Last night’s episode of Mad Men featured several shocking plot developments: The return of Don to Sterling Cooper & Partners, an epic fight between Don and Megan that might spell the end of their marriage, and, of course, the beginning of the Lou Avery Career and/or Actual Death Watch. (He has a two-year contract, Lou says! They can’t get rid of him, Lou says! But we all know that Lou’s control of the creative department is a doomed and fragile thing, for he is both terrible at his job and a character in a show about the genius of Don Draper. Therefore, my hopes of seeing him fall prey to the faulty building elevators or the steadily emerging murderous tendencies of Peggy Olson are on the rise.)
But, more important than all these things combined: My love, my life, Betty Hofstadt Draper Francis, has returned to Mad Men once more.
Before we celebrate Betty’s return, though, let’s peek in on her quasi-replacement in Don’s life, one Megan Draper. Megan has spent so long trying to get gigs in Los Angeles that she’s gone a bit off the rails in desperation: Calling directors to insist that they give her further auditions, for example, or tracking them down at lunch to terrorize them into casting her. Megan’s agent calls Don in the hopes that he can get his wife to conclusively Slow Her Roll, and Don jets out to L.A. to attempt said roll-slowing. It … does not go well. Megan accuses Don of cheating, Don assures her that it’s just a simple matter of being secretly unemployed for the past year and lying about it, and Megan is somewhat less than heartened by this news: “So you woke up, every day, with a clear head, and decided not to be with me?” Pretty much!
Megan declares the marriage over and kicks Don out of California, and I contemplate, with a guilty thrill, a final Mad Men season in which we don’t see much of Megan. It’s not that I fault Jessica Paré’s performance, but the character has never cohered into anything more than a sloppy collection of heterosexual male fantasies and vague jabs toward “empowerment” or “the counterculture.” In Megan’s first season as Don’s wife, seemingly everyone who encountered her loudly exclaimed about how she was “good at everything” without any evidence to back that up; meanwhile, she maintained “viewer interest” with sexy dances and titillating underpants role-play. As Don tired of her, she became disconsolate, but convincing us to “sympathize” with a poorly fleshed-out female character through subjecting her to abuse is an old trick, and not a terribly honorable or progressive one.
And, frankly, on a show with this many great characters, there really isn’t a reason for someone as two-dimensional as Megan to take up huge amounts of screen time. By virtue of her marriage to Don, she’s wound up crowding out the more interesting characters: For example, Betty, a formerly central character, has been absent for the first two episodes of the season. It’s only now that she’s returned to us in all her icy, mean-spirited glory.
Somehow, perversely, this woman has become my favorite character on Mad Men, largely because I’ve always been suspicious of the pat optimism of many narratives about oppression and abuse. When Betty was introduced as Don’s wife back in Season 1, most fans noted that she shared a first name with Friedan, pegging her as the show’s “repressed 1960s housewife” archetype and predicting her inevitable feminist awakening. And yet, such an awakening never came. Instead of flowering, Betty corroded, becoming more depressed, mean-spirited and childish with every bit of husbandly mistreatment or social oppression she encountered. Viewers began to hate her — because she was often hateful, yes, but also because she denied them their expected heartwarming narrative of triumph over all odds.
Because that’s how it works, sometimes: Oppression doesn’t make you a hero, it just makes you miserable. Not everyone can pull themselves up, Peggy Olson-style, by their bootstraps. Not everyone can even try. It’s an unpleasant fact of life, and it’s something we often avoid in fiction. But it’s the entire point of Betty on Mad Men.
This week, Betty herself is dealing with the fact that her feminist “click” moment never arrived. This revelation is hammered home by the experiences of the women around her, who seem to have had such a transformation already without Betty even noticing. Her old neighborhood friend Francine, played by the ever-delightful Anne Dudek, has become a travel agent with a little office in a shopping mall. Her husband doesn’t mind — “he likes the money,” Francine says — and, frankly, with the kids getting older, there really isn’t anything to keep her at home. “Some of us need a reward,” Francine says smugly.
“I thought [children] were the reward,” Betty says, glaring at Francine with barely repressed rage. All her life, she’s worked to be one thing: a housewife and a mother. She’s hated every second of it, but she’s done it, because it was what she was supposed to do, damn it; it was what her entire society told her every day she should try to achieve. Then, while she wasn’t looking, the whole game changed.
Following her conversation with Francine, Betty tries to throw herself into hands-on motherhood to convince herself that she loves it and that it is, in fact, the “reward.” But almost every woman she interacts with over the course of the episode has a job, including Francine, Betty’s housekeeper, the kids’ teacher, and a farmer’s daughter who shows Bobby’s class how to milk a cow on a field trip. Even more embarrassingly, many of those women are actually taking care of Betty’s kids for her, meaning that even as a mother, she’s not doing much work. And when her attempt to bond with Bobby backfires and he trades away the lunch she made him for jellybeans, she hits him with a patented Betty Draper Blast of Icy Hatred. At that point, it becomes clear even to her that, frankly, she’s not any good at the role she’s been striving to fit for years.
“Why don’t [the children] love me?” Betty asks her ever-patient husband Henry. There are about a million legitimate and saddening answers to that question, but the saddest thing of all is the void implied by her asking it. These kids are “the reward,” and the reward isn’t rewarding. There’s no bright side. There’s no “but at least.” She’s stuck, miserable, a woman who wasted her life, out of step with time.
Meanwhile, even as Betty is left reeling, her ex-husband slots right back into the career he’s done his level best to sabotage. Don, who after returning home and finally getting an attractive offer from another company, storms right into Roger’s hippie sex den and confronts him about the question of whether he’s wanted at Sterling Cooper & Partners. Roger lays down some harsh burns with regard to Don’s flame-out at last season’s Hershey meeting, but he ultimately admits that he’d like Don to come back into the office on Monday.
Here’s whom Roger consulted about that: No one. And here’s who’s happy about it: No one. Joan is massively awkward and discontent. Peggy, still cultivating the most ferocious Badger Face this side of Liz Lemon, tells Don that no one missed him. Jim Cutler wants to stop focusing on “creative personalities,” and just buy one of these “computer” things clients are so excited about, because those might be big in coming years. (If there’s any evidence for the growing argument that Mad Men is overly hammy and trite about its “times a’ changin’” theme, it’s seeing multiple characters awkwardly say the word “com-pu-ter” over and over again, and discuss the fact that, wow, in the future, people might really rely on those.) Lou is … well, he’s Lou.
Yet, as Roger points out, firing Don will mean having to compete with his genius on the free market, and no one wants that. So he’s invited back, on the most degrading possible terms: No drinking. No meeting with clients independently. Having every word he speaks in client meetings vetted and pre-approved by the partners. Reporting to Lou. Don, serenely, says “okay.” And the Jimi Hendrix kicks in to play us out, signaling Don’s inevitable triumph.
Frankly, anachronistic though it might be, I was hoping for Ozzy Osbourne. Because, if the next episode isn’t about Don unexpectedly ending Lou’s two-year contract by unhinging his jaw and biting Lou’s head off like he’s a wounded bat that got flung on stage during “Crazy Train,” I’m going to be deeply disappointed.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.