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'Mad Men' recap: We need to talk about Betty

April 2, 2012 |  9:59 am

Betty Draper is fat in 'Mad Men' Season 2Last summer, as “Mad Men” resumed production at the height of January Jones' pregnancy, series creator Matthew Weiner faced a difficult choice: Hide the actress's baby bump with loose clothes and strategically placed laundry baskets, or simply write her pregnancy into the show. But, to the surprise and bewilderment of millions of “Mad Men” viewers, he chose a third option. That’s right: Matthew Weiner put January Jones in a fat suit.

Evaluating a television series from week to week, one has to make allowances for certain logistical challenges -- things like last-minute casting changes, budget limitations and, of course, cast pregnancies. So I will give Weiner credit for the bold way he has chosen to deal with Jones’ changing body -- and for his utterly humane decision not to bring any more children into Betty Francis' life. 

He also deserves some praise for the fake-out he pulls off in the first act of “Tea Leaves.” In the opening shot of the episode, Betty struggles to zip up a dress that will no longer fit. (Meanwhile Megan, Don Draper’s willowy new wife, slips effortlessly into her purple-print dress. Contrast duly noted.) Especially given her absence from the premiere, it’s a shock to see Betty, that avatar of post-war feminine beauty, suddenly, dramatically transformed. Making it all the more unfathomable, Betty isn’t even pregnant: She’s just fat. As Betty, dressed in a billowing pink housecoat, munches away on a box of Bugles, Pauline stops by to stage an intervention -- of sorts. She kindly suggests Betty get a prescription for diet pills. At this point, I think I know just where Weiner’s going to go. “Oh, Betty’s going to become a pill head. Of course she is.” 

TV review: 'Mad Men' Season 2

But Weiner throws an unexpected twist into the storyline: Betty’s dramatic weight gain is at least partially the result of a thyroid tumor. It’s a shrewd move, one that makes Betty seem ever-so-slightly less pathetic and also prompts some much-needed moments of vulnerability and self-reflection. Panicked and unable to find Henry, Betty calls Don with the news. She begs him to “say what you always say,” and he obliges, telling her everything is going to be OK. He even calls her “Birdie,” a detail that elicited a spontaneous “awwww” from this otherwise hard-hearted blogger. It’s a terrific scene, one that neatly encapsulates everything that was right -- and also terribly wrong -- about Don and Betty’s relationship.  It’s quite obvious that Betty still cares about Don, and, for once, her feelings don’t just seem infantile or delusional. Later, over tea with an old friend she runs into at the doctor’s office, Betty predicts that her children won’t miss her when she dies. We all know Betty isn't the world's greatest mother, so it's doubly poignant to hear her admit to her own feelings of maternal inadequacy.

But it’s too bad that Jones, already an actress of somewhat limited range, has to try to emote beneath a rictus of artificial flesh. Betty’s weight gain makes her more sympathetic, in a way, but there’s also something faintly sadistic about her cartoonish make-up. I’ve always found Weiner strangely unforgiving of Betty, who’s easily the least sympathetic character on “Mad Men” but who, as the virtual poster girl for “The Feminine Mystique,” has more reasons to complain than, say, Roger Sterling or Pete Campbell.

Yet once again in “Tea Leaves,” Betty is made a figure of ridicule -- right down to the Band-Aid slapped on her neck after her doctor's visit. I’m reminded of “A Night to Remember,” the episode in Season 2 when, convinced of Don’s infidelity, Betty spent an entire day at home in a rumpled party dress, or the moment last season, when she sat in Sally’s therapist’s office, opening up about her very adult problems while surrounded by dollhouses and other childish things. Betty’s understandable frustrations are, all too often, made to seem absurd. Just to clarify, while there’s nothing inherently pathetic about Betty putting on a few pounds, it’s damn near impossible to do “fat makeup” in a way that looks anything other than ridiculous. (See also: “Shallow Hal,” “The Tyra Banks Show,” and the collected films of Eddie Murphy, Tyler Perry and Martin Lawrence).

The one semi-positive thing to emerge from “Tea Leaves” is Henry, who may just be the most mature character on “Mad Men.” As Betty gets out of the tub, she gestures for Henry to look away, but he won’t. “I see you all the time. You’re beautiful,” he insists, sounding very much like he means it. Later, when Betty learns her tumor is benign, she immediately reverts to her default setting -- narcissism. “It’s nice to be put through the wringer and find out I’m just fat,” she says, deflecting Henry’s kind words of encouragement by insulting his mother. He won’t take the bait. “I feel like I’ve been given a gift, like Scrooge seeing his tombstone,” Henry says, embracing his wife as she breaks into tears. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Betty’s misery is only compounded by the fact she now has a kind, decent, faithful husband. I will forgive Henry for not telling Betty that Don called to check in on her welfare. He’s only human, after all.

Michael Ginsberg Mad MenAs the title -- and the rather too on-the-nose psychic scene -- would suggest, this episode finds everyone, not just Betty, looking to the future with a sense of dread. Don and Harry go on a fool’s errand to a Rolling Stones concert in a doomed bid to use their hit, “Time Is on My Side” in a Heinz commercial. (I will never be able to hear that song again without images of dancing beans floating through my head.) Although they never meet up with Mick and the boys, they do spend some time with some precocious teen groupies who look all of 15 years old.

The encounter brings out Harry’s barely suppressed pervy side -- he gushes about how “fun” the girls are while ravenously inhaling a bag of sliders -- but it has the opposite effect on Don, who, despite his own flirtation with Bohemia, always seems to disapprove of other people’s forays into the counterculture. Don tells one of the teen groupies he’s “worried” about her generation, and when Harry suggests Raymond only wanted to sign the Stones so his daughter could meet them, Don clucks his tongue once again: “I don’t think they’re good for her either.” When it comes to the impending youth revolution, Don is weirdly hypocritical; it’s almost as if he has to defend the status quo in order to justify the elaborate artifice of his identity.  You also get the sense that Don, despite his own debauched ways, finds the “let it all hang out” ethos pretty distasteful. Don might enjoy a stiff drink  (or eight) but he’s about as bottled up as they come.

This episode also brings two new additions to the agency, both of whom herald a new age ahead at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. The first is Dawn, Don’s homophonically named new secretary and the agency’s first “equal employment” hire. We don’t get to see much of her, but so far, everyone other than Roger seems to have accepted her just fine. We’ll see how long the racial harmony lasts, especially now that she’s been joined by Michael Ginsberg, an extremely eccentric, first-generation Jewish copywriter. Like Dawn, Michael gets the job because the agency needs to save face -- this time, because Roger already told Mohawk they’d be working with a Jew.  It’s hard to know what will be more of a threat to the WASP-y bubble that is SCDP: Michael’s brash copywriting style, his unpolished demeanor (check out that rumpled suit jacket and scrawny, clashing tie), or his fresh-from-the-shtetl background. What concerns me most is Peggy’s bravado in hiring him. She insists she’s not threatened by Michael’s creative genius, but you sense she’s trying to convince herself more than anyone.

Stray thoughts:

 -- Jon Hamm directed this episode. I wonder if this choice had anything to do with January Jones’ very central role in it.

-- For the record, this is at least the third time a “Mad Men” character has been subjected to unfortunate “fat” makeup. Of course, there was secretly pregnant Peggy all the way back in Season 1, but there was also Carlton, Francine's philandering and suddenly chunky husband back in Ossining.

-- No Joan! Boooo! It’s just like that saying: An episode of “Mad Men” with no Joan is like a room without a window.

-- I wonder if the Betty-gets-fat storyline was planned all along, or if Weiner had something else in the works for her before Jones announced her pregnancy? 

-- I wish we’d gotten to see Don’s trip to Fire Island with Megan’s (gay?) friends.

-- Major Megan red flag: When Don tells her about Betty, she replies, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

-- Betty’s new house is basically Xanadu -- a gloomy physical manifestation of her grandiose narcissism.

-- Possibly foreshadowing alert: Roger talks about falling out of windows/hanging off of ledges TWICE in this episode.

-- Harry “Eat First” Crane is really turning into a monster of selfishness, isn’t he?

-- Henry is now working for ill-fated New York mayor and “liberal Republican” John Lindsay, which could make things interesting down the road. For now, Henry seems very much in charge of Lindsay’s public image. “Romney’s a clown, and I don’t want him standing next to him,” he says, a winking reference to Mitt Romney’s father and then-Michigan governor George Romney.

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— Meredith Blake
twitter.com/MeredithBlake 

Photos: January Jones as Betty Draper (top) and Ben Feldman as Michael Ginsberg (bottom). Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

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