The first sign there’s something bent about Betty Draper comes halfway through the first season of Mad Men.
One minute, she’s engaged in her regular morning routine, scrambling eggs for the children in a nightie, making stilted small talk with her husband Don (who, as usual, looks like he’d rather be drinking a breakfast gimlet) – the next, she’s sauntering out to the backyard, shotgun slung over her shoulder, ciggie clamped in her lips like Annie Oakley, to happily pick off the neighbour’s homing pigeons.
This was the emotionally stunted fembot fans had grown to love (and hate)? Yes, it turns out – and then some. Betty would go on to divorce Don, remarry, have a third child and continue her impeccably consistent parenting regime of benign neglect coupled with regular bouts of sado-sexual sexual jealousy.
Next Sunday, Mad Men returns after an agonizing 17-month hiatus. Like everyone else, I’m keen to find out if Don marries his Québécois secretary (don’t go there, Jessica Pare!). But what I’m most interested in is the next incarnation of Betty: Will she finally break down and beg Don to come back (it’s so obvious under all that resentment she’s still crazy about him)? Or will she finally crack up, for real this time? Only the head writer of the series, Matt Weiner, knows what will happen in the long run and he’s not telling – typical unreadable, compartmentalizing, workaholic male.
Or maybe not. Emotional detachment combined with mental instability – the traditional hallmark of the socially dysfunctional male – has lately become the defining trait of small-screen heroines in what has become the TV drama’s Age of Enlightenment.
Once upon a time, in a TV land not so far away – I’m thinking The Sopranos – major female characters were either a) sympathetic, all-knowing voices of reason (Carmella) who kept loveably unhinged menfolk from complete self-destruction; or b) nut jobs who invariably ended up dead, sidelined or both (see practically every other woman on the show for details). These days, however, unhinged female protagonists are not only outdoing their male cast members in charisma and obsessiveness – they’re driving the narrative. And what’s more important in a good series than a character who pushes the story forward?
In the best sort of drama, the protagonist manages to be both highly sympathetic and deeply flawed – a combination that, until fairly recently, was treated as pretty much mutually exclusive for women on TV. Sure, there were a few unbalanced early suffragettes (think Helen Mirren hitting the bottle in the later seasons of the original British version of Prime Suspect, or Ally McBeal’s loopiness). But, for the most part, female characters on long-running hit series – from Edith Bunker ( All in the Family) to Clair Huxtable ( The Cosby Show) to Meredith Grey ( Grey’s Anatomy) – have been reasonable foils for the irascible show-stealers around them.
Thankfully, that’s all over. The drug-addled heroine of Nurse Jackie and pot-dealing fantasist Nancy from Weeds softened us up, and now there’s no turning back. TV audiences now like their ladies dark, driven and borderline-demented.
My current favourites are a couple of half-cocked coppers: bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison on Homeland (played by Claire Danes) and workaholic detective Sarah Lund, star of the cult Danish drama The Killing, which was remade for a U.S. audience with her character called Sarah Linden (the U.S. remake returns for a second season next month). I haven’t seen the American one, but in the original Danish version, Sarah Lund is played by Sofie Grabol, an actress who manages to be alluring despite her character’s defiantly sexless wardrobe (ponytail, no makeup and pilly Nordic sweaters) and her dour refusal to crack a smile. Homeland’s Mathison, by contrast, is a fast-talky, promiscuous, hyper-groomed bottle-blonde to Lund’s steely-eyed schlep.
But both women are troubled in their personal lives, prone to paranoia and hopeless at anything apart from their jobs, with which they are both obsessed to the point of self-destruction. In virtually every episode, Lund and Mathison are told by their colleagues and loved ones to go home/take a holiday/get some perspective/get off the case. But do they acquiesce? Of course not. Because to stop pushing forward would not only mean the death of the narrative but also the death of their own hunted spirits. We can’t help but love them – not because they’re women, and not because they’re crazy, but because they’re crazy women whom we’d happily follow down the darkest rabbit hole, be it literal (a spooky warehouse late at night) or figurative (yet another relationship trashed in the service of work).
Betty Draper approaches her own career – that of a mid-20th-century homemaker – with the same maniacal, tunnel-vision perfectionism Lund and Mathison bring to their work as contemporary cops. We can’t love these women simply, nor can we simply love to hate them. Like the real people we care about, they are complicated, fascinating, frustrating and rewarding to know by turn. We see Betty Draper shooting pigeons and one part of us thinks, “What’s wrong with her?” while another part understands completely.
That’s the thing about complicated women: They might be hard to figure out, but that doesn’t make them any less interesting to watch.