Sunday night marked the beginning of Mad Men‘s long-awaited sixth season, and while almost everything and everyone on this show has been written as a complex, divisive, and flavorful fruit just ripe for the picking (apart), the audience has always agreed on one thing — Betty Draper is terrible. She has been so terrible, in fact, that the common perception is that the show’s creator Matt Weiner doesn’t like January Jones, because why else would he give her an entire season to mope around in a fat suit? Why would he write her that insane Mrs. Robinson plot with Creepy Glen? Why would she be a cold, selfish, incapable mother with her only “redeeming” quality being a resemblence to Grace Kelly?
The tabloid stories write themselves. Weiner must hates Jones. On a show chock-filled with morally ambiguous characters — the most obvious being Don Draper himself — Betty has historically been the one true villain, the only one we’re clearly supposed to hate. (Hell, even Pete has had his moments of redemption, or at least sympathy.) When her husband cheated on her during their entire marriage, it was excusable, because Betty is insufferable. When Sally rebels, no matter how obnoxious she is, we’re on her side — because wouldn’t you run off to the city if Betty was your mother?
So, yes — a fierce hatred of Betty has always been Weiner, and thus Mad Men‘s, M.O. But last night, something changed. In “The Doorway,” for probably the very first time, I found myself sympathizing with Betty Draper — hopeful that she may be, finally, experiencing some personal growth. Are we finally going to witness anything but the purely awful from Betty? Well, that depends. If we look at 90 percent of her screen time, then yes, because she seems to be trying. If we look at that horrible, random, and completely unnecessary child rape joke, then no. What are you doing to us, Weiner?
From the moment we saw Betty last night, first in the ballet then in the car gracefully accepting her speeding ticket, the change was apparent. Despite still packing some extra pounds, she seemed content — almost happy, being with her family. She accepted the ticket like a fully grown adult, then headed home to the Francis residence, a joyful, colorful home populated by a loving husband, a crotchety grandmother, and four children who were somehow all gathered in one room. (Not an easy feat.) Compare that to the almost Haunted Mansion feel of the Francis home last year, and the dark, dour atmosphere that permeated the former Draper residence, and you have the best situation Betty Draper has seen in years, chunk be damned.
Then, for the rest of the episode, she embarked on a quest that was purely selfless. Though she inarguably saw something of herself in Sandy, and reacted somewhat childishly to the hippies’ opinion of her as a souless suburban housewife, her reason for spending the day in a freezing cold squat house on St. Mark’s was pure. She wanted to help this lost girl, because she was a lost girl. Permanently. For arguably the first time since the series started, Betty seemed to be taking a good, hard look at herself, warts and all. After five years of nothing but petty petulance, it’s refreshing.
Unfortunately, Matt Weiner is never one to let us toy with the idea of sympathizing with Betty, ever. In a show of “yes, she’s pretty neat this episode, so let me remind you how awful she is” Weiner threw in a tasteless, disturbing rape joke about Sally’s young friend that horrified the audience as much as it did Henry Francis. This wouldn’t have bothered me so much if it seemed like something Betty would do — but Betty has always been too buttoned up to joke about pretty much anything, yet alone the rape of a 15-year-old child.
I mean, look, we get it. Last night’s episode was all about death, and stasis. Don Draper is never going to change — just look at his slick, corporate appearance next to his increasingly shaggy, Argo-looking creative team. (Not to mention his affair.) And Roger flat out told his therapist that he was frustrated by his own life’s static lack of meaning. But despite being one of the millions who has spent five years bemoaning Betty, I’m not willing to give up on her just yet. Unlike the two men I just listed, her depression actually seems to bother her, which is a good thing. She’s no longer at a stage in her life where she can ignore it, hiding it behind her wealth and good looks. Her declining appearance has sparked an undeniable change in Betty, where she’s being forced to explore who she is, who she has been, and, hopefully, who she can be going foward, for the very first time.
In the end, Betty reverted by pulling a classic Betty — feeling insecure due to the hippies’ remarks, she dyed her hair brown, and pathetically went to her family for heaps of praise. Betty didn’t want to look like a suburbanite anymore, so she went from Grace Kelly to the happenin’ Liz Taylor to somehow feel better about herself.
Here’s what I ask, Mr. Weiner: Let’s cut the rape jokes and face-palm moments this season. The Betty we saw last night — the raw, insecure, but possibly redeemable Betty — is far more intriguing than the sadsack we’ve been hanging out with these last few years. Either cut the woman from the show, or give her something interesting to do — like, say, explore her own wretchedness and try to change. She’s been your punching bag for far too long.
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[PHOTO CREDIT: Jordin Althaus/AMC]