when your broken heart has learned its lesson

Mad Men: I’m one of the few people I know who defends Betty Draper.

(NO SPOILERS, though I may reference events in the episode “Wee Small Hours” in an oblique way)

Not to suggest she’s not a terrible mother. She lets television do her parenting for her, is completely oblivious to her children’s needs – especially her daughter – and throws tantrums when she doesn’t get what she wants. She’s not la mere terrible that we’d recognize from horror movies or Gothic romances, beating her weeping child for using wire hangers. But in some ways, this makes her more terrible. The audience recognizes her neglect as more plausible; that’s what makes it hit home.

So, she’s a bad mother. But am I the only Mad Men fan who views her through any lens other than that?

“I can’t believe someone could act so childishly,” my dad said of Betty at the end of Season 2. “Really?”, I replied. “You mean, ‘as childishly as Don’?”

Betty is a child, emotionally. She lives a child’s life: she plays house every day, pretending at raising a family while Carla does all the work (and in the most recent episode, “Wee Small Hours,” Carla’s silent looks say volumes). She even gets to play dress-up once in a while, hosting parties for other grown ups. But when she doesn’t get what she wants – the governor’s office sends a lacquered old maid to address her fundraiser – she pouts. Note how she introduces the governor’s aid: stomping across the living room with her arms straight at her sides, the way Sally might march off to bed if scolded.

But Betty is a child because she’s never had to be an adult. We’ve never had the X-ray look into her childhood that we’ve had of Don’s, but we get the idea that she was emotionally repressed. Emphasis on the proper time and place to show emotions built her into the perfect model and housewife. But, as her therapy sessions in S1 indicated, there’s more to her life than that. Or at least she thinks there is. “What do you want?”, someone asks Betty, point-blank, in “Wee Small Hours.” When’s the last time someone asked her that?

Betty catches the eye of an older man with power and class. What does she do? She starts writing letters to him. She craves, more than anything, not a sexual outlet or a source of male attention but someone with whom to share her uncertainty. The letters don’t have much substance to them, but in them she speaks more honestly than she has in years. Sadly, the correspondence doesn’t seem to last very long.

Betty Draper’s not a great parent, and probably not even a very whole human being. But she’s a tragic figure, not a villainous one.

And of course, there’s plenty more to say about “Wee Small Hours.” The civil rights movement makes its presence felt in upstate New York, albeit only through the radio. Even the most liberal characters on the show treat equality before the law as a gift to be handed to children when they’re mature enough to accept it. And for every public battle for rights, there are several quiet battles whose casualties we never count (“…you people”). It’s a beautiful weaving of historical events into narrative parallels, the kind of thing Mad Men excels at.

Mad Men remains my favorite show on television today. For aspiring writers or actors interested in well-delivered melodrama, it’s a feast.

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One Response

  1. Betty Draper was a Bryn Mawr graduate who majored in anthropology. And yet she could still only work in a capacity in which she is objectified; as a model and then as a suburban wife. This makes her story all the more interesting as she has, presumably, spent some time living for herself rather than stepping right from her father’s family to her husband’s.

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