Mad Men, Season 5

In Cautious Defense of Betty
Talking television.
May 14 2012 11:27 AM

Mad Men, Season 5

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In cautious defense of Betty.

January Jones as Betty Draper
January Jones as Betty Draper

Still by Jordin Althaus/AMC.

Don and Betty both misbehaved this episode—and as sins go, we’re not just talking about sneaking an extra cube of Jarlsberg. Betty’s stunt with Sally was perhaps the cruelest thing she’s done to her daughter yet, and when Don left Michael’s Snoball idea in the back of that cab, I scribbled DON’S A MONSTROUS CRAZY SABOTEUR! You’re right, Patrick, that Don’s mistreatment of Michael last night represented a shocking new low, even for our favorite scoundrel.

Julia Turner Julia Turner

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

But Don and Betty were both motivated by the same thing: envy. Betty envies Megan’s slim frame, fab pad, and tender husband. Don envies Michael’s effortless talent. And they weren’t the only ones begrudging the spoils of others in this week’s episode. Peggy envies Ginsberg’s new rapport with Roger (and smiles when she learns the Snoball folks didn’t pick his idea). Roger is jealous when Jane flirts with Manishewitz Jr.—“I thought you liked the crabs rangoon here!”—and despoils her new, Roger-free apartment accordingly. Pete covets his train buddy’s wife and envies the ad men featured in the Sunday Times magazine. (That’s a real feature, by the way, written by Pete’s “new best friend Victor”—Navasky.) Megan’s actress pal can’t stand Megan’s “throne on 73rd and Park,” and Megan is jealous when her friend snags the role on Dark Shadows (which apparently wasn’t much more popular in 1966 than the remake was this weekend). Even Bert Cooper—usually so sanguine and unflappable—is so perturbed by Pete Campbell’s constant crowing that he slips the Manishewitz tip to Roger, in hopes that the old guys can put one in the net. The episode was a giant green cauldron of invidiousness and ill will. (And murder … well, not quite.)

When Pete calls Don to tell him the bad news about SCDP being left out of the Times profile, Don squawks, “Don’t wake me up and throw your failures in my face.” But it’s the successes of others that gall our characters here. When Betty offers her thanks before tucking into a few morsels of turkey and a single, sad Brussels sprout, she chirps, not altogether convincingly, “I’m thankful that I have everything I want—and that no one else has anything better.” It’s not the most generous-hearted Thanksgiving prayer I’ve ever heard.

But I do want to take a moment to defend Betty in this episode—or at least to marvel at a scene that perhaps demonstrated some growth. There was remarkable tenderness over that overdone steak in the Francis kitchen. And though Betty does, perhaps, wonder if she’s “bet on the wrong horse” with Henry, she also offers an uncommonly supportive little speech, one that sounds inflected with the self-help jargon of Weight Watchers (another place, come to think of it, where Betty begrudges the success of others if she’s not keeping pace). She tells Henry:

This is a setback. You’re always thinking about other people, and then you’re angry because no one’s thinking about you. But I am. It’s so easy to blame our problems on others, but really we’re in charge of ourselves. And I’m here to help you, as you’re here to help me. We’ll figure out what’s next.

It’s a start, right? Somehow directing all that bile at Don and Megan seems to free Betty to bring sweetness and light to her own husband, and patience to her children’s homework, and her diet regimen, and everything else.

I’m curious, though, to see what transpires at SCDP now that Don has become aware of Michael’s prowess. The work presented as Ginsberg’s during the episode was genuinely exciting, I thought. That Manishewitz idea was clever, and the fun Snoball campaign neatly carried the episode’s schadenfreude theme (featuring as it did the joy of seeing powerful people get smacked in the noggin). Meanwhile, when Michael tells Don, “I feel sad for you,” in their final confrontation, Don’s icy rebuff—“I don’t think about you at all”—rang hollow. It was seeing how many great ideas Michael had ginned up—and how Peggy had “gotten buried with Heinz”—that spurred Don to come in on a weekend and experiment with his Devil voice. Watching Don on his back foot, undercutting fellow creatives, giving himself pep talks via Dictaphone? In the words of Don’s Satan: “This changes everything.”

I’m getting the chateaubriand if someone will split it with me,

Julia