On the penultimate episode of Mad Men, viewers were shocked by a Betty Draper curveball, that, as far as I can tell by trolling dozens of unhinged messages boards online, very few viewers saw coming. But, in retrospect, Matthew Weiner, brilliant former Sopranos scribe, Mad Men creator, and mild sadist had been giving us clues since the first season.
In Monday morning quarterbacking the newest twist like a fiend this week, diving back through synopses of every single Mad Men episode, searching to make sense of what had just happened, I see now that other popular fan theories—that Megan is Sharon Tate, that Don is DB Cooper, that the falling man represents anything but human beings (and therefore society’s) inability to escape their nature and therefore their fate—only served as distractions as Betty’s storyline moved, grimly, toward its resolution. Are the following observations intentional clues or just the mental grasping of a TV and film viewer who annoys the shit out of her boyfriend by trying to “guess” what the twist is in Hitchcock films from the first scene? Who knows!
Obviously, if you haven’t seen last week’s pre-series finale episode, you should stop reading here, cover your eyes, and scream until you pass out to avoid the spoilers that follow.
Let’s start my descent into madness at Season 1.
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
The very first episode of the series was called “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” The first conversation that Don Draper has onscreen is one about smoking. Don’s waiter notes that Reader’s Digest says smoking will kill you, but that he loves it. Later in the episode, a researcher tells Don and company that smoking is perhaps the expression of a death wish. Another episode in Season features a dramatic reenactment of Paul Kinsey’s shitty play “Death is my Client.” Lucky Strike, at the time, is Sterling Cooper’s biggest client! “Lucky Strike can shut off our lights,” Don tells Sal while firing him in Season 3. In Season 4, Sterling Cooper Draper Price’s dependence on Lucky Strike nearly kills the company.
Anyway: here is a small selection of photos of Betty Draper Francis with her favorite accessory.
Smoking is what led to Betty’s deadly disease. Smoking! Betty! Danger! Death! It was all there from episode one! But, you might be thinking, smugly, everybody is smoking on Mad Men. And a few people have died of cancer, including Rachel, the real Mrs. Draper, and the people who raised Don. Way ahead of you.
Betty’s Indomitable Vanity
Halfway through Season 1, reflecting on the death of her mother (which occurred months before the first episode occurred and affects Betty emotionally throughout the duration of the series), Betty tells Don that she’s glad her mother remained “handsome” until near her death. In another episode, Betty reflects on how relieved she is that Sally was not killed, but more importantly, unscarred by an accidental car crash. Later in the series, Betty becomes enraged with Sally when she sustains facial injuries, lamenting that Betty had given Sally a “perfect nose” and that Sally was threatening to ruin it. In the penultimate episode Betty learns her prognosis—that the cancer is aggressive and her death will likely come swiftly—it makes perfect sense that she’d forego treatment. She wants to die beautiful, and because of that, Betty had a literal and barely-disguised death wish. The note she wrote to Sally focuses almost entirely how she’d like to look when buried, right down to the lipstick she likes. Which brings me to...
Belle Jolie Lipstick
Season 1 saw Lean In pioneer Peggy Olsen given her first copywriting job for Belle Jolie lipstick. “Women don’t want to be one of many in a box,” Peggy says, in reference to a proposed tagline that diminished Belle Jolie users’ individuality. Betty’s much-later expressed desire to be buried in a specific lipstick shade is her, literally about to go in a box, expressing a desire to be singularly her. That Peggy Olsen. So prescient.
The Whole Glen Thing
Betty’s creepy relationship with Glen the child and then Glen the young man reaches its apex in Season 1, when Glen asks Betty to give him a lock of her hair after she babysat him and is later banned from interacting with the child as a result. In Victorian times, locks of hair of the deceased were carried by bereaved relatives, and so Betty’s gifting of hair could have carried the double meaning of being both a love token and... a death token.
Later in the series, a now-18-year-old Glen attempts to plant a big gross smooch on Betty in the Francis kitchen before heading off to Vietnam. “You’re going to make it; I’m positive,” says Betty. “Glen’s going to die,” I said assuredly to my boyfriend when we watched this scene. Wrong! It was Betty! Good misdirect, Mad Men writers.
Bye Bye Birdie
A Season 3 episode entitled “Love Among the Ruins” opens with Ann Margret belting “Bye Bye Birdie” in the 1963 film adaptation of the eponymous musical. An arc involving the song continues over multiple episodes.
Don Draper’s nickname for Betty Draper is “birdie.” The Ann Margret musical number and the TV commercial the ad men made in an attempt to replicate it are both creepy and surreal, reminiscent of Betty’s drug-induced hallucination during childbirth in an earlier season episode called “The Fog.” And on that note:
The Color Blue
During one of Don’s trysts with Sally’s dippy teacher in Season 3 (in an episode entitled “The Color Blue”), the two homewreckers discuss whether people see the color blue differently. Don replies that people don’t want to admit that others see things differently, a conversation that sounds kind of like an analog of just about every conversation I’ve participated in or overheard about Betty Draper, the character. Is she a terrible petulant child? Or a clever woman stunted by the death of her parents, disappointment in men, and the decorative role society has forced on her? Is she a horrible, fit-throwing bad mom, or is she the embodiment of the fate many college-educated women had during her era?
Betty wears the color blue with fair regularity. She suffers a near constant-battle with ennui brought on by the expectations that she be a perfect stay at home wife, even referring to her angst as “feeling blue.” In Betty’s final note to Sally, she requests that she be buried in her blue dress in the gold garment bag, and that the funeral director should make her look like how she looked on a specific night when she wore the blue dress. Betty wore blue on the day she broke a rib and discovered her illness.
Deliberate choice, or the insane ramblings of an obsessive type with something stuck in her craw? You decide.
For more “Betty=blue,” check out the very very blue background on the shot from “Bye Bye Birdie” featured in the Season 3 arc. They could have chosen different shots from the film. Why did they choose this specific one?
Obvious “Betty Death” Quotes
In Season 3: Betty tells Henry that she wants Don dead. Henry replies that he’s pretty sure Don feels the same way about Betty.
In Season 7, Sally, smoking a cigarette, tells a friend she wishes her mother would die. She’d stay in school until 1975, she adds, if she could “get Betty in the ground.”
Later in Season 7, in what may be Don’s last encounter with Betty, he learns that she’s going to return to college. “Knock ‘em dead, Birdie,” he says, and leaves.
And it’s hard to forget this pair of shots, from the early stages of Betty and Henry’s clandestine romance. In this episode, Betty has purchased an expensive fainting couch because Henry said that a woman like her needed one. She places it in front of the fire place, where things are burned, where smoke emerges. Does this juxtaposition of lushly quilted repose remind you of anything?
Other Birdies That Lived Sadly
In addition to the kinda obvious Bye Bye, Birdie reference, Mad Men features other birds meeting sad or tragic fates. Roger Sterling gifts Joan with a caged bird before one of their trysts in Season 1. Joan covers the cage with a cloth. After Joan boards a taxi with the birdcage, we never see the bird again. Let’s assume it’s dead. It died of the 1960s.
There was also this unforgettable Betty scene in the first season, when Birdie literally shoots birdies, just as eventually Birdie’s cancer will be brought on by Birdie’s habits. We should have seen this coming. But we didn’t.
Knock ‘em dead, Birdie.
Images via Screengrab/AMC
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