Doing Divorce in Prime-Time.
by Meredith O'Brien
They’re some of the more difficult scenes to watch: Those involving the depiction of children experiencing the impact of their parents’ divorce. In the season finale of Mad Men last year, set in 1963, Don and Betty Draper had to sit their two young children, Sally and Bobby, down and tell them they were divorcing. It was a raw, heart-rending scene: Sally accused her father of lying when he had told his children that he’d always be there for them. She stormed away, feeling angry, betrayed, scared. The younger child, Bobby started sobbing and wrapped his arms around his father’s legs and begged him not to leave. “Nobody wants to do this,” Don said as he lifted Bobby up and held him in a firm clench as he held back his own tears and his wife, who had wanted the divorce, covered her face.
A handful of episodes into the new season of Mad Men, where it has just turned 1965, Betty is married to another man and is living with him and her children in the house she shared with Don, months past the time when Betty and her husband were supposed to have moved out, according to the divorce decree. The kids are miserable in this house where, as Sally put it, she kept expecting to see her father around every corner. But he’s not there.
Betty, who doesn’t seem very happy in her marriage, is frequently shown berating her daughter. She even humiliated the girl in front of her new mother-in-law during Thanksgiving dinner by shoving food into Sally’s mouth, which Sally spit out onto the plate. (Betty led Sally away from the table and pinched her.) Later, Sally, feeling powerless, tried to sneak off to call her father on the telephone, but her mother caught her and warned her not to tell Don what’d happened at Thanksgiving. Meanwhile Don has been floundering, lost, despondent, mostly drunk and frequently frustrated from being prevented from seeing his children, who are caught between their new family and staying overnight in their dad’s small, dark bachelor pad with a father who’s lost his moorings.
While observing the difficult emotional costs wrought by the Draper divorce -- particularly watching the children cope with it -- I started thinking about families, divorce and television shows. Though I think the superb TV show Once and Again, which ran from 1999-2002 and starred Sela Ward, was THE definitive show which deftly and searingly dramatized how the aftershocks from a divorce can rock a family, there are several current programs, in addition to Mad Men, which are dealing with divorce with varying degrees of success and emotional depth.