9:38 am Apr. 2, 20126
Here’s something that I found mildly distracting about last week’s two-hour "Mad Men" premiere: even though there was so much attention paid to Don’s birthday and there was a general air of fatigue wafting through the office, with all the characters so exhausted by the fact that they had achieved exactly the kind of life they had thought they wanted, everyone still looked exactly as good if not better than they had when the show started.
I went back afterwards and watched a couple episodes from the first season, and you know that thing that happens where you realize how much the actors have aged even when you thought they hadn’t? Well, that thing didn’t happen. As I said last week, Jon Hamm looked about 40 in season one and he looks about 40 now.
Not that it destroyed the viewing experience for me, because "Mad Men" is a television show, and a particularly attractively lit one at that, but it did feel different from watching a show like "The Sopranos," where with each season Tony’s control over his empire receded in lockstep with his hairline. As he grew heavier, he also became scarier, more prone to erratic swipes with his bear claw. With "Mad Men," I can understand why Don and Megan are an inappropriate match, but it has nothing to do with physical incompatibility. When it comes to Don growing old, there’s an awful lot of telling without showing.
Which brings us to this week’s episode, in which the opening credits might as well have read “And introducing Betty Draper’s new chin.”
Intellectually, I feel like the decision to transform Betts from a woman who has always relied on her looks to one whose beauty has faded is an interesting one. And it’s certainly in keeping with the overtly stated theme of this season: that time isn’t on anyone’s side. But in actual, now-I-have-to-suspend-disbelief-and-pretend-that-there-isn’t-a-make-up-team-out-there-already-clearing-a-shelf-off-for-their-Emmy terms, I had some issues.
For starters (and this is not in any way meant as a slight to the actress I am about to name), but I found a fat January Jones to look alarmingly like a skinny Kristin Wiig. That could have been just me, but there was just something so broad-comedy/Shallow Hal/fat Monica about it, wasn’t there? With Fat Betty, it’s not that I found the idea of her getting so big unrealistic, it’s that I never for a minute forgot that what I was seeing wasn’t real. I couldn’t get lost in it. Which is a shame, because attempting to show that transition is important, especially considering the direction the show is heading in. One of the more startling aspects of adulthood, I’ve found, is that moment when you realize that aging isn’t just about wrinkles and hair loss and having to switch from playing basketball outside to inside because of your knees. It’s about being forced to go from being one type of person to another against your will. No one in the history of time has ever believed that one day they might look like their mom or dad. No one hasn’t thought, “It won’t happen to me.” So the idea of "Mad Men" confronting this intrigued me. And there were glimpses in last night’s episode where I found it working, like when Betty got out of the tub and you saw her thick middle, or the way her hair, while technically the same, had lost all its power once it wasn’t framing her perfect jawline. Fat Betty conjured up associations with a certain type of woman who I could picture in my head, and I enjoyed pondering the thought of these women once having been as gorgeous as January Jones. But the actual experience of watching her, for the most part, rang false.
And then, of course, there’s the question of what happens to her next. There are only a couple directions we can go in. Either Matthew Weiner will commit to the fat suit and this is the Betty Draper who will be in our lives until the show finishes, which, if even three percent of the rumors I’ve heard about January Jones are true, I have a hard time believing is going to happen. Or else Jones' real-life pregnancy served as more of a inspirational image added to Matthew Weiner’s Pinterests, a springboard to the actual story that seems to be on the verge of developing, where Betty Draper pill-pops her way toward the '70s as Sally Draper pushes more and more of her supper around on her plate. And while I prefer the latter option to the former, there is something a little too on the prosthetic-nose side of things about the whole diet-pill future, as though Matthew Weiner set the alarm on his phone to alert him when we arrived at that part of the decade. I know there were a lot of women like Betty at that time who felt exactly like she did (As Don says to Megan when she asks what Betty wants anyway: "Who knows?") but at the moment I’m having trouble mustering the enthusiasm for exploring her plight in this way. It might have something to do with that house she’s living in which also seems to have helped itself to a second serving of ice cream since last season. Was it always that big? A zonked-out Betts sleepwalking her way around that mausoleum (while Henry Francis disses Mitt’s dad) just doesn’t feel that fun.
Then again, fun is what I’m beginning to think is going to be the trade-off this show makes for bravely deciding to advance its world forward in time instead of merely allowing it to bask in the impeccably art-directed gimmick it was sold on. As the characters inch toward our contemporary lives, it’s not just their expressions and references that become more recognizable; it’s also their fears.
“When is everything going to get back to normal?” asks Roger, and we, the viewers smile at each other from our couches, like we smiled at each other when Betty smoked while pregnant or when Don didn’t like that Lemon Volkswagon ad. We smiled then because we were watching from the superior vantage point of the future and we smile now because we’re watching from the inferior one. Growing old, becoming irrelevant, dying, we know what it feels like to be afraid of these things too, and that it has nothing to do with the era we were born into.
There’s already such an undercurrent of mortality pulsing through this season that I ultimately found Betty’s tumor storyline unsatisfying. Her grappling with being invisible is more compelling and that kitchen-table dream sequence was amateur hour. I also am disturbed by the malleability of Megan’s character. It feels very un-"Mad Men" like. Last season ended with Megan cleaning up Sally’s spilled milkshake in a way that was a clear contrast to irritable, unhappy Betty. I know reading character’s minds is dangerous business but there was an obvious correlation between motherless Don breaking his "no secretary" rule as soon as he saw Megan exercise patience with his children. Now we have him telling Roger that he doesn’t know what would happen to the kids if Betty died because Megan wouldn’t know what to do, and while I realize that mopping up a milkshake isn’t the same as having to parent one anorexic pre-teen and one kid who will probably get recast again, I still would’ve liked at least some acknowledgement that Megan’s knack with Don’s kids was once as intoxicating to him as her rug-cleaning skills.
I wasn’t crazy about Don’s new secretary, Dawn, either, or at least the way she was suddenly just there. That felt weird considering how last week’s episode ended. For a show that is so intent on representing the changing times, it has never seemed comfortable handling the racial stuff head on. Here’s to hoping that her character isn’t set in stone and she will rise above being just a play on her name.
Starlee Kine is a a frequent contributor to PRI's "This American Life." She'll be writing The Girl, a weekly look at "Mad Men," every Monday this season. Previously: It's 1966 in Don Draper's world, and the girls are everywhere.