Monday, September 14, 2009

The Fog: Or, Betty Draper Approaches Horror-Movie Levels of Weirdness

I've been fascinated by Betty in Mad Men ever since "Shoot" in Season 1 (you know, the one
where she shoots the neighbor's pigeons). She is tragic, she is insipid, she is repressed (but she's remarkably dressed) she's the gorgeous blonde caged bird who's been clearly nuts from the start but hasn't yet totally boiled over. Season 3 is her time. Each year she becomes more and more insane. At first, it was just a little harmless couch time. Then it was drinking in bedraggled party dresses at ten in the morning and porking strangers during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

But now, with last night's episode, our neurotic housewife and tattered WASP princess approaches horror-movie levels of madness.

The birth/birthing trope is a staple of the genre, from Dead Ringers to the Brood to Rosemary's Baby. There's nothing quite as terrifying as birth -- where else can so much go so monumentally wrong? -- and we've all seen enough Bad Seeds to know that the horror doesn't stopped once you've pooped them out your lady-chute. Procreation is a mine-field of potential disasters as children have the unique ability to shatter marriages and destroy a mother's delicate mental health with their shrill cries and constant demands. So it's no wonder Betty's birthing episode is the catalyst for the breakdown we've been waiting for these past two years.

The episode begins with Betty in Sally's classroom, hearing about her offspring's latest mischief from an earnestly idiotic third grade pedagogue. She gets up to pee, saying, "I can't control this." Her body is this THING she can't deal with, see? Flash forward to the birth. Betty's unnatural calm is in evidence, as usual, but begins to break down when she notices her "father" sweeping up in the hospital hallway. Note this is before Betty takes any drugs. Once she gets her "twilight sleep" on, there's no stopping her. Fabulous Lynchian hallucinations alternate with psychotic episodes in which Betty screams obscenities at her nurses, until finally, she hallucinates a conversation with her father. (Her mother -- and Medgar Evars -- are also present in the land of the dead.) Her father tells her: "You're a housecat. Very important with not much to do." Then she wakes up and names the baby Eugene.

A few minutes later, we see Betty standing at the window of her hospital room, holding the baby and waving at her family on the street, smiling serenely. For the rest of the episode she appears preternaturally calm and serene; when she arrives home she smilingly assures her friend the birth was nothing ("You know, it was all a fog") and that she'll make do just fine without any hired help. Meanwhile, we see Don and Sally have a conversation about the baby sleeping in Grandpa Gene's room ("It's not Grandpa Gene's room, it's the baby's room," Don reminds her) and since the apple doesn't fall far from the crazy tree, I'll be keeping my eye on that Sally kid, too.

The episode ends, naturally, with baby crying. Betty gets out of bed and walks down the hallway. Throughout her hallucinations we have been treated to several shots of the back of her perfectly-coiffed blonde head. This parting shot mimics that sense of unreality, as we watch her walk down the hall from behind. She stops, and steels herself before she enters the baby's room.

That moment where she has to physically steel herself to go into the room of that squalling infant, born amid clouds of paternal guilt, living in the dead father's room, named after him for goodness' sake, is, I believe, the most disturbing in a long list of disturbing Betty moments. What mother has to steel herself before entering her newborn baby's room, I ask you? No good will come of this ghost baby, or Betty's twilight sleep, I tell you.

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