A single episode of Mad Men remains and things are, as they say, getting really real. The feeling that most of the main characters are careening towards a spiritual finality has only gotten more acute, but not necessarily because the series is ending; more so because they can finally see twilight from this vantage point. It’s 1970, and things have shifted so fast. The culture took a leap off a building like Don’s animated avatar in the opening credits, and the false structure of the perfect, post-war nuclear family is about to land with a final thud-splat.
(Spoilers begin now.)
I suppose it stands to reason that the show’s closing casualty, assuming no one croaks in the finale, would be Betty. For much of the series, it was easy to read Betty for her pent-up mannerisms—a silent monster whose strictness often manifested in emotional battery inflicted upon her unwieldy oldest daughter. She was repressed from the era and years of Don’s infidelity and emotional loss and deep dissatisfaction with her life. But overall Mad Men’s portrayal of Betty was only sympathetic in moments—particularly those in which she enacted her own self-denial, as when she denied the advances of the young man at the horse stables despite knowing her marriage to Don was on its last (or second-to-last) legs.
But in this episode, Betty’s fate is sealed—terminal cancer has spread from her lungs to her bones and elsewhere, as we could have surmised the second she couldn’t take the stairs without catching her breath. She provokes more empathy than ever before, not because she is dying, but because now that she is finally self-actualizing—and showing Sally some nurturing love, albeit of the tough kind—of course it’s the end of the line. “You’re a very lucky woman,” Henry tells her, hoping to coerce her to take the chemo. “You have been your whole life.”
But the irony is, she’s been one of the unluckiest women on the show. Blessed with beauty and riches and handsome husbands who worship her to varying degrees of fidelity, she is bound by her own outward successes, the need to project perfection to the point of tamping down her needs and desires. Some of this came from the era, perhaps—pressure to maintain a tidy home, to be an excellent hostess, ideas that came in part from advertising created by agencies like Don’s. So much of it was due to her low-self worth, the fact that the notion of agency was decades off from when she needed it.
When she finally gains some—I never thought she’d make it back to college, but there she is, carrying books in the hallways—her body’s response is to give out. Henry’s one of the many men who cannot function without a woman around—“Jesus, what am I gonna do?” he cries somewhat selfishly to Sally, denying both Betty a chance to tell her daughter the news herself and Sally the chance to process it. In Betty’s final letter to her daughter, we find both closure and the most salient embodiment of the tragedy that is—was?—Betty’s life. “Sally, I always worried about you because you marched to the beat of your own drum,” she writes. “But now I know that’s good, because your life will be an adventure.” Sally burst into tears, and maybe you did, too.
Fucking Don, though! Fucking Don, hapless and carefree, having his own goddamn adventure never the wiser. This road trip is getting tiresome (the two-headed cow from Wyoming notwithstanding) at least now that he’s had that ridiculous run-in with a booze-raging VFW who thought a millionaire from New York would be interested in stealing $500 from their Maxwell House can. The part where the WW2 vet smashed him with a phone book was just dumb as hell, although I get the message—Don feels he deserves punishment yet usually somehow evades it, same as Betty “won’t get treatment because you love the tragedy,” as smartass Sally reads pretty accurately.
But because this episode was about mistakes and resilience—Don finally admits aloud to accidentally killing the Real Don in Korea; Pete, on a collision course with a Leer jet, finally admits to wronging Trudy—that missing veteran’s pot is not gone for long. Don recognizes a con man in the hotel bellboy, even through all that rural halcyon vacation bliss, and threatens him until he returns the money.
With that, we get a life lesson from Don: don’t be like Don. Don’t become someone else, because decades later, you might find yourself trying to find yourself in the most textbook midlife crisis ever, driving across America in a souped-up vehicle with a cherry red leather interior. But with these revelations, he is free. Don can go back to his roots, a billionaire vagabond waiting at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere, chilling in his aviators while the mother of his children accepts the inevitable. “I’ve learned to believe people,” says Betty, “when they tell you it’s over.” It’s over, and nothing’s fair.
Image via AMC.
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