**Warning: The following contains several Mad Men SPOILERS.
“Fat Betty” is one of the saddest narrative hands that we’ve ever been dealt by Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner; and we’re talking about a show whose narrative architecture is built on a foundation of personal trauma and psychological turbulence as the major source of conflict.
Last night I watched the second episode of Mad Men‘s fifth season, “Tea Leaves”, which heralded the return of mega bitch housewife, Betty Francis, née Draper, played by January Jones. Compared to the arctic detachment of the Thin Betty we know from seasons’ past, this time January Jones brought an air of sympathetic desperation to the character that we’ve never seen before. It may have had something to do with the fact she was ensconced in a fat suit.
Ms Jones was pregnant during the filming of Season Five, to which some viewers have attributed the Fat Betty storyline (with a benign thyroid tumor the catalyst – or fatalyst). However, considering how sensitively and deliberately Matthew Weiner and the show’s writers have mapped out the arc of each character, I just can’t believe they’d let an external variable like Jones’s pregnancy determine the route of Betty’s storyline.
Surely, there’s got to be something more meaningful and a greater narrative purpose behind the introduction of Fat Betty. And while that wasn’t made precisely clear, the episode did throw out several threads as to how the arc could contribute to her growth as a character.
Like in one scene, Betty is faced with her own mortality while waiting on a classic tension-building cancer trope: the doctor’s diagnosis phone call. There is a moment during her wait when, as if for the first time, Betty is struck by the importance of her role as a mother and as a wife. It’s actually one of the first real displays of empathy we’ve seen from the character.
In another scene Fat Betty insists that silver fox husband, Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley), turn around when she exits the bath tub because she’s so ashamed of her increased girth, to which he responds: “I see you all the time. You’re beautiful.”
This is a pretty significant moment for Betty, after having experienced her marriage to Don in which her attractiveness was seen as her major virtue.
So the question then is, will Henry’s unconditional love help Betty some placing such high emphasis on the shallow or external merits of herself and others? Is it time for her evolve from the beautifully presented, histrionic housewife into someone of more substance. I hope so.
Of all the Mad Men characters, Betty is unquestionably the least sympathetic, and, more so than any other character, is painted a villain. She’s no outright villain though. It’s pretty clear that she’s a super depressed woman with lousy self-esteem. And sure she was knocking back martinis throughout her third pregnancy (what is that kid’s name??), and yes she open-palmed Sally in the face one time, but this season it would be great to see Betty display the same layers of humanity and sympathy as every other character. Does it take a fat suit to get her there? God I hope not.
If some extra chins and a spare tire is the only way this character can be knocked down a peg or two to appreciate the simple things in life, it will be a real blow for a show which showcases such impressively well drawn and complex female characters. Fat Betty allows some easy opportunities for conflict and character growth, but having weight gain as the cross she must bear on the way to self-discovery seems patently un-Mad Men-like. Hopefully it will be the real threat (i.e. the cancer scare) and not the superficial threat of plumpness that’ll give Bets some much needed perspective.
Til next week.