Does Betty Draper Francis Really Deserve This?

Photo: Courtesyof AMC.
Warning: Spoilers ahead for the penultimate episode of Mad Men.

From the very beginning, fans have speculated that Mad Men could end with Don Draper's demise. Might it possibly have been right there in the opening credits the entire time, or was the series more about a metaphorical plunge into the abyss? We were so busy wondering what would happen to Don that we didn't even think about other characters' mortality. Sure, some of Mad Men's key players have died — and Bert Cooper continues to act as a ghostly spirit guide and manifestation of Don Draper's conscience. One person whose death we never actually considered, though, was Betty's. 

The specter of lung cancer has also always loomed large over the series. The very first episode dealt with how to advertise Lucky Strike cigarettes in the wake of numerous studies showing the connection between smoking and lung cancer. In a direct reflection of the pilot's title, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," Don's pitch went with the advertising equivalent of pulling wool over consumers' eyes (and foreshadowed what we would later learn about Don, which was that he, too, was concealing numerous painful truths). Everyone's cigarettes contained poisonous tobacco, but look: Lucky Strike's was toasted! At least people would be smoking the tastiest cancer conveyor. AMC recently released data showing that since then, the characters on Mad Men have smoked 942 cigarettes. 

It's been seven seasons, and the hundreds of cigarettes have finally caught up to someone: Betty Draper Francis. On last night's episode, "The Milk and Honey Route," Betty fell while climbing a staircase at school. When she got to the hospital, it turned out that she had something a lot more serious than a broken rib: advanced lung cancer. While her husband Henry wanted to do everything in his power to find the best oncologists and fight it, Betty was stoic and resigned to her fate. Henry thought she was just in shock, but it turned out that Betty Draper was hiding an inner strength all along. 

Betty has always been one of the most contentious characters on Mad Men. We learned in the pilot that her husband was blowing smoke in her eyes, too. While she played the part of a model turned wife in the suburbs, her husband philandered his way through New York City and kept secrets from her. Betty could have evoked viewers' sympathies, but instead, "While the ladies around her bloom, Betty hardens. Her character (in both senses) gets ever icier, vainer, more alien — nearly camp at times, like some hissable Barbie with the most cake," Emily Nussbaum wrote on Vulture at the end of Season 4.

Mad Men has always had a conflicted relationship with mothers. Peggy opted out of being one when she put her and Pete's baby up for adoption; she has been rewarded professionally for doing away with this encumbrance. Don's mother was a prostitute, and he clawed his way out of his humble beginnings by blowing up his C.O. in Korea and stealing Don Draper's identity. When Joan met a potential suitor in an earlier episode this season, he initially balked when she found out she had a son. 

No mother could be more contentious than Betty Draper Francis, though. Her vanity turned her daughter against her, and this was more than evident on last night's episode. Against Betty's wishes, Henry retrieved Sally from boarding school, thinking she could convince her mother to fight the cancer. Betty took one look at Sally, knew exactly why she was home, and walked away. 

Later, Sally confronted Betty. "You won’t get treatment because you love tragedy," she told her mother. Despite this accusation, Sally was ready to leave school to stay home and care for Betty. 
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Photo: Courtesy of AMC.
Her mother wasn't having it. Her imminent demise wasn't an attention grab, but a selfless act. "I watched my mother die. I won’t do that to you," Betty told Sally. "And I don’t want you to think I’m a quitter. And that’s how I know when it’s over. It’s not a weakness. It’s been a gift to me."

In her death, Betty is showing the human side viewers searched for all along. We don't need all characters to be likable, but we do need to know their motivations, and it was often hard to understand why Betty calcified the way she did whenever life threw her a curveball. Perhaps she was terrified of being pitied and stereotyped. Even in the note she left for Sally to open after her death, Betty spent much of it detailing what she wanted to be wearing and how she wanted her hair and makeup to look when she was interred. 

While Betty will likely go to the grave with many mysteries (and perhaps this is symbolized by the psychology degree she's pursuing), she may also die a more fully realized character. "Sally, I always worry about you because you marched to the beat of your own drum. Now I know that’s good. Your life will be an adventure," she wrote in her letter to Sally. The two have never seen eye to eye, but Betty respects the woman her daughter's become in spite of their differences. 

Does Betty deserve to be the character on Mad Men to die of lung cancer? That's up for each viewer to decide. Her illness, however, is already giving viewers a lot to think about. Most surprisingly, though, is how many fans are already grieving her death on Twitter. Could this be Matthew Weiner's final attempt at redemption for a show that's been so conflicted about mothers? We've only got one episode left to find out.
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