Like many people, I was on pins and needles for the start of this season. The first episode was good. Seeing Megan Draper stand on the balcony, the whole of NYC expanding beneath her, was stunning and striking. The last time we saw her on a balcony was in California, Don proclaiming his love for her and her teeth, his jacket over her shoulders. Now she's alone, no jacket, and Don is collapsed on the bed, annoyed over the surprise party for his birthday. She blazes a trail through the office with expensive clothes (and she'd dressed beautifully all season 4) but apparently not much else, and she's isolated by the other creative staff, who don't know how to navigate the new reality, and by everyone else, who see her as little more than a verboten sex object after "Zou Bisou Bisou." Her refuge? Faux-cleaning her fabulous apartment in black lace lingerie while she chastises Don into a sexual frenzy. Floor sex and carpet burns follow.
And a week later, we get to revisit Betty Francis, now fat. There is obviously a medical component-- nodules on her thyroid-- though her couch sessions with the Bugles aren't helping her keep her svelte figure that once made her a muse in Italy. Fat Betty and the re-use of the fat suit (retired after Peggy's surprise pregnancy in season 1) have been the obsession of many commenters and critics for a week. Will Betty become a pill-addicted housewife to lose weight? Will she let go even more and just give in to Bugle-dom, leaving behind decades of being concerned with "earning her keep" by getting looks from men based on her beauty? And what about Sally? Will Sally grow even more distant and repulsed by her mother? Obviously, story and character possibilities abound, but my question is this: why did they go there? Mad Men had the "fat story" back in season 1, through Peggy's weight gain. Turns out, she was pregnant with Pete's baby, and no one, not even Peggy herself, knew she was "with child." All the while, she was the butt of jokes by the men in the office and the object of catty comments from Joan. Do we need another story line that reasserts a fat woman is unattractive? That a fat woman has little value? Even Betty's new mother in law, a large woman herself, tells her to drop the pounds and get "back in that wonderful closet of hers." Some of the comments out there have indicated that Betty has started to earn back some sympathy after last season's Sally-slapping, Carla-firing bitch-a-mania. The cancer scare and the gentle moments that followed seemed to take us back to the Betty of yore. The young mother who played dress-up with Sally while Don sat in a club listening to "Water of Babylon" with his mistress and her friends. The woman who stayed up late fretting over Don, whom she envisioned was at the hospital with Roger after his heart attack, while he was pounding on Rachel Mencken's door and then seducing the department store heiress. She seemed more like the worried wife who tucked the salt shaker away when drunk Don got into a car accident while heading to the beach with yet another woman, an accident he explained away with his blood pressure. Will this health scare bring back this Betty?
Well, I'm going to guess no. Why? Betty's character trajectory has been increasingly punctuated by her tendency to be impetuous, unreasonable, and mean. She dragged her daughter by the hair to the closet when she caught the girl smoking. Her constant anger over Sally's fear of Baby Gene. The aforementioned slapping and firing. Now, with a nagging mother in law, no parents of her own to turn to for support, a distant daughter who is approaching those difficult teenage years and may still idolize her new step-mother, and stuck in a new town without her old friends and Junior League club, it seems plausible that she will be increasingly stressed and without a support network, she'll be more unhinged.
BUT a different trajectory, and one I like very much, is Betty becomes a feminist hero. Betty was convinced by almost everything around her that being a wife and mother was all she needed-- her Bryn Mawr education be damned. Her home, husband, and children were supposed to give her happiness and satisfaction. And what did she get? An unfaithful first husband who lied about his very identity, making her brittle and bitter. Her children aren't the little adoring angels she was told she'd have. Her daughter is increasingly resentful and independent, her older son seems to have been impacted by her earlier tantrums, and that leaves only the youngest to not see her as a horrible mother. Everything that was supposed to be fulfilling hasn't been. Now she's married to a political strategist, a role that may require to develop not just her arm candy savvy (as a polite and gracious spouse) but perhaps some political savvy as well. The "I hate her" comments from Sally, the icy reception of her mother in law, and the new town and world she's in may contribute to that "click experience," that moment feminists talk about as the one that makes them aware the world and happiness they were promised was as thin and ephemeral as steam.