Betty Draper has never been the most stably developed character of the Mad Men universe; in just over four seasons, we’ve witnessed Pigeon-shooting Betty, Rome Relaxation Betty, Quiet Distress Smoking Betty, and Frazzled Yelling Betty. Her appearances always feel slightly disruptive, as if these random incarnations materialized out of the ether; indeed, her character’s reactions are often unpredictable, ranging from hysterical to anti-climactic. Season 4 dedicated an entire storyline to explaining her erraticism, wherein she visited a child psychologist on a weekly basis, talking through her anxieties and fears. The success of these appointments contrasted greatly with her adult psychologist in Season 1, leading us to believe Betty had the mind and personality of a child. Season 5 features an uneven focus on the character, largely because of her actress’s pregnancy; occurring as mere coincidence, this unintentionally adds to Betty’s unpredictable, inconstant persona—crafts the feeling that the character’s very existence is in a state of limbo, causing mass disruption when she appears, only to recede into the background for large swathes of time.
Season 5, episode 2 introduced us to obese Betty, the newest incarnation of the characters’ action figure-esque catalog of melodramatic identities. Obese Betty is constantly on the verge of tears, cursed by anxieties over the plump figure she’s amassed living as a sedentary suburban housewife. She worries that Harry’s acceptance of her weight roots in his mother’s rotundness, and feels shame over her appearance; this is made clear when she makes her husband turn away as she gets dressed after a bath. After a long seven episode hiatus, Betty is now back, attempting to control her eating, as seen with the show’s opening shot of her weighing blocks of cheese. This attempt at control isn’t limited to dietary habits, however; Betty is attempting to achieve emotional stability through her relationship with food. Whether it be comfort or control, Weight Watchers or Cool Whip, Betty adjusts to, and comprehends, reality through eating.
Early in the episode, while attempting to pick up her children, Betty is let into Don’s new apartment by Sally. Her first time in Don’s new place, she’s taken aback by its splendor, and explores; while looking around, however, she accidentally peeks Megan getting dressed, triggering one of her quiet moments of unspoken desperation. Megan is vivacious, young, and sexy, yet what Betty sees isn’t merely the image of Megan bent over in her underwear—it’s a reflection of her former beauty in the house of her ex-lover. Megan’s sexiness isn’t simply an embodiment of fleeting physical perfection—is instead representative of a life and identity gone by. Returning home from this encounter, Betty runs to the fridge and squirts a load of Cool Whip in her mouth. This clearly isn’t an act of hunger—no matter how hungry a person may become, they wouldn’t run to the refrigerator in search of Whipped Cream to pile in their face; rather, Betty’s using food as a surrogate drug for her anxiety—seeks junk food in the same way an addict seeks out junk.
This desperation is exacerbated later by a letter from Don to Megan which Betty inadvertently finds mixed in with Bobby’s homework.
I went to buy a light bulb.
When I get back, I’ll see you better.”
This oddly topical love letter isn’t hurtful to Betty because of its gushing expression of adoration—it’s hurtful because of its focus on “the gaze”. Unlike Megan, who Don wants to “see…better” so badly that he’s out buying lightbulbs, Betty skulks around in the dark, forcing her husband to avert his eyes when she’s naked. Complicating this is the letter’s authorship; Don cheated on his wife countless times, constantly turning his gaze towards other women, thus denying her his attention; the letter therefore acts as both an affront to her current undesirable figure and callback to her past neglect at the hands of her ex-husband.
Betty’s reactions to “the gaze” are destructive and self-defeating; just as she defines her own inadequacies by judging others, she crafts her own weight gain by seeking food as a comfort from the anxiety these judgments cause. In doing so, she becomes a masochist—forever consoled by that which causes her pain. Food fills the void Don left in her life—provides a fleeting comfort and shallow sense of security. In both marriage and professional life, Betty has faced a lack of commitment—Don’s infidelities, then her own abandonment of modeling (largely at the will of her ex-husband). Her using food as a temporary fix for more permanent anxieties should then come as no surprise; she’s grown into adulthood without anything to anchor her life—knows only broken vows and abandoned dreams.
Unlike her past incarnations, however, obese Betty seems aware of her emotional failings—spits out the Cool Whip she sought as comfort, attends Weight Watchers, and provides her husband emotional support. After catching her husband frying a steak one night, Harry tells Betty he’s worried about his career—that the candidate he was rallying alongside has decided not to run for Governor. He says “I bet on the wrong horse, Betty. I jumped ship for nothing”. This echoes a discussion Don and Betty had during the finale of Season 4; when Don asks Betty how the new house is, she replies “It’s not perfect”. Don’s response, “Then you’ll move again” suggests they’re discussing more than just the house—that her marriage with Harry, as we saw throughout that season, isn’t the idealized romance she imagined it would be. Harry’s aforementioned statement likewise comes loaded with unintentional meaning, this time as a result of Betty’s viewing of Don’s luxurious new pad and beautiful wife. The camera lingers on her for a second after listening to his confession, the pause suggesting feelings that she may have broken things off with Don at the wrong time—that she wouldn’t be living a depressed, obese suburban life if she’d not “jumped ship”. Still, she consoles Harry. “This is a setback,” she says. “You’re always thinking about other people, but then you’re upset that nobody’s thinking about you. It’s so easy to blame our troubles on others, but really, we’re in charge of ourselves”.
It’s doubtful that Betty truly believes this–is obviously a canned mantra from the Weight Watchers sessions she’s been attending; shortly before this scene, we witness her lashing out at Don (for his letter) by way of Sally, suggesting she hasn’t entirely given up blaming others for her problems, and Betty has never been in charge of herself, routinely giving her husband carte blanche over her life, from career to living conditions. While her support of Harry is refreshing, it also provides insight into her own mind; the statement “You’re always thinking about other people, but then you’re upset that nobody’s thinking about you” reflects personal feelings of rejection after facing Don’s new wife. Indeed, she’s plagued by thoughts of her ex-husband’s joyous new life in comparison with her own lamentable existence—obese, saddled with a husband who sneaks about cooking late at night in compensation for his wife’s poor diet, living in the suburbs. Her time with the Weight Watchers group acts as a surrogate psychologist’s office—though she attends intending to lose the weight, she also uses it as a platform to express her feelings of inadequacy. Even in such a focused environment, Betty attempts to merge her insular life with food.
The episode closes with the Francis Thanksgiving Dinner—as the family sits down at the table, Bobby berates his mother for beginning to eat too early; “We’re supposed to say what we’re thankful for”, he says. The camera pans around the table, with each character giving a sincere reason to be thankful, finally ending with Betty. “I’m thankful that I have everything that I want”, she says, “and that nobody has anything better”. This isn’t true, of course—nearly every action she’s taken this episode has been in response to feelings of inadequacy and disapproval. Betty misses her formerly attractive shape, longs for a house in the city akin to Don’s, and wishes, most of all, for a little control over her life. She secretly feels that everyone has something better than her, and may even believe herself undeserving of anything better. Though she obviously fancies a storybook New York life, her past relationship with Don and current dependency on food suggests low self-worth—that Betty somehow desires betrayal by that which she confides in.
Betty’s quest for a new body reflects each of episode 9’s conflicts—Don’s plight to regain former advertising glory, Megan’s comparing her acting talent with her friend, Pete’s seeking to re-attain his mistress’s attention, and subsequent detachment from his own wife; each has lost something they once defined themselves by—rhetoric and lies, acting ability, romantic spark—something they see the people around them claiming as their own. All lash out in their own ways— Don’s use of his position in the company, Megan’s outward attack on her friend, Pete’s threat to sleep with his train buddy’s wife—yet among these, only Don comes out successful; unfortunately, even his Sno-Ball victory is an end to a battle rather than a war. The characters of Mad Men have arrived at a crossroads—must struggle to cling onto their past selves, becoming stagnant and miserable in the process, or move on and accept their life changes. This is reflective of the shift the show itself took between Season 4 and 5—just as Mad Men’s first four seasons focused on Don Draper’s identity crisis only to shift into a more diverse character study of the cast during season five, so has each characters’ lives taken new shapes they’re not yet entirely comfortable with or accepting of. Like so many internet fanboys who cry out at the incongruities writers create with the established mythology of a television series, these characters are desperately in search of the past—of Betty Draper’s thin figure, Don’s marketing prowess, Pete’s sleeze—refusing to move on with time. In the words of Don Draper, “We’re flawed because we want so much more. We’re ruined because we get these things and wish for what we had.”.