How Mad Men Is Wasting Its Best Season Six Storyline

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
May 8 2013 9:59 AM

Where's Betty? Why Mad Men's Treatment of Its Best Storyline Is Driving Me Crazy

Mad Men (Season 5)
Where are you, Betty Francis?

Ron Jaffe

Where's Betty at? Where's the housewife, Weiner? Where's Betty? That's all I want to know.

If, in the matter of Betty Francis and Mad Men, I'm starting to sound like The Wire's D'Angelo Barksdale, hollering at drug kingpin Stringer Bell about the fate of his dead friend, it's for a reason. This season of AMC's vaunted period drama about ad salesmen and the women they irritate started off by giving Don Draper's ex-wife one of the most potentially compelling plots she's had in years. She'd become friends with talented young violinist, a girl named Sandy, who was living with the Francis family before she ran off to California to pursue some vague sense of '60s liberation. What an opportunity! A chance for Betty to break free of suburban housewifery, and perhaps get caught up in the women’s liberation movement! The show hasn't said a word about it since.

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This season, Don started an affair with his neighbor Sylvia. Pete Campbell split up with his wife Trudy. Peggy Olson bought an apartment, or maybe even a whole townhouse. What started as a plan to take the company public turned into yet another corporate realignment for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, which merged with Ted Chaough's agency for a shot at winning Chevrolet's business.

But in all this maneuvering, the total lack of resolution of Betty's initial storyline has been conspicuous. All of these other subplots affirm the fundamentally unchangeable nature of the characters involved. Don will always cheat. Pete will always be basically right about other people, whether he's condemning Don for blowing up the firm's relationship with Jaguar or condemning his father-in-law's hypocrisy after they run into each other at a brothel. (And he’ll always shoot himself in the foot while pointing it out.) Peggy, who gave up her dream neighborhood on Abe's recommendation and lost her independence in the new merger, will never quite get what she wants.

But Betty's reaction to Sandy, her teenage boarder, promised something entirely different. It was sexual—in a disturbing bit of role play, Betty suggests that she and her husband attack the younger girl. It was also intimate. Sandy and Betty talk about the marital and professional expectations to which young women are held, the pressure on women to be beautiful, and Sandy's fear that she isn’t good enough to pursue a career in music. Later, after Sandy runs away, the self-absorbed Betty actually ventures down to St. Marks Place, into a filthy squat, and helps a bunch of hippies cook goulash in the hopes of learning where her boarder went. And when she tells the young men who question her motives, “I came here because I’m looking for somebody that I do want. I did not throw her away,” it almost sounds like Betty is talking about herself.

While I know a lot of Mad Men viewers have come to hate Betty over the years, I'd rather watch the story of her belated awakening, her fight for an almost wasted life, than see Don redeem himself via his brilliance yet again. So where's Betty, Weiner?

Alyssa Rosenberg writes about culture and television for Slate’s “XX Factor” blog. She also contributes to ThinkProgress and theatlantic.com.

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