Matthew Weiner likes to toy with us, or rather me, specifically. Especially when it comes to my feelings towards Betty. Throughout the seasons I have gone through multiple mood swings concerning the former Mrs. Draper, feelings ranging from, "you go girl!" to "ugh, shut up already" to incoherent rage mumblings.
At the end of season 4, I was ready and willing to see Betty drive off of a cliff. SHE FIRED CARLA. SHE WAS MEAN TO SALLY. SHE WAS THE ABSOLUTE WORST. And last week, I was pleased with her absence. I was ticked off at Betty, even after all these months, and I wanted her in a proper time out.
Then, she shows up this week and she is a broken woman. She can't get her dress zipped up. She of the formerly WASP-y waist is defeated by a blue beaded gown and sentenced to lie in bed, miserable. We've all been there (for me, it's in the fitting room of a store thinking I'm absolutely going to rip the thing to shreds if I move an inch and wanting to cry). Am I pitying Betty? I wondered. No, it can't be. Besides, her hair looks stupid. Ha. Ha.
Meanwhile, Megan and Don seem to have recovered from last week's hiccup. Where Betty formerly stood as a showpiece for Don at business dinners, Megan charms. She has opinions, she has quips. She's gone beyond the living doll of Don's past, and this is why I understand Don's affections for her. It's not just her youth or her beauty, it's her brains. The dinner with Mr. Man-from-Heinz ends on an odd note though. He wants the Rolling Stones, and he wants 'em now. Oh, that shouldn't be difficult at all ...
We also discover in this episode that SCDP did, in fact, hire a black secretary. And her name is Dawn. A homonym for Don. What fun! Dawn is stylish, professional and seems to have an underlying tone of sarcasm, not unlike Joan. I like her already.
Megan awkwards out on Harry while looking fabulous. Harry, as usual, fumbles and bumbles his way through a conversation with Don as they prep for the Stones concert that night. And wow, Don's enthusiasm is PALPABLE. [crickets]
Later on we discover Betty at home, snug as a bug in her cave of a living room. By the way, her and Henry's new house is enormous. You'd think they moved to Transylvania as it looks like a 16th century castle and probably has enough scary stories to tell (what with Betty wandering through its halls late at night, eek).
Betty's sitting in the lap of luxury, spending her afternoon with a box of Bugles and the tv. Ah, that's the life. Then her Rude-y Mc'Tude-y mother-in-law barges in and tells her she can't miss anymore political so-and-so's just because she's bummed out about her recent weight gain, and she suggests Betty try diet pills. Well, clearly this woman has never seen Requiem For A Dream! (because it was released in the 21st century and I don't think she can time travel ...)
Well, Betty heads to the doctor to get herself a 'scrip (doctor please, some more of these ...) and after he calls her a MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN (ahem!) he refuses her drugs and then discovers a lump in her thyroid and lets her know she might be dying. Well, damn. Things have just gone pretty far downhill for poor, poor Birdie. Of course, she goes running to Don for help and because he isn't a total monster, he's somewhat consumed by pity, maybe grief. Betty was a big part of his life for a long time and I don't think he's ready to just throw out all of his feelings for her.
Alas, he heads out to the Rolling Stones show with Harry and while the band never really appears, Don does have an interesting run-in with some girls who could easily start a Shangri-Las cover band. As with all the young people he interacts with, Don has an emotional experience. Perhaps it's because his youth was so horrendous that he latches on to free spirits so easily, the smell of puberty hanging in his nostrils. He's never been lecherous with kids though, always assuming the role of protective older brother or Cool Dad™. He doesn't want to see his young friend lose her innocence to Brian Jones (ugh, c'mon Don. He's gonna die soon! Let her have her fun!). Maybe he sees a bit of future Sally in her. I mean, I hope so. Sally better end up at Woodstock!
This week we also meet Michael Ginsberg, a young copywriter who Peggy is conflicted about bringing into the office. He's talented, he's young, he's provocative, and he's kind of off the wall. On one hand, Peggy wants a gold star or bringing something fresh to SCDP. On the other, I think what Stan said about competition rings true in the back of her mind. Peggy is still very young, but any male with talent offers a threat to her. Especially if he's an oddball who could get her in trouble with at-times-stuffy Don. It's easy to see her struggling with this decision, but in the end I think the right choice was made and Michael is brought on to the SCDP team. And later, when he announces the news to his father, it's easy to see that he's a good guy.
Throughout the rest of the episode, Betty wrestles with the mortality issue, prompting public crying fits, a random sex attack on Henry, and a weird death dream reminiscent of the bizarre subconscious world she entered when she was pregnant with Gene. It's times like these that make it hard for me to hate Betty. She's done so many things I disagree with but at the end of the day I realize she is a profoundly sad woman, a lost child who never really had a chance to grow up because her emotional growth was stunted in caring for the irresponsible man-child that is Don Draper.
Last season when Betty reached out to Sally's child psychologist, it made more sense than Sally herself getting any help. Betty is alone, Betty is scared, and so Betty acts out. And as a woman who has spent most of her life as an elaborately made-up stoic ice queen, someone who has mainly benefited from her looks, the thought of being unattractive is, to Betty, the kiss of death. So, even when she does receive the news that her tumor is benign, she's still stuck in a prison.
At its core, this was an episode about the fear of being replaced, about not being needed anymore. It's about that intrinsic need to be better than those who came before us and hopefully, be good enough to beat out the ones that come after. Yes, time is on Megan's side, but what about Betty? Whether you're worried you're becoming unattractive, or your time is running out, these thoughts are always laying low in the back of your brain. It's sad to hear Roger reminiscing about Pete as a kid, helping him onto the swings, because really, Roger has become pretty useless. Dealing with that form of mortality is nothing easy.
This episode was a prime example of why I love Mad Men. It's not just a show about the glossy aesthetics of the 1960s, something the Playboy Club and PAN-AM tried to tap into but failed with because there was something they forgot: the fact that actual human beings lie beneath that gloss, and those human beings aren't always beautiful. Mad Men recognizes that we're all pretty ugly inside. We're all fighting to be better, to be the best, and to feel needed.