Mad Men, Season 5

Will Betty Ever Grow Up?
Talking television.
April 2 2012 11:04 AM

Mad Men, Season 5

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Why Betty does what she does.

Mad Men (Season 5)
Betty Francis in svelter days

Frank Ockenfels/AMC.

Oh, Betty. Among the humiliations of last night’s episode, we haven’t even chronicled the emerging-swollen-from-the-bathtub shot. Or the cruel juxtaposition of Betty failing to squeeze into her ice-blue jacquard, followed immediately by Megan, limber and lithe, in a half-zipped floral number. For four seasons Betty has been this show’s generational fashion plate, but—even if she does regain her figure—the baton has been passed. As costume designer Janie Bryant explains in this interview with Slate, Megan’s wardrobe is the future, all bold color and mod lines. You’d never see her in fabric that could pass for upholstery.

As the lone Betty fan in our midst, I’ll try to defend this episode. I thought Betty’s brush with mortality offered her a moment of clarity, about who she is, and how she’s failed those around her. The episode was called “Tea Leaves,” and the central scene was Betty’s collapse when that beturbaned fortune-teller overturned her teacup, contemplated the debris, and told her “You’re a great soul. You mean so much to the people around you. You’re a rock.” The patent falsity of these bromides—their sheer absurdity—was apparent even to Betty, and shamed her. She spent a portion of the episode experimenting with a slightly more enlightened version of herself: Having sex with the Husband of the Year despite her embarrassment about her heft; taking a deep maternal whiff of Eugene’s scalp as Sally and Bobby No. 4 frolicked in the yard with sparklers; being spooked when, in her dream, Sally turns up her chair like a weary barkeep. I enjoyed these flashes of Betty realizing how horrible she is to those around her (even if, as a plot point, “cancer forces bad people to reconsider their life choices” isn’t particularly fresh). But when word comes that the nodule is benign, Betty reverts to her selfish, sundae-eating norm. Even the closing song, “Sixteen, Going on Seventeen” from the Sound of Music, is about childish notions of adulthood, rather than the real thing. (Sure enough, Betty’s found someone “older and wiser”; a “drinker of brandies,” even!)

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Speaking of Sally’s untouched sundae, anyone think there’s an eating disorder in store? She looked up a little too pertly when Megan rejected Don’s pancakes in the premiere.

As for the doings at SCDP, what a goon Pete is! I don’t see the upside in his ostentatious disdain for Roger; I get that he’s frustrated, but he’s also usually canny about playing the angles. But I thought Don’s one-girl focus group at the Rolling Stones show went a bit better than you did, John; when he asked her what she knew about psychiatry, I thought he saw a bit of Sally in her, putting his finger on some essence of family dysfunction in that unerring Draper way. Don may not be of the zeitgeist, but I’m confident he’ll figure it out. Perhaps with a bit of help from Michael Ginsberg. I’m looking forward to seeing how he makes Peggy hustle.

Judge not, lest ye be judged,

Julia

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