“When is everything going to go back to normal?” Well, Roger, it won't.
Mad Men's Roger Sterling isn’t adjusting so well to this “new normal.” But what’s uncomfortable for Roger is great for the viewer, at least as far as the business side of the series is concerned. The new normal does become a little grating when we slide over to Betty’s domestic sphere, where her major change seems hamfisted and unnecessary. Mad Men’s always great, but we’ve got to admit: it’s not always perfect.
Let’s start by being fair. At the time of the series’ first weeks of filming, January Jones (Betty) was eight months pregnant. Naturally, the writers needed to find a way to factor in her physical changes without ruining the integrity of the story. There are few ways out of this. They can either write in another pregnancy, use clothing and angles to hide the baby bump, or option C: simply make Betty “fat.”
In some ways it makes sense. Betty told Don in her last appearance on the series that she was unhappy, and sometimes women who are unhappy turn to food. But Betty’s been unhappy before and those times, she turned to young men riding horses and on occasion, washing machines.
Betty’s not an over-eater, in fact, her mother’s strict eating and grooming habits seem almost inseparable from her personality and yet suddenly, she’s ignoring them? Besides, a woman turning to bonbons and potato chips when she’s unhappy is the sitcom solution to the problem. And while her trip to the doctor to solve the issue with diet pills yields a momentary bit of “solace” for Betty that thyroid cancer might be the reason she’s gained weight, she’s eventually given the all clear and the “worst” news of all: she’s “just fat.”
Of course, this storyline also facilitates Don’s brewing conflict: Betty’s lingering feelings. Throughout the episode, Betty is more concerned about the outside world seeing what she looks like, fearing word will get back to Don and his “20-year-old wife.” It’s very clear that Henry’s not bothered by her physical change; he makes every effort to be the perfect husband and tell her she looks beautiful. Her fixation is on what Don thinks.
She even makes sure to call Don when she finds that Henry isn’t home, so she can confide in him that she might have cancer. On some level, she knows the cancer isn’t to blame for her appearance, but she jumps at the chance to not only speak to Don, but provide an excuse for her appearance should he find out through his social circle.
There are ways in which this plot obviously works. Logistically it makes sense since Jones was actually carrying baby weight. And while it makes sense that Betty would feel insecure about the fact that Don married a younger woman, she doesn’t have to be working on potential obesity to facilitate those feelings.
Yes, January Jones and Original Recipe Betty is flawless and in reality, would have no reason to fear a younger woman’s charms, but she’s still older and she’s still the ex. The story would be so much more powerful should she struggle with her feelings for Don and her jealousy of Megan on a purely emotional level instead of throwing in the easy, visual aid of a sudden physical change. The weight makes the story easier, but it doesn’t make it stronger.
Besides, without the weight, her story would work much more organically with Don’s experience this episode. He and Harry Crane go to the Rolling Stones concert to try to convince them to sing a commercial song for Heintz beans. Clearly, that’s not going to happen, but Don does have time to appear as the old fogie among the members of the generation he’s trying to sell to. In his squarest suit and his cigarette void of greener elements Don sticks out, and I’m not quite sure he’s even aware of how much he sticks out.
Don’s of the mindset that he knows best, but in the end he comes out of the experience with the wrong band signed for Heintz (Harry’s fault) and an inconclusive interview with a teen girl about why she loves the band. It’s pretty hard not to connect these moments to Betty’s complaints about how young Don’s new wife is and the fact that at dinner with the Heintz folks, Don refuses to admit that he’s the old executive who married his young secretary, saying he met Megan “at work.” Don is clearly feeling a little insecure about the age difference and circumstances of their relationship, and Megan shows her awareness of Betty’s lingering affection for Don. Even without Betty’s concocted weight gain, this triangle has some serious meat to it.
But wait, there’s some good news: Mohawk Airlines finally signs with SCDP. But, the celebration can’t start right away: they’re members of the old world and they want a man running the creative on their account, they still live on liquid lunches, and Roger’s early 60s sensibilities are a breath of tobacco-riddled air for them. And while this makes Roger feel right at home, he’s about to join Peggy in bizarro world.
She’s charged with finding someone to fill Mohawk’s need for a creative rep “with a penis” and she’s warned about hiring the most talented candidate because he may surpass her. Roger disagrees, but it’s not long before they both see the error of their ways. Don loves Peggy’s new hire and she sees a premonition of her future when Roger’s old hire, Pete, stands up in front of the whole company and declares his sole victory over Mohawk, completely shafting Peggy and Roger.
Roger’s just been dethroned by the young, bright mind he fought for - an idea he’s apparently going to have to get used to. And Peggy gets a taste of the sting for just a second, adding to the fact that while she’s earned her respect in the halls of SCDP, the rest of the world hasn’t caught up and women aren’t universally taken seriously in business.
Now, why is this great for the series? First, while we saw Peggy rise up against her chauvinistic superiors in the first few seasons, she still hasn’t earned her place in the eyes of the outside world. We saw her challenged by the Heintz people and even at the end of Season Two, when the man running the pantyhose company questioned her. Now, with Mohawk flat-out refusing to let a woman run their account, we can be sure the new, liberated Peggy will wave her feminist flag and fight this discrimination. Peggy’s not known to let these issues lie.
As for Roger, he’s starting to panic. Seeing Pete take everything from him kills him. It’s time for his instincts to kick in or he’ll continue winding down a path towards spending his time building zen gardens with Burt Cooper. He’s becoming a relic, but he’s still got time to change that. And that’s what’s exciting. Roger’s too dynamic a character to spend this season whining about the change. He’ll try something, and at the very least, he’ll fail dramatically.
Do you think Betty’s weight change is a poor plot choice? Do you think Betty and Don would ever get back together? Is Roger done for? Or can he figure out “the new normal?”