The Loneliest Mile

 Posted by on January 11, 2011 at 9:30 am  Characters, Season 4
Jan 112011

We lied about each other’s dreams
We lived without each other thinking what anyone would do
Without me and you
It’s like I told you,
Only the lonely can play …

The Motels, Only the Lonely

There is a reason why most people marry in the company of their loved ones:  friends and family.  It’s really not just a game for two.  Marriage is a hard road, and though we may walk “the loneliest mile” of it in darkness, with each other alone, we need the presence of others who love us to help us through the rest.

I don’t know if either Don Draper or Betty Draper Francis ever knew this.  I think each of them is an inherently lonely person, one who felt an instant thrill of recognition when he or she met the other.  I don’t think it has ever occurred to either to ask another person for real help in the ongoing fight that is each of their relationships with love.

This, it seems to me, is why Betty married Henry Francis.  He separated himself from the crowd at her husband’s Derby Day party, asking to touch the part of her that ached.  She was surprised, but she let him.  He wanted her, and she was intrigued by this man who seemed to see — and later, remember — her distress.

It’s also why Don proposed to the practical, perpetually sunny Megan.  Here is a young woman who knows not only just when to offer help, but what kind her charges need:  a song, a cuddle, a napkin against a swell of milkshake.  She is as comfortable with emotion as her fiance is afraid of it.

But marriage is not about whom you marry; it’s about who you are.  Don’s choice of Megan can not lead him to happiness any more than Betty’s did.  We can’t change who we are by choosing with whom we mate.

When I think about the end of Season 4 of Mad Men, the image that lingers for me is not any of the sunnier images from Tomorrowland:  Don offering Megan the engagement ring; his cannonball into the pool; their kiss in the office, after Don called Faye to (belatedly) break things off.

It’s the scene of Betty and Don, together in what used to be their kitchen, sipping booze out of a single cup, talking about making things over and breaking things apart.  Not necessarily in that order; not that it matters.

For them, this will always be a game for two.


  8 Responses to “The Loneliest Mile”

  1. I actually have a little more hope for each of them. I think Betty and Don both chose wrong when they chose each other, but right when they chose (or were chosen by) Henry and Megan, for themselves. Not that it has, or will, be easy.

    ” Don’s choice of Megan can not lead him to happiness any more than Betty’s did.”

    Yeah, but it’s like what they say about being rich. It makes being miserable a lot more fun!

  2. I always figured Don and Betty probably fell for each other initially because they each completed part of the perfect package. I think when he met her, he probably found her sweet and charming and someone who would be a great hostess and great arm candy. (And plenty of examples of this in Season 1 and 2.) The sweetness she displayed also made her seem like someone who would be a great wife, homemaker, and mother.

    As for her, she was a young woman at a time when women always got married early. And I’m sure he really did sweep her off her feet and seem smart and charming. It’s just that they didn’t know each other very well, which is why Betty at one point whispered to his sleeping body, “Who’s in there?”

    I liked the scene at the end of Season 4 (the two of them in the kitchen). It was kind of bittersweet, much as the scenes between Peggy and Pete were in Season 4’s “The Rejected.” When people have a history, they’ll always have it, and there will be times they look at each other and just know they’re thinking about some of the same things.

  3. “Did you do that?” [referring to Megan having put his Clio back together after he’d hurled it against the wall]

    “You’re wrong.”

    “Thank you. I’ll take those. You can go.”

    The above are the words Don used to sweet-talk Megan into the sack with him, their first time.

    Contrast with how he wooed Betty. He bought her the fur she wore for the Heller’s shoot, which was quite a sacrifice for him. I’m sure he was “on” the whole time of the courtship, trying to come across as worthy of her, and doing the best sales job of his life, to date.

    Don always felt he had to hide himself from Betty. He said to Anna, “I could tell, the minute she saw who I really was, she never wanted to look at me again. Which is why I never told her.”

    When Don and Betty meet at their old, empty house in Tomorrowland, she has put on her face, and waited for him, to tell him, “Things aren’t perfect.” That is her existential problem. First her father to his little girl, and then luxury fur salesman Don, have promised or implied that things would be perfect for her.

    Megan knows things aren’t perfect. She has seen and heard things about Don that don’t put him in a good light. She loves him anyway.

  4. As for her, she was a young woman at a time when women always got married early. And I’m sure he really did sweep her off her feet and seem smart and charming. It’s just that they didn’t know each other very well, which is why Betty at one point whispered to his sleeping body, “Who’s in there?”

    I would also guess that a young Betty, involved in a cold war with her mother, found Don to be a perfect form of rebellion. On the surface the marriage was everything you were supposed to want in the 50s – the veteran and his beautiful wife making a new life for themselves. Sure Betty was supposed to marry a nice well-off man from her “own kind” as they used to say, but the image Don provided was enough to overcome those social expectations, at least superficially. We know Gene had his misgivings about this family-less orphan; we can only assume Mrs. H was no more pleased, but there was nothing they could do about it.

    Betty got the picture-perfect life, which turned out to be as deep as a two-dimensional photo, but she also got to tick off her parents – a win-win at the time. I wonder, though, did Don ask Gene before he asked Betty?

  5. I also love that last scene in the house, leaving just the whiskey bottle and yellow plastic cup. I really saw the bond between Don and Betty, how they sympathize with each other.

    Btw, “Only the Lonely” by the Motels is one of my favorite songs ever–thanks for the comparison.

  6. Thanks, all, for your comments.

    I wrote this post against the backdrop of a very happy young marriage and family (in my sister’s home, one I visit often).

    I think that Don and Betty met and wed in what was, above everything else, a true union of hope. They both hoped for much more than they ended up getting from one another, perhaps because each entered with so little to begin with. But what they wanted did for a time, create such a bright world for them, their children and their loved ones.

    We all believed in it. Or wanted to.

    Kudos to the writers of Mad Men, and to Jon and January, for showing us this arc: the hope, the reach, the loss, the fall. I love the beautiful imperfection of these two lonely people.

    Best of luck to all tonight. :)

  7. Annie:

    As always, I love your writing.

    And you touch on one of my favorite subjects – the perfection of imperfection. Imperfection makes us interesting, allows us to find redemption, causes great pain to ourselves and our loved ones, is the battlefield of impulsiveness and reason, spurns us to greatness and depravity, makes possible the most self-less heroism and the most repulsive self-interest.

    I hope the New Year finds you well and my regards to you and tu familia.

    Best wishes,


  8. It seems to me that only a child could reasonable apply the concept of perfection to life. Even a moderately mature teen understands perfection doesn’t exist in personal relationships. Betty’s complaint said a lot about her lack of maturity.

    Yes, Don and Betty certainly loved each other but adults know that love doesn’t conquer all and both partners need to be traveling in the same direction. A marriage based on “daddy Don” looking after “baby Betty” was doomed from the start. How could any (normal) man be satisfied with a woman-child no matter her beauty? How could Betty not feel disgust at her replacement father figure expecting wifely, adult behavior that no good daddy would expect?

    Sad Betty went and married another replacement daddy in Henry. Although he’s closer to expectations he’s still imperfect in comparison to her idealized father. Will Henry put up with Betty’s behavior when he needs a real partner to assist in his own aspirations? I’m guessing not for long because that’s not the reason he got married.

    And Don? Eh, Don sees women as objects so will it make a difference to him whether he’s married to Betty or Megan? He wants a babysitter/housekeeper/cook/hostess to make his home and business life easier. Its nicer if that person is arm candy, but whomever he casts as his wife is as interchangeable as his many sex partners. He loves the woman who makes him feel better about himself at the moment. He’s an emotional whore who shortchanges transactions.

    If Megan is a mature adult she will expect a married life with friends, children/career options and family connections. She wouldn’t be marrying for appearances like Don. When Don fails to hold up his end she will tire of his treatment and thrash him in the proverbial woodshed before dumping him at the poorhouse.

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