Monday, June 14, 2010

In which I say some nice things about the way Betty Draper is written and played

The virtues of mad men
Nights to remember
With this episode the writers really concentrated on Betty Draper's character. The title obviously refers not just to a slogan that Peggy comes up with for Father Gill but also to the night that Don would forget and Betty is determined not to forget. This is Don's usual approach. When he has some morally distasteful issue to deal with, he swallows hard and then moves on. And we saw that he advised Peggy to do likewise.

But what about the flip side? What if you are the wronged person? How do you get past this and move on?

An aside, a guy who is a friend of one of my friends has recently come into my life in a very minor way. He carries considerable resentment towards his brother and is currently nursing a grudge about some bluntly insensitive things his brother said to him in a recent argument about politics. The brother tried to apologize but this guy doesn't believe the apology was sufficient. And he may be right; what I have to say here isn't about him.

What struck me as interesting, though, was something the brother said, "Oh well, I'll die unforgiven and you'll die bitter." Again, I have no idea who is right in this dispute but those are the stakes. No one wants to die unforgiven and no one wants to die bitter. And the deeper question is can we solve all our conflicts ourselves? That is, is it enough for one person to forgive and the other person to apologize? It might seem as if it is and it might seem that when there is conflict it is because one of us cannot do the big thing and either apologize or forgive.

The religious view says it is not enough, however. That we need God to be justified. And we need him whether we are the offender or the aggrieved.

The other aspect of being wronged is the one drawn out by the old advice, "The best revenge is living well." The point being not to get reduced to the same level as the person who has wronged you. To not simply "move on" to a position where we are morally diminished by our attempts at recovery. That would be even worse than being bitter.

As we will see, Betty fails on all fronts. That is good because it is consistent with her character. What is really good about this and the following episodes is how convincingly that playes out. Here we are forced to confront Betty as a failed human being but very much as human. We can fault her butw e cannot hate her anymore.

Ridden hard and put away wet
We start with Betty  riding and riding hard. She has, we will see in subsequent episodes, multiple motives for this. But even without knowing that, we should know by now that Betty's central problem as a person is her utter lack of self awareness. She does not understand her own motives and actions.

A reasonable argument could be made, although I would disagree, that Don represents the opposite extreme. Matt Weiner and the rest of the writing team would probably make that argument so don't give up just because I disagree.

In any case, Betty promptly, and foolishly, launches an all-fronts war on Don. In the process, she forgets that she does not actually have any hard evidence. If you've ever been there (and these days being the victim or perpetrator of sexual infidelity is an almost universal experience) you will know that there is a stage where you know something is wrong but don't know it in the sense of having proof. Betty saw Don and Bobbie together after hearing Jimmy's accusation and had one of those moments where it all made sense.

And we know, of course, that her suspicions are correct but she does not know this. The show handles this very well. Betty is angry but has nothing specific to accuse Don of having done.

Something the show does not go into much is the Jimmy. He is her primary source of information and no one in their right mind would take anything Jimmy says as solid currency. The man is a nihilistic slimeball. Betty recoils from him when he first introduces the subject but we see that already she is going down the road to becoming like him.

I wonder how the folks at Heineken feel about being so closely identified as a girly beer in this episode?

In any case, the self knowledge question comes up very nicely around the Heineken issue. Don understands Betty well enough to know that she will like Heineken. She is very angry when this comes to her knowledge and accuses Don of having embarrassed  her. Okay, we all know that the real problem is the affair and that all these minor irritants she has been saddling Don with are really signs of her frustration; because she is certain something has happened but has no way of getting beyond his denials.

But why is this particular minor irritant the flash point? Because it underlines how well he understands her. A more reflective Betty might notice that what Don knows about her is her character and not specific facts about what she has or has not done. And she might ask herself how it is that she has been married to this man all these years and failed to learn anything about his character. She might also ask herself how well she knows her own.

In the past, I have hammered these points because they were so poorly worked out. What is different this and other episodes close to it is that the writers seem to have finally wakened up to Betty. They seem to have realized that she is not a convincing victim. That the Betty Friedan thesis, while it may make interesting reading, makes very poor drama.

It makes poor drama, BTW, because it isn't convincing when you try to embody it in real human beings. (This is also true of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. The second anyone tried to dramatize it, the falseness of the book became obvious.)

It's an interesting detail that Don looks Betty right in the eye when he sets out to lie to her. That is the mark of a practised liar. But it is also the mark of someone who genuinely means to be something. Do you promise to walk your new puppy every day? You screw up your courage, look your mother right in the eye and say you do. It's also what we do as adults.

It's what you do when you make your wedding vows. No one knows that they will be able to keep their vows. We know we mean to, of course, but it is how we live the rest of our lives that determines whether that is true or not. Which is to say, it's not a factual claim and it's not even a matter of intention. And the scene where Betty walks downstairs and says that she "doesn't want it to be like this" plays on this brilliantly. Don keeps giving the response he would have given at their wedding: "I Do." She keeps making all sorts of wild accusations about his character that only show how little she understands him. This is a very powerful scene.

It's like good television advertising really. In a tiny vignette, we get a powerful look into a failed marriage. We can see how both these characters have failed their marriage and how neither knows how to solve the problem.

By the way, the subplot of Joan and Greg is a nice mirror here. He completely fails to understand her character in the same way that Betty fails to understand Don's.

What isn't so clear is the longer run. Both characters are failing because they are more interested in knowing specific facts about the other rather than knowing their characters. Anyone can lie about their past. Most people do lie and do so for perfectly good reasons. But no one can lie about their character. It is present in everything they do and say. Neither Betty nor Greg seem to realize this.

Father Gill and atonement
It's exceptionally rare to find convincing portraits of Catholic priests in modern drama so it is something of a  joy to find Father Gill here. There are flaws in the portrait the biggest of which is his and Peggy's sister's disregard of the sanctity of the confessional that I noted earlier.

That said, there is a good attempt to show a priest trying so very hard to be modern. One of the things that often gets left out of portraits of the early 1960s is the crucial role played by liberal Christianity. We see it here in the Peter, Paul and Mary song that serves as the outro.

This liberal Christianity failed miserably and that is probably why it gets so little attention. Modern secularly inclined people have little interest in past religious failures. Modern liberal Christians don't like to be reminded that their movement has produced a series of unmitigated failures. And modern conservative Christians have little interest in revisiting the battle they have won when they are busy fighting others. So it doesn't get talked about.

But you cannot understand this era without factoring  liberal Christianity in. (You could also say that you cannot understand it without factoring liberal Judaism in but the series avoids that issue a little too pointedly.)

And the thing that matters, the reason all these characters need God is because they need atonement. They don't, as Betty says, want it to be like this.

The good news is that the series is back on track. After wasting a couple of episodes just fooling around, the theme that we began on is back front and centre. Let's see how they handle it over the rest of the season.

We get to meet Joan's doctor a little more fully this episode. The writers use the moment to get a great dig in at themselves. Joan asks Greg if it is possible for someone to come out of a coma with an accent they didn't have before. When Greg tells Joan that people don't come out of coma's much, she says:
"It must have happened to somebody, they wouldn't make it up completely right?"
And Greg says,
"Probably once. It makes a good story."
I think this obviously a dig at their own writing Peggy being unaware of her own pregnancy in Season 1. Yes it has happened but that doesn't make it good drama. Drama has to be more probable than real life.

I'll give a trivial example of this. Because birds do poop while flying it does happen that people get hit with bird poop. It does not work in drama except as low comedy to have this happen. Any time it does, it is just too obvious that the writer made this happen. (This is a lesson that neither Thomas Hardy nor Tiom Wolfe ever seem to have learned.)

Season 2 blogging begins here.

The next episode blog will be here.

(Season one begins here if you are interested.) 


  1. "That is, is it enough for one person to forgive and the other person to apologize? It might seem as if it is and it might seem that when there is conflict it is because one of us cannot do the big thing and either apologize or forgive."

    I think it depends on the circumstances and the degree of hurt. It has been my experience that forgiveness is an ongoing process, it happens in stages. I think that wanting to forgive someone who has hurt you is the first step in the process, realizing it in the heart can take a long time.

  2. You may be right. I take the Judeo-Christian view myself that every sin is a sin against God and that therefore we need His forgiveness. I am aware that is now a minority view even among Christians.

  3. "This liberal Christianity failed miserably and that is probably why it gets so little attention."

    There are those who would argue--and I would agree--that liberal Christianity failed miserably because it was stopped in its tracks following the end of the Second Vatican Council. Many of those who shared the hopes of John XXIII--priests, nuns, the laity--to bring renewal to the Church became disillusioned when it was clear that wasn't going to happen, so they left rather than stay and work for change. If the reforms of Vatican II had been fully implemented it would have served as a counter to the secularism that many turned to. Not all turned to secularism, some chose to continue their walk with God themselves or in different Churches, which was a big loss for the RC Church.

  4. I think that the Judeo-Christian view has, at times, reduced God to an entity very small. I don't believe that we need to ask God for forgiveness, He's bigger than that, He's already forgiven us. I think our task is to try to reconcile with the person who has wronged us or whom we have wronged, which is no small task, not least because both sides have to be ready and open to it.

  5. The history of liberal Catholicism is a contentious one. And I don't really know who to blame or praise as to what was stopped or not stopped.

    The failure I mean here is simply that it failed to put bums in pews. It may be different where you live, but up here you can tell you're in a liberal Catholic parish because the pews are mostly empty and the people who are there all over fifty.

    It is the more conservative parishes here that have all the teenagers and young families in the pews.

  6. Its like that here too, except there are few teenagers and few young families in either the liberal or the few conservative parishes we have in CT. My parish, which is small, rural, and fairly well-educated, with an influx of people from NYC during the summer, runs the gamut from conservative to liberal--we have members of the Blue Army sitting in the same pew as gay couples, we even had one gay couple baptize their child after the 10:30 mass one Sunday a few years ago. But this is what I like about it, whatever disagreements people have seem to be put aside in the name of God, when they offer each other the sign of Peace I think they really mean it. This is due, in no small measure, to our Pastor, who has somehow been able to make ideology a non-issue. If the conservatives appear to have won, I believe it is a phyrric victory.

  7. I was thinking about this conversation more tonight as I was riding the recombant bike at the gym and I began to see that, at least here in the US, this is not just about ideology. Demographics--socio-economic status, level of education-- plays a role as well. It occurred to me that a priest I know who is the pastor of a church about an hour from here has a very vibrant and active youth group for teenagers, which emphasizes service to the community, and the Masses at his church are full. He is very liberal so I guess you could say that his church is liberal. My church, by contrast, which I would call moderate/liberal, has no youth group and the teenagers stop going to religious education and Mass after they receive Confirmation. In CT this is the norm regardless of the ideological bent of the church, so much so that around 10-15 yrs ago the Archbishop moved Confirmation from age 12-13 to age 15-16 in hopes of keeping the teenagers coming to Mass and religious ed. a little longer (it didn't, they stopped coming around age 12-13 then came back for a year to prepare for Confirmation). I guess my point here is that my church can't get a youth group (or a decent choir) going because it is competing with hockey practice, ballet lessons, soccer camp, drama club, family ski trips to Telluride, etc etc etc. The parish an hour from here that has the vibrant youth group is less affluent and the kids don't have the options that the kids in my parish do. Most of the kids in my parish are college-bound, many to Ivy League schools, so they have to show all the extracurricular activities on their college applications and thats what trumps. Most of the kids in the other parish are not headed for college or if they are its more the smaller community colleges that they can commute to, where the extracurriculars (that they wouldn't have the means to participate in even if they were available to them) aren't as important. The conservative parish in a depressed city adjacent to where I live has an incredible choir, but few teenagers at Mass and no youth group, though they have often tried to get one started. So I think its more than ideology that puts the people in the pews. Maybe its different in Canada.