The harshest thing said about Betty Draper Francis on Sunday’s “Mad Men” did not have to do with her weight. It was her being called “middle-aged.”
This season of “Mad Men” is all about aging. (I keep thinking they should call it “Mad Men: Generations.”) The two-hour season premiere brought that into sharp focus with Don’s birthday party, and the divide between his younger acquaintances (including his new wife, about 15 years his junior), and Roger, Don and even Pete, who is after all is a younger but philosophically comparable version of Don, much the way Don follows in Roger’s footsteps.
The point was made again in last night’s telecast, with Don and Harry wooing the Rolling Stones – and Harry, the would-be hipster, not even knowing what the Stones look like. (Or, possibly, sound. If the Trade Winds mentioned on the show are the same ones who had a hit with the apt “New York’s a Lonely Town,” then they were a New York band that bore little resemblance to the Stones, Harry’s ears notwithstanding.)
It’s also in the arrival of a new ad writer who wants to be the next Don Draper but has a distinctly different point of view; he thought the Letter was hilarious, and his aggressiveness is plainly a threat to Peggy, who is suddenly cast as the old and potentially expendable pro much the way Roger is feeling it from Pete. The new guy, in tandem with Don’s new secretary, was cutting in the way it showed how far behind the times these ad men have been – to hire their first Jewish employee after the first African-American? Again, we ask, how old are these guys in societal terms?
Then there’s Betty. The weight gain, appalling to her self-image, is a manifestation of her awareness of her own aging. Don’s taking up with Megan is painful not so much because he found someone else as that he found someone who – to Betty at least – recalls the young Betty; she even emphasizes the contrast by referring to Megan as years younger than she actually is. Betty, meanwhile, is becoming more like her mother-in-law, desperately taking her advice about seeking diet pills (setting up the scene in the doctor’s office, where she gets to be called “middle-aged.”)
As for the cancer scare, that fits in with the age issue because it’s another way that the characters were have followed for so long are having to face their own mortality. Not the idea of mortality; that has been there, for example in the death of Anna Draper (with its echoes in Betty’s scare). But that was still something that happened to other people. Now Don, Roger, Peggy and Betty are all seeing themselves on the train to the grave, and other characters should get the message. Harry’s longing for the girls around the Stones is another cue as to how old and uncool he is. And Pete, whose emulation of Don seems to extend even to having a kitchen that looks like Don and Betty’s, is so busy elbowing past Roger that he hasn’t tumbled to the fact that he’s on the downhill side of the generation gap.
For all that, the episode didn’t feel as surehanded as the season premiere; Jon Hamm’s direction was OK, the script less so. There were lines, such as the how-cancer-feels speech, that sounded too artsy. The wooing of the Stones for a beans ad was too much rooted in The Who Sell Out. But the aging issue is one that has legs. While the characters have faced other demons that could be overcome, this one that has no mercy.