This past Sunday night, season six of Mad Men premiered on AMC. Although Comcast has some sort of aversion to ever working properly so my DVRed recording of the episode froze every few minutes, nothing could deter me from watching the two-hour premiere.
The episode was wonderful, and I can’t wait to see what Matthew Weiner has up his sleeve for the rest of the season.
Throughout the course of the series, the one character I’ve never been able to connect with emotionally is Betty Draper Francis:
She’s what we might call… cold. Soulless. Sad. Beautiful but dead inside.
She’s such a boring, lifeless character that even after five seasons, it’s impossible to tell if January Jones – who portrays her – is a terrible actress or a really, really good one. It always feels like January is the one actor who looks like she’s acting, but maybe that’s because Betty feels like she’s acting.
So, I’ve never really connected with her character. In our very first post about our favorite women on TV, we were torn between including both Joan and Peggy from Mad Men, so we included both, but Betty never even crossed our minds, because we didn’t get her and didn’t connect to her.
Aside from the fact that Betty was an anthropology major at Bryn Mawr and I liked studying anthropology in college, we have very little in common.
In Sunday’s episode, though, Betty did something that I completely connected with. See that bottle-blonde, above? She did this to herself:
Oh, girl. I’ve been there. I’ve gone from that blonde to that brown (or shall we say, black).
When Betty – who had always been a blonde – walked in the door sporting new, dark hair, she got a tepid-to-outright-angry response from her family. Her son Bobby said something like, “I hate it – you look ugly!” and ran out of the room (that little brat), but Betty was unfazed.
She wasn’t doing this for Bobby, or Henry, or her other kids – she was doing this for herself.
When I saw Betty’s dark hair, part of me wanted to yell “when you get sick of that, you can’t just put more dye on top of it, you know!” but part of me was thrilled to see some signs of life in her. Or at least, an outward expression of her internal emotions.
As a confessed hair dye addict (as in, I’ve spent half my life unsure of what my real hair color is), I connect on a deep level with other women who dye their hair to either initiate a change in their life, or make an outward expression of a change that’s already happened.
Throughout most of high school, college, and my adult life, I’ve dyed my hair for a couple of reasons.
One is to reflect my feelings during a particularly emotional time in life. I went black (and it was hard to go back. like, really. I had to get the color stripped at the salon.) during my freshman year of college when I didn’t have any friends. I went bright blonde right before I got married. Or, I’ve dyed my hair when I needed to jumpstart some sort of change in my attitude. Put both of those things together, and there’s very little room for natural hair color in a woman’s life.
I don’t presume to understand the nuances of every single word uttered in an episode of Mad Men, but I do think I understand Betty’s hair transformation. She’s a woman who probably never really wanted the life she actually has, and she found herself connecting with a 15-year-old friend of her daughter’s, who ran away during this episode. That girl was a talented violinist who was hoping to get into Julliard, but when she didn’t, she ran away to New York City, stayed in a dirty run-down building for free, then sold her violin to make a little money so she could keep living her runaway life. That girl was living a life that Betty used to live, and although she’s outgrown it, there’s a part of her that wishes she would’ve stayed on that path. She meets some young men who are squatting in the building, who take one look at her dressed in nice clothing and deem her incapable of understanding their current lifestyle (oh, but Betty shared a tiny apartment with a group of girls in her early 20s! She gets it!). They even make an offhand comment about her “bottled” hair color, which – although fairly shallow – cuts Betty deep. She realizes that her bottled blonde has long been an outward characteristic of what she’s feeling inside – she doesn’t really want the life she has, but she’s been conditioned to believe that it’s what she should have, so she soldiers (sadly) on. But on the way home, she decides that she can be someone else. She can change the way she perceives herself, and maybe the way others perceive her. So, she dyes her hair “Elizabeth Taylor” brown, and shows her family that she’s her own woman.
Either that, or she’s upset that someone made fun of her hair, but I choose to believe we’re finally seeing a little more depth to her character.
In the coming episodes, we might see big changes in Betty, or we might see her staying the same. Her hair color might be an outward expression of a new direction she’s taking in life, or it might just be an attempt at doing so that doesn’t quite work out. I hope it’s the former, but either way, I’m glad she finally did something I understood.
Betty Draper Francis, I might be starting to get you.