May 09, 2012 10:37am PT by Tim Goodman
'Mad Men': Betty's Season 5 Absence, Weight and What Both Say About the Character's Future
We need to talk about Betty.
As in the former Betty Draper, current Betty Francis and the once and future ice queen. Season five of Mad Men is eight episodes into its run, and January Jones’ character has appeared once, in the third episode. And when we did see her, it was a bit of shock. The former model and Grace Kelly lookalike had become fat -- and not just because she couldn’t shed the baby weight. Youngest son Gene is now 3 years old. No, Betty’s depression had caught up to her, and one of the last scenes in which the audience sees her, Betty is digging into yet more ice cream.
Although Mad Men has always centered on its main character, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), his relationship with Betty was a cornerstone to the show, and Jones always was touted as one of the main stars of the series. In season three, when Don’s marriage was unraveling almost without him, Betty tells Don she wants a divorce. Later, after Don tells Roger of the divorce plans, Roger says, “So it’s true,” and drops the name “Henry Francis.” The fact that Don didn’t know of Betty’s Don-like affair, or Henry’s name or even that others might have been talking about it, stunned him. Season three concludes with Don consenting to the divorce, and shows Betty, Henry and baby Gene heading to Reno to finalize it.
Of course, season four is Don’s emotional tailspin of drunkenness and debauchery, barely salvaged by Faye, a powerful, independent woman who’s Don’s equal. And yet, in the season finale, Don hastily proposes to his secretary, Megan.
Perhaps logic should have told us that the natural progression of the storyline would leave little room for Betty, but nobody was warned about what is clearly a drastically reduced role for one of the series' biggest stars. Until Fat Betty showed up in the “Tea Leaves” episode of this season, there was just the suggestion that the Betty storylines would come later, that her ongoing story with Henry and her relationship to her kids (particularly Sally) and thus her connection to Don would be dealt with as the season progressed.
And yet, eight episodes have passed, and it's getting more difficult to imagine how Betty’s plight will play out in something approaching the spotlight -- or at least the “A” storyline. Certainly there’s a chance that Betty, like Don before her, will ruin a good thing. Henry has been devoted to Betty from his initial flirtations with her and is, as we saw in “Tea Leaves,” understanding and supportive of her weight issues. He loves her, clearly. But the fact that Betty called Don for support -- when she found out she might have a tumor -- instead of Henry (who wasn’t there when Betty came home frantic), will not sit well with Henry, particularly because he learned from Don that Betty reached out to him.
So, yes, a Betty-unravels storyline is not out of the question because it would have ramifications for Don and Megan as well, given what a poor mother Betty is and how she’s prone to depression. That seems a likely scenario to keep Betty involved, but there’s also the issue of Betty’s weight to deal with (and not in story form). Although it was a visual shock, the decision to bloat up Betty could be somewhat limiting as a story. Obviously Jones, if she appears again in the remaining five episodes, will have to remain in the makeup used to make her appear heavier than she really is (in real life, Jones had a baby during filming but never quite approached the weight that Betty appears to have put on).
Why is the weight an issue? Because it could hinder what year season six will be set in. It’s going to take a while for Betty to realistically lose that weight (unless a divorce from Henry sparks more depression and weight loss -- or Betty’s incessant fixation on youth and beauty, which she took from her mother, leads to an eating disorder).
Maybe Betty’s smaller role in season five is just a big hint that her character is now and forever on the periphery. That’s certainly logical but takes a little getting used to (and one would assume it’s an adjustment that Jones is having to deal with as well). As annoying as Betty could be through the earlier seasons, there was plenty in her psyche to mine. She’d always been a child trapped in a grown-up body -- the storylines that drove home those points (particularly her interaction with neighbor Glen in season one) were the most compelling. The Betty character was used perfectly to illustrate the times. She’d given up as a model and wanted to get married, have kids, be taken care of and live life as a princess (she was pampered that way by her father, while her mother seemed to set an impossible barometer of beauty, youthful appearance and happiness -- as we learned in the early seasons, particularly when Betty was in therapy).
In fact, Betty’s seemingly ceaseless unhappiness connected nicely to the overall Mad Men theme and was a fantastic compare-and-contrast factor with Don’s own unhappiness. While Don doesn’t really know what he wants, Betty absolutely knew what she wanted and simply beat Don to the conclusion that once you find what you’re looking for, there’s no guarantee that it will make you happy.
In the current season, some Betty residue is helping Don lead a better life with Megan (so far). He wants Megan to be happy, and if that means leaving advertising for acting, so be it. He doesn’t want Megan to be Betty. And in a much less obvious way, Megan’s independence -- a product of her age and the changing times -- is allowing Don to get used to that idea and thus grow as a person and a husband. In some ways, Megan is perfect for him because she’s madly in love with him, doesn’t care about his past (traits Don seeks if not demands) and yet also is more modern and ambitious. In that way, Betty can be used as an example.
But is that really enough? Has Mad Men used up its need for Betty or adequately mined her stories? Is Jones on board with these changes? Equally important, is the audience? Matthew Weiner is a firm believer in consequence -- and a divorce from the main character indeed pushes Betty mostly out of the picture. But the audience, despite its ongoing disdain for Betty, might feel there's more to be said here. If she's depressed (still) and loses Henry and/or the kids, wouldn't people want to see the fallout? We'd certainly all want to know what happens to Peggy or Pete. Betty's ongoing absence seems like a bigger mystery than just a real-life pregnancy work-around. In short, is that all there is? Or, given the fact there are two more seasons after this one, will there still be much to say about Future Betty as compared to Fat Betty?
We’ll see how it goes, but right now the Betty Draper-Francis story feels strangely unfinished and prematurely severed.