Don't read on unless you've seen "Dark Shadows," Sunday's episode of "Mad Men."
You know how critics like to say, "Well, even a not-great episode of [Show X] is better than most things on TV"? I'm not going to say that about Sunday's episode of "Mad Men."
It was a bad episode of TV. And it was not in a special class of mediocrity that allows it to still somehow remain elevated above the fray. It made the mistakes that much less brilliant shows make. It repeated a lot of themes that we're already very familiar with, it didn't add to them in compelling or imaginative ways, and it featured a character that just doesn't work. "Mad Men" is usually a lot better than most shows, but "Dark Shadows" just didn't work in the way that episodes of much more mundane shows don't work.
"Mad Men" has always explored the idea of characters getting what they think they want and still being unhappy, a note it has sounded with increasing intensity this season. The unrelenting dourness is, frankly, taking its toll, and while I haven't really objected to the obvious symbolism we've also seen this season, really, a smog alert? The city is exceptionally full of filth, just all the characters contemplate, yet again, the toxins that fester in their own lives? Pardon me as I try to avoid that anvil.
And I'll just come out and say it: Any episode that prominently features Betty is a lesser episode of "Mad Men." My least favorite episode of the show is "The Fog," which has to get the edge in terms of badness because not only is it Betty-centric, it features a leaden dream sequence as well. It was a contrived, repetitive hour that just didn't go anywhere interesting.
"Dark Shadows," however, isn't far behind "The Fog," not least because Betty, fat or thin, just isn't as interesting as the show thinks she is, and when she turns up, "Mad Men's" ability to tell stories about bitterness and dissatisfaction becomes noticeably unsubtle. The lightness of touch "Mad Men" shows with other characters and other situations just isn't present for Betty stories.
So Betty's trying to lose weight, and she's trying, with the help of Weight Watcher's sincere and admirably earnest pop psychology, to assume the kind of maturity and perceptiveness that don't come naturally to her. But it's all an act, and nothing about Betty trying to be nice or reverting to her naturally bitchy state is of any interest to me at this point.
Of course she's unhappy with her constricted life with Henry. Of course once she sees Don's apartment, looks at Megan's lithe body and sees Don's lovely note to Megan, she isn't be able to handle it. Of course she'll whip out the shiv she always has handy and use it on Don. And in this endeavor, naturally, she uses her own daughter, who she's training to be just as manipulative and mean as she is.
I. Don't. Care. I don't care about Betty, and at this point, I never will. "Mad Men" clearly wants us to care about this child-woman's evolution from petty, spoiled suburban matron to fat, petty, spoiled suburban matron to slightly less fat, petty, spoiled suburban matron. January Jones has had some good moments in past seasons, in scenes in which Betty and Don confronted each other, either angrily or calmly, but when Jones isn't working with Jon Hamm, she becomes even less expressive than she normally is. Her one-dimensional performance and her chilly presence work against my ability to take an interest in what Betty does and doesn't want, and frankly the writing for the character doesn't help. "Mad Men" has repeated the same notes and themes for a long time now with Betty, but I am less and less interested in her as time goes by, and I would much rather spend time with other characters in this world.
I know what'll happen in the comment area, because it's happened many times before when I've written about Betty. Legions of commenters will tell me that I don't understand what it was like for women at the time, I don't understand Betty's particular dilemmas, I don't understand what creator Matthew Wiener is doing with the character, I don't understand how drama works, etc. I'm expecting all that.
You may not agree with my take, and that's fine. In response, I'll just say this: It's not the job of a storyteller to make me like his or her characters, and I'm not asking to like Betty. It's the job of a storyteller to make me interested in what happens to his or her characters. I'm not interested in Betty. This show, which is so fascinating and so fantastic in so many other ways, has dropped the ball in this regard. Betty simply bores me, especially when the show puts her at the center of an episode full of ideas that are not particularly fresh or creatively realized.
Clearly the theme of this week's hour was jealousy: Megan's actress friend was jealous of her secure and pampered life; Betty was jealous of Don's life; Don was jealous of Michael's Sno-Ball pitch (which was much better than Don's, in my opinion); Roger was jealous of Pete's success, of Jane's rather innocent flirtation and of her attempt to start a new life without him; Sally was jealous of Megan for knowing more than she did about Don; Peggy reacted with jealousy and anger when Roger went to Michael about Manischevitz, not her; Don and Pete were jealous when they realized that their agency hadn't been profiled in the Times article; etc. etc. Just about the only person not visited by the green-eyed monster was Dream Sequence Naked Rory Gilmore, whose visit gave the episode a welcome jolt of sensuality amid all the clenched, claws-out competition.
At least Don is still trying to get his creative mojo back, but in my opinion, his skills are still pretty rusty. As I said, I thought Michael's campaign was much better than Don's, and it felt odd that everyone acted as if their ideas were just about equally good. At least some of the episode's comedy came from the look on Peggy's face as she realized Michael would be unable to stop himself from bringing this up with Don, who unsurprisingly got the last word in in his elevator conversation with Michael.
How people reacted to others getting what they wanted, or how they reacted to others getting anything at all, was the idea that powered all the stories, but that feels like an idea that has generated a lot of stories already this season. I get it; people are often still unsatisfied when they get what they think they want. Last week, we saw Don peer into the void of an elevator shaft; this week in The Symbols of "Mad Men," we had characters stuffed into the airless little box of the elevator over and over again, jockeying for position in little pre-office cage matches. If the episode was meant to convey an air of claustrophobia, mission accomplished.
On the home front, of course it's natural that Sally, at her age, would begin trying out different personas and identities; a bitter, judgmental prig was bound to be one of them, especially given who's raising her. And in the end, given that Don didn't rise to Betty's bait, Sally didn't necessarily adopt her Betty pose permanently, thank goodness.
But just as Sally had to get one final dig in (she sweetly told Betty that Don and Megan spoke highly of Anna Draper), Betty couldn't give thanks without expressing gratitude for the idea that nobody was any better off than her. It's hard to spare a shred of sympathy for a wealthy, healthy person who is that obsessed with weighing and measuring what everyone else has.
And maybe that's part of the problem here. Not just the ungenerous thought that Betty expressed, but the endemic frustration and grinding unhappiness that most of the characters feel at this point. A few well-placed Roger quips are not quite enough, especially in particularly dour episodes like this, to relieve the gloom.
I recently created a slideshow comparing "Mad Men" to "Game of Thrones," and it's weird to say this, but I think "Game of Thrones" is the more hopeful show at this point. Not that I require the shows I watch to be hopeful, but I enjoy a mixture of darkness and light, and "Mad Men" is very dark this season; the theme of poison, toxins, pollutions and dirt keeps coming up.
"GoT" characters, as dark as things get for them, encounter unexpected allegiances, serendipitous luck and fortuitous opportunities (in addition to the usual roster of beheadings and so forth). Where's the hope on "Mad Men"? Which characters have something to look forward to? I love these people, I want to want things for them. I want there to be a least a few shards of optimism in their lives.
And please, give Betty a Sno-Ball and send her back to hell.
Follow Maureen Ryan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/moryan