Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Is Betty Draper a Problem?

After some breakneck marathoning, I'm just about finished with the fourth season of "Mad Men," and I'm ready for the premiere on Sunday. I think I liked the fourth season better than most people did, especially the way various characters like Don and Pete developed over the course of the year. However, there's one character that has me worried, and before I elaborate, here I will warn of spoilers for all of "Mad Men" that has aired so far.

I'm worried about Betty Draper, who is now Mrs. Betty Francis after leaving Don and marrying Henry at the end of Season Three. I thought that Season Three was a great one for Betty, and the actress who portrays her, January Jones. Betty finally uncovered all of Don's secrets and lies, summoned up the courage to leave him for another man shortly after giving birth to a third child, and seemed to have a chance at something better. Oh, how quickly those hopes were dashed. Season Four is pretty light on Betty in general, but from what we do see of her, she's become meaner, bitchier, and almost outright villainous. Don and Betty's daughter Sally, played by Kiernan Shipka, comes into her own in Season Four. She gets at least as much screen time as Betty does, and more of the narrative emphasis as events are often shown from her viewpoint. In Sally's world, Betty is a major antagonist, a cold, self-centered mother who berates her children constantly, and does her best to ruin Sally's friendship with a neighbor boy, Glen.

For most of Season Four I was struggling to stay neutral between the two, to keep in mind that Betty had perfectly good reasons for not wanting her daughter around Glen. Also, she was struggling to make her new marriage work, caring for an infant, and having difficulty letting go of Don. We were seeing so much from Sally's subjective point of view without getting Betty's side of the story. There were a few moments, like her talks with the child psychiatrist, which seemed to indicate that she still had a lot of unresolved issues that we saw from the earlier seasons, and maybe they were getting worse. Her actions at the end of the season certainly make it clear that she didn't realize it would be so hard for her to transition between being Mrs. Draper and Mrs. Francis, and her children are suffering from the fallout. But have the show's creators gone too far? Have they demonized Betty past the point of no return? Her latest appearances have been so unpleasant, most of the show's fanbase seems to have fully turned against her.

All in all, it feels like one of "Mad Men's" major characters, who so much of the story has revolved around, has been downgraded to a supporting role. As much as I like Sally and the storylines she's been at the center of, I'm not keen on losing Betty, who has never been a particularly lovable character, but has always been a fascinating one. I don't want her to fade into the background or see her reduced to only being Sally's evil mother for the rest of the show's run. And if this is the end of the show's focus on Betty, what does her story add up to? A repressed housewife who struggles with her unhappiness manages to escape a bad marriage, but still can't face the personal failings that put her in that position in the first place. Not a horrible arc, but there is so much more the show could do with Betty.

My hope is that by she won't continue to stay stuck at this point, but either goes on to hit rock bottom and is finally forced to engage in some self-reflection to dig her way out, or that we'll see a more evenhanded portrayal of her, that adds more nuance to her current situation and relationships. I don't expect her to suddenly undergo some great metamorphosis and become another Peggy, but I do want that complicated, morally ambiguous Betty of the first few seasons back. Sally's growing pains provided a great counterpoint to Betty's inability to change, and the intrusion of Megan as a new mother figure next season is sure to increase the pressure even more.

I'm sure I'm in the minority here, but Betty is actually the character whose return I'm the most curious about, because I have no idea where her troubled story goes from here. The Sterling Cooper Draper Price employees will continue to struggle forward, Don will take a second shot at marriage, and probably repeat most of his mistakes from the first one. But Betty has already come to realize that swapping out husbands isn't making her any happier, and we know from experience that she's not shy about pulling the trigger when she makes a decision. So what is she going to do now? And if she goes down, who is she taking down with her?

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