If last week’s Mad Men swan song for Joan was a combination of triumph and tragedy, the show’s crushing farewell to Betty Draper Francis this week seemed like it was supposed to strike the same tone. Betty may be going out, but she’s doing so on her own terms, dictating how pretty she wants to look in her casket and refusing the kind of treatment that she believes may prolong her life for a few month but won’t improve its quality. Her mournful yet determined climb up the stairs at the college where she’s taking classes was the symbolic capstone to this theme, a testament to her indomitable will, the very quality she brings up with pride in her less than warm, but oddly satisfying, chat with Sally.
Betty has never been a universally popular figure with Mad Men viewers, to put it mildly. In particular, her shame-reliant parenting of Sally in the early years demonstrated that a modern audience will forgive accidental murder, identity theft, philandering, boozing, and lying more quickly than a failure of motherhood. “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,” Anne Helen Petersen writes, arguing that Betty is a “difficult woman,” a female counterpart to these antiheroes who isn’t accepted by viewers because of our sexism. Her instructions to Sally, a mix of vanity and love, are her version of dying in a heroic shootout.
Betty is indeed a compelling character, and was necessary to the show for much of its early run — a woman of her time, trained to be reactive rather than proactive, to subsume her own desires, to ignore her intellect, with the result that she lashes out passive aggressively and lives disappointedly.
But since Betty and Don divorced (at her instigation, blindsiding him), the show has fumbled many of her chances to shine as a character, from a previous cancer scare to her friendship with a commune-seeking runaway to her political disagreements with Henry, peaking with the much-loathed “Fat Betty” plot. A contemporary woman’s struggle over food and control issues is an interesting topic to explore, but the way it was done — with an eye-catching fat suit — seemed to shame Betty for her body rather than indicting society’s shaming of women for same. Throughout these ups and downs, Matthew Weiner has defended Betty the character and January Jones the actress against audience frustrations. Yet the more I think about it, the more I think that Weiner is killing off Betty to remind us that we care about her, despite all the hate, to prove that we’ve connected with her: “Betty Hofstadt/Draper/Francis moved us because she earned her place, because Mad Men needed her,” James Poniewozik argues at Time.
This may have been effective in bringing out fans’ hankies, but what a manipulative thing for the writers do to the viewers, and to the character. Surely there was a way to make us understand that we cared about Betty without simply offing her, with little buildup, in the second to last episode.
Betty Draper Francis was a promising character, and deserved more than to be used as a Rorschach test for the audience’s feminism, or a measuring stick for the limits of our empathy, which is too often the purpose she served. I relished her choice to go back to school and study psychology, of all things, because even if it was misguided, it was an action that actually sprung from her own impulses, and felt organically weird. The show could and probably should have left her there, mostly in her old world but partly in the new, and used someone else’s body to demonstrate the perils of smoking.
As it is, we’ll miss Betty while wishing the show had made something better of her in its later seasons.