All credit to Matthew Weiner: This penultimate episode marked a Mad Men first. It was a Betty-centric episode and neither Betty’s plotline nor her performance were met with universal disdain. Over the years, Betty (and, through her, January Jones) has suffered more indignities than most Mad Men characters. The bizarre Medgar Evers dream sequence, the fat suit, the weird sexual tension with the neighbor kid (played by the boss’ son)—all that on top of the lies, infidelity, and condescension from men that are the lot of every woman on this show. But the ultimate indignity—and the quality that made Betty so unsympathetic to most viewers—was her pure, unrelenting self-absorption, a narcissism that contorted all of her relationships: with her husbands and children and especially her daughter, and, at times, even with herself. Betty so rarely exhibited empathy—especially for her children and their feelings—and so frequently preferred to bask in the empty admiration of strangers. (See, even in Betty’s final scene here, her delight in the wave from the young co-ed on the steps, and her warm smile back, despite the fact that she’s gasping for breath. She knows, and still enjoys, the effect her visage has on people.)
Mad Men, of course, is full of shitheads. Characters that behave despicably, repeatedly, out of self-interest and with little regard for the emotions of others. So it’s always puzzled me why Betty’s brand of bad behavior sits poorly with modern viewers, while the jerkitude of Pete or Roger or Don or even Peggy renders such characters flawed but lovable. (Hell, even I was rooting for Pete’s happy ending with Trudy last night. Good for you, you slimeball sweetheart.) I’ve been a staunch defender of Betty over the years: of Jones’ performance, which I think has been consistently stellar; of her plotlines, which tease out issues of femininity in this era beyond the ones that Peggy and Joan stir up; even of her self-absorption, which I think is both an understandable and in some ways a radical response to a culture that prized women first for beauty and then for nurturing, and for nothing else. Betty always felt more potent in the first role than in the second, and her attempts to exploit her physical allure and dismiss the constraints of child-rearing have always read to me as poignant power grabs from a woman who had very little clout in the unspooling of her own life.
I also think that our cultural response to Betty is colored by where we are now. We’ve come a long way, baby, in the office—it’s well and good for me to appreciate Peggy and Joan’s struggles from the incredibly supportive workplace where I enjoyed respect and mentorship as a young career woman and where I am now the boss. (And of course I recognize that many women working today are not nearly so lucky.) But how far have we come in terms of what we expect from women as parents? What’s most off-putting about Betty—her most reviled quality, the subject of supercuts and, I think, the bulk of our opprobrium—is that she’s a terrible mom. It’s when she’s cruel to Sally or Bobby that we most despise her. And although such cruelty is terrible to witness, I think it’s interesting that it’s these primal, maternal betrayals that elicit our most hostile responses.
So I’ll confess to being surprised by the general regard for Betty’s behavior in Sunday’s episode. Once she receives her diagnosis, she seems mature, decisive, and not at all self-pitying, which is impressive. And to the degree that she remains self-absorbed here, she’s entitled: A woman who’s just been given a death sentence is allowed to put her own needs first. But Betty is ungenerous with her children. Although her final recognition of and regard for Sally’s adventurous spirit marks an evolution, she leaves Sally with a letter but without much of herself. She pushes her children away at this moment—shielding Bobby and Gene, sending Sally back to school and deputizing her with logistical responsibilities—and that felt heartless to me. Betty has learned many things, but warmth isn’t one of them.
A few other notes on this week’s episode: What do you think is behind Mad Men’s fascination with Duck Phillips? I was startled that the character got so much screen time in one of these final episodes where every minute is so dense with meaning. His role this week was thematically appropriate—he played the con man Don is trying to give up being, finagling his way into a conversation with Pete on a thin pretense and negotiating him from McCann to a Learjet contract without consultation. But did we need a fond farewell to Duck? In fact, did Duck ever need to come back after the conclusion of his initial plotline back in the Putnam Powell days? He’s returned time and again to bed Peggy, to woo her and Pete with job offers, to get drunk at the Clios, to defecate on Roger’s sofa: Mark Moses, the actor who plays Duck, must be a delightful human being to have scored so much ongoing work.
One other thought: This episode was not a cliffhanger. Often the penultimate episode leaves you wondering how everything will wrap up. But the show could probably end here, right? Don on that bus stop bench, receding into the heartland. Sally fortified with final evidence of her mom’s recognition. Betty nobly dying. Pete and Trudy on a Learjet to marital bliss. Peggy strutting into McCann. Roger acknowledging his own defeat and brokering the best exit for Joan. Joan with a half-size hunk of cash and a hottie boyfriend. There’s not much more the show needs to do in its final episode next week. Which means it could do almost anything.
One of the great joys of Mad Men is that I really do mean anything. Bottle episode that’s just Sally in Madrid? Maybe. Massive time-hop to Roger’s funeral in 1975? Could happen. Fifty-five minutes with Glen in Vietnam? Don leads a penguin research expedition in Antarctica? Honestly, it’s possible. One long real-time pitch meeting in which Peggy speaks extensively about beans? Why not?
Perhaps Mad Men’s finale will do something more typical: Advance a few months and tell us what happened next. My astute editor Laura Bennett points out that we haven’t seen Don learn of Betty’s cancer yet, and that may come. But his “Go get ’em, Birdie” and that final backrub a few weeks ago felt to me like all the conclusion their relationship needs. It’d be nice to see Don help Sally with her grief, and to see whether Peggy can maintain that ’tude at McCann, and what, if anything, came of her flirtation with Mathis’ brother.
But it feels right that we have no real sense of what’s coming Sunday night: We’ve got one more week to savor the anticipation.
We knew we’d catch up with you eventually,