Every once in a while I’ll return, detective-like, to a TV series, movie, or book I’ve read before in hopes of gleaning a new understanding of it. Finding a new angle on a character, perhaps. Or a statement delivered that I didn’t catch the first time around.
Recently, my current target is Mad Men, streamable on Netflix. A show set, at least initially, in the 60s around an advertising agency and its cavalier collection of employees, the series is full of dubious characters that alternate good and, if not outright evil, acts that deserve a fair amount of side-eye.
One of the main protagonists is Betty Draper, an intelligent former model made through marriage and children into a housewife, though she’s still quite young (somewhere in her 20s, though I’m not certain of the age). Given the tendency of her husband – the show’s star, Don Draper – to flake out on evenings with the family in favor of fabulous soirees and affairs in Manhattan, Betty depicted early and often as a victim. A life ruined by the circumstances of the time. She is a casualty of the age.
Except, no. And this is where we can find fun in looking at how her character grows and reacts. As the show moves through its first and second seasons, Betty begins to take some agency. To start pressing her concerns. Push for the things that she wants.
Given the dire straits of her daily life, we, the audience, should be rooting for her. Should be clamoring to see Betty return to pursuing a dream, to strive in accomplishing something that means something to her.
Instead, the show colors these new developments in grays. We may want to root for her, but Betty doesn’t treat the others in her life, including her children, very nicely. She’s temperamental, conflicted. Often demands punishment greater than the crime, and sets strange, gossipy traps for friends. Envy and jealousy start to rule her daily life, and even as she takes stands for herself, we no longer see those moves as the triumph of an underdog taking their due.
Turning a character in a sympathetic situation, one who the audience should be supporting, into a challenging protagonist is no small feat, and Mad Men is a better (if less, at times, enjoyable show) for it. Stories stick with you longer when the characters are real, when they are fractured collections of emotions, dreams both broken and whole. Most often, people cannot change without consequence, cannot attempt to shift their position in life without causing ripples. Movements that won’t be appreciated by everyone.
Betty Draper drowns her agency in her discontent. Her flaws, not her successes, make her real. We may not root for her, we may not like her, but we can’t help paying attention to what she does.
And for a story, that’s what matters.