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Mad Men's Betty Francis offers an extraordinary example of grace

Betty tells her daughter the bad news.
Betty tells her daughter the bad news.
AMC

Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the previous episode of Mad Men over the course of that week. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by education reporter Libby Nelson and foreign policy writer Amanda Taub. Keep checking in all week long for new entries.

Amanda Taub: Libby, I'm so glad that you were also taken with this Betty storyline.

Betty has always been one of my favorite characters on Mad Men, in part because the show managed to make the audience's frustrations with Betty as a character mirror Betty's frustrations with the limitations of her life. There were reliable yowls every time Betty got a major storyline. Why was the audience being forced to spend time in the suburbs with her, when more important, interesting, and glamorous things were happening in the city? But Betty, of course, often seemed to be asking herself the same thing. She was sophisticated, educated, and glamorous — why had all that left her in a supporting role while the "real" drama played out without her?

It's undeniable that Betty's frustration often took unpleasant forms. She snapped at her children and manipulated her friends. She's deeply flawed, just like everyone else on this show. But her character's response to dying is, in many ways, an extraordinary example of grace.

After she hears the news, her first thoughts go to her children: how to keep this information from them for now, and how to tell them when she has to. She isn't desperate for a few extra months; she is focused on what she can do with the time she has left, and what that time will be like for the people she loves. Henry uncharitably suggests that her refusal to accept treatment might be because of vanity, but the episode makes clear that Betty instinctively understands that when time is short, the quality of it matters more than the quantity.

Henry doesn't realize that. His response is to try to desperately try to fix the situation. The scene in the car as he runs through his political connections is sad, but also familiar. That kind of magical thinking (how is the governor going to fix Betty's lung cancer?) is hardly unique to Henry Francis. But it's particularly sad in Henry's case, because it suddenly shows the hollowness of the way he has lived his life. He has put his faith in a system of powerful men, only to discover that when he has a true crisis, it's not something that calling "Rocky's office" can fix. He ends up turning to a teenage girl instead, begging Sally to intercede with Betty on his behalf.

But Betty hasn't put her faith in anything but herself for a long time. In previous episodes, that often seemed like selfishness, but now it's a strength. That becomes clearer in her scene with Sally. When Sally lashes out, accusing her mother of refusing treatment because "you love the tragedy," Betty doesn't get defensive. Yes, Betty agrees, with treatment she could have as much as a year. But what would that year be like? "I watched my mother die. I won't do that to you."

Betty's not a quitter — she just knows when she's been beaten. "I've fought for plenty in my life. That's how I know when it's over. It's not a weakness. it's been a gift to me, to know when to move on."

Her letter to Sally shows the same grace.  While its details may seem petty — the blue dress, the lipstick, how to do her hair — those demands are really a gift, because they give Sally a final opportunity to please her mother. Anyone who has lost someone close to them knows how valuable that is. What wouldn't we give to have a chance to do one more nice thing for the people who are no longer with us?

No one we love ever dies the way we want them to. The best we can hope for is that they will show us what we can do to help them in their final moments, and leave us final reassurance of their love. Betty did that perfectly for her daughter.

"I always worried about you, because you march to the beat of your own drum. But now I know that's good, because your life will always be an adventure. I love you. Mom."

Read the recap, and come back tomorrow for more thoughts from Libby and Todd.

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