Mad Men and The Way We Never Were
By, Jenny Nigro – M.O.M. Social Media Blogger
I took a trip over Mother’s Day weekend that wound up being extended by a day and a half due to severe weather over Texas. Traveling with my mom, we took a risk and decided to road trip to an airport in a city 8 hours away and hopped a red eye from there. In all the extra traveling, I missed watching the penultimate episode of Mad Men with the rest of America. My sister, with whom I spend about 80% of our frequent phone conversations dissecting the show, sent me a single text message after she watched.
Devoid of the emoji content that is typical of our text conversations, I knew that this was even worse than if she had sent me something like “Jen…MAD MEN” (sad face emoji, crying face emoji, Munch’s “Scream” emoji). When I finally was able to catch up, I sent her what I feel was an equally as expressive text.
(This is as good a time as ever to mention **spoiler alert**).
With all the winding down of characters’ arcs and simultaneous chaos erupting in Don’s life, it may be surprising to other fans of the show that I pinpointed Betty’s story as the one I felt saddest about. Or not? Betty has always been one of my favorite characters. In season one, she was practically a teenager, in both body and mind. For a mother to two young kids, housewife to a detached husband, and daughter to a newly deceased mother, the plea for retrospective bad behavior, “I didn’t have a roadmap” would be an understatement. We saw “the problem that has no name” rear its ugly head, which found her on her back at a psychiatrist’s office, only to have her confidences devastatingly betrayed there. In later seasons, it seemed like her naivety was transformed into shrewd coldness…directed mostly at her children. I remember reading an interview with January Jones, the actress who played Betty, in which she said that in the first season, viewers judged Betty for her unwillingness to do anything in response to her husband’s affair; in subsequent seasons, viewers turned on her for doing too much. Ice queen that she was, I still adored her. Naturally, my heart was broken when I watched the second-to-last episode of the series.
A show that normally draws a lot of hype, there was even more buzz in the air as the second half of the last season drew to a close. The Atlantic blog posts an analysis of the show after each week’s episode. Countless bloggers threw in their own two cents about “the end of an era.” Perhaps the most poignant response to the gut-wrenching fate of Betty, however, was this Buzzfeed article entitled “In Praise of Betty Draper, Difficult Woman.”
I have to say, I was crying for Betty (and maybe myself) even before the reveal of the contents of the letter she wrote to her daughter, Sally, to be read the minute she passed. But the tears that came with Sally’s reading of the letter weren’t from disappointment in what some would see as Betty’s sloppy farewell to her teenage daughter, but rather, a deep reverence for the genuineness of her character. In processing a fatal illness in my own family, my sister offered my mom some insight to assist in her understanding of it: we assume (from TV and books, mostly) that people will experience tremendous transformations on their deathbeds and suddenly become the people we had always hoped they would. But in reality, when faced with their own mortality, people just become a deeper version of whoever they had been in life. In death, there’s regret, there’s pain, there’s urgency, but most of all, fear, so human nature causes us to retreat further into ourselves. This is what we see Betty do when she wastes crucial departing words bestowed upon her daughter by detailing the precise instructions for her internment. As the article points out, “She’s not terrified of dying, but of being presented, in death, in a way that betrays the image of precise propriety she’d spent years cultivating. That image, after all, is her life’s greatest work.” The fact that we see the Mad Men writers recognize this makes the experience of watching it that much richer.
Like the article suggests, Betty was a difficult woman. But it’s no wonder that she didn’t have a road map or more sentimental words to offer her daughter upon her death…because the root of that image of motherhood is a mirage when we look at it closer. In her book, The Way We Never Were, Stephanie Coontz discusses the myth of the 1950s family, derived from rigid gender roles imposed on Victorian America in the advent of capitalism. In pre-capitalist societies, people functioned interdependently with one another in communities. Love was not expressed or understood as occurring between two individuals. Notions of mothers as the sole purveyors of care and nurturance in the family were the effect of the rise of individualism that came with laissez faire economics. Men took on roles of self-reliance and independence in business, and women were expected to carry the torches of dependence and obligation in the home. As men contended with competition on the battlefield and in the office, women had to do their part by being June Cleaver in the home. Images of this type of social relation were created and treated as the natural order (by people like Don Draper, no less).
I’m fairly positive that my mother would watch that episode of Mad Men and see bits of herself and her mother in Betty. Henry Francis may have called it luck, but Betty’s knowledge of when to give up is a rare gift. She acknowledges that it has served her well before; just think of her marriage to Don. Sally’s fictional later-in-life therapist may say otherwise, but to me, Betty was no monster; she was the victim of an unseen social construct that has caused so many other women to feel similarly angry and powerless.
After the series finale, January Jones posted a photo of Betty to her Instagram with the caption: “Please remember her like this. Strong. Proud. And afraid. She is everything I wish I could be.” I didn’t think it was possible to love the actress more, but my heart swelled in seeing the post. It was, after all, my all-time favorite still from my all-time favorite episode. It’s the episode where Don is courted by the bigwigs at a larger firm, who flatter Betty with the prospect of modeling in a Coca-Cola ad to lure her husband in. Betty goes through the trouble of getting her hopes up about re-igniting her modeling career, only to be told that the casting director decided to take the shoot in a different direction. Though Don knows the truth, he feigns surprise at Betty’s declared decision to remain a housewife. There is a rare moment of tenderness in the conversation in which Don compliments Betty’s parenting, likening her to an angel and lamenting the fact that he did not have a mother like her. Boosted by this overture, Betty goes out to the front yard in her nightgown the following morning, cigarette in mouth, and takes to the neighbor’s carrier pigeons with a BB gun – a stunt intended to send a message to the sour old man: don’t mess with my family.
So I hope that I have done right by January Jones. I hope that I have remembered this poor, beautiful, scared, strong, and proud creature in a way that the person who brought her to life would approve. As my sister comforted me when I broke down and told her that I’m not ready to let go of Betty, it’s okay to grieve fictitious characters. After all, it is the way we relate to their stories that makes it feel so real to us.
And of course, I’ll always have Netflix…and January Jones’ Instagram.