A ghoul in angel's clothing: Mad Men's Betty Draper is The Sopranos' Livia Soprano. Or she will be.
The serialized dramas of the last decade were positively littered with father issues. Jack Bauer's dad on 24 turned out to be evil. Dr. Gregory House's just never saw eye to eye with his father. The Fishers on Six Feet Under were dealing with the loss of a father none of them really knew. And you couldn't open a new DHARMA hatch on Lost's Island without running into someone who was trying to put the memory of a father who treated them like shit and/or pushed them out of a window behind them. The list of shows where characters had anything like pronounced mother issues was fairly short and headed by one title: The Sopranos.
But The Sopranos had more than enough mother issues for the rest of TV combined. Livia Soprano, the mother of central character Tony Soprano, exacted such a hold over his psyche that even after she died early in the show's third season, he kept finding himself drawn to women who acted like her and blaming his problems on her. In some ways, she was even more powerful in death, as though she were a ghost that had cold hands seized around Tony's heart, ready to squeeze at any instant and bring on another panic attack. The scenes between Nancy Marchand, who played Livia, and James Gandolfini, who played Tony, were brutal matches of psychological combat, the mother trying to keep her bitter and toxic hold over her son and the son struggling to break free. Flashbacks to Tony's childhood showed that his mother exerted this kind of dark influence over all of the men in her life, including her late husband (whom she kept from accepting a lucrative job in Reno that would have made the family multi-millionaires).
It's not immediately clear that the characters on Mad Men are driven by anything like mother issues. Don Draper's mother was no peach, nor was his stepmother, but his father was similarly caustic toward his son, who ran away from home and shrugged off all influence of the people he knew there. But in its portrayal of Betty Draper, Don's ex-wife and mother of Sally, who's becoming an increasingly important character in the series' cosmology, the show is letting the audience watch as a new Livia Soprano forms right before its very eyes. The two started out their respective series in extremely different places, but they've come to occupy similar places within their series, and that has been to the detriment of Betty's character.
When The Sopranos began, Livia was ostensibly a weak old woman hiding away in the house she'd lived in for many years but always capable of dragging down her son's day with a bitter crack at how little he loved her, despite the fact that he did everything he could to make her happy. The major story arc of the first season dealt with Tony trying to place her in a retirement community and her insistence that he was only leaving her there to die. As the season waned, she successfully manipulated his uncle into taking out a hit on Tony's life. In many ways, Livia's power over everyone around her was almost absolute in the first season, even though her physical power was almost nonexistent. Livia is given some shading in the first two seasons of The Sopranos, but there's a sense that she's so old and set in her ways. She could never change or show an emotion beyond bile. She's a funhouse ghoul, a monster that pops up at random intervals as if to goose the audience and say, "Sure, the protagonist is bad, but look what he had to put up with!"
In contrast, Betty Draper started Mad Men as an almost completely powerless woman, married to a man who slept around on her and trapped in a life she didn't want, though she would never be able to articulate why. As the series progressed through its first two seasons, creator Matthew Weiner and his writers smartly established that Betty wasn't just another repressed '60s housewife like viewers had seen in dozens of other stories of the period. She was that, but she was also a spoiled child who'd never had to grow up and now approached the world as if it owed her everything and more. Betty wasn't the easiest character to like in those first two seasons, but she was decidedly human and the fact that her husband seemed to want every woman but her made her sympathetic almost by default. In the second season when an unstated deal between Betty and Don—one where he would be around the house more and not cheat on her—began to unravel, the heartache she felt was palpable, and the series expertly portrayed a woman who had gotten everything she ever wanted and had begun to realize that wasn't the answer after all.
In season three, though, a curious thing happened. The show largely replayed the "Betty realizes that maybe she doesn't want to be married to Don" arc from season two, but added in shades of Betty realizing that she was capable of holding real power over others, as she met another man—whom she would eventually divorce Don to marry—and had a third child with Don. There were attempts to place her behavior in context, as her father died and Don's philandering finally became too much for her to bear. And once she happened upon the key to open a locked drawer in which Don kept papers revealing his true identity to be country bumpkin Dick Whitman, she reacted with compassion when he told his life story but split with him just a few weeks later, seemingly uninterested in the man who was now completely open and honest with her.
Over the course of the last season and the first two episodes of this season, Betty hasn't become an unsatisfying character. Not exactly. January Jones still plays the character with a level of grace, and the show is still acutely aware of the many impulses that make her who she is. But she's also become increasingly unsympathetic and unrealistic, to the point where the show often seems to have lost track of what made her human, once, as if it's making her into another funhouse ghoul like Livia. (Weiner got his first major drama writing job on The Sopranos, but he was not present for the seasons featuring Livia.) Witness the scene in the season premiere, when daughter Sally refuses to eat a bite of sweet potatoes at Thanksgiving dinner with Betty's new in-laws, spitting it up all over her plate. In it, Betty is almost unrelentingly cruel, treating Sally and her other two children with Don as props in the new life she's rapidly trying to stage manage into existence.
To be fair, Sally and Betty have never had a convivial relationship. Sally's affections almost always ran more toward her father, and Betty's disappointment that Sally wasn't a perfect, pretty little doll like Betty must have been as a youth was always acutely expressed. But Sally was mostly a non-entity in the early days of the show, window-dressing on the perfect life Don Draper had constructed for himself. Over the past two years, as the show has realized the strength of actress Kiernan Shipka (who plays Sally), the series has turned more and more toward telling stories through Sally's point of view. And in Sally's point of view, Betty is just as affection-less and monstrous as Livia was toward Tony. Sally's longing for an escape, but she's cooped up with this woman for the foreseeable future, unable to go live with her free-and-easy dad. (Don, oddly enough, corresponds roughly to what Sopranos viewers would learn of Tony's dad, Johnny Boy Soprano, who was a rough-and-tumble man about town who treated his daughters well but still created an environment that wasn't exactly child-friendly.)
The central problem with the character of Betty on Mad Men in the last season and the first two episodes of this season is that the series wants to have her both ways. It wants her to be the spoiled princess who's nonetheless deeply sympathetic of seasons one and two, but it also wants her to be the monster that Sally is only now beginning to feel the full psychological pain of battling. Most of Mad Men is seen from the point-of-view of Don, who, understandably, has turned on Betty, and in this season, especially, just as much is seen through the eyes of Sally, who sees her mother as someone to flee. But the series seems almost as if it has lost track of Betty as anything but that woman who lives to let bitterness and spite slowly take over her soul. Betty doesn't need to be the most sympathetic character on Mad Men, or, indeed, sympathetic at all (if the show wants to pull a full Livia on her, it can go right ahead), but the series needs to stop pretending that it has enough distance from her to show her humanity anymore. We've seen where this path ends for Betty, and it ends sitting all alone in a living room in suburban New Jersey, counting up bitter disappointments like so many wasted hours.