Five days have passed since the world was introduced to “Fat Betty” Francis on Mad Men. Who knew a prosthetic stomach and some fake jowls on the comely January Jones would create such an Internet firestorm? (There’s even a Twitter account, run by Vulture contributor Jon DeFreest, called @FatBettyFrancis.) Though there is some dissent, the general consensus among critics is that this plot twist is unbearably cruel to both the actress and the character. It’s acknowledged by most that Betty was the least sympathetic character on Mad Men even before this weight-gain plot, and others have written rousing defenses of her. But this breaking plot twist for the former Mrs. Draper actually gives viewers new reasons to love Betty and care about her plight.
Betty has always been the living embodiment of the Feminine Mystique: an unhappy housewife trapped in a gilded cage. But the loss of her looks really spotlights how horribly unfair the culture of the fifties and sixties was to a woman like her. She’s probably been told her entire life that her looks were the only thing that mattered. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr, but she was only ever encouraged professionally to be a model. Her relationship with Don was certainly based on the whole package she presented — he wanted to create the perfect life with the beautiful wife at home in his well-appointed Westchester abode. Lots of commentators have looked down on Betty for her response to finding out that she didn’t have cancer in Sunday’s episode: “It’s nice to be put through the wringer to find out I’m just fat.” But that’s an understandable response from someone who has lost the one thing they felt was valuable for them as a person.
For years we’ve heard about what a vicious, terrible mother Betty is. I’m not going to defend her mothering — she’s about as warm and sensitive as one of Harry Harlow’s wire monkeys — but as others have pointed out, the cancer scare nudged her toward realizing what a blessing her children are; Slate’s Julia Turner notes that she seemed to gain some awareness of her failings toward her family. Hopefully during her real-life-pregnancy-abbreviated screen time this season she’ll grapple with that more than we’ve seen in the past. There’s some evidence that it might happen. In the preview for this Sunday’s episode, we see Sally yelling into a phone, “I hate her.” Granted, with this show’s impressionistic, willfully noncontextual promos, it’s not entirely certain whom she’s talking about (could be Megan, could be a teacher, could be Lady Bird Johnson), but it certainly seems like something she’d be saying about her mother. Sally’s resentment could be growing, and now that she’s getting older — and as January Jones has said, the daughter takes after her father — Betty may be forced to confront her shortcomings head-on. When they were younger, the children were more easily controlled, and when they did talk back, Betty just lashed out and shut them up quickly. Sally, who already ran away from home to be with Don last season, is only going to get more rebellious. She’s going to be a more legitimate adversary now, one who can’t just be put in a pinafore without putting up a fight.
Until this season, I did not much care for January Jones’s acting. I thought she was wooden, and as New York’s TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz put it, limited. Her acting abilities have really taken a critical drubbing in the past three years, particularly in her disastrous extracurricular performances on Saturday Night Live and in X-Men: First Class (of the latter, Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof famously tweeted, “Emma Frost’s THREE mutant powers: Telepathy, Transformation to Solid Diamond and last but not least, Sucking at Acting”). Following Betty’s increasingly unpleasant behavior in season four, these low points led to fans turning on the character in droves. But she really impressed me this week. Jones showed a physical subtlety in handling her prosthesis; she moved differently, but not in a showy way. There were small gestures throughout the episode — smelling her toddler son’s hair, gingerly picking at a parfait, reacting to a vision of her death in her dream — that moved me in a way her performance never has before. Furthermore, Jones really sold those cancer scenes: The doctor’s office realization could have drifted into maudlin territory, but Jones played it with believable restraint and even a bit of maturity. Before, you could make the case that January Jones was only good in the role because she was perfectly cast as an icy, Grace Kelly doppelgänger, and she acted the part. But that she’s been able to embody Betty’s changing physical self, while also selling Betty’s shifting emotional self, is worth praising.
And speaking of that shifting emotional self, many of the biggest Betty haters despise the character because they think she behaves like a child, but there are signs emerging that she might be taking a bit of agency in her life. Though her mother-in-law — and society — think she should get hopped up on diet pills and shed all those pounds, she dug into her daughter’s parfait at the end of last episode. Maybe she’s ready for choices that society won’t exactly approve of. She’s not exactly ready for the consciousness-raising circle, but it’s a start.