Ugh, Betty Draper! Who are you, you enigmatic puzzle box of a TV character? Are you a scorned harridan who’s trying to undermine her loutish ex-husband’s marriage to a younger, thinner woman, or are you merely a superficial woman who regrets being so mean to her only daughter and taking a second husband who, for all his obvious handsomeness, probably smells vaguely of buttered noodles and envelope glue? I’d like to think of Betty Draper in terms of what Charlie Kelly called the Wildcard — a character who, on a show with dialogue that has to mimic 60s-era innuendo, is allowed to say and do the craziest shit, like shoot pigeons or crack wise about raping a teenage girl.
Betty has frustrated Mad Men viewers since the show’s first season. Her weight gain in Season 5 seemed to dovetail with her descent into triviality, and for a hot second a lot of critics supposed that Matthew Weiner was being kind of, well, a weiner to Betty for making her so thoroughly unlikable when it had been Don Draper, after all, who’d lied to her about his identity. Still, it was hard for many people to sympathize with Betty because for all the shit she’s had to put up with, Betty Draper has never really been a victim. In fact, she’s kind of an asshole herself.
Ahead of Sunday’s post-MLK Mad Men episode, the Wall Street Journal’s Pam Harris took up Betty’s baton and dared to defend one of television’s most frustrating characters. Harris doesn’t mention Betty’s Wildcard qualities (which I happen to think make Betty one of the most interesting characters, since one never quite knows what she’s capable of), but she does set the record straight on quite a few scores, most important among those being Betty’s legacy as a model-turned-housewife-turned-political-accessory.
Is Betty undergoing an evolution right before our eyes? Is she maturing? Harris thought for a second last week that maybe she was:
I saw Betty thinking of Henry, not herself, genuinely proud and supportive of him — right up until the moment when he reminded her that it necessarily would be about her, too, and that she would be entering the public eye with him. And then I saw a moment of true existential dread, as Betty thought about subjecting herself to that pitiless gaze.
Betty, after all, is a former model, and she’s lived her life almost entirely as an object of the male gaze, valued by others (and then, inevitably, by herself) only for her appearance. And then, finally, I thought we were seeing a few tentative steps in a new direction: at least a partial coming to terms with what’s now a modest weight gain, a foregoing of the trademark blond hair. It was as though Betty was just starting to indulge the idea that there might be a life for her as something other than a knock-off Grace Kelly, that there might be some freedom for her, too, in the air. But not so fast, Betty. And so we leave her holding that tiny, narrow dress up to herself in the mirror, knowing exactly what it will mean — what it will cost her — to constrict herself into that form and that role once again. For me, that was one of the saddest scenes of “Mad Men.”
That is some heartbreaking imagery, and might be right up there with Mad Men’s saddest scenes, but is Betty really a tragic character? Is she a victim? Television characters don’t change. Ever. They do different things — as many different things as writers can dream up during the course of a show — but characters never, ever, ever go through a dramatic transformation unless they get hit on the head, fall into a coma, and wake up played by a claymation villain. Audiences tune in every week to see the characters they’ve grown accustomed to get into new sorts of trouble, and part of the fun in watching a really well-serialized show (not a good show, mind you) is that you can reasonably predict what is going to happen because you’re dealing with known quantities. You spend every Sunday evening with these people. They’re known to you. If you can’t figure out that one of them is going to, say, cheat of his wife or hang himself, well, you should’ve seen it coming.
Betty’s different. The only thing we can count on with Betty is that, at some point, she’s going to get into some shit. Maybe not now, maybe not next week, but someday before the series has run its course, Betty Draper/Francis is going to shoot someone’s pet pigeons again. There’s a dark assertiveness lurking under Betty’s neutral expression, and it holds back our sympathy. We can’t really feel sorry for Betty because Betty, deep down, is capable of something big, something that no one could ever see coming.