Ever since she and Don Draper divorced, plenty of commentators have asked if Mad Men still needs Betty Francis. I’ve always played a wait-and-see approach with the character, because she tends to work better in smaller bursts anyway. (My favorite season for the character remains season two, where she stepped right up to the edge of leaving Don, then was unable to, for many reasons.) She didn’t have much to do in season four, but the last scene she was in that season—in which she learns Don is getting married again—suggested a way forward for the character: She might not make a great wife, but she could make a hell of a great ex-wife. That’s an interesting place to go with someone like Betty, who can seem like she’s all bristle and hardly suppressed rage. Plus, she’s got Henry Francis at her side now, and he’s one of my favorite barely explained Mad Men characters, someone we have to connect the dots to fill in.
“Dark Shadows” is Betty’s first appearance since the season’s third episode, “Tea Leaves,” and it marks only the second episode the character has appeared in all year long. The farther Betty moves away from Manhattan, it would seem, the further she moves from the series’ heart, and I can’t say I’ve missed her, because we get filled in on what’s up with her via Sally (who really has turned into one of the series’ most important characters). On the other hand, Betty’s not my favorite character on the show, but she’s an important puzzle piece of what the show was and presumably what it will be. Even if she’s sat so many episodes out this season because of January Jones’ real-life pregnancy, certain aspects of the show have felt slightly imbalanced without her around to cause her own particular brand of chaos. (Weirdly, the other character who’s been a touch underused this season is Joan, who has some interesting links to Betty.) Betty’s become a woman of ingrown rage that threatens to burst outward at any moment, even as she’s much, much better at directing it than she was in the series’ early days.
Betty doesn’t just desire her own happiness. For some reason, she desires the cessation of others’ happiness, particularly her ex-husband. This makes sense on one level: If Don’s happy without her, then maybe it’s proof on some level that all of his philandering and general bad behavior had just a little tiny bit to do with her and how she was as a wife. No one would ever blame her for Don’s cheating, but it’s not hard to look at her as she watches the young and trim Megan dressing and see the thoughts roaming through her head. Not only has Don taken up with a younger model, but he seems to be making an effort to be the good husband he seemingly never was with her. Then again, once something ends, we have a tendency to remember only the warning signs, not the good things that came before. Joan has told us that Don once acted the way he acts around Megan around Betty (and we have the flashbacks to prove it). Maybe all Betty needs to do is wait.
That’s Betty, though. She’s never going to wait when she can spread her poison everywhere she goes. The show even acknowledges this in a moment toward the end when Megan and Don are in their apartment for Thanksgiving (with Megan’s fellow actress friend apparently coming over later), and the great poisonous smog of ’66 hovers outside. The smog is an actual historical reality, but Matt Weiner and his writers have fun with the idea that it represents Betty, longing to enter that apartment and tear some shit up, simply because she’s not as happy as anybody there. The smog could “kill,” Megan says, and that’s, indeed, literally what happened. But Betty hovers outside of this marriage all the while, waiting to poison it from within, and using whatever means she has to get inside that apartment, even if that involves telling her daughter about Don’s first wife, the one that he only married for various legal reasons (and, oh yeah, because he had stolen another man’s identity).
Is this too much? It probably is a little. The cut from the hovering smog to the Francis Thanksgiving is not exactly subtle, and I tire of when the show presents Betty as this bruised monster who’s not in control of her own impulses. I get that she spends a lot of time acting like that, but the show has always been at its best when it can harness some degree of sympathy for the woman (as it did in “Tea Leaves,” a better episode). I theorized in my review for that episode that there was nothing that could “fix” Betty, because she’s driven by mental-health issues she can’t even begin to explain. I like that the show gives Betty any number of excuses for why she is the way she is, but it also suggests that there would have been something unresolved and unable to be filled inside of her, no matter how good her relationship had been with her mother or how attentive a husband Don was. Henry Francis certainly seems like everything she could ever want in a husband (even if he rages at the parking situation), and he certainly hasn’t been able to fill in the gaps. The show keeps giving Betty support systems—friends, family, therapy, Weight Watchers—then suggesting that none of those things are good enough to fill the void. She’d have to seriously dig into herself, beyond the image of the perfect blonde housewife, and that’s something she’s just never going to do.
Then again, that’s one of the primary messages of this show: The hard work of confronting who you actually are and dealing with your shit is not as easy as just buying into a prefabricated image. Your true self will rise up out of the depths of your subconscious from time to time, but for the most part, you’re doing your best to construct an image of yourself that the rest of the world will buy into, be that the perfect man in a perfect suit or the older, dapper rich gentleman or the first female copywriter at an advertising firm that seemed like a boys’ club just a few years ago. To give in to your feelings—even a little bit—is weakness, and to survive, those emotional moments have to be held privately. After all, Betty only left Don after she’d seen who he really was at his core. Letting anyone know too much about you is power. Betty still “fits” within the show in that regard, and she still fits when we consider the show’s short-story structure, which could conceivably allow for next week’s episode to be a lengthy story about Duck Phillips trolling the Eastern seaboard for chicks.
Beyond the Betty storyline, “Dark Shadows” is a little scattered. It’s probably the weakest episode of the season to date, but it’s been a great season, so that’s not a huge complaint. I liked seeing Don get his feet back in the advertising game, no matter how tentatively, and I liked having some acknowledgement that Peggy’s been off her game for the months that this season (and parts of last season) represented. I even liked the adventures of Roger and Jane, as he got her to go to an important dinner meeting with him as his wife. (Bert didn’t even realize the two had split up. I liked that he looked at his watch when he said, “Already?!”) But the stories all felt weirdly inconsequential at the same time, and they didn’t add up with the same glorious cacophony of the last few episodes. The show’s been on a run of more experimental and dream-like episodes recently, and this is a fairly down-to-earth example of the show that could almost fit in season three, were it not for the plot circumstances surrounding everything. It’s not bad, but it feels like the show has been grander before, even in the last few weeks.
I’m also finding the build on the Michael Ginsberg storyline very odd. So much of it is happening off-camera, with the show only giving us the briefest of drop-ins on how his work is progressing or how he’s fitting in with Peggy, Stan, and all the rest. Ginsberg has become a fascinating character, don’t get me wrong, but the show also occasionally sells him as a Don- or Peggy-level creative genius, even as it doesn’t really give us the insight into his creative process that we’ve gotten with those other two. Michael’s work is often much brasher and more deliberately confrontational than the work of the other two. It’s described as having a “juvenile energy” in tonight’s episode, and I don’t think it’s any mistake that the original sketch for the “hit someone with a Snoball” ad featured Hitler in it. Michael’s fascinating because we know almost everything about him but what we might most want to know. The show can be withholding like that, but I’m not sure it intends to be here.
This is all the more problematic because Michael is apparently the “villain” of the season. Now, obviously, he’s not a bad guy in any way, shape, or form, but he’s sort of the workplace equivalent of what Megan is to Don’s personal life: a brand new way of doing business that’s at once curious and off-putting to the people who’ve been doing things a certain way for a very long time. (Also in this category: Dawn and all she represents.) The season has very deliberately been about the old ways coming into conflict with youth. It is a season that started out with the protagonist turning 40, after all. But it’s also been careful to suggest that neither the youth nor the establishment have all—or any—of the answers. Michael is just a guy who knows how to tap into that youthful energy that the world is eating up as 1966 draws to its close, and his ideas have punch and an immediate snap to them. Yet they don’t have any of the emotional resonance of Don’s best pitches, or even the baked beans ad Megan came up with.
Then again, does advertising even need emotional resonance? Shouldn’t it just be a collection of quick, snappy things that elicit particular reactions in people? It’s not like Don’s ad of a smirking devil with his frozen treat is any better than Ginsberg’s ad. (Indeed, it’s quite a step down.) Ginsbeg’s ad provokes an instant reaction, while Don’s requires a little more thought. He says that the kids will like it because kids like cartoon devils, and maybe that’s the case. But the world of Mad Men is increasingly less safe for things like cleverness or taking a while to think over the message of an ad. When you see those two ad mock-ups side by side, the one with the police officer getting socked in the face is immediate and potent. That’s the future; that’s where things are heading. Some of it will be good, and some of it will be bad, but whatever nuance there was in advertising is flying out the window.
Maybe it was never there to begin with. The center of the episode involves Sally attempting to draw a family tree as a school project. It ends up being more complicated than she’d hoped, because she’s not sure where to include Henry or Megan on the drawing, to say nothing of the way that her mother, desperately seeking for leverage to turn her daughter against a cool new wife, tells her all about one of Don Draper’s longest held secrets. Don is a guy who’s always pitched everything he does on some amount of cool mystique, on the idea that the secret of what’s inside the package is far more interesting than anything else. Don Draper is all sleek surfaces and suggestions that there’s something great inside, but once you start to open up the package, what you get is a guy who talks into his Dictaphone late at night about how maybe a frozen Snoball treat is the sin that sends you to Hell.
So Sally asks Megan, and there’s a fight. And then Megan talks to Don, and Don—who seems to rarely get cross with his daughter—actually yells at her. Sally starts to pull at the thread, realizes that the woman she met in California was this mysterious Anna Draper. The season’s been filled with scenes where Sally is confronted with the weird horrors of the adult world, with the way that everybody older than her is just making it up as they go along, even as she does the same. And now she sees just how quickly her father has to back-pedal to tell her the truth. Maybe she realizes how much adulthood is about putting a series of lies in order, to make sure that the right lie is always there on the surface. If anybody on this show is driven by his demons, by the idea that pleasure could send you straight to Hell, it’s Don. Or maybe it’s Betty. Poisonous cloud or not, the two are still as well-matched in being ill-matched as they ever were when married.
- In discussing this episode with a critic friend, there was some question of how sincere Roger’s realization that he’d ruined something else for Jane by sleeping with her in her new apartment was supposed to be. I think he’s been mostly sincere post-LSD trip, and I think he was sincere here. But I’m willing to entertain other notions.
- I’d love if it turned out that the brief mention of Dark Shadows, the TV series, was somehow product placement for the film. I can’t imagine the people making the film would be too happy with Megan’s dismissal of the series. (And from a historical point of view, she’s wrong, as the original soap is seen as one of the few good ones from the era and certainly better than, say, Peyton Place, which you have to imagine Megan would kill to get a part on.)
- The mysterious killer smog of 1966 is one of my favorite unsolved mysteries, and I liked that the show was able to work it in. Here’s a pretty good overview of it.
- Okay, the weird sexual fantasy Pete has about Beth was undone by Alexis Bledel’s terrible line readings (and the weird horror of seeing Rory Gilmore wearing so little), but it was worth it all for the fact that his fantasy climaxes with Beth saying, “I forgot you, and then I saw you in the New York Times Sunday magazine,” which is the ultimate Pete Campbell thing to fantasize about.
- In general, not a good episode for our favorite harried, horrible everyman, who not only doesn’t have any of his quotes used in the final magazine article, but also blatantly tells Howard he wants to have sex with his wife, only to have Howard laugh it off as a joke. (Okay, Pete probably doesn’t want Howard to know about his dalliance with Beth, but it’s obvious how desperate he’s grown.)
- I love how little regard Betty has for Bobby, even as she seems to have turned the corner on Sally. I’m waiting for her to say, “I don’t care for Gene.”
- Next week on Mad Men: Peggy is surprised by something!