This week Mad Men delivers one of its more mediocre episodes of the season. Is the return of Betty (January Jones) to blame?
Let’s take a closer look after the jump.
Jones’ acting talents have been somewhat lauded in the popular press, but when she first appeared this season in ‘Tea Leaves’ as a heftier version of her former self, the novelty of the weight gain shifted the focus off of Jones’ performance. This week, however, I don’t believe the costumes and makeup can conceal as much as it did last time. Betty continues to be one of the weakest characters in the show, and Jones unfortunately does nothing to help Betty out of that predicament.
We finally get to witness first-hand Betty’s jealousy at Don (Jon Hamm) and Megan’s (Jessica Paré) wedded bliss. When Betty comes to pick up the kids, she not only sees their fabulous apartment, but also catches a glimpse of the young and slender Megan as she changes in the bedroom. To rub some salt in the wounds, Megan tenderly kisses the children goodbye before they depart. Looks like Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) was right last week – Megan is just one of those women who is good at everything. But rather than give a more nuanced and layered treatment to Betty’s struggle with the green-eyed monster, we go right back to the one-dimensional Betty that none of us cares about. She uses Sally (Kiernan Shipka) and her family tree project as a way to drive a rift between the Don and the ‘lovely’ Megan, by telling Sally that her dad has in fact been married three times, not two. She casually says, “I don’t know why Megan didn’t tell you,” hoping (and momentarily succeeding) to breakup the budding friendship between her daughter and stepmother. It’s such a callous move and when Sally does lash out at Megan for keeping Don’s first marriage a secret, she takes on very Betty-like qualities. I couldn’t help but shudder at the thought that Sally might permanently turn into a Betty-clone.
When Megan tells Don about the seed that Betty’s planted, he’s furious, picking up the phone to tell her to stick her “fat nose” elsewhere. Megan calms him down, saying that lashing out at Betty gives her exactly what she wants. He puts down the phone and gently takes Megan’s hand. Despite their swift marriage, and the subsequent problems they’ve been having because of it, I do hope that they make it. Megan is very good for Don (the same can’t be said for the reverse), but even knowing that, I hold out hope that these two might actually make it.
Eventually, Don scolds Sally for acting like a mini-Betty to Megan, but in the midst it, manages to honestly tell Sally about his first wife Anna. Say what you will about Don’s parenting style, but I think it’s effective how he simultaneously treats Sally like a little girl, but still occasionally talks to her like a young adult. And thankfully, with her father’s stern treatment of her, Sally knows when she’s being manipulated by her mother and refuses to play into this game. Sally reports back to Betty that the Drapers fully shared the information about Anna, much to Betty’s dismay. So while Sally experienced some character growth, Betty is right back where she began. Her trip to the Weight Watchers meeting further echoes this. Betty hasn’t lost any weight, but she hasn’t gained any either – and apparently “maintaining” is the hardest thing to do. Not only is Betty meticulously measuring and weighing her food portions as we explicitly see in the episode’s opening, she’s doing the same kind of calculating as she tries to measure her life against the perceived happiness of the Drapers. Ultimately, this leads to neither gaining, nor losing, but remaining static – or in Betty’s case – stagnant.
And that’s exactly how I would describe not only Betty as a character, but Jones’ portrayal of her: stagnant. There’s just no depth behind any of Betty’s emotions – it all seems to be laid out and barren. I have no desire to discover what may lie beneath, because I’m convinced that there’s nothing there. The Betty scenes really deflate the momentum of the episode as a whole, despite presenting issues that had the potential to explore really interesting places.
The rest of the episode wasn’t necessarily anything to phone home about either. Ultimately, I felt like the remaining characters echoed Betty’s childish attitude of wanting something and then whining when they couldn’t get exactly what they wanted. Let’s take a quick survey:
- Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) was upset that Don literally discarded his idea for Pepsi’s Sno Ball. It was meant to be a head to head between Ginsberg’s idea and Don’s – letting the client decide who would be triumphant. Fortunately for Don, being creative director has it’s perks and he decided last minute to ditch Ginsberg’s idea altogether. Ginsberg may have had the stronger idea, but the fact of the matter is that Don successfully pitched his own, and SCDP won the business. Ultimately it’s irrelevant whose idea was better. Yes, it’s unfair, but it’s business – and Ginsberg needs to see the big picture rather than thinking of himself.
- Peggy echoes the narcissism thread in the episode when she gets upset at Roger (John Slattery) for asking Ginsberg to work for him ad hoc instead of her. She already milked some significant cash out of Roger a few weeks ago. She needs to spread the wealth. Roger even fires back at her with a “Were we married?” retort when she confronts him. Ultimately she comes off looking like a whiny kid mumbling, “I can write for any audience.” Yes…that’s why Don primarily picked out 90% of Ginsberg’s stuff when he was developing the agency’s portfolio instead of Peggy’s. Peggy has made significant gains in her career and it’s about time she stopped being so insecure about it. It’s starting to show.
- Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) started off on cloud nine when the New York Times spoke to him and him alone about profiling SCDP. But when the agency fails to make the final cut, Pete calls Don early on a Sunday morning whining and looking for comfort.
What I thought was the best part of the episode, and what defied the whining theme, was Roger’s arc. There’s a kind of transparency that I appreciate in Roger that’s happened after his LSD trip a couple episodes ago. He convinces soon-to-be ex-wife, Jane (Peyton List) to accompany him to a client-smooze dinner. When he sees the son of the potential client flirting with Jane, he’s quick to reclaim her in her new apartment. Oblivious to Jane’s attempts to escape any reminder of her and Roger, he cheerfully gets ready for work the next morning as she sits despondently on the couch. He’s ruined yet another apartment for her by creating new memories. It finally hits Roger that he’s only been thinking of himself, and gives her a sincere apology. Roger may be no better than everyone else, but at least he’s known it right from the get-go that it’s every man for himself.
So Mad Men-ers, what did you think of this week’s episode? Were you glad to see Betty back? What did you think of the old Don, advertising genius, reclaiming his throne? Do you think Peggy will be the instigator of her own undoing? Sound off in the comments section below.
Mad Men airs Sundays at 10pm EST on AMC