Summertime, and the living’s uneasy. Last season, Mad Men gave us an episode called “The Summer Man” that was set in late June of 1965 and saw Don Draper trying to get physically and emotionally healthy in the aftermath of a sobering shock: The death of Anna Draper, the real Don Draper’s widow, the woman that knew him (and accepted him) as Dick Whitman. That episode opened with the memorable moment of Don standing outside The New York Athletic Club, eyeballing the young folks strolling past him on the sidewalk, youth and the changing culture literally passing him by. The killer musical cue: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones. ”I’m trying to gain a modicum of control over the way I feel,” Don said in voiceover, reading from his journal. ”I want to wake up. I don’t want to be that man.” Last night’s Mad Men – entitled “Tea Leaves” and helmed by star Jon Hamm – was set a little more than one year later, in July of 1966. Once again, the Stones were rocking the country (they had just released a new album, Aftermath), and once again, we got a story about a character presented with the challenge – or, more positively, opportunity – of making fundamental changes as a result of some identity-shattering news. This time: The former Mrs. Don Draper, Betty Francis. During a trip to the doctor to score some diet pills, she learned that she had a tumor on her thyroid. Gulp. Like Don, we all want to have – or like to think we actually possess – a modicum of control over our lives, and nothing subverts that illusion/delusion like a brush with death. Such was the case with Mrs. Henry Francis, although Betty had lost her sense of self-mastery long before her scary trip to the doctor. “Tea Leaves” provided her with an invitation to explore the reasons why – and she didn’t take it. Oh, well. Maybe a journal would have helped.
When we last saw Betty, she was saying goodbye to the house she once shared with Don… and was trying to tempt her ex-husband into making a pass at her. “Things aren’t perfect,” she said then of her relationship with Henry. What was she looking for from Don in that moment? A second chance? Proof from The Man that she still had that sexy-young “it” factor? Is Betty even self-aware enough to know what she wanted? Whatever: She got nothing. Now, eight months later, Betty’s intensifying ennui had become tangible and measurable. She had gained weight, and she was ashamed. The former model could no longer squeeze into her designer wardrobe. She wanted to hide away inside her Dark Shadows manor like a misunderstood monster terrified of exposure. She did not want to be seen on the arm of her increasingly prominent husband, Henry, who now worked for John Lindsay, the newly elected Republican mayor of New York City. His campaign slogan: “He is fresh while everyone is tired.” Betty wished that could be her truth, too. She also didn’t want to work for it. And so, while she waited for her fairy godmother to arrive and wave away her pumpkin body with a flick of wand, Betty spent her days watching The Andy Griffith Show and binging on Bugles. When is everything going to get back to normal? CRUNCH. FUN FACT! According to Wikipedia, Bugles were introduced nationwide in the current Mad Men year of 1966. The advertising included the tagline: “Suddenly… Snacks are in great shape!” If only Betty could feel the same. If only we had a culture that could actually, like, help us carry the weight of living instead goosing us to pile more on. [Addendum about Henry: The indirect dig at Mitt Romney via his father, former Michigan governor George Romney, went right over my head. Too busy Googling snack food ads during that part, I guess.]
Well-meaning Henry tried to assure Betty that he still saw the same beautiful trophy wife that he stole away from Don, the living reminder of his own slowly dawning obsolescence soul that he married. Maybe not the best strategy; such sentiment risks sending the message “I don’t care.” Betty needed to feel like someone actually gave a damn about her. Beginning with herself. She needed a tough love kick in the keister… though ideally not as tough as the one provided by Henry’s loveless, unlovable mother, Pauline, a flubby tub of toxicity that would give Norman Bates the chills. She never thought much of her replacement in Henry’s queasy psychopathology Betty (“I know what you see in her and you could have gotten it without marrying”), and she was becoming even less impressed with every pound Betty put on. Pauline believed that a fat frump in a plus-sized kettle-shaped frock just wasn’t a flattering accessory for her rising star son. So she pushed an insta-thin solution: Diet pills. Otherwise known as “speed” back then. “At my age, I don’t have to please men anymore. But you…?” Pauline let the question dangle and haunt. And as much as Betty tried to push back with brittle defiance, the woman just ran her over. The perilous Pauline + Rolling Stones + Diet Pills = “Mother’s Little Helper,” a track from that aforementioned just-released Aftermath album, a song Jagger/Richards wrote about pill-popping desperate housewives. What a drag it is getting old.
NEXT: The Lump.