Warning: season 3 Mad Men spoilers ahead
I find my reaction to the relationship between Don and Betty Draper challenging. He lies to her, spends little time with her, is a serial philanderer and is barely engaged with her life, feelings or problems. She, on the other hand, looks after their children, is bored and trapped at home, and has a chaste romance, which leads her to find a way out of her suffocating marriage and life. And yet, and yet, it is Don with whom I sympathise and Betty who frustrates me. It is a point of identification that confuses me a little, so I thought I might try and think it through.
There is something about Betty which is so distancing, so lacking in empathy. It makes me wonder whether what Henry Francis (perhaps like Don before him) sees some sort of ideal notion of womanhood, rather than an actual person. With her amazing, Grace Kelly beauty and her perfect poise, she seems to fit that late Fifties/early Sixties notion of womanhood – the beautiful homemaker. Henry, we must remember, hardly knows Betty at all, and yet he has determined that he wants to marry her. However, she seems to be without any really love or affection or even interest or care for anyone else. The way she treats her children, the general annoyance with the world around her, makes us feels that she lives in a state of perpetual disdain. As Don drunkenly implies in the final episode, she does see herself as too good for everyone. While realising that some of this froideur is defensive, is a reaction to the lack of emotional intimacy that she receives from Don, I think for me, that it presents a barrier to the kind of identification needed to empathise with a character.
And then there is Don. I’m not on Don’s side in every situation. When he tells Peggy she doesn’t deserve a raise and demands that she comes to the new agency, I can side firmly with Peggy. But when it comes to his relationship with Betty, I seem to find myself on his side. The manner in which he treats her really demands that my sympathy should be with Betty. He is completely emotionally remote in the way he relates to her, yet clearly he is full of emotions. The emotional remoteness is most likely a defence as well, a result of the emotional battering of his childhood-as Betty’s is from the disappointment of her life-or a product of the conception of masculinity that was prevalent at the time. the notion that two people could marry, when they can barely communicate is such a weird idea for me, and yet I imagine that it does characterise a lot of relationships. His attempts to feel, to connect occur through his infidelities, and perhaps this is what make them more understandable or forgivable.
Maybe it is the fact that we see Don’s backstory and understand where he has come from and what has shaped him in a way we don’t with Betty which assists in this identification. But it doesn’t change the fact that I find myself on Don’s side, especially in season three, when I know that I should be more sympathetic and understanding of Betty. I find myself regretting that she wants to divorce him, even though I know that if she was my friend, I would have been advising her for ages to get out.
These reactions demonstrate the power of the acting and writing in Mad Men and why, having watched 3 seasons this year, I cannot believe I have to wait for months and months before seeing what happens next.