14
May
2012
Mad Men: Season Five, Episode 9
Dark Shadows
Jordan
For the second time this season, Mad Men gave us a glimpse into the life of Betty Draper. As I discussed when last she appeared, Betty tends to be a problematic character for the series. On the one hand, January Jones is a fairly limited actress, who plays Betty very well but isn't really adapted to an arc. In addition to that, Betty is pre-disposed to a sort of stasis that ties her more to the past than to the future, making her largely irrelevant in a season that is all about how the times, they are a-changin' and the old guard isn't handling it well. I have no problem with the show occasionally dropping in on the life of Betty Francis, especially if it does so only two or three times a season. As she grows angrier, she becomes less interesting to spend large amounts of time with, but the character always worked best in small bursts, and so while "Dark Shadows" is easily the most mediocre episode of what has been a stellar season, if it serves as a small dose of Betty to tide us over for a while, that's fine with me.

The episode casts her as even more of a villain than usual, metaphorically tying her to the killer smog (which actually plagued the city in the fall of 1966) and the connection is none too subtle: As Megan puts it, Betty is trying to poison the new Draper couple from 50 miles away, and she comes very close to getting inside before Don and Megan are able to shut her out.

Betty's scheme to sow discord between Don and his new wife is, like most of her plans, childish and ill-conceived. She lets slip to Sally that Don was married once before her, to Anna Draper, and act shocked that Megan wouldn't mention that. In one fell swoop, she must think, she has turned Sally against Don and Megan and caused fights to break out. The entire "Betty as poison" metaphor is laid on thickly, as is the idea that Betty lacks impulse control which has caused her weight gain. The show has painted many portraits over its existence of Betty Draper as a woman with a hole in her that cannot be filled, no matter how much she tries to plug it with what society tells her she wants. I've always thought this is a potentially interesting character choice, but it has played out with mixed results at best. Betty is by no means a lost cause as a character (indeed, I think some very interesting things are possibly on the horizon for her), but "Dark Shadows" does little to forward the idea of her as anything more than a monster haunting the edges of our story, and that has never been the best conception of the character, to my mind.

The best was to look at Betty, I think, is as a sort of through the looking glass version of Don (which is why their marriage, and its slow dissolution, provided such rich dramatic fodder for the show). One of the major themes of Mad Men is that authenticity, the actual exercise of discovering yourself and living as you truly desire, will always be more difficult than just becoming a facade of a human being, projecting outward what you think others want you to be. Don Draper is that creation almost entirely, and as he drifts closer to becoming his true self, the cracks in his construction are showing (just look at his ad campaign tonight, and the struggle he goes through to put it together). Betty, too, is a fake, through and through. She made herself, with some help from a controlling mother, what she though society wanted from her: a thin, blonde, quiet hosuewife who would stay home with the kids while her husband worked. That facade is failing her this season too, yet because there is nothing else beneath it, she is handling the transformation with less grace than her ex-husband.

As for the rest of the episode, there are some good things, but it is mostly inconsequential. Don's tiff with Ginsberg is precursor at best to his creative struggles, Roger and Jane's adventure trying to land a Jewish client remind us that Roger is a terrible person who is perhaps a bit more empathetic since his LSD trip, and Pete is still fantasizing about Beth. All of this is mostly reiteration, in one form or another, of plot lines we have seen in the last few weeks, and while its all in good fun, none of it is revelatory enough to make it as essential as every moment of the best Mad Men episodes feels.

The best of them, unsurprisingly, is Sally's family tree, which leads her to discover some of her father's past. Even this is mostly just a retread of "At the Codfish Ball," where Sally got a glimpse of adulthood that she was not ready for, yet Sally is such a compelling character, and Kiernan Shipka plays her so well, that it comes off well. Shipka makes Sally relatable even at her most petulant, and the relationship between she and Don is so well drawn that it is always enjoyable to watch the two interact (if only the same could be said of New New Bobby or Gene, who are basically cardboard cut outs). "Dark Shadows" was a low point for this season of Mad Men but with the highs as high as they have been, it feels hard to complain too much.

Grade: B

Notes:

-Somebody better have gotten a check for this episode airing the same weekend Dark Shadows is released. Megan's friend got a part on the show. Megan laughed it off, but in '66, the show was on the precipice of exploding.

-"Jane and I are getting divorced." "Already?"

-"How Jewish are they? You know Fiddler on the Roof. Audience or cast?"

-"I'm not an airplane either. I can write for anything."

-"I feel bad for you." "I don't think about you at all."

-Classic Betty Draper Thanksgiving speech: "I'm thankful that I have everything I want and that no one has anything better."
Tags: Mad Men
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