Mad Men fans felt a ripple in the Force this week as Betty returned, several dress sizes slimmer and still dieting, but still with an enormous appetite for stirring up trouble.
It’s incredibly easy for Mad Men viewers to carpet-bomb the former Mrs Draper with hate, especially when you compare her to Joan, Peggy, or even Megan. She’s moody, passive-aggressive, childish, and though outwardly she resembles the impossible ‘perfect homemaker’ image that has been created and cultivated by ad men such as Don, she’s actually more like a malfunctioning Stepford Wife.
She’s no more flawed than any other character in the show, yet she’s so one dimensional that there’s nothing else to her. It’s like God made a woman out of nothing but stifled aggression and sighs.
There’s every opportunity for her situation to spark sympathy in the audience; watching her struggle with her weight, seeing her jealousy of Megan, trying to support her enchanted spruce tree of a husband Henry as he groans about politics. But then she goes and extinguishes any flicker of goodwill by trying to poison little Sally against her father and stir up no end of trouble for Don and Megan. You almost have to hand it to the writers for so ably crafting a character who ignites annoyance in the audience so easily.
Out of the strife that Betty brings comes a superb performance from Kiernan Shipka as Sally Draper, who is rapidly becoming the star of Season 5. Her performance is charming: assured and remarkably nuanced for someone so young, yet thankfully without a hint of ‘child-star’ about her precociousness.
Meanwhile, daddy Don tries to cure his atrophying creativity using naught but a cartoon devil voice of his own creation (he’s no Tex Avery) and by stifling the superior ideas of new recruit Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman). Feldman’s Ginsberg is a breath of fresh air through the tobacco-stale corridors of SCDP, and through the show in general. His moment with Roger Sterling (current bribes total: $1700) was so quirky that it’s a shame the two didn’t have more scenes together throughout the episode. Perhaps it’s because Roger was too busy toying with his ex-wife Jane like a cat that recently divorced the cream but still feels thirsty.
But beneath Ginsberg’s wise-cracks – “…and murder!” – there’s a tremendous amount of pain in his past, and Ben Feldman has conveyed it marvellously subtly in recent episodes. It’s never been made explicit, but that’s what Mad Men does so well; drip-feeding character information so carefully that, like looking at a Pointillist painting, it’s not until you stand back that you see the full image.
Yet when we stand back and try to see Betty in the same way all we get is just a character still wallowing in the shadow of Don. And it doesn’t appear as if that is ever going to change.
Aired at 9pm on Tuesday 15th May 2012 on Sky Atlantic.
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