Is Betty the secret hero of 'Mad Men'?

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Image Credit: Ron Jaffe/AMC; AMC

Betty Hofstadt Draper Francis. That’s a lot of names — as many as Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, as many as Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. And this season, Betty has felt like several different people at once. In the season premiere, she somehow achieved the moral high ground in an interaction with a gaggle of dirty hippies, and then immediately ceded the moral high ground, dying her hair brown for vague-but-definitely-weird reasons. When Martin Luther King was shot, she was a nagging ex-wife on the phone to Don (drunk as usual) and a chastising mom for Bobby (unusually sentient). When husband Henry announced his intention to seek higher office, she was proud of him…and when he mentioned that, as a result, she would become a public figure, her face became unreadable again, maybe scared, maybe excited.

A couple of episodes later, Betty reappeared, suddenly slim and blonde again — the old Betty, the Phoenix arisen, reborn through Weight Watchers and perhaps a TBD cocktail of diet pills. In the speed-freak episode, she was the justifiably angry mother, chastising her shifty ex-husband and his actress second wife for leaving her children at home. But this past weekend, Betty hadn’t just forgiven Don; she shared a steamy night with him at sleepaway camp. “Ah,” you may have been thinking, “Now that they’re no longer married, Betty has fallen for the impossible Don Draper charm.” But no: In bed together, Betty revealed a fascinatingly in-depth understanding of Don’s problematic nature. She was using Don, really, which might not be so bad; but she also felt sorry for him, which constitutes a complete up-ending of the Betty-Don power dynamic from the beginning of the series. Mad Men typically feels impeccable created and curated and planned down to the tiniest micro-detail, which makes the shifting zig-zag of Betty’s recent arc — brunette! blonde! fatsuit! Daisy Dukes! — an intriguing conundrum. What’s the deal with Betty?

Actually, you could argue that Betty has never quite fit into Mad Men. She only appeared for a moment in the show’s storied pilot: She was the twist ending, the wife waiting in the suburbs while Don slept with one girl and took another one to dinner. The show’s second episode, “Ladies Room,” frontgrounded Betty and the whole notion of females in the ’60s, and it cemented a certain idea of Betty’s character arc: She was the Desperate  ’50s Housewife, Grace Kelly in therapy. This was back when the show still trafficked heavily in period-piece shock — pregnancy smoking, upfront misogyny, morning booze — so it was easy to see Betty as less a character than an icon of womanhood.

Her first-season gonzo-flirt with Glen Bishop complicated matters: It made Betty seem genuinely childlike. From that perspective, the first three seasons of Mad Men could be seen as a sidelong coming-of-age story for the former Betty Hofstadt, with Don acting as a figurative father figure alongside her own actual father. The season 3 finale completes that story arc: Betty repudiates Don and all of Draperdom, embarking on a new marriage with Henry Francis. This is either a happy ending (because Henry is a better man than Don) or a surreally unhappy non-ending (because Henry, deep-voiced and silver-haired and clearly In The Know, came off like yet another surrogate father for the ageless Betty.) But it was an ending.

Ever since that third-season finale, Betty has fit oddly into the show’s ever-expanding universe. Like most great dramas, Mad Men has become more decentralized with age, but the nexus of all its realities has always been The Office: First Sterling Cooper, then Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, now Sterling Cutler Draper Chaough Whatever. With her marriage to Don sundered, Betty was a free-floating satellite. It didn’t help matters that the show began to explore Betty-ish themes through daughter Sally (and surprise-great actress Kiernan Shipka). It also didn’t help matters that, offscreen, January Jones starred in one of the worst Saturday Night Lives on record and then waltzed through X-Men: First Class giving a performance pitched somewhere between “Accidental Bond Girl Parody” and “Mannequin Reboot Body Double.”

Jones was on pregnancy leave for some of Mad Men‘s fifth season. Rather than play a game of hide-the-pregnancy-inside-the-freehanging-clothes, the show opted for a striking character transformation. Betty gained a Betty; no longer the impossibly glamorous housewife, Betty started eating too much and looked more than ever like a Regular Ol’ Mom. This seemed in part like an effort to further contrast the former Mrs. Draper with the new Mrs. Draper. Truthfully, it also felt like the show/Matthew Weiner was maybe just being cruel to January Jones; Weiner has an explicit Hitchcock fixation, and if the early seasons of Mad Men suggested Hitchcock shepherding Grace Kelly to stardom, the Fat Betty period felt like Hitchcock attacking Tippi Hedren with a couple dozen birds.

But the finale of Betty’s season-5 arc complicated that, too: Sally, suddenly a woman, fled home to Betty and away from the useless Megan. Betty had been the Demon Mother for so long, but season 5 seemed to suggest there was something noble about her. She’s no fun — certainly not compared to Megan and Don’s swinging New York Magazine Cover-Spread apartment. But maybe — just maybe — Betty Francis was the happiest Betty. Once again, you found yourself wondering if Betty would just disappear from the show, hanging out at Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks diner alongside Sal, ’60s Lesbian Shoshanna, and sundry Draper exes.

Instead, that moment gave way to a full-fledged Betty renaissance. With Henry, she’s developed a kinky sexuality which is simultaneously one of the weirdest and one of the most functional relationships on the show. She keeps on scoring points in the parenting department over the Drapers: She may have given her children years of therapy material, but at least she never left them alone in an unlocked apartment with a sign marked “Thieves Welcome!” hanging over the door. She is once again an object of fascination for the male humans of the world: A gas station attendant ogled at her in the last episode.

At the same time, though, Betty has been reborn as an equal partner in the objectification process. Years ago, a man making a pass at her at the party would make her nervous; on this week’s episode, she played along with the skeevy politico at the fundraiser (“Can you believe I have three children?”) before using the flirtation as a dirty-talk warm-up with Henry. And whereas, in days gone by, Don was the sexually aggressive emotionally distant husband, their interaction during the camp fling made it clear that Don has spiraled downward. He seemed like a child, really — he likes cuddling! he swears! — and his attempts to evoke some nostalgia for the failed Draper marriage were met with blunt truthbombs. “I can only hold your attention so long,” she told him. And she deconstructed Don’s current marriage with a remark that was simultaneously kind and withering: “She doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you.”

There’s a weirdly formal corruption in the new Betty: She doesn’t really hesitate to sleep with Don, and it’s not even clear that Henry would care very much if he knew about the short affair. (Maybe it would just make for more dirty-talk fun? Politicians love weird sex, according to everything we’ve learned in the last two decades of American political history.) It’s becoming more and more clear that one of Don Draper’s key tragedies is his secret yearning to live his life openly and truthfully — problematic, partially because the whole core of his identity is built on lies, and partially because he sleeps with everybody. In a season that has been all about shattering Don’s delusions of himself, Betty’s statements proved to be the most shattering.

I’m not sure you could ever make the argument that Betty is “heroic” in a moral sense — if anyone’s a hero on Mad Men, it’s probably Ken Cosgrove, stalwart pal and secret sci-fi author and tap-dancer — but in a season that looks more and more like a pre-apocalyptic portrait of troubled human beings preparing to collapse in on themselves, Betty right now looks like the one character who has achieved a measure of contentment, even grace. Could it be that she has emerged from the chrysalis of her Brown Betty days as a better, stronger version of Golden Age Betty? The other characters on Mad Men have all weathered the changes of the 1960s with varying degrees of success. Most people would probably pick Peggy as the central rising figure of the show, coming into her own as a professional woman. But Peggy ended the last episode alone, shunned by partners professional and personal. Betty happily sat across from her husband with a bright political future, while her ex-husband looked at her with a mixture of awe and melancholy, realizing for maybe the first time everything he lost when he lost her.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich

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