Betty Draper Will Soon Be Set Free

It turns out that the much-maligned housewife is one of the most complete characters on "Mad Men."

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17 May 2015, 6:11pm

January Jones as Betty Draper in 'Mad Men'

Warning: Spoiler alerts if you haven't watched season seven.

With last week's episode of Mad Men, Betty Draper's fate was irrevocably sealed. We still don't know when (or even if) Don will return from his Kerouacian road trip, whether the reunited Campbells will truly find a new beginning in Wichita, or what will become of the ascendant Peggy, rollerskating the night away to Roger's organ soundtrack. What we do know is far more dire: The show's most misunderstood character has terminal cancer and won't live another year.

Betty's arc ends at the same time as the show itself, meaning the audience will never get a sense of what this fictional world might look without her. She won't see her free-spirited daughter Sally grow up, but then again, neither will we.

Mad Men isn't the first to spice its final episodes with some high-profile deaths. Lost, Breaking Bad, and (depending which theory you subscribe to) The Sopranos all axed key characters in their last few episodes. But Betty has been at the periphery of AMC's flagship program since she and Don divorced in season three, with her (mostly) steady marriage to Henry Francis too self-contained to be relevant to the show as a whole.

So her sendoff is something of a shock. Couldn't she have remained vaguely dissatisfied with her lot in life for decades to come, placating herself with simple pleasures (her love of horses) and an established routine (being back in school), as we assume everyone else on this show will once the final credits roll?

And yet her death feels almost like a gift from series creator/frequent Betty-defender Weiner. Fine, he might as well be saying to reactionary viewers who've been calling for this sort of thing for years. You want her dead? Here. Not as satisfying as you thought it'd be, eh? Perhaps such a dramatic fate was necessary to finally getting everyone to understand where TV's most famous twice-married housewife is coming from.

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Betty's was always an unfulfilling existence full of low-level tragedy. After giving up her modeling career to become a mother, she's struggled to feel useful. Seemingly everyone knew of Don's philandering before she did, and at one point the only friend she has is Glen, the adolescent son of a neighbor, and even that ended on a sour note after he grew up and volunteered to fight in Vietnam.

"[Betty] was a model. She talks about her school days," Weiner said in an interview with LA Weekly in 2013. "She's obviously educated and she reads. She's intelligent, but [beauty] is really how she's defined." Betty has suffered far more than the run-of-the-mill bored housewife, with few freedoms and fewer friends.

"I'm sort of sick of defending her," January Jones, who plays Betty, said in an ABC interview in April. "I love her, and I'm sad I'll never get to speak for her again because she's brave in a way I'll never be."

Even after Don's serial infidelity compelled her to strike out on her own, a strained relationship with her children (especially the willful Sally) followed her until what will prove to be her final days. Her ex-husband has never been happy either, but he at least has the agency and discretionary income to flee his mistakes and distract himself from the harsh realities that Betty is forced to confront every day.

Evidently, playing someone's wife on TV can be as thankless as actually being one of those wives.

In reaction, the media narrative finally shifted this week. Obituaries and dissections have been posted en masse, many by outlets who'd previously extolled the anti-Betty worldview. She may not have been likable at all times, but the rush to write her off was never fair. It's just unfortunate that it took her impending doom to make people reconsider her.

Not that this is anything new. Breaking Bad actress Anna Gunn received an astonishing level of vitriol from irate viewers who couldn't stand the way Skyler stood up to her meth-cooking husband—this started as early as the first season, when she was merely suspicious, and escalated throughout the show as she learned the full extent of his dealings. Betty's trajectory was quite similar. Evidently, playing someone's wife on TV can be as thankless as actually being one of those wives, and Jones has received misplaced criticism from the very beginning. Betty has long been one of the show's easiest characters to dismiss, whether detractors attributed it to the character's hollowness or the actress's limited range. Both complaints are, and have always been, overstated.

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One of the easiest things to forget about the former Elizabeth Hofstadt, at least until she announced her plans to pursue a master's in psychology earlier this season, is that she already holds an anthropology degree from Bryn Mawr. She was too intelligent and too restless to be happy being arm candy and a perpetual hostess in the Draper and Francis households. She occasionally made gestures toward going back to work but never had the support or confidence to follow through. Though she struggled against that sad truth for years, she accepts death with a serenity that few others on the show could muster. Even her second husband, who's made a habit of relying on his political connections to solve their biggest problems, is absolutely incapable of processing the truth of what's happening.

In its way, this makes her one of the show's most complete and prescient characters. Mad Men has never been the most plot-intensive show, and the fact that so many people drifted in and out of it felt apropos of the hazy 60s. But Betty isn't fading away. Rather, she's burning out. What becomes of the Ken Cosgroves and Harry Cranes of this world will be hard to recall in a year's time. But no one who tuned in to AMC over the last eight years will forget Betty's fate anytime soon. No longer does she occupy the margins.

"I'm so sad," Betty tells the ten-year-old Glen all the way back in season one. She'd remain sad for much of the following decade, but our last glimpse of her in this eventful episode offers the slimmest degree of hope. As Sally reads a letter from her and the two women silently, distantly come to the understanding that's eluded them for years, we see Betty with a faint smile as she heads to class. She's fought for years to get to this point and do something for herself—so why stop now? She's free in a way she never was before.

The series finale to Mad Men airs tonight on AMC.

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