Last Sunday, in its penultimate episode, Mad Men delivered a chilling Mother’s Day to its fans with the news that Betty Hofstadt Draper Francis was dying—fast.
Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator, has granted the most consistently divisive character on Mad Men the unusually devastating fate of dying of lung cancer.
Bert Cooper went out with a grand tap dance. Betty’s father, Gene, died of old age. Department store chief Rachel Menken’s demise—also, eerily to cancer—we never witness.
Even the suicides we witness—that of Adam Whitman (Don’s half-brother) and Lane Pryce—have a suddenness and agency that make them slightly less painful to witness. Betty’s diagnosis—that she’s dying and has under a year even with “aggressive” treatment—is the most emotionally wrenching we’ve seen.
As a result, some of the longtime Betty haters may be eating their words now.
Just last season, she emotionally tortured little Bobby when he traded her sandwich for gumdrops. She locked Sally in a closet for smoking cigarettes and threatened to cut off her fingers when she was caught masturbating. Pick the “Betty’s obviously horrendous parenting moment” of your choice.
In fact, Weiner seemed to delight in trolling us with options. At the end of season four, Emily Nussbaum, then writing for New York, said that Betty seemed to only get inhumanly worse, “morphing from a mere neurotic into a full-on textbook narcissist, and not incidentally, the worst mother on television since Livia Soprano kicked off in 2001.”
Bad mothers deserve a special place in hell, according to America television viewers. Betty became one of, if not the, most hated Mad Men characters.
At times, Weiner seemed to be the only person who wanted Betty to remain in the world of Mad Men. It was no secret that Weiner was infatuated with Betty/Jones. As the series lore goes, Betty wasn’t even supposed to be in the series. Weiner wrote a few scenes for Don’s wife after watching Jones audition for the role of Peggy Olson.
In a final move, did he use a terminal illness to secure his beloved Betty a sympathetic legacy that only dying beautiful and untimely young can buy?
Many of the weekly thinkpieces (which this writer is just as guilty of contributing to) described the decision to kill off Betty with lung cancer as a way to redeem her in the end.
However, “redemption” is a bit too simplistic—not only for Mad Men as a series, but for the most polarizing figure in the show’s history.
Besides, Weiner has been too meticulous in Mad Men’s storytelling to fall into the trap of making Betty some broadly-drawn martyr.
Let’s be clear, Betty’s not exiting in some Love Story mist of selfless pride, beautifully murmuring “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
She’s giving Sally clear instructions about where to find her blue chiffon dress from the 1968 Republican winter gala and to make sure her hair is done right when she died. She will cling to the beauty that has bought her this life, for better and for worse, even when she is cold and in the ground.
But in addition to the fairly involved superficial details, she imparts a few comforting words of approval: “Sally, I always worried about you because you marched to the beat of your own drum, but now I know that’s good. I know your life will be an adventure. I love you, Ma.”
The relative handful of words are restrained and almost trite compared to the usual dialogue on Mad Men. They make for a fittingly uneasy and slightly unsatisfying tug at the heartstrings for the exit of a character that we loved and hated—and never got a clear understanding of during the series.
According to Jones, Weiner got her to sign on with the promise he would “grow” Betty into a “fleshed-out” character. He sometimes made good on that. He sometimes didn’t.
Betty has had some of the most delicious moments of drama on Mad Men, as well as some of the most aesthetically stunning.
The image of her firing a gun at her neighbor’s pigeons with a lit cigarette in her mouth after said the neighbor threatened to kill her children’s beloved dog was a near-perfect combination of both of those qualities.
But while her scenes were almost always visually arresting—and not (just) because Jones is unequivocally stunning—Betty was marred with holes.
The ambivalence of our feelings for Betty may come more from the fact that Weiner painted her with choppy brushstrokes compared to the other characters on Mad Men.
Remember from that same first season how Betty’s hands shook to the point she almost got into a car accident? It was implied that the mysterious tics were the result of her repressed anger and sadness, but it’s never quite clear why the shakes vanished. By the second season, her hands stopped shaking, but she hardly seemed more mentally stable.
Betty’s interactions with her children, especially Sally, were a disjointed dance. She was never a universally bad mother. She had her moments—plenty of them, in fact. But she moved two steps forward, one step back in a way that often lacked clear reason.
In Season Six, Betty drives Sally to Miss Porter’s and offers her a cigarette—certainly not the healthiest move in hindsight but a loving gesture. In the first half of Season Seven, Betty rakes Sally over the coals for breaking her nose because “it was a perfect nose, and I gave it to you.”
In this last half, she and Sally warmly talk about the latter’s upcoming teen tour. Sally even makes a joke about being “late,” and Betty goes with it.
The relationship wouldn’t seem appropriately complicated if Weiner provided sufficient insight that explained or justified the back-and-forth. Instead, the audience was never fully granted that window into Betty’s head.
Simple but definitely noticeable changes in Betty also often went unexplained. Betty goes from blonde to brunette at the start of Season Six. The next time we see her, she’s blonde again.
On another show, the change of hair wouldn’t be a big deal, but Weiner is notorious for teasing us with little details. He loves that we obsess over a book that Don holds for 10 seconds or a shirt Megan wears in one scene. With Betty, Weiner seemed almost careless.
“Mad Men typically feels impeccable, created and curated and planned down to the tiniest micro-detail, which makes the shifting zig-zag of Betty’s recent arc—brunette! blonde! fatsuit! Daisy Dukes!—an intriguing conundrum. What’s the deal with Betty?” wrote Darren Franich at Entertainment Weekly, before the start of this last leg of the series.
Weiner’s inconsistency with Betty’s development is all the more perplexing when one considers that he went to the mat for her from the get-go of the series.
He told The Hollywood Reporter that he began fighting with higher-ups when he pushed for more Betty time as early as the second episode of the first season. “They were really annoyed that I was paying attention to [Betty]. I wanted to branch the show out, and I felt that if Don was cheating on this woman, that was the story. They just wanted it to be a formula in the office,” he said.
When Betty and Don divorced, there could have been a relatively seamless demotion or exit, especially since it is no secret that Jones is not the strongest actor in the cast.
OK, let’s be real. Jones might be the most acclaimed and yet obviously bad actress in television history. Her theatrical depth is almost sufficient for playing a woman who is supposed give off an emotionally vacant veneer 90 percent of the time.
But the notoriously tight-lipped Weiner was always clear that Jones would remain a part of the cast.
To her credit, Jones largely hit the right notes in what is likely her final direct interaction with her television daughter:
“I watched my mother die. I won’t do that to you. And I don’t want you to think I’m a quitter. I fought for plenty in life. That’s how I know when it’s over.”
It’s not wholly clear if Betty is actually motivated by a desire to spare her daughter. Sally has already accused Betty of refusing treatment “because you love tragedy.” In a 2013 interview with LA Weekly, Weiner went out of his way to highlight that in Season One’s “Babylon,” Betty claimed she would rather die than get old. This may be Betty’s final bow to vanity.
Yet, I am inclined to give Betty the benefit of the doubt. Admittedly, I may be swept up in my own romantic nostalgia for Mad Men, but Betty’s no quitter—and I won’t give up on her either.