I woke up in the middle of last night mourning Betty Draper Francis’ imminent death. Which is a surprise, because there are so many ways to dislike her: She’s manipulative and selfish, old-fashioned and naive, superficial and silly. She slaps her children. She withholds her affection. She makes Don — absent, absent-minded Don — look like the better parent. Her signature look is withering disapproval. What started out as a Grace Kelly bob has hardened into a Pat Nixon helmet head of rigid judgment. She resents her neighbors, hippies, her former best friend, her daughter, Democrats, the hired help, and both her past and current husband. The only thing that makes her deeply, truly happy is talking shit about other women.
But Betty is no villain. Like Tony Soprano, Walter White, former husband Don Draper, and all the so-called “Difficult Men” who dominated the screen for much of the last decade, she’s railing against the societal confines set before her. Her narrative is in some ways just as tragic — and arguably more instructive — than that of any of those men. But Betty won’t go out riddled by gunfire, nor will her narrative suddenly cut to black, allowing the audience to imagine all manner of ambiguous endings. The revelations of the series’ penultimate episode, “The Milk and Honey Route,” suggest she will likely die swiftly and without fanfare of the same disease that would strike down so many of her generation. But that very lack of melodramatic triumph speaks loudly to the quiet ways in which women have inched toward something like progress over the last century.
Soprano, White, and Draper all did horrible things to feel strong and potent and masculine in a society that no longer valued them or their skills. And we forgave them their sins — largely because they are men. Yet in the universe of quality television, women are rarely granted the same opportunities for redemption. A character like Skyler White isn’t acting to preserve her family and her role in the world; instead, she’s a nagging bitch. Even Breaking Bad showrunner Vince Gilligan’s explicit instructions to view Skyler sympathetically didn’t change the way she was figured by the vast majority of the audience: as the impediment to, rather than equally victimized by, Walt’s actions.
In a different narrative with a different set of writers, Betty could have come off similarly. The show comes close in “My Better Half,” near the end of Season 6, when Betty takes Bobby to summer camp. She seems so winning, so beautiful, so warm and at home in her once-again slender body, and when she invites Don back to her cabin, she’s also frank (with herself, with Don) about the limits of that reunion.
Betty sleeps with Don because it felt good to feel in control of him. Don sleeps with Betty because he yearned for a vision of the past. When she leaves the bed silently the next morning, showers, and shows up perfectly coiffed for breakfast with Henry, she barely acknowledges Don’s presence. In that moment, it’s so easy to pity Don, unmoored and alone in the breakfast room: How dare Betty exploit his nostalgia.
Don spends every day attempting to recover from the trauma of his childhood. But Betty spends every day recovering from the quieter, but no less emotionally violent, trauma of her deeply unfulfilling life. It’s hard to remember as much when she’s yelling at Bobby for trading away her sandwich on their field trip — a mistake Bobby should be forgiven for making, as Betty has spent most of her adult life forgoing meals as a means of quiet protest. She’d make food for others, only to hover above them or sit beside them, daring them to acknowledge her suffering.
For Betty, the phrase, “I’m not hungry” doubled as a desperate, subconscious plea for attention — a way of disciplining her body and others. When she forces Bobby to eat his candy, she’s punishing him for his love, his vulnerability, his eagerness to please. Betty used to have those qualities herself, but they were rewarded with duplicitousness and deceit. It’s no wonder she wants to cure her children of them, however painfully.
It’s no accident that Betty finally goes back to school after Glen leaves for war. Betty the child, so confused by her sadness, has matured to Betty the college girl, exhilarated by the new. But this Betty isn’t going to Bryn Mawr to be ensconced in a world of society girls and useless Italian lessons to dream of husbands. She’s learning to take pleasure in the very act of knowledge; when Henry asks her the point of continuing with her studies after her diagnosis, she asks, “Why was I ever doing it?”
When Don commends Betty for finally going back to school, rubbing her neck in support, she shrugs him off, literally and figuratively: She realized months earlier that shouting “I speak Italian, you know” will only provide so much solace. She can’t wait for her husband or her children or anything else that society says should fulfill her to do so — she’s been waiting nearly two decades for that. She has to do it for herself.
The beautiful and infuriating thing about Mad Men, though, is its willingness to allow people to not change. Select few in real life have character epiphanies and three-act emotional growth that actually sticks. Most attempt change, fall back on old behaviors, frustrate themselves and others. The last two seasons have insisted on as much: Some call Don’s relentless pursuit of the same type of woman a sign of bad writing; it’s harder to acknowledge this as a commitment to psychological realism. The same applies to the reveal of Betty’s illness, which harkens back to a similar moment, all the way back in Season 1, when Betty’s husband and doctor decided when and how she should find out information about her body and future.
Which is why Betty’s conversation with Sally deliberately feels so underwhelming. She opens the door to Sally’s bedroom — in a flowy nightgown, with no makeup, her hair relaxed — and you think you’re going to get a moment like the one when Sally rushes home to her mom after her period starts. Something poignant and straight out of Parenthood, where tragedy brings out the sort of clarifying revelations that make everyone, audience included, cry. But when Betty is backed into a corner, her strategy has never been warmth. Like so many women, she battles uncertainty with precise planning, the emotional equivalent of the “life raft” Don accused her of building when their relationship was crumbling.
The letter Betty gives Sally isn’t a Don letter. Don would’ve used a few paragraphs to offer Sally some lingering and significant understanding of himself, his love for her, and Sally’s place in the world. Don’s greatest skill is manufacturing sentiment. But Betty spends a page — a full page! — detailing the manner of her burial. She’s not terrified of dying, but of being presented, in death, in a way that betrays the image of precise propriety she’d spent years cultivating. That image, after all, is her life’s greatest work: No wonder she included a snapshot to make sure Sally didn’t screw it up.
It’s difficult to read Betty’s stilted, deliberate steps up the academic stairs as actual progress. She’s back in her Pat Nixon helmet head, and Sally’s left out at emotional sea. She’s wearing her pearls and a perfect, matching outfit that makes her look just so.
Yet there’s a moment as Betty climbs those stairs when a passing man touches her, says hello, and Betty looks up with a look I’d never seen before: a look of profound nervousness, and an inability for her model-wattage smile to cover it up. She’s vulnerable in a layered way that not even her wine-soaked day in the party dress could quite express. But instead of collapsing into layers of chiffon as she did back in Season 2, she turns the corner of the staircase landing, pauses, looks up, and keeps walking.
Without Betty Draper, there would be no Sally Draper. And while Sally will likely grow up and define herself against much of what her mother seemed to represent, Don’s words from “The Forecast” ring true: “You are like your mother and me. And you’re going to figure that out.” At the time, Sally made a face: Betty was so clearly the villain in the struggle of her teenage life. It’ll take years, as it’s taken us, to understand the truth. Her mother was an antihero: tragic, valiant, and impossibly important.