologist so Betty herself could leech off the sessions; then she decided the family should move into a new house, in order to punish Sally for stealing Glen, whom Betty clearly regards as her own boyfriend (perhaps understandably, given their lock-of-hair history.) It wasn’t subtle: Once again, we were told that Betty herself is a child, at least in the sense that Nellie Oleson is a child. I’m surprised she didn’t let loose with a demon-doll cackle and stamp her fancy heels.
In other words, Mad Men can make a rapist weasel like Pete sympathetic, it can admire the toughness of a venal creep like Bobbie. Don Draper is our hot antihero and we root for him to change with the times. And yet each year, Betty inches ever closer to Lee Garner Jr. territory.
Obsessed as I am with the peculiarity of this trend, I’ve developed a handful of half-baked theories. My first is that Matt Weiner is so eager to avoid the cliché of the Betty Friedan victim-housewife that he’s deliberately swung in the opposite direction, out of sheer contrarian overkill. My second is that Matt Weiner has a few issues with mothers. (I’ve developed the same theory about Jonathan Franzen: Anyone read Freedom? Loved the book, but Patty, meet Betty.)
There are other days when I blame the actress January Jones, whose petulance makes Betty one-note in scenes where we might feel sympathy. (And yet, other days I admire Jones for her refusal to pander. And then I occasionally wonder if she herself has somehow pissed the writers off, and this is their punishment?)
I’m sure I’m not the only one who almost hissed with happiness when Betty — visiting the office to pick up Sally — was burned by the disapproving gaze of the women in the office. Peggy, Joan, Megan, Faye: These working women might not be perfect, but at least they weren’t Betty! That blonde bitch. That rotten cupcake. That bad mom.
And then I felt … odd. Why is the one closely observed stay-at-home mother the ensemble’s monster? There are a few other mothers around — Roger’s ex seems solid — but none have little kids. At times, the series itself seems to view Betty with the contemptuous attitude of a top-dog ad guy: She’s pretty, so very pretty, but really, she’s an empty prize, a leech, a drain, a dope, a consumer, a princess. Because we rarely see a moment of her unguarded, kind, or unselfish, she can’t win.
Mad Men is gliding toward a particularly interesting period in history: post-youthquake, pre-feminism. Weiner clearly gets these crosscurrents. In one of this season’s best episodes, Joan and Peggy argued over how to handle sexual harassment, long before anyone knew that phrase. Joan favored her practiced Helen Gurley Brown ideology: seduce male power, work behind the scenes. Peggy insisted on taking the problem on straightforwardly, asserting her own power without batting any eyelashes. Afterward, as the two stood in the elevator, Joan bitterly analyzed the outcome: “I’m just a meaningless secretary and you’re a humorless bitch.” Each had a reasonable point, tactically and philosophically; it was a meaningful debate; neither one was a cartoon.
It was impossible to imagine Betty in that elevator. Isn’t that strange?
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