Mad Men, Season 3

Week 6: Do Viewers Really Hate Betty?
Talking television.
Sept. 23 2009 11:42 AM

Mad Men, Season 3

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Week 6: Do Viewers Really Hate Betty?

John, you're one to accuse Betty of cruel parenting when you blithely fantasize about naming your first son St. John. Don would be with me on this one: You shouldn't give your product a name that's hard to pronounce. You might as well dub your kid Fo'c's'le.

Patrick, your question about whether we three childless TV Clubbers have any standing to criticize Betty's mothering skills has sparked some fascinating discussion in "The Fray." Some commenters think we should hold our tongues until we reproduce, pointing out that Betty's parenting style is both appropriate to the era and a welcome corrective to the "helicoptering" that's apparently so prevalent today. (Betty, of course, is less like a helicopter than a distracted flamingo.) Other commenters think Betty is negligent verging on insane, arguing that we should continue to criticize and possibly call Protective Services while we're at it. (Two particularly sharp threads on the subject are here and here.)

Julia Turner Julia Turner

Julia Turner is the editor in chief of Slate and a regular on Slate's Culture Gabfest podcast

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I feel obliged to point out, though, that saying Betty is a bad mother is not the same thing as saying she's a bad person, an evil cipher whom we can't possibly hope to comprehend. Her selfishness is absolutely intended as a commentary on (and product of) the isolation of suburban housewives at the time. I'm struck by how many people who watch Mad Men tell me they hate Betty; they can't stand her; they wish Don would just up and leave. To the modern viewer, Betty's sins (being a bad mom) far outweigh Don's (being an absent dad, cheating on his wife, stealing a man's identity, driving his brother to suicide, lying to his wife and nearly everyone he knows about who he actually is). We let the charming man get away with murder, but we wish the cranky wife would just know her place? Sort of makes you wonder how far we've come.

I, meanwhile, am eager to see how far Mad Men goes, now that it's won another round of Emmys (do you buy that Matt Weiner was really the only person at the awards ceremony with "complete creative freedom," as he claimed in his speech?) and has been prominently featured on Oprah. The Oprah episode is ho-hum, but the segment in which Gayle King gets a tour of Sterling Cooper from nervous and awkward-seeming cast members in costume—most of them stiffly repeating real dialogue from the show—is worth watching for the überfan.

As for the magazine cover Conrad Hilton previewed for Don, yes, John, that is the Time story I cited a few weeks back. (Which reminds me that we should also congratulate our Fraysters: You guys were totally right about Conrad Hilton! Nice job!) I have a theory that Weiner must work with a stack of vintage Time magazines lying on his desk. Can a quick look at 1963's cover stories offer us any insight into the episodes to come? Will we hear about E.H. Gilbert and the great featherbedding controversy of late July? New Irish Prime Minister Sean Lemass (and the leprechaun Time shows dancing behind him)?Will Kinsey be spotted reading the September issue on "Cinema as International Art," the one that promises a special focus on "Lovers in Polish Film"?

Actually, what's most striking about a quick glance at the Time covers from 1963 is how many of them feature black men: Cassius Clay, NAACP chief Roy Wilkins, James Baldwin. Martin Luther King Jr. was man of the year. There are headlines about "The Negro Push for Equality" and "The Negro Revolution to Date." Time in the '60s was a fairly conservative institution, and the fact that it was devoting so much space to prominent black men and the civil rights movement indicates just how blinkered and out of touch the men at Sterling Cooper really are. If Time and Lane Pryce can tell there's something brewing, it's time to get on the ball.

I should also mention another intriguing Conrad-related prediction in the Fray: Several posters posit that Don will leave Sterling Cooper and use the Hilton account to launch his own agency, perhaps with Peggy, Joan, and others in tow. It's a great theory, although I'm skeptical: It would echo the plot of last season's Office quite closely (not an influence I expect Weiner and Co. are particularly anxious about, but still), and, more importantly, it would change the tone of the show, forcing our gimlet-eyed heroes to become eager agency-building go-getters.

As for all the snakes, Patrick, we could just go the Biblical route and assume that Don and Lane are headed for a fall. But my favorite writing on the subject of serpents is Emily Dickinson's "A Narrow Fellow in the Grass," the last stanza of which offers a perfect expression of fear and foreboding:

But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.

So maybe something bad—OK, worse!—is about to go down?

Julia