Virtually all of the speculation in the media about what will happen in the last episode of AMC’s “Mad Men” (set for May 17) swirls around the fate of its iconic central character.
As in … What is going to happen to Don Draper?
I’m as curious to learn the answer to that question as everyone else. But my big concern at the moment, though not wholly disconnected from the fate of the former Dick Whitman, is somewhat different.
I want to know … What is going to happen to Betty Francis?
Despite the formidable distractions of Upfront Week, which feels increasingly unnecessary in the Age of Twitter (check out #Upfronts2015 to see why), it seems that everyone everywhere (or at least in the media business) is obsessed with the end of “Man Men,” in every way a reflective work of profound intelligence wholly unlike any other drama series I can think of. I’ll bet you feel that way about it, too. It has been an important part of my life since its 2007 debut; in fact, since that time I don’t think an entire week has gone by during which I have not thought about one moment or another (or many) from this challenging show.
My aching curiosity about Betty doesn’t seem to be shared when I talk about “Mad Men” with the many extraordinary television critics I consider to be friends or the many ordinary friends (outside of the media) who are themselves capable of extraordinary criticism, especially about TV. But right now, for me, it is top of mind.
I have always appreciated Betty for a variety of reasons, but this renewed fascination with her started a couple of episodes back when Glen Bishop (played by Marten Weiner, son of series’ creator Matthew Weiner) – now in every way a young man – showed up at the Francis house looking for Betty’s daughter Sally and told her that he had enlisted in the Army, meaning he would soon be sent to Vietnam. Sally didn’t take it well. But it was Betty’s response to Glen that grabbed me and instantly became one of my favorite moments from this last season, and perhaps from the entire run of “Mad Men.” Betty, at first, didn’t recognize him!
“Mad Men” had done it again, delivering a somewhat awkward, unarguably realistic exchange between two people the likes of which we hadn’t seen before on TV, at least in primetime. All kinds of weird shit goes down between young adults we first met as kids and the grownups in their lives on daytime dramas, but none of it really means anything or prompts the viewer to reflect on the passing of time and the loss of innocence in his or her own life. In mere seconds, this Betty and Glen moment did exactly that.
I’m so glad Glen was among the many characters from past seasons of “Mad Men” meaningfully and purposefully brought back during these final episodes. (If anyone from the former SC&P runs into Sal Romano somewhere in New York City, my satisfaction will be complete.) I say that because the relationship in Season One between Betty and Glen -- when he was only nine years old -- was as unforgettable as it was uncomfortable.
My one big gripe with “Mad Men” has to do with the inexplicable downsizing or marginalizing or status reduction or whatever you want to call it of Betty after the show’s first few seasons, each of them having been filled with amazing Betty goodness. (Plus, who wouldn’t want to watch January Jones in this role as often and for as long as possible?)
Unlike many stay at home suburban wives and mothers in the Fifties and Sixties, Betty seemed to have it all – a handsome and successful husband, a gorgeous home in a desirable neighborhood, beautiful children, etc. – but inside she was almost boiling over in frustration on every level and dealing with the subsequent depression that results from an inability to express oneself or share one’s problems. Think of Betty and the pigeons! Betty and the washing machine! Betty and all those cigarettes! And especially Betty and her strange, almost mystical encounters with little Glen.
Glen’s return had me reaching for my Season One DVD set to see how that particularly bizarre relationship began. It was as fascinatingly creepy as I remembered. Primarily, I wanted to find the scene in which Betty comes upon Glen sitting in a car in a parking lot and tearfully telling this odd child how unhappy she was.
Their exchange went like this:
Betty: “Glen, I can’t talk to anyone. It’s so horrible. I’m so sad. Please tell me I’ll be okay.”
Glen: “I don’t know. I wish I was older.”
The other Betty and Glen scenes were equally attention grabbing: Glen walking in on Betty while she’s in the bathroom, Glen telling Betty he wants some of her hair, Betty clipping off a lock for him and, later, Glen’s mother expressing her disgust at Betty’s behavior with Glen and slapping her.
As I watched Season One in its entirety (for the first time since 2007) I ended up falling for Betty all over again and missing her as if the show were already over – and also being somewhat annoyed at the decision years ago to have the Drapers split up and get a divorce. Several seasons of riveting dysfunction in the Don and Betty marriage would have been more satisfying than anything I can recall from the Don and Megan relationship, which didn’t amount to much in the end. (Thinking back, Megan should have been the repeat mistress but never the wife.) Consider the time when a long-divorced Don and Betty hit the sheets at their son’s summer camp in season six or the quality of their sweet connection in last week’s episode when Don stopped by the Francis home looking for Sally but ended up chatting with Betty in the kitchen while he gently massaged her shoulders exactly the way she liked it. Even more telling was Betty asking Don to stop. Did she do that out of respect for her husband Henry or to prevent something more from happening?
Everyone will be writing everything they can about this show as it moves towards its May 17 finale. The empty space when it ends may prove to be even larger than the one created when “Breaking Bad” ran its course.
I highly recommend a rerun binge of Season One for anyone feeling the impending or aftermath loss of “Mad Men.” Then as now, it remains a masterful work and a thing of great beauty.
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