by Meredith O'Brien
*Warning, spoilers ahead from the Mad Men season finale.*
First and foremost let me say this: I’m a huge Mad Men  fan. I frequently blog about it  and review each episode the day after it airs. Perceived its fourth season, which just concluded this past week, as exquisite, thought-provoking and brilliant. But I’ve got two problems with my beloved show’s most recent season:
I hate that Betty Draper Francis has been turned into an unlikable villain who was afforded no truly relatable moments. Plus I’m supremely annoyed that it appeared as though in the season finale Don Draper impulsively proposed marriage to his 25-year-old, bikini-wearing secretary (in season two Don scolded his ex-wife, saying her bikini made her look “desperate”) instead of getting engaged to his girlfriend Dr. Faye -- the professional consumer researcher and someone who’s much closer to Don’s age -- based on how well each woman handled his kids.
First the Betty problem: During the series’ first three seasons, Betty was a tragic, sympathetic character, the trapped songbird in a gilded cage, the betrayed wife of the philandering Don who put up with his lies about his serial cheating and even about his very identity. Clearly damaged by her childhood – where her mother taught her that her good looks, never mind her college education, were crucial to her success in life – Betty was a rather cold parent with her children. She once pulled her daughter Sally by the ponytail and shoved her into a hall closet after she caught her smoking a cigarette. She told her eldest son that “only boring people are bored,” suggesting he bang his head against a wall if he had nothing better to do. She essentially ignored her children’s emotional needs, only dealing with them when they inconvenienced her, and frequently urged the kids to “go watch TV” in times of tension while she chain-smoked and drank wine. But you always knew that inside, Betty was struggling. She was given a full story so viewers could understand, though not necessarily excuse, her behavior.
Then this season came along, picking up a year later after Betty had divorced Don and married an older Henry Francis only to learn that things weren’t working out the way she’d hoped they would. The change hadn’t made her any happier. But instead of showing, with any degree of depth, what Betty’s life was truly like now or explaining what was going on inside her head, Betty became a one-dimensional maternal horror show, forcing food into Sally’s mouth in front of her new husband’s family during Thanksgiving dinner, making her daughter gag, then pinching her as she dragged Sally away from the dining room table. When Sally, unhappy with her parents’ divorce, craved attention and cut her own hair, Betty slapped the girl hard across the face as Don, Henry and her son Bobby looked on. In the season finale, a jealous Betty rashly fired the children’s nanny Carla upon learning that Carla had allowed into the house a teen boy, who’d doted on Betty in previous years (had even kept a lock of Betty’s hair in a treasure box) but had now begun to dote on Sally. Betty was portrayed as so petulantly green-eyed that it was the boy’s sudden attention to Sally, not the pleas of her husband and her ex-husband, that prompted her to agree to move to a new house.
Viewers were hard-pressed to feel a modicum of sympathy for Betty this season, which annoyed me because, no matter how bad Betty had behaved as a mother in past seasons, you had always seen multiple sides of her which humanized her pain and deep melancholy. You’d see how the lessons her mother instilled in her – about how looks and being a “good” wife were the key to happiness – had left her wondering why she was miserable all the time. New York Magazine  writer Emily Nussbaum likewise questioned Betty’s treatment throughout the season, observing: “While the ladies around her bloom, Betty hardens. Her character . . . gets even icier, vainer, more alien – nearly camp at times, like some hissable Barbie with the most cake.”
Matthew Weiner, the creator/writer and all around Mad Men guru, was asked by a different New York Magazine  writer why it seems “like there are no good mothers on Mad Men.” Weiner responded thusly: “Wow, that’s kind of harsh. The question of Betty Draper’s motherhood is very peculiar to me. Because we were all raised by women like this. And I know it’s easy to hate her and think she seems childish and impulsive. We’re all here because of women like that.” We were all raised by women like this. Really? Betty’s behavior this past season was indeed characterized as selfishly abysmal by most critics and it aggrieves me to think to think that her behavior, particularly this season, is indicative of how Weiner thinks mothers, or at least of mothers from that era, raised their children. The least they could’ve done would’ve been to blunt Betty’s sharp edges by giving her more time to make her seem like she was still made of flesh and blood.
Weiner’s views on motherhood extended to my second major gripe about season four: That Don picked Megan as his second wife, seemingly because she’s young and nonplussed by kids’ rambunctious behavior. He even likened her to Maria von Trapp. The New York Times’  Ginia Bellafante noted that there was something “thoroughly Freudean” about Don selecting Megan and not Faye as his future wife, writing, “What Don . . . wanted in the end was a woman who he believed would serve as a warm maternal presence not only for his alienated children, but also for himself.” She also added, “Whether it intended to or not, the show hasn’t merely commented on the reactionary gender politics of the 1960s and ‘70s; it has also embraced them, exacting vengeance on Faye for her lack of maternal instinct and visiting cruelties on Betty for her horrific one . . . Women live and die by their value as mothers, the series tells us.” This is ironic given that the lead character’s mother was a prostitute who died while giving birth to him and he wound up being deposited on his father’s doorstep and raised by his father’s wife after his alcoholic father died.
In season one, Don told Betty that she was a better mother than “anyone else in the world,” adding, “I would’ve given anything to have had a mother like you, beautiful and kind and filled with love, like an angel.” And at the end of season four, he was trying to replace that once beautiful, kind, angelic ideal of a mother with a younger, happier version while the original model morphed into a dejected Disney ice queen who doesn’t like not being the fairest one of all when she looks in the mirror. How very sad.