When Season 5 of Mad Men came and went with much less Betty than past installments, many fans were grateful. The former Mrs. Draper, played by January Jones, has long been one of the most criticized aspects of Matthew Weiner’s acclaimed series. She’s been called one of the “worst characters on TV,” a “real bummer,” and just plain “unlikable.” Of course, being unlikable does not mean that Betty can’t be a good character; much of the Mad Men cast does something despicable every episode or two. But while those other characters win us over with their dynamism, Betty frequently remains flat.
Should we blame Weiner for this—or January Jones? I’d argue that both are partly responsible. On paper, Betty is a promising role: a contemporary, unglamorous take on the disaffected housewife of the 1950s and 1960s. In the second episode of Season 1, Weiner immediately broke down the fantasy of post-war femininity, peeling back the Grace Kelly exterior of Betty to reveal a morose figure who turns to therapy after experiencing a recurrent numbness in her hands, just months after her mother’s death. Her bizarre, uncomfortable relationship with Glen Bishop, a neighbor’s young son, interestingly contrasted with her frequently cold treatment of her own children, particularly daughter Sally. Yet Betty too often seemed more of a prop than a fully drawn character, her storylines dragging sluggishly while working-women Peggy and Joan dazzled us with drama. In Season 5, with a significantly reduced storyline due to Jones’ real-life pregnancy, “Fat Betty” was a punchline.
Jones is partly to blame. She relies too much on aloofness and detachment in her approach to scenes—her nearly robotic speaking tone doesn’t interact interestingly with what the other actors are giving. Even Kiernan Shipka, the talented young actress who plays Sally, manages to dominate her scenes with Jones. There are times, certainly, when Jones’ approach can prove effective—in Season 3, Betty confronts Don about his secret identity, and later admits that she no longer loves him, her restrained demeanor perfectly marries material and performance. “I kissed you yesterday,” she says. “I didn’t feel a thing.”
Too often, though, Jones seems hidden behind her striking features and glamorous clothes, and we’re left frustrated by our inability to see anything more behind that façade.
Weiner, per usual, has been vague when discussing Betty’s future on the show. But he has said that Season 6 will be “big” for Betty. Hopefully that’s not a joke about her eating habits. And hopefully Jones will rise to the occasion.