By Mike Berlin
When Mad Men's fourth season ended however many centuries ago it's felt like since the fifth season premiered last week, one of the many questions viewers were left to ponder was: Could they possibly make Betty Francis (née Draper) any more unlikable?
To contextualize (spoilers! ahead for all those currently trying to catch up with the first four seasons), we last saw Betty at her lowest, vilest moment, firing the family nanny, Carla, who's arguably the Draper children's only stable parental figure and defender. On top of that, in the throes of moving her assortment of sheer nightgowns and lavish chaise lounges out of the ill-fated Ossining residence, she makes a pseudo-pass at Don, before learning that he's engaged to (as she cleverly guesses in the moment) his secretary. The scene was nostalgic and sad, as the two drank whiskey alone in the dim light of their soon-to-be-former kitchen, watching the sun definitively set on a life built together there.
And the scene also seemed to hint that—while Don was foolish and cliched for pursuing his much-younger secretary (as Betty was equally foolish and cliched for jumping ship to the next available father figure, Henry Francis)—Betty was already drowned in the regret and unfulfillment of her new life. Pair this despair with the inevitable train-wreck of rearing her daughter, Sally, through the upcoming teenage years, and the future of the former model looked grim at best.
Now, after last night's episode, the worst has been realized: Betty is fat—so much so that the number one Google search suggestion for a word following "Betty Draper" is "fat." The episode doesn't go about it in a subtle way, either, first introducing her unable to zip up a dress for a political event and hiding under the covers when her husband arrives. The plot line continues with her mother-in-law urging her to take diet pills so that she can rummage through that gorgeous closet of hers, and then culminates, during a trip to the doctor's office, with a cancer scare in the form of a benign tumor.
It's no secret that January Jones was pregnant throughout the filming of Mad Men's current season, and that it would need to be worked into the plot. Matthew Weiner and the show's costume staff just addressed that with, apparently, a fat suit and a number of floral housecoats and a quilted pink robes that make her look like a giant throw pillow.
While the idea of a heavy Betty should stir feelings of sympathy from the audience, she remains as sour as ever, complaining about her weight to a friend who discloses a terminal illness and shrewishly denying the advances of her supportive husband. Beyond that, the episode closes with a shot of Betty eating Sally's unfinished sundae to the tune of "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," a sly nod to the disappointments that belie her (still nascent) adulthood and the changing of the guard in the Francis household—that Sally will soon take court as the reigning bastion of feminine beauty.
So where do we go from here? Has Betty given up on life? Was this red herring of a tumor enough to scare her back into vitality? Or will she be defeated and accept her destiny as an overbearing, overweight mother-in-law, as Betty, herself, hinted later in the episode? Whatever happens, I'm growing tired/bored of her prolonged character assassination and would love to see a rebound. Might it be time to install a Jiggler in the Francis residence?
Photos: Michael Yarish/AMC