“You go to college. You meet a boy. You drop out. You get married. Struggle for a year in New York while he learns to tie a tie and then move to the country and just start the whole disaster over,” Sandy, the teenaged violinist who’s been living with Betty and Henry Francis, tells Betty over a midnight snack during the first episode of the sixth season. Betty’s reaction is telling — not anger, precisely, but frustration. “That’s an arrogant exaggeration,” she tells Sandy. But it’s also the first time someone has but the trajectory of Betty Hofstadt’s life, with all of its disappointments and wasted potential, in an actual context and acknowledged to her that her choices are shaped by larger expectations, rather than simply telling her that she’s a selfish, immature brat. Lots of fans dislike Betty, whether she’s been Draper or Francis. But Betty’s story in the season premiere left me hoping that Mad Men might finally be recognizing bigger plans for her, that just as Don’s found himself at sea and Peggy and Joan have, through very different means, found places for themselves in the changing world, the sixties might finally reach Betty Hofstadt deep inside her cellophane prison.
Through the show’s first five seasons, Betty’s often acted — or been treated — like a petulant little girl in ways that have made it easy for other characters to dismiss her, even when she’s been correct about things. Betty’s impulses are poorly directed, whether she’s confiding in Glenn Bishop, the neighbor boy who is closer to her daughter Sally’s age than her own, or shooting a neighbor’s birds in a fit of pique. She lives in a world of double standards, hoping to use Don’s adultery against him in the divorce proceedings and acting shocked when Henry’s lawyer assumes that she and Henry have also had sex outside of Betty’s marriage, even though she, too, had sex with an utter stranger in a bar. And she’s a terrible mother, chastising Sally for minor offenses and imposing a rigid discipline on her daughter even as she chafes against the expectations she’s internalized for herself.
But that doesn’t mean that Betty’s wrong all the time, particularly when it comes to Don. When she cooly told her first husband after he grabbed her “You want to bounce me off the walls? Would that make you feel better?” Don resorts to belittling her because she’s actually correct, telling her, “Sometimes I feel like I’m living with a little girl.” And when Betty uncovers Don’s original identity, she says two things that are particularly true, and that illustrate the idiocy of the strictures she lives with. “I’ve respected your privacy too long. Open it,” Betty commands Don after she discovers the contents of the drawer, a statement that piercingly illuminates the insanity of living with someone you barely know, a fate that’s true for many of the married characters on Mad Men. And after the truth’s been explained to her, Betty wants to know “Am I supposed to love you?” really asking if she’s supposed to accept Don’s elaborate fiction because he wants her to, and because it’s been a means by which she’s been well-provided for.And Sandy’s appearance in Betty’s life is an occasion for even franker conversations — and confrontations. Sandy’s one of the only people to ever really talk to Betty about the expectations that surround her looks. “I really have to be careful this time of year,” Betty explains as she gets out their midnight snack. “I’m trying to reduce.” “Why don’t you just be the way you are? You’re beautiful,” Sandy tells her, the first of many things Betty has a hard time believing but is eager to hear, telling the younger girl “That’s charming and you know it.” And while we’ve heard plenty of talk about looks as a means to an end from Joan, Sandy has strikingly different and late-sixties appropriate thoughts, telling Betty “My mother wore a girdle all the time and she always had a stomachache. And I always thought, you’d rather have a stomachache just so Dad will like you.”
Is it any wonder that Betty responds to someone who doesn’t appear either dissatisfied or dumbstruck by her, even if her expressions of desire are indirect or disguised? “Please,” Betty asks Sandy when she resists playing her violin for the family. “It makes me feel so much.” But it may be as much Sandy’s conversation as her musical ability that’s touching Betty. And in a way, her strange, displaced fantasy, disturbing as it is, makes sense as a way for Betty to express some sense of hunger for Sandy, whether it’s sexual or not, by projecting it on to someone else. “She’s just in the next room. Why don’t you go in there and rape her,” Betty told Henry. “I’ll hold her arms down….You said you wanted to spice things up. Will it ruin it if I’m there? You know what, if you want to be alone with her, I’ll put on my housecoat and take Sally for a ride. You can stick a rag in her mouth and you won’t wake the boys…My goodness. You’re blushing.”
It’s with someone who doesn’t know her, the hippies of whom Sandy said “people are naturally democratic if you give them a chance,” who tell Betty that “We don’t like your life any more than you do,” and insist “I don’t want to have to lay the regular rap on you, but I am exhausted from having to tell people like you that I haven’t seen people like her,” that Betty finally gets the closest she’s ever been to saying what she wants. “I’m came here because I’m looking for somebody that I do want,” she says, in an unprecedented display of frankness. “I did not throw her away.”
What this means, and whether Betty will continue to look for Sandy, or return to the kind of surrender to the easiest route that’s always been her trademark, remain open questions. But the fact that they’re posed at all gives me hopes for this season, and for Betty. Of all the characters on Mad Men, Betty, for all of her initial privilege, has had the longest road to travel towards self-actualization. She has none of the freedom that accrues to Don as a man, none of the independence that comes from working to support herself decently that’s empowered Joan, none of the identifiable talents that propelled Peggy out of the typing pool and into Freddy Rumsen’s office. Her only value is as an ornament, her only skills in attracting men. Betty’s been trained to be oriented outwards, and she has to learn to identify her own desires before she can even begin to pursue them. I don’t know what Mad Men has planned for her. But I’m as excited to see if Betty will experience a more radical makeover than the kind that can be purchased in a salon as I am to finally learn if Don Draper is the man falling stylishly and fatally out of a skyscraper window.