Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Mad Men: The Milk and Honey Route, Betty & Sally edition

By this time next week, it will all be over and, as the perverse rule of the Internet requires, nobody will ever discuss the show again. With that in mind, I'm going to blog the show every single day this week.

Let's start with Sally because I know Sally. Although a few years younger, I am Sally. I had a mother a lot like Betty, although not quite so bad. But bad enough. Sally and I have very similar life stories.

It's a good thing to be able to be honest about Betty. An awful lot of people feel they have to find reasons to like Betty, or pretend to like her, just as they pretend to like the awful Sal Romano. Betty is not hateful but she isn't much of a mother and she isn't much of a woman and she isn't much of a wife.

Here is the best and the worst of Internet commentary in one post from Hanna Roisin.
For me, the episode revealed how deeply moralistic Weiner is. Each character became the best they could be, given their own limits. Betty, the least loved character on Mad Men, suddenly seemed like a realist, and tough—this is the Betty who once expertly shot a hunting rifle. Her concern about appearances seemed less like superficiality than a candid assessment of the only field she ever knew how to play on, and win. After all, even the boys at school don’t value her for her brains. (Mrs. Robinson.) I’ve never known anyone to accommodate to a cancer diagnosis so quickly. But in Betty’s case it made sense. What her letter revealed is that she knew she wasn’t cut out for an era where girls wear their hair long and loose, travel to Europe with their girlfriends, and debate psychoanalytic theory. She was made for an age of surfaces, and it was time for her to go, so she accepted the diagnosis with grace.
Let's begin with the worst. Betty fires an air rifle, not a hunting rifle, and there is no evidence that she does so expertly. The reason Roisin things she did it "expertly" is because she does it with style, a cigarette dangling from her mouth (just like Peggy's entry into McCann Erickson this season). Now, mull that over for a minute. Think of how sexist it is to judge women that way. (I also suspect that Roisin has strong views about guns even though she has made it abundantly clear that she is absolutely clueless about them.)

Okay, on to the good. The point that the characters are becoming the best they can within their limitations is pure gold. That is what Matt Weiner has done so far. This show, as I've said since the beginning, is about virtue ethics and becoming the best you can be within your personal limitations is a pretty good capsule definition of what virtue ethics is about. As such, it has a much broader scope than what we normally think of as ethics. 

Another way to put that might be to say that you are responsible for your own personality. Betty didn't just come to be the person she is, she trained herself to be this person all her life. Given what she has, which is a combination of limitations that life has dealt her and those she has created for herself, Betty does the best she can. And we should applaud her for that. We should also recognize the limitations she placed on herself, just as I did with Joan last week, and see how those play out for her character.

Betty is well set up to die bravely and we should admire that. The episode was a bit eerie for me for her attitudes and behaviours are exactly those that my mother showed when she died. Dying bravely is not easy and none of us have any idea how well we will do. 

At the same time, her bravery is very Betty like. She has no profound lessons for anyone as she is, as Roisin correctly notes, a very surface person and her concern with appearance is exactly what we'd expect of her (a subject I'll get back to in tomorrow's post).  I was reminded of something that Dani Shugart said about will power: that will power is unquestionably a virtue but we should remember that anorexics have wills of steel. That is a classic observation in virtue ethics, namely that virtues are of little value in isolation or, to flip it around, you need many virtues for any of your individual virtues to be of any use. It's no good being strong and brave if you aren't just and fair and it's absolutely useless to be just and fair if you aren't strong and brave enough to back up the just and fair stances you want to take in life. 

Betty is strong but there is something shallow and narcissistic about her strength, which isn't surprising as Betty is a shallow and narcissistic person and it is her fault that she got to be that way. We see this in her behaviour. She picks Sally to make sure her final wishes for burial are taken care of not out of any love for Sally but because she has made self-interested choice. Her attitude towards Henry is no better.

Sally is crying now but there will be a day, probably about a year after mother is gone, when she will suddenly find herself filled with rage. On that day, she will have put enough distance on her mother that the emotional ties will no longer blind her and the barely controlled resentment she now feels for her will break open and she will grasp that her anger is entirely justified. And then she'll be able to forgive her for she will finally see Betty for what she is. 

Then she can stop trying to be "a different person" than her parents as she says at the end of The Forecast and follow Don's very good advice:
You may not want to listen to this but you are like your mother and me. You're going to find that out. You're a beautiful girl and it's up to you to be more than that.
Betty never was.

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