Betty is back. It’s good to have Betty back. And Betty is fat. Therefore, Betty has become real; as real as any other woman in America, struggling with her weight.
January Jones, who plays Betty, is fortunate that Matthew Weiner had the brilliance to use her pregnancy as fodder for a very interesting character transition: he shows us a “real” woman, a woman who can’t keep up the manikin look; she’s someone we can care about; someone with issues, someone not perfect. Someone who refuses to go to a party with her increasingly-annoying husband because her dress won’t zip. Nothing of her old character fits anymore.
Betty must also wait for biopsy results. Betty is asking herself questions about death, about her life, about what it all means. Her friend, Joyce, who she meets when having her biopsy, is having radiation in the other room. Joyce tells Betty that she might be saying no to Joyce’s lunch invitation but she really wants to go. Betty agrees. She has the intelligence to realize Joyce is right. Their lunch is crucial to the success of this episode. Finally we have a character who is allowed to speak of what cancer is really like. And we owe it to Betty, who has the guts to ask Joyce what few people ask cancer patients: “what is it like”? Well, to paraphrase Joyce, and to agree with her as well, it’s like being left to drift in the middle of the ocean, all alone, struggling, because our instinct is to do so, but, as we do so, the world gets further and further away. We may be trying to stay part of what we are told is daily life, but we get so tired sometimes, we just want to give in and give up. There is nothing like a heart to heart with another woman, an honest woman, that is.
Not only is Betty becoming real; Don Draper is becoming real. He truly cares about Betty. He wants her to be well. He cares about his children. Unfortunately, he is living in a ridiculously large apartment, whose decor represents, once again, The American Dream, a man with no past, just a blank future ahead, and no present. Megan, the fashion accessory he calls his wife, is useless. Sure, she’s able to get her dress zipped up, unlike Betty, and, unlike Betty, who is too embarrassed to go to her second husband’s business meetings, because her clothes don’t fit, Megan goes to all of Don’s business meetings; in fact, she goes anywhere he’ll take her; that’s what a fashion accessory does. But, unlike, Betty, she lacks class and blurts out that Don’s divorced, which was not a small thing at that time, especially to a client who’s been with his wife since high school. But this client is talking about The Rolling Strones, anyway. People are lossening up. Everyone is losening up but Don Draper. And that’s why I love him. No aging rock star is he.
Roger Sterling’s not an aging rock star either. But he’s filled with resentment and his writers have decided to turn him into a bigot; a bigot with a vaudeville act of irrelevant one liners. His vaudeville act isn’t working. He’s still questioning Don about hiring a black secretary. “She was the most qualified,” says Don, not caring one way or another, which is refreshing in this era of P.C. Roger does, however, insist on hiring a Jew. “It makes us seem more modern,” he says, “everyone has one.” He thinks having a Jew on board will ingratiate him to Jewish clients. I don’t think Don knows the difference. That’s what I like about him.
I also like that Don’s black secretary’s name is Dawn. Harry, the most annoying character on the show, makes a big deal about the Don/ Dawn thing to Dawn; telling her how the office can’t tell them apart, due to their similar-sounding names, showing the discomfort people have around those they fear are “other” than. Nice touch.
What Roger doesn’t realize, is that bringing a Jew into the office doesn’t make them modern; it brings in the fact that Jews have a history. True, they might wear plaid suits to a job interview, tell the jokes Jews are stereotypically expected to tell; Peggy doesn’t seem to get “the Jew”(‘s) reference to Hitler: the ultimate Jewish joke, meaning “not funny.” Michael Ginsburg, the token Jew who joins the token “Negro,” as blacks were called in the mid-60s, returns to a dark tenement apartment where his father is reading the obituaries. This is familiar territory for Jews. The father says a prayer over his son, either as a blessing, because of his son’s new job, or because his son did not respond to his father’s quip about women; we don’t know the motivating factor for his father prayers. Regardless, whoever was in charge of spot checking neglected to put a yarmulke on the father while he was praying. This was a big mistake.
But back to Don. He’s no longer picking up young girls at rock concerts. He worries about them, instead. He’s not averse to growing old. He’s letting it happen. “You’re so square you have corners,” says his obnoxious wife, Megan. Poor Don. Going to Fire Island with her, to meet her friends, who are probably like her: it’s too much to bear. I think she was wearing a bra for an entire scene. Maybe it was a bathing suit. I have no way of knowing. But I can’t imagine him putting up with her for much longer. She clearly represents the vapid rise of whatever it is the 60s is about, according to Hollywood. We, the audience, know what it looks like in retrospect. “Mod” and “groovy” are not words we use anymore. But Megan seems to be trying to become the definition of these things.
It is all a question of values and personal integrity. Isn’t it?
When Betty thinks she might be dying, she holds her little son close, smells his hair with the type of joy and gratitude only the dying know. The smile on her face is profound. She has found what she loves. It is here, on her lap, in the feel of her little son, needing her protection.
Betty has a vision of leaving her family. Betty sees an empty cup in front of her baby son. Her overbearing, overweight mother-in-law is feeding the family pancakes. Betty says she’s hungry in this vision, not yet realizing this is taking place after she dies, but Sally makes sure no one can sit in Betty’s chair, not even Betty. Betty apologies to her daughter, Sally, as Sally storms out of the room. Sally, of course, can’t hear her. Betty has never treated her daughter with more tenderness. “I’m so sorry, Sweetheart.”
Unlike Don’s brightly-lit home of sharp angles, Betty’s home is dark, and timeless, filled with wood paneling and colors much like those found in nature. Its architecture speaks of endurance and continuity. Too bad her husband, Henry, lives there. He not only doesn’t tell Betty that Don called to ask about her; he makes fun of Romney’s father. There are many problems with this. I won’t even mention the fact that Hollywood is frighteningly uniform in terms of “acceptable” political views. In terms of story, Henry’s political commentary, leading us back to the current day politics we seek to avoid for a while by watching this show, takes us out of the story. We are waiting to hear about Betty’s biopsy. If we wanted to hear jabs against Romney, we could turn on any other channel to find them. I’m sure there were viewers who did exactly that.
When Betty learns her tumor is benign, she’s not exactly happy. There is something appealing about giving up. Don Draper has always known this. And I’d say Jon Ham, who directed this episode, knew exactly how to direct Don Draper, who isn’t Jon Hamm, though who could possibly know Don Draper better than Jon Hamm? Jon Hamm succeeded in finally showing us what a truly compassionate man Don Draper is. He is a man worth watching.