Back for the first time!
Whoa! Hold on a minute here. The sixties were not kind to any number of women from that era, Betty Draper included, feminist or not. I think a better question is whether Mad Men encapsulates this fairly, believably and in a nuanced, original and entertaining fashion. I don’t know if you can have everything here.
From the very start, Betty Draper was less of an independent human being and more of a functional complication for the Don Draper character study. Do you remember the pilot? She’s barely in it. In the morning, Don Draper, handsome, clever, charismatic, test sales pitches with a woman in her apartment. At the end of the episode, in a classic ironic twist, he returns home to a previously-unmentioned wife and family. You didn’t need a record scratch to get the point.
As the seasons progressed, I believe that Betty Draper has always been more sinned against than sinning. When she was more involved in the show, the writers tried to flesh her out a little more. She had that group of friends in the suburbs. Her family showed up. The writers even gave her that dream sequence. But Betty was never in charge of her own destiny, much less given the opportunity to influence her own happiness in one direction or another. Even as she learned Don’s secrets, her responses seemed to be dictated by circumstance and conventional options. She cheated in return, found another husband and another house in the suburbs. She had more children, even though the most cursory examiner of the Betty-Sally relationship could have predicted that was a bad idea. We can’t be surprised that the new situation failed to create a fully self-realized Betty Draper. A chance at happiness was never really on the table. Are we getting Betty Draper back? I don’t think we ever had her in the first place.
In the past, I’ve found January Jones’ portrayal frustrating. I will always suspect that some of Betty Draper’s less savory traits – the bad parenting, unenlightened political and social views – stem from her limitations as an actress. Her appearance on SNL and X-Men:First Class have done nothing to persuade me otherwise. (Although, to be fair, not even Jennifer Lawrence could manage a believable line-reading in that movie.) This season, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. She looked at Bobby Draper with something akin to parental affection! Her work with the suitors in this episode wasn’t something that we’d accept from Peggy Olson, but it was passable enough. As for the pillow-talk with Don: are we watching Betty Draper slowly transform into Anna, the original and legitimate Mrs. Don Draper? And the last scene played right to her strengths, be polite, Mona Lisa smile. It’s a nice echo of Betty Draper’s first appearance: she’s meeting her husband one more time, but at least this time she’s in on the irony.