SONIA BRAND-FISHER: For the first time in the entire series of “Mad Men,” I feel unrestrained and sincere sympathy for Betty Hofstadt Draper Francis. All of our jaws dropped when the svelte Grace Kelly look-a-like we have all come to know faded into memory and a larger, older looking woman stands in her place. The weight on Betty, literally and metaphorically speaking, shows us more of her sadness and unending predicament of helplessness. Though her cancer scare could have read as an extraneous plot device to reinforce Betty’s vulnerability, I think her scare had an entirely different plot motive. When Don called her “Birdie” over the phone, I almost cried. I like when Don and Betty aren’t yelling at each other. I believe that there is still love there, I’m not sure in what form, but I do kind of miss it. As Roger Sterling asks, “When is everything going to be back to normal?” A solid “never” seems fair, but the peeks into the past for Betty and Don don’t have to go away just yet.
Throughout every season on “Mad Men,” we have seen Betty rag on the kids, chastise Don (rightly), chastise Don (wrongly), and represent Betty Friedan’s “feminine mystique” with haunting consistency. We have seen her lapse into mini-hallucinatory technicolor dream sequences and icily fire Carla, the children’s nanny, at the end of Season 4. One always knew that, really, she was a very pitiful character in her own way, but her glamorous exterior and all around nastiness made her very easy to hate. In this episode, however, there is pathos in her very move because the audience is so jarred by the image of her with a significant amount of weight on her. She doesn’t look bad, per se, but she just looks shockingly different than the Betty that we have known. For a woman whose entire life and entire previous marriage was based on appearances, letting something like her figure go reinforces how different things are now, and how different things have been for her. Something as relatively insignificant as the sight of her back as she gets out of the bath reads as monstrous and ungraceful in comparison to the woman who would sulk around her house in last night’s polka-dot chiffon. The cancer scare worked, for me, in the way that it touched upon her fear of insignificance and unimportance. The Godfather-esque dream sequence was haunting and heart-breaking in the way that it looked at a world without Betty through her own highly dramatized perception. The last image we see of her is when she is finishing Sally’s ice cream in her pastel kitchen while “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” swirls us around into the credits. She is totally and utterly alone, stuffing herself senseless with sweetness in order to get through the day to day.
Within the halls of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, however, I am extremely curious to see where the new character of Michael Ginsberg is going to go. He is very mysterious, eager, and interesting, but is just a diversity hire in Roger Sterling’s eyes and a stampede over Don’s eggshells to Peggy. The glimpse at the end of the episode into his home life and his father with the very heavy Yiddish accent, I hope, will make for some really fascinating insights and encounters. I am also intrigued with what a few choice exchanges and the teaser trailer for next week’s episode is trying to hint about Roger and Peggy. Something that didn’t cross my mind, at least, though I have to say… I wouldn’t really mind if they had a little something out of a mutual hate for Pete Campbell. Does that make me a bad person?
This season is shaping up to be truly extraordinary. So many angles are being taken so that if a twist does arise, it won’t be gimmicky, but deliciously tense. I’m so excited.
HOWARD MEGDAL: A few quibbles, but I enjoyed this episode of Mad Men a great deal.
Sonia’s a nicer person than I am. Seeing Betty Draper Francis bulk up felt like nothing less than karmic retribution for a woman who had done untold damage to her kids, provided no reason for Don to invest emotionally in the marriage, and had made even her savior, the well-meaning Henry Francis, utterly miserable. So along comes food to take away Betty’s one gift prematurely. Seemed about right to me.
And I didn’t take the cancer scare as any device to force us to feel for Betty. Quite the opposite. It looked like a chance for Betty herself to take a good look at what she’d leave behind. The answer was actually forced upon her by the fortune teller, whose statements about her clearly came from a desire to celebrate Opposite Day- and to see Betty realize it was emotionally epic, I thought.
Anyway, seeing Sally avoid overeating while her mother kept packing on the pounds was enormously satisfying. Does that make me cruel? Perhaps. But are we forgetting how Betty treats pretty much everyone when she doesn’t need something? Revenge is a dish best served out of your daughter’s ice cream bowl, apparently.
As for Michael Ginsberg, I like a Jew as much as the next guy, but so far, he feels a little like a character out of Brighton Beach Memoirs dropped into Mad Men, and I am curious how the sensibilities will coalesce. Open to it, but not ready to commit to the fit just yet.
I would be remiss not to point out this deconstruction of Henry’s George Romney line- considering that this took place in the summer of 1966, though, a full year before Romney’s brainwashing comment, all I could think was how much better Henry was at forecasting political futures than he was at picking wives. (Not that John Lindsay found any more success in the presidential realm, of course. Too bad for Henry he didn’t hook up with the rehabilitating Richard Nixon in New York around this time.)
My hopes for next week: an ever-fatter Betty, more Peggy-as-boss, and can we have some additional Trudy and Pete Campbell interplay, please?!? But I’m being picky. Mad Men is every bit as great as it’s always been. Do what you will, Matthew Weiner.