Spoiler alert: If you have not watched the Sunday, May 10 episode of "Mad Men," "The Milk and Honey Route," don't read this post.
I have never felt as attached to the characters on a television show as I do to the cast of "Mad Men." Even before the series began, when I read what it was about and what Matt Weiner had planned for the show, I knew I would love it. From the very first episode I was caught up in the stories of one damaged character after another. Though the pace of the show was initially too slow, once I got used to it I realized that pacing was part of what captivated me -- the little moments that made up each episode adding up to great, big stories.
It's a little painful to admit this, but the character I identify most with is Betty. Though I worked for many years part-time and then had a post-college six-year, full-time career before I had my first child, most of my adulthood was (unlike Joan or Peggy) spent as a stay-at-home mom. In Betty -- especially the first two seasons -- I saw a little bit of myself; those long days when toddlers and preschoolers were the only people I talked to, when ennui set in at 3 p.m., when resentment towards my husband, who left each day to go to work, would sometimes bubble up and I'd run out of the house as soon as he walked in the door, headed straight for Barnes and Noble or drinks with friends.
When Betty was diagnosed with lung cancer, it was devastating. All I could think about were her three children, motherless (and maybe fatherless). When Sally read her letter -- before she was supposed to read it, of course -- I heard my own voice talking to my young children if something that awful had happened to me. What will become of them, without their mother?
The trick of "Mad Men" is that we all watch it and see what's being done so utterly wrong by the characters. We judge them for the choices they make with the wisdom of 45 years of history and change that they could never have predicted. While we may do this while watching many films and, to an extent, TV shows, something about "Mad Men" for me hit especially close to home, over and over again. Maybe it's because I've been thinking about these characters for seven years, rather than the two hours it takes to watch a movie.
I lived those days as a child. In 1970 I was only 8 years old, but those days are as much a part of me as yesterday, even if I can't remember much about them. I can feel the polyester of my mother's blouse, or the scratch of my father's face, late in the day. I can smell the cigarettes, taste the Frosted Flakes, hear President Nixon on television, even if I had no idea what he was talking about. I recognized the wallpaper, the clothes, the cars, the toys. I lived on Long Island, and my father commuted to New York City every day in a suit, just like Don did when he was married to Betty. My mother may not have been angry like Betty was, but she was always running somewhere, doing something, just to ward off the reality of what was happening in her marriage, in her life. The lives Betty and Don and their children lived were as familiar to me as those of my parents' friends who came to our house and drank and laughed and watched Laugh-In and "Monday Night Football."
I wanted, so many times while watching "Mad Men," to reach through the television and shake them. Stop all the drinking. Stop all the smoking. Pay attention to your children. Be nice to your wife. Don't be racist or misogynistic or anti-Semitic or snobby. Don't lose all that you have, like so many people do. Hold on to it. Don't run away. Don't jump.
As horrible as it is that Betty is dying, it was gratifying to hear her tell Sally, in her letter, that she's a wonderful young woman. A few weeks ago, Don told Sally that she is her parents, whether she likes it or not. I am hopeful that Sally got the best of both of them -- though we may never know.
My heart breaks for Betty, for Don, for Sally -- and it also breaks for so many lives that were lived in much the same way by people I knew, people who have vanished from my life, whether by death or by circumstance. Most of all, it reminds me that 45 years from now, this day will be archaic and unreal, and I will be a memory. I hope I'm a good one.
Previously published on Midlife Boulevard