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Mad Men: Betty's Back, and Harry & Don Go to White Castle

Last night's Mad Men brought us the return of Betty, not one but TWO new SCDP employees, and a bag of mini burgers best consumed in Don's car outside of a Rolling Stones concert.

Peggy shaking hands with Michael, one of the new employees
Is anyone else worried that Peggy might be shaking on more than she bargained for with this guy?

Since we assume you watched the show too—and since there are plenty of summary recaps out there—instead of a straight summary we're picking and choosing parts we find most interesting to talk about each week. Be sure to join in in the comments!

The Return of Betty
I realize this is an increasingly unpopular opinion to have, but I really feel for Betty. Sure, she's cold and distant and not exactly the best mom out there, but her story is, to me, one of the most tragic of all the tragic Mad Men characters (the fact that most of the viewing audience hates her with the fire of a thousand suns makes this all the more true). Last night's episode, and its treatment of Betty, was no exception. Having gained a considerable amount of weight since last season (my guess is that the show is accounting for January Jones recent pregnancy and adding some on top of that, since it was clear Jones was rocking a fat suit and a body double), Betty goes to the doctor for diet pills and leaves with a potential cancer diagnosis.

The way Betty handled her doctor's visit—calling Don when she couldn't reach Henry, and showing a level of vulnerability we rarely see from her—was affecting to say the least. (When Don called her "Birdie" it really got me—anyone else?) When she tells Henry that the tumor is benign, I'd like to think that even the biggest Betty haters out there breathed a sigh of relief. But IS Betty's tumor really benign? Given the buildup her diagnosis received—especially the lunch date with her friend Joyce where she basically received blueprints for dying of cancer—and Betty's usual emotional distance from even those closest to her, it makes sense that she might lie to preserve Henry and Don's feelings and keep a terminal illness to herself. (If you don't think there's anything to that theory, what do you make of Betty finishing off Sally's sundae at the end of the episode? Didn't it seem like she was giving up on something?)

Betty on the phone with the doctor while Henry looks on
What's really being said on the other end of that phone?

Now let's break down the fourth wall for a minute. Most Mad Men fans have heard that the show's writers hate January Jones, or that Matthew Weiner takes special care in making things hard for her character. I've always chalked Betty's unlikability—especially when it comes to her kids—up to the time period she exists in, but I'm starting to worry that there might be something to the "everyone hates Betty" rumors. At the very least, I'm worried that the writers are taking an unpopular character and torturing her with cancer and weight gain and unhappiness—to the delight of a sexist viewing audience.

Tweets about Fat Betty Draper
Not pictured: Literally thousands more tweets about Betty being a fatass.

Yes, Betty is hard to like. Yes, she's fat now. But I can't help but feel that the intense vitriol directed toward her and January Jones (those of you on Twitter last night saw some of what I mean—everything from comments about how people "hoped she would die" to how spoiled and babyish she was acting about possibly having cancer to how disgusting it was to see her eating) would look a lot different if she were a man. You know, like how Don is the worst dad ever but no one seems to call him on it, or how Harry polished off a bag of mini burgers in Don's car last night but no one's tweeting about that. OK, now let's get that fourth wall back up.

Assorted thoughts:
I'm worried about this new copywriter, Michael Ginsburg. He strikes me as the kind of guy who is a major douche but tries to use his "creativity" and "bravery" to excuse his unprofessional behavior. He should take a cue from Peggy and grow up a little, but something tells me that's not going to happen. (Also, I'm worried that Peggy is going to date him, thus finding the only eligible bachelor in New York who is more up his own ass than Abe, her current squeeze.)

For anyone who thought that the Rolling Stones were far too hip to do a commercial in the '60s, listen to Don: They weren't. Here's the cereal ad he mentioned, for Rice Krispies:

The song is catchy, I'll give them that.

- Kelsey

The Dawn-ing of a new era
As the episode begins this week, we see that Sterling Cooper Draper Price has indeed entered the modern world and hired a black person—Don's new secretary, Dawn, who already seems tired of people making Don-Dawn jokes.(They sound similar, did you know? Yeah, thanks, Harry. Move it along.)

And the office diversity train rolls on this week. Peggy is tasked with finding a new copywriter for Mohawk Airlines' return account, since Mohawk Airlines requires, well, a non-Peggy type to do its important work. ("Someone with a penis," Roger clarifies helpfully. "I'll work on that," replies Peggy.) In going through portfolios, Peggy is impressed by one Michael Ginsberg and, despite Stan's warning to not hire anyone more creative than she is, calls him in for a meeting. Ginsberg turns out to be a Borscht-Belt stereotype in a loud plaid jacket and a clashing tie whose presumption and lack of professional manners insults Peggy at nearly every turn: He mistakes her for a secretary, asks when he can meet Don, wonders why Peggy's interviewing him when he'd really be working for Don. In other news, I really thought he was Scott Baio for a hot second before getting out my glasses.

So yeah, Peggy does not care for this Michael Ginsberg character. Roger, however, wants to add a Jewish person to their staff ("Turns out every agency has one," he says, shame-free as ever in his casual racism), and has already told Mohawk he'd found them a copywriter. And the fact that we get a small glimpse into the new guy's home life—he lives with his aging father, a baseball fan who's apparently also prone to dispensing a quick prayer over his go-getter son—means he's likely to play a pretty prominent role at SCDP this season.

"You're so square you've got corners"
The theme of the week is the fear of losing status. This is obvious in the story arc of Betty, whose looks have always defined her value. It's why she doesn't seem nearly relieved enough when the tumor on her neck is diagnosed as benign—there goes her potential gold mine of blame-shifting and self-pity. (Or, as she puts it, "It's nice to be put through the wringer and find out I'm just fat.")

It hasn't yet occurred to Peggy that she, too, should fear losing her status. As curt—and, sure, bitchy—as she's been to Megan, Peggy has never seen ambition as a zero-sum game. But Stan's warning that hiring someone as good as Michael is self-sabotage seems like an obvious portent—"He could be your boss someday." (Side note: Cutest dress ever, Peggy!)

The most explicit case of status anxiety was last night's least explored. Roger's plaintive question—"When is everything going to get back to normal?"— reflects his own sense of obsolescence in the SCDP offices, dealt with in last night's episode both silently (nice power play, Rog, forcing the Mohawk meeting into your own office simply by not coming to Pete's) and not-at-all silently (to Don: "I'm tired of trying to prove I still have any value around here.") But Roger's question of when things go back to "normal," also addresses the cultural context that seems to be leaving the status quo—with its whiteness, its WASPiness, and its smug assumptions of assured privilege—in the dust.

And that brings us to Don, backstage at a Rolling Stones concert. He's hoping to meet with the band and get them to sign off on endorsing Heinz beans, and he's looking every inch the suit he is. I'm sure we all felt some relief when his conversation with a teenaged Stones groupie became paternal, rather than pickup-minded—nothing would take the dapper shine off Don Draper faster than an assignation with a girl only a few years older than Sally. But Don's grilling of the lass—why does she love the Stones? What does Brian Jones have that makes him worth all this fuss, all this overheated screaming?—gets at his growing discomfort with this new youth culture, with the ineffability of cool. If cool can't be defined, then Don can't sell it. And if he can't sell something, well, then who is he? Personally, I'm excited to see this thread continue all season.

And speaking of not being cool: The MVP of this episode, for the second week in a row, is Harry Crane, who accompanies Don out to Queens to see the Stones wearing a black turtleneck and a checked sport jacket, an outfit he seems to think is hip. In short order, he's charmed by another underage groupie, smokes a joint, goes to the dressing room—he thinks—of the Stones, unwittingly signs the opening band, The Trade Winds, to the Heinz commercial, is embarrassed when he and Don realize that he has failed to distinguish between said band and the Rolling Stones (underscoring just how deeply unhip he is), and caps off the evening by eating a bag of 20 White Castle sliders and rhapsodizing about teenage girls as Don looks on with unconcealed revulsion. That first case of the munchies is a killer. Harry then delivers a weird little speech about how when you bring home a bag of food for your family, they eat it all and leave you nothing, so you might as well eat first. You can't say he's not living his principles, I guess.

Assorted thoughts:
You guys, Henry called Mitt Romney a clown! Well, kind of—he called George Romney, Mitt's father and, in 1966, the governor of Michigan, a clown. But that's pretty close, and I think we all know what Matt Weiner was going for there.

- Andi

16 going on old
Alright, children. The lesson of today's Mad Men episode is that aging is a BUMMER. Sometimes getting older leads to you gain weight (but only because you are married and complacent, right?). Sometimes it leads to the child of a friend trying to render you obsolete at work. And sometimes it leads to looking unhip backstage at a Rolling Stones concert.

Youthfulness is scary, but losing it is scarier. For Betty, aging means completely redefining herself and her strengths (remember, even before she was the prettiest housewife on the street, Betty was a model. The amount of importance she places on looks, especially her own, is huge). Even with Henry's reassurance, Betty spent all episode questioning her new body, and while she was never the bombshell Joan was/is, Betty had only until recently used her Grace Kelly looks to seek out male attention she wasn't getting from Don.

For Roger, or generally anyone in advertising, aging means becoming increasingly disconnected from your target audience and losing your competitive edge to someone hungrier and hipper. The fact that Peggy is being told to view whomever she hires as an opponent who will one day be gunning for her job is ridiculous, given that the office has only stopped treating her like she's too young and naive for her own good, like, a season ago.

Juxtaposing the old and new blood in the Mad Men universe isn't a new concept, since the audience has previously heard the various neuroses of ad men regarding up-and-comers snatching their jobs, in addition to having watched Don awkwardly interact with younger, more fringe-culture characters in the past. However, the switch from seeing Betty struggle with her health and fading good looks to watching teenagers, who behaviorally seem light years younger than Betty, backstage at a rock concert drove home the predominance of this theme. As the show keeps barreling along, youth culture will become increasingly anxiety-provoking and extreme. Sally's not too far in age from that girl who saw Don as her way to Brian Jones, and I have to imagine that Sally's teenage years and their indiscretions will pack a punch.

Mo' spouses, mo' problems
Speaking of neuroses, this episode highlighted exactly how Megan and Henry Francis view their spousal predecessors (poorly, if you are looking for the quick answer). Don's mere expectation of a phone call from Betty annoyed Megan, which seemed unreasonable, cancer or no cancer, given that they have joint custody and were, I don't know, married for nearly half of Megan's life. On the flip side, Henry barely wanted to talk to Don, to the point of lying to Betty about his call. While Betty did make some negative comments over tea about "Don's girlfriend," her issues had more to do with her own imperfections than Megan's age (see the above section RE: aging can be tough). Generally Megan and Henry seem more sour on Betty and Don than the other way around, which is weird, right?

Both of them are the improved versions of the previous partners. Megan is the 1960s It Girl, an updated version of Betty's 1950s glam-hostess. And Henry is as commanding and put together as Don, but more trustworthy and secure. What's interesting is that whereas Megan's youth makes her an improvement on Betty, Henry being older makes him an equivalent improvement on Don. By being even more her senior than Don, Betty can further revert to her childlike interactions with the world, counting ever more on Henry to take care of her. So given that both Megan and Henry have legs up on the formerly married Drapers, what's the point of resentment?

Assorted thoughts:
I thought the interaction between Mrs. Geiger (the Heinz executive's wife) and Megan over dinner was interesting, especially when she made the assumption that Megan was as bored of shop talk as she was. I hope that this is something we will see further on in the season, since I hadn't thought about the possibility of tension between Megan being an aspiring ad writer and being part of the Don Draper image (I had forgotten how often Betty's attractiveness and social capital had seemingly sealed deals in the past). Obviously this isn't something that Megan had considered when she said yes in that California hotel room. Is it possible to be taken seriously as a professional AND be married to Don Draper?

- Annalee

Notable Historical/Cultural References: Bewitched, Ozzie and Harriet, Volkswagen ad campaigns, Joan Baez.

Inappropriate Office Behavior: Once again, Harry and Roger are leading the pack (Roger with his darkness-before-the-Dawn comment taking the cake). Since we didn't see Lane this episode though, we can count on more next week.

Previously: A Little Bisous

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Comments

6 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Betty Draper: misery loves bugles and lots of tv

It should be noted how Betty harped on Sally about her weight. Now Sally pushes aside the dessert while Betty finishes it.

That was an interesting moment

For me that quick interchange between mother and daughter over sundaes was extremely significant and potentially telling of a shift in Betty-Sally relations. My mother has severe body-related anxieties and has been living with multiple eating disorders since she was a teen. She communicated her food and body hyper-awareness to me, and every meal I had with her became an implicit performance of worth and power. Finishing food more slowly or leaving a generous portion on the plate (or in the dessert glass as Sally did) were indications of superiority of will/self-control that trickled over into other aspects of our relationship. Given Sally's coolly committed reaction to Betty's pushing her to finish the ice cream (which likely would have alleviated some of her guilt for eating it), Sally is already playing this game with her mother and "winning."

I LIKE FAT BETTY

Am I the only one who likes fat Betty better? I dunno, maybe it's just a hunger for representation. It would be nice to have a fat women as a major character on Mad Men. (Although Joan is called either fat or a "real woman" in real life, depending on the commentator, I've never heard her called fat in the show. It would be interesting to hear her opinion on Twiggy and what happens when your body shape is considered no longer fashionable, though.)

I wish Betty would stay fat, although between having to wear a fat suit and career pressure, there's zero chance of that. In real life, we all know people who got fat and stayed that way, but it never happens on TV. It's always a short-term drama, like Lee in Battlestar Galactica, Daphne on Frasier, and Nicki on The Drew Carey Show. I especially hated the way Daphne was handled--Niles couldn't just be OK with her weight gain--he HAD to realize she was TOO FAT and help her lose weight, otherwise he was idealizing her too much and not seeing her flaws, thereby keeping their relationship from becoming a truly mature one for some reason. At least Henry's OK with the weight gain. I loved Fat Monica on Friends, too.

*****************************************************************
"Oh don't the days seem lank and long
When all goes right and nothing goes wrong
And isn't your life extremely flat
When you've nothing whatever to grumble at?"

--W.S. Gilber

The brief conversation

The brief conversation between Megan and Don re: Betty's phoning or not phoning made me wonder if there's more we haven't seen previously. Megan made a comment that Betty only calls when she needs something, which I find interesting. Betty definitely seems like that kind of person, and proved that again in this episode by not calling Don with the results. If she's going to (potentially) worry him in the first place, it's just common decency to let him know he can stop worrying. I wonder what else has happened that we haven't seen that led to Megan's comment.

I did love Don calling her Birdie, though. And I wonder, too, about Betty's lying to Henry about the tumor. It wouldn't surprise me if she was lying about it being benign, but at the same time her comment about then just being fat seems to show that she'd rather have an excuse for it and if it were cancerous, that would allow her to have that excuse and gain more sympathy. I can see that both ways. I'm interesting to see what happens with Betty this season. If Sunday's show was any indication, she'll be more sympathetic again.

Don is a much better parent

Don is a much better parent than Betty is!! Betty berates and HITS her children!!! Who do the children call when they need something? DON not BETTY. The main reason Don doesn't have custody of the children is that this is the 1960s when that would just not happen. Women get custody. End of story.

I find it sexist that you would watch a parent berate and hit their children then say people just hate her because she's fat. Um, no. We hate Betty because she's a horrible person.

Betty's not a horrible person

Betty's not a horrible person - she's depressed and unfulfilled. She feels trapped. She may not even know why she feels this way. She treats the children horribly, but anyone who's grown up with a depressed parent knows that someone can be horrible to you and also love you very much.

Betty is a complex, interesting character. I can't believe how many fans are just completely blind to the nuances of her character and the way her unhappiness problematizes the idea of feminine subordination.

Also, just for the record - Don did hit Betty when he found out about Henry. He also gets a babysitter for the kids almost every time he has them, and I'd highly doubt he'd even want custody.