“Why was I ever doing it?” — An Ode to Betty Draper Francis

THIS POST CONTAINS MAJOR MAJOR MAJOR SPOILERS ABOUT THE FINAL SEASON OF MAD MEN.

If you have not seen last night’s episode, DO NOT READ THIS!

The penultimate episode of Mad Men was a doozy. For all who complain that “nothing happens” on this show, I hope you’re happy. Look what you’ve done. Last night, a lot happened. Namely, two major character’s story lines were wrapped up completely. Based on last night, we’ve probably seen the last of Betty, and Pete looks to be on his way out too.

Pete is taking a new job, getting back together with Trudy, and looking to start a new chapter in his life. I’ve been a big Pete fan for as long as I’ve watched the series — and yes, I know exactly how unpopular that opinion has always been, but I can’t help myself — and I’m sure hoping this change will stick. Pete’s been in a good place lately, and I like to think that he’s learned from his past. His conversation with his brother gives me hope that perhaps Pete has finally decided to settle and be happy with what he’s got, instead of constantly striving for more.

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The second character who found her end was Betty Draper Francis. Hit with an unexpected lung cancer diagnosis and only months to live, Betty doesn’t get a happy ending, but she does get a fitting one.

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This isn’t a slam piece against Betty Draper. Far from it. Betty Draper has always been a hard character to understand. Cold, stoic, precise, and often seemingly uncaring, Betty has never been a particularly likable character. She snaps at her children, pushes away responsibility, and makes Don — Don — look like a loving and attentive parent. But Betty is not, and has never been, a villain.

When she learns about her diagnosis, the doctor won’t even give Betty the news. He insists on calling her husband and then delivering the diagnosis to Henry, while Betty sits listening nearby, a bystander in her own death sentence. As we watch Betty’s rigid reaction, it’s a moment that is telling of Betty’s entire life.

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Betty has always been overcome with expectations. Expectations from society, from the men in her life, from her mother, and from herself about the way her life should look have steered every decision she’s made. Betty is a woman of appearances. A woman whose hair is always just so, whose clothes are stunning, and whose stoic face always masks the lack of fulfillment hidden beneath her cool exterior.

After getting the news, Henry, understandably, pleads with Betty to fight. He searches for a miracle, even as Betty resigns herself to the fact that there is no miracle to be found. She will die from this disease, and she will die quickly. “I’ve learned to believe people when they say it’s over,” Betty tells Sally in a quiet moment in Sally’s bedroom.

When Betty shows up in the morning, ready for class and determined to go to school, despite getting a terminal diagnosis, Henry asks, “Why are you doing that?” It’s a waste of time, he’s implying. It isn’t a proper way to spend her last months alive. Betty replies, “Why was I ever doing it?”

For all of her life, the answer to that question has been, “She’s doing it because she’s supposed to,” but this time, this final time, the answer is different; Betty is doing it, finally, because she wants to do it.

There is so much beauty in what is probably our final shot of Betty. As she works her hardest just to make it up the stairs, school books in hand, Betty has shed the weight of the expectations she’s been living under all of her life. Her final act is one of independence, of personal choice. She is going to class, because this is what she wants, and she’ll be damned if she’s going to let anything slow her down.

Was Betty Draper perfect? No. Never. But she was real. She fought and she grew; she fell and she got back up. She made mistakes, the same mistakes, infuriatingly over and over again, and though she’s never going to get the chance to become the woman she might have been, her daughter will get that chance.

Betty’s lasting legacy is Sally, a young woman born in a time of possibilities. A time where, unlike her mother, she won’t be reduced to a housewife. If Sally wants more, she’s going to get it. In her final letter to her daughter, Betty acknowledges this. Sally’s life will be an adventure, and even if Betty won’t be around to see it, she’s a part of that.

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3 thoughts on ““Why was I ever doing it?” — An Ode to Betty Draper Francis

    1. That would be just fine. The difference is that Sally will have a choice. Whether she wants to work or stay at home, she has the option to decide for herself. Betty didn’t have that.

  1. This is so well-written, thank you for your thoughtful commentary. I was really struck by this line of Betty’s, which led me to find your article online. PS – I was also a big fan of Peter Campbell 🙂 The series may be over, but it will never be forgotten.

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