Mad Men: The Ghosts of Marriages Past

Illustration for article titled Mad Men: The Ghosts of Marriages Past

Despite their efforts to never have any face-to-face interactions — even conducting their custody swaps remotely — Don and Betty still have a haunting presence in each other's lives. So it's fitting that the episode was titled "Dark Shadows": That's what the memory of the Drapers' marriage occasionally casts on the former couple.


The title is in reference to the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, the one Megan and her friend were rehearsing a scene of for her friend's big audition. Dark Shadows premiered in June 1966, the exact time period that we jumped into this season Mad Men. Initially, the show struggled for an audience and had none of the supernatural elements that later made it a hit until the vampire Barnabas Collins was introduced six months into its run, around November 1966 — which is when this episode of Mad Men took place.

Barnabus was an interesting character. By definition of a vampire, he was a scary monster. But over time, as his personality was revealed to be complex, dynamic and flawed, he eventually became the show's protagonist, though he was never considered a true "good guy." Raised from the dead? A complicated history? Not really a villain but not really a hero? He sounds a lot like Don.

Like Don, Betty is also flawed. And like Don, she seems to be working toward change. Instead of taking her mother-in-law's suggestion for diet pills, Betty is losing weight the hard way, by watching what she eats and changing her relationship with food with the help of her local Weight Watchers chapter. It's a step that shows she's grown, since the last emotional support system she sought out was therapy sessions with a child psychologist. She was even able to use some of what she'd picked up at WW to have a nice, supportive, adult talk with Henry, telling him, "It's so easy to blame our problems on others, but really, we're in charge of ourselves." That doesn't sound like the Betty we know!

It was at one of these meetings that she was able to share the "very trying experience" she had that week: Seeing her old husband's new life, which was bright and shiny and hip and thin, in stark contrast to her new life, which is dark and dank and stodgy and thick.

It isn't very often that we see this kind of genuine exploration of a female character through the emotional and psychological impact of her weight gain. Say what you will about Betty (she does have very few likable qualities) but her new story line lends her a little bit of empathy, if only because some of her on screen moments are so visceral. You can feel her pain when she's looking at herself in the mirror before walking into Don's apartment, with the resignation that no amount of hair-fluffing will mask her extra mass. And when she's walking around the living room she bumps into a lamp, misjudging the amount of room her body has to make that turn, since she's not used to her new size. There are a dozen tiny moments like that, and they all transcend this subplot from a pregnant actress in a fat suit to something really honest about the female experience.

But it's hard to say which bothered Betty more: Seeing Megan's half-dressed physique or seeing her being so chummy and close with her three children. Whatever it was, it drove Betty to can of whipped cream when she got home — but she caught herself engaging in some unhealthy activity and managed to press the pause button in time. A few days later, when she was helping the children with their homework, she found a note that Don had written to Megan on the back of one of Bobby's drawings:

Lovely Megan,
I went out to buy a light bulb. When I get back, I'll see you better.
Love, Don


(The drawing happened to be of a whale, bleeding from where spears had stabbed it. It was no doubt a deliberate move on the part of the writers to symbolize Betty's feelings: A wounded whale. Way to add insult to injury.)

In that note, Betty got a snapshot of what Don's new marriage was like, and it was unrecognizable to what she had experienced as his wife. This new Don was thoughtful and caring and sweet and romantic. Betty's memories of him involve infidelity and fighting and barbed comments. Reverting to her old ways, Betty turned to Sally, who was working on her very complicated family tree and dropped the bomb on her about Don's first wife Anna telling Sally to "ask Megan" about it, revealing for whom the bomb was truly intended. Betty just assumed that Don had hidden his first marriage from Megan the way he did with her.


But her plan to throw some shade on the sunny lives of the new Drapers fell apart. Megan will not allow toxicity — smog or otherwise — in her home, and addressed Sally's bad attitude and questions with Don, and recognized Betty's evil game for what it was, urging Don not to play along with it. The real downside to Betty's attempt at poisoning the Drapers was that she missed her mark so hard. Instead, she infected Sally, who internalized this destructive volleying between her parents, honed it, and turned it back on Betty, letting her know that the Anna conversation hadn't had any negative affect, and in fact, the couple "spoke fondly of her." Sally might turn out to be incredibly adroit at bitchiness, having learned from the master.

Ultimately, though, at the heart of this episode, it wasn't about vampires, or ghosts of former marriages, or skeletons in the closet or even devils with their Sno Balls. It was the green monster — envy. The transparency of Betty's "gratitude" on Thanksgiving summed it all up: "I'm thankful that I have everything that I want and that no one has anything better." It may have been bullshit, but that last part is really the truth of it, when it comes to defining what makes Betty happy.


But it could define a lot of the other characters from last night's episode. Megan's friend is envious that Megan can try to be an actress without having to worry about making a living. Peggy is jealous that Roger chose Ginsberg to work on the Manischewitz account. (Her assertion that Ginsberg's Judaism doesn't make him qualified to cover the account — saying, "I'm sick of people thinking that way" — is a bit ironic, considering that she got her break at Sterling Cooper being assigned female products because she's a woman.) Roger is jealous of Jane's flirtation with another man. Pete is envious that his commuter buddy is married to his naked fur coat dream girl. And weirdest of all, Don is jealous of Ginsberg. Of his youth and his talent and how he suddenly has become the star of the creative team.

With Megan no longer distracting him from his work, Don has gotten his head back in the game—and he's playing dirty. He didn't present Ginsberg's pitch to the client and instead went with his own idea that, appropriately enough, involved the devil. It would seem that the competition at SCDP just got a lot less friendlier. But with a Holocaust story lurking in Ginsberg's past, we can assume that he's up for the challenge because he's actually dealt with a way worse monster than envy — Hitler!


One final thought on this episode: We will undoubtedly see Megan cry in coming episodes, and we will have a hell of a time figuring out if the tears are real.



Megan continues to sit all wrong with me. Something is off about her. Something has always been off about her. It's been off since we met her and it's been more and more glaringly off since she became a principal character. I want the root of that to be revealed, if only so that her character can start reconciling with me. As it stands, she's a creepy semi-child playing wife with Don and it's very, very odd.

And I will repeat my weekly refrain: MORE DON AND PEGGY. For fuck's sake, this was the central relationship of the show when it started (and NO I do NOT ship them, for chrissake, for fans of a show with so many layers people jump to such a STUPID place when I say this!) and it's been dropped in favor of the Don/Megan marriage plots (which isn't even half as interesting). I was hoping that with Megan out of SCDP we'd refocus on Don and Peggy some more but NOPE. It's bullshit. We've got an increasingly-desperate (suicidal?) Pete and a slowly-being-edged-out Peggy, and the only situation we're checking in on with every episode is Don's marriage? Unless something spectacularly insane is going to come of it, I want this show to stop wasting my time.

And while this episode wasn't strong on her, and I know January Jones was pregnant for much of this season's filming schedule, I continue to miss Betty on a regularly basis. I've always liked her character arcs, and I want more of her please.