I am not having a good day after last night’s penultimate episode of “Mad Men.” What a cruel, cruel joke for Matthew Weiner to drop Betty’s bad news out of the clear blue sky on Mother’s Day.
Betty Draper has cancer. Terminal. That’s what we learned from “The Milk and Honey Route” after everyone’s love-to-hate-her broken doll fell swaddling textbooks on her way back to class — a dream she harbored long ago in order to have children, hold up two husbands and keep home life, the ultimate American fiction of her time, intact.
In the 1960s, life was poison. People smoked. But last night, why did it have to be Betty Francis who died because of it? In the near-eight years of the series’ run, I’ve spent the entirety arguing on behalf of January Jones’ poorly misjudged, put-upon (and in some cases, by the writers) housewife. “Mad Men” is never a series intent on following through on its portents, but looking back, the storm clouds for Betty were probably there all along.
The decision to end Betty felt like a rebuke of the audience that trashed her, whether for her detached parenting skills or her unlucky transformation into dumpy “fat Betty.” As one TV writer tweeted Sunday night, “Matt Weiner waited patiently, read all your Betty hate, consumed it like a sin eater, then unleashed tonight’s episode.”
But on this particular Sunday, it was also a reminder: “Call your mother.”
Betty’s emotionally gutting letter to Sally, the daughter she has long kept great distance from, is one of the series’ ultimate parting gifts, if you can call it that. It was not an act of vanity. Betty was being practical, as she always has been, in giving to Sally detailed instructions for her burial. “Please bring them the lipstick from my handbag, and remind them how I like to wear my hair.” And in the letter’s closing remark to Sally (“I know your life will be an adventure”), Betty did the most beautiful and selfless thing she has ever done.
READ MORE: Matthew Weiner Talks “Mad Men” Final Season, Compelling Storytelling
At long last, near the end of lifetime of subordinating to the common idea, Betty chose her choice—and with a serene sense of knowing. She will die quietly, without a fight. “I’ve fought for a lot in my life. That’s how I know when it’s time to let go.” She will spend the last year of her life pursuing knowledge purely for the pleasure of it. In her final scene—which is, I think, Jones’ last ever—Betty trudges back up the stairs not because she’s keeping up appearances, but because she wants to. And that’s a more subtle and powerful feminist statement than even Peggy’s satisfied swag through McCann-Erickson.
In all my years of watching Betty, I defended and loved her. She’s the antithetical to Mother of the Year, a cold, brass-tacks upbringer defined by her own childhood — which despite a Bryn Mawr education didn’t leave her many choices — and a society that told her who she was. But she committed private, small acts of rebellion that were thrilling to see: mechanically feasting on cold chicken in the middle of the night after sleeping with a perfect stranger, firing rounds at the pigeons next door, going Jackie O brunette, delightedly lapping up cow’s milk during Bobby’s field trip. These are the things I will remember her by.
Betty was never dead inside. “The Milk and Honey Route” marked her biggest stand of all, and though she now will vanish from our lives, I can’t help but imagine her living out her eternity and in her truth with more peace than anyone else on the show. Bye bye Birdie.
Other great takes on Betty:
Buzzfeed — “There’s a moment as Betty climbs those stairs when a passing man touches her, says hello, and Betty looks up with a look I’d never seen before: a look of profound nervousness, and an inability for her model-wattage smile to cover it up. She’s vulnerable in a layered way that not even her wine-soaked day in the party dress could quite express. But instead of collapsing into layers of chiffon as she did back in Season 2, she turns the corner of the staircase landing, pauses, looks up, and keeps walking.”
Time — “When we met Betty at the beginning of this final season, she was attempting change, in her small way, going back to school in psychology. Is it too late? Maybe. (Even before she gets her diagnosis, her fellow students are mocking her as Mrs. Robinson.) Is it misguided? Possibly! (Let’s say she’s more than halfway down the list of Mad Men characters you’d seek psychological counsel from.) But it’s an assertion of independence, more so when you remember that in the first season she was confiding in a therapist who was secretly reporting to Don. ‘Why would you do that?’ Henry asks, as she continues to go to class for a degree she won’t ever be able to complete. Her answer: ‘Why was I ever doing it?’ Betty did not wholly own her life. But she damn sure intends to own its ending.”
Ryan Lattanzio is the staff writer for TOH at Indiewire. Follow him on Twitter.
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