SPOILER WARNING: This post discusses details from the current season of Mad Men. Those catching up on DVD may want to move along.
Nominally, this is a blog about writing, pedagogy, and the whole academical experience, except for the days when I feel like writing about Mad Men. Today is one of those days.
Folks, I must confess to something horrible, something that I know separates me from the majority of Mad Men fans out there: I am enthralled by Betty Draper. I know. I know. Everywhere I go, the Betty hate thrives. Feminists hate the character because she’s so pitiful and unsympathetic. Everyone else hates her because she’s just awful. She’s childish, self-centered, and an utterly wretched parent who’s either enlisting her daughter to help bolster her shattered image or treating said daughter like her little sister, saying crap like “wait til your father hears MY side of the story” as she wrestles her away from the phone. Betty is easily the most uncomfortable character to watch, but when the A.V. Club declared Betty a potential “showblocker,” a character “so grating—sometimes intentionally so—that even fans of the show heave a heavy sigh when they appear onscreen,” I made a “Huh?” face. While they qualify Betty’s nomination for this list by saying that the newly divorced and remarried character simply “has all of the makings of a classic showblocker,” the implicit argument is that, untethered to Don, Betty is no longer essential.
That argument represents a particular school of Mad Men fandom that thinks this show is about the workplace (or really just wishes it were). This school of criticism went to the refrigerator for a beer every time we found ourselves back in Ossining last season for more Betty and Don marital angst while eagerly awaiting further antics from Roger Sterling and views of Joan Holloway Harris as she departed a room. This is also the school of criticism that groaned when the latter got married (to a reprehensible prick albeit) because we now have to deal with the fallout of Joan’s problematic (but really not all that atypical) home-life and are longer allowed to simply enjoy her as the office sexpot. This is a school of criticism that seems to think that domestic life in the 1960’s is not as worth documenting as work life in the 1960’s, and I feel like I’m stating the forehead-smackingly obvious when I say there’s something pretty sexist about that. From whence comes all the whinging that Betty got such substantial character arcs last season if it isn’t from a place that really sort of thinks that people like her do not deserve their own storylines?
Suburban housewives are an essential part of the story of the 1960’s. Don’s pathetic life as a divorced man confirms how essential the pretense of a perfect home life with a princess of a homemaker was to the Don Draper ethos. So far, S4 has given a glorious middle finger to all of the fanboys who thought that divorce would liberate Don, would allow him to become the magnetic Sex God that he was always supposed to be rather than the sad-sack self-parody he has become. But trust me, Betty and the children and Ossining weren’t restraining Don’s mojo. They enabled it. Don telegraphed it multiple times in his moments of honesty with Anna: having the adoration and support of a woman like Betty validated Don to his co-workers, his clients, his potential sexual partners (with the single possible exception of Rachel Menken), and himself. Betty made Don more attractive in every possible way. Think about how characters from Roger Sterling to Jimmy Barrett to that guy from McCann to Conrad Hilton suddenly saw Don differently once they saw Betty. We even got a hint of how a wife could certify her husband’s inherent desirability when the wife of the Chief of Surgery told Joan “knowing that Greg can get a woman like you makes me feel better about his future.”
And what Betty giveth, Betty taketh away. A big part of me thinks that people started hating Betty when the writers had her stop being merely ornamental in S2, when she stopped merely representing the belittled and under-appreciated mid-century housewife and started dismantling the Don Draper auto-mythology. Betty is the one who points out that for all his charm and charisma, Don is a horribly selfish lover. For all his fleeting moments of passable parenting, his homelife was always a little bit dispensable to him. For all his tender confessions to Anna Draper, he had never even attempted to atone for the myriad wrongs he has committed in his life: against her, against the real Don Draper (whose memory he wiped away), against his brother, against his co-workers, and against his family.
Through Betty’s perspective we see things we really don’t want to see about characters we’ve come to love, including abuse. So many of the Betty-haters point to child abuse as the reason for their distaste. These are the same people who want to give Don a medal every time he emerges from his Don-world for a Moment of Barely Decent Parenting. These are the same people who hate Greg Harris for raping Joan but qualify what Pete did to that German au pair last season and deliver tired victim-blaming excuses for rapes that happen in the real world. Where is your outrage when it’s happening to a character or even a real live human being that we haven’t been conditioned to empathize with through the power of professional storytelling? I’m just saying.
I once heard the two sides of the Betty controversy described as one in which those who see Betty as a Product of Her Circumstances do battle with those who just think she’s a terrible person. I actually don’t think those two notions are mutually exclusive. Yes, the writers have consistently shown that Betty is a victim of sexism, but that victim status has never, in my mind, ruled out agency. She is a fully realized character capable of making her own terrible choices. Yes, those choices are shaped and limited by sexism, but the writers have shown her to be capable of moving within that context to try to carve out a life for herself, even if she doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job.
So far, this season has continued to develop the central theme of the series: that the measures we take to re-invent ourselves will ultimately prove inadequate as long as they are used to conceal some fundamental character flaw, some deeper sadness that we would rather not face. Even when we make drastic changes in our lives and try to free ourselves, our Lee Garner Jr.’s can rear their heads and become even more oppressive than they were before (there is so much significance in the fact that Lucky Strike is SCDP’s bread and butter as well as the cancer that threatens to destroy it). While that theme is most evident in Don’s story, we also see it in Joan, who became conscious of the disposable quality of beautiful women when she saw The Apartment in S1 and when Marilyn died in S2. We saw it in Peggy last night, who despite her joyous romp through the 60’s counter-culture with hunky writers and wise-cracking lesbians, was overwhelmed by how much Pete and Trudy’s pregnancy upset her (best Peggy episode ever, by the way). And of course, Pete was reminded of the things he is giving up in order to become the man he always thought he wanted to be. And judging by the previews for next week, we’re going to see more of that with Betty, who has married someone who seems to be simultaneously more stable and less authentic (I mean, c’mon, he’s a professional political operative) than Don, and that story is entirely in keeping with what Matthew Weiner and the rest of the show creators seem to be doing.
I also think it’s just flat out brilliant to explore the concept of divorce in this way. Divorce, in film and television, is so often treated as either tragedy or liberation, when for Don and Betty it is sort of both and neither at the same time. While divorce was a progressive concept in the 1960’s, leaving a marriage isn’t necessarily a progressive act. Both characters have, if anything, adopted grotesque versions of the lives they led before, Don in his pitiful man-cave that’s so ridiculously manly that he can quip “I think Norman Mailer shot a dear over there,” Betty having embraced her status as an ornament even more tightly than before (and as the arm candy of an even older man). At the end of S3, they did the most modern thing two people could have done in that context and wound up even more old-fashioned than they were in the first place. That’s a story that hasn’t really been told before, and I’m excited about going for the ride.