Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Trouble with Monsters

That, by the end of another season of Mad Men, Betty Draper is a monster, is not really open to dispute: she interacts with her children only long enough to belittle or dismiss them, she acts impetuously in matters large and small, she roams through life as moody and fickle as the most spoiled child. And yet ... and yet. I hate to quote myself, but I don't hate it very much:
For me, [episode 5] marked the first time since somewhere in the mists of last season when Betty, Don's ex-wife, emerged as a sympathetic character -- deeply ironic given that she spent the episode emotionally, even physically, striking at her daughter, Sally, for offenses no worse than struggling with hormonal and family upheaval. In her conversation with Sally's new counselor, Doctor Edna (of whom we can hope to see more), we saw the way women of that era -- and not only it, alas -- perpetuated a disgust for female sexuality if only because they had no developed alternate framework in which to conceive it ... We caught a sharp, clear glimpse at the way Betty's mother must have framed a "woman's proper place" for Betty, especially the strict boundaries around sexuality; and we saw Betty pass that same pained strictures forward to her own daughter. Let us hope Dr. Edna can point the way to a broader view for both.
Sadly, Dr. Edna was not able to break through to Betty and help her.

As another observer put it:
We talk a lot, in feminist communities, about abuse. And we talk a lot about how oppression can warp your understanding of self, about how some people raised in an oppressive system will internalize that system. We talk about how people who are victims of abuse often perpetrate it. I just don’t think we were prepared to see that play itself out on Mad Men. We wanted Betty to read The Feminine Mystique and get her mind blown and rise above; or, we wanted her to stay a victim, so we could relate to her better, or at least keep feeling sorry for her. But sometimes, people just get damaged until they start damaging. Sometimes, people are lost. We hate Betty now because she’s not going to stay a victim, but the truth is, she’s also not going to be saved.
It's true that Betty is a monster, and it's also true that her qualities are traceable to the abuses and limitations to which she has been subjected. In this I liken her to the mother character in Precious, although they occupy different points along a spectrum of abusive severity. It's convenient to hate these people, but if we take the larger view -- better to call it the reality-based view -- it's clear that we're seeing how pain turns to abuse and gets passed forward. These cycles are difficult to break and all too easy to follow.

No, Dr. Edna did not succeed in breaking through Betty's layers of vanity, pride, and rage, and now she has lost Don permanently. Her new husband, Henry, is revealing himself to be a slightly moderated replay of Don -- a little more emotional stability in exchange for a little less excitement and a greater tendency to explicitly call out her unreasonable choices, foibles, and failings (albeit gently -- mostly). She now, moreover, faces the prospect of a maternal rival in the form of Don's new wife, Megan. She has removed herself from her neighbors, and she has cut ties with Carla, her steady housekeeper. 

At one point in the season, she allowed herself to say, upon Don's awkward visit to their son's second birthday party, that she has everything while he has nothing --- but whatever Don has or lacks, it's clear that she has nowhere to go. She is lost. Sometimes people are lost in real life --- it's rare to see this portrayed on television, and it's why Mad Men towers above anything else currently in production.


Domestically Challenged said...

I saw the last half of last week's episode. It's the ONLY time I have seen Mad Men (don't ask).

From my outsider's perspective, I saw a typical mom of the time, yelling at her hussy of a daughter for daring to speak with a boy! I wasn't sure if the problem with her new friend was his gender, economic status or ethnicity.

When mom was in the scene with her ex... getting a box of stuff, standing in his kitchen, he tells her he is engaged (I think that's what I heard) and she is HAPPY for him. I was surprised by this. She seemed strong and mentally even.

I assumed he was having an affair and left her for a secretary...

Your offering of past history was enlightening. What season is this? How much catching-up do I have?

I miss ALL the good shows!!!

*cursing Hubs for our TV disputes*

Domestically Challenged said...

PS, Sam Harris is in town, speaking today... are ya going?

Dale said...

@DC - I can't recommend Mad Men highly enough. It's up there with The Wire and Breaking Bad, in the "heads and shoulders above everything else" category.

I suggest starting with season 1 episode 1, or if not that, start with the first episode of a season. It was season 4 that just ended. It's really superb TV.

You're right about Betty -- she's definitely typical of the time in many ways. I see a lot of my grandmother-in-law in her.

Sam Harris? No, I have no plans to go. I wish I could but I am pretty booked up today.