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She wasn’t the perfect mom. Maybe she was the anti-mom. But I loved Betty Draper for all her contradictions and imperfections. And she doesn’t deserve her fate.
If you’re a longtime fan of Betty Draper, raise your hand! No takers? OK, I admit Betty has a lot of flaws. A lot of big flaws.
The harsh taskmaster of a mother. The status-seeker. The social climber. The woman who demanded to be treated as an equal, at least within the confines of marriage, in a time of inequality. The mom that didn’t mind if Sally played with a dry cleaning bag over her head or if all Bobby had for lunch was gum drops. She’s the anti-mom who threatened to cut off Sally’s fingers when she found out her child was “exploring” herself and then locked her in a closet for smoking a cigarette.
She’s the woman who shot birds wearing a pink peignoir. Which, in a way, makes her something of a bad-ass.
But to be honest, as I think back over seven seasons of Mad Men, there haven’t been many traditionally likable mom moments for Betty. Even so, I felt a connection to Betty in a “sometimes she’s just misunderstood” sort of way.
(SPOILER ALERT — Stop reading now if you’re not caught up on Season Seven!!)
So as we come to the end of the story for Betty and all her Mad Men compatriots, it’s not all that surprising that she’s mellowed a bit. Who can keep up their collective heightened sense of constant overwhelming anxiety over a decade in TV character years? But Betty, most of all, needs a little rest. Keeping up her special level of resentment, bitterness and Schadenfreude has to be exhausting.
Finally, on the verge of 1970, at a moment in her life where she doesn’t have a baby on her hip and she’s finally distanced herself from Don’s drama (for the most part) she can actually see the light at the end of the domestication tunnel and can become her own woman again.
Except that within moments of realizing that Betty seems a little softer around the edges than in past seasons, Betty learns that all she is getting, for all her pain and sacrifice, is the end of the tunnel — no light; just black, dark and final. Karmic punishment of the bad mom? Or, as one reviewer suggests, do we need her death in order to find something likable about her?
She’s a character that many people pitied — a caricature of a housewife of a certain era who had no options other than to stay in ‘burbs, raise the kids, drink too much wine and smoke too many cigarettes, throw some dinner parties and forget any budding Feminine Mystique-type ideas they might have had before walking down the aisle.
What a waste. What a pity.
But Betty never wanted our pity. And now, at the end, she still doesn’t want it. She wants what she’s always wanted — what she’s always felt she deserved — the respect that she lost when she fell into the life she was told she was supposed to want; a life that we knew in each season wasn’t the one she ever wanted.
I didn’t expect anyone to get a happily ever after as Mad Men comes to a close, but of all the characters who really deserved a tiny shred happiness, it was Betty — because it was Betty who covered for all of Don’s lies and misdirections, because it was Betty who tried to play the perfect Stepford Wife to fit the role assigned her, and because it was Betty who seemed at peace with the kind of mother she was and wasn’t, but who was also trying to find her way in a time of major social upheaval, especially for women.
Maybe Betty’s fate is more commentary about a view of certain women as mothers, rather than an indictment of Betty herself. Is her startlingly unexpected diagnosis and prognosis a statement about what some people think should happen to women who dare to be themselves — good or bad, kind or unkind, accepting of or railing against the norm — and who don’t expect or want our approval or our pity?
Whether we like them on a personal level or not, the complicated Betty Drapers of the world are the kind of women who shake things up when our times call for some domestic upheaval.