Last week’s trailer for Tea Leaves was interesting. Don kisses Megan; Megan mentions another man; and Betty appears.
Except that she doesn’t. Last week, we knew Betty was inside the creepy house when Don dropped off the kids at the end of Memorial Day weekend (“Give my love to Morticia and Lurch,” he kidded). We knew we’d see Betty this week, because we saw Henry and his mother. But we did not see her face until the first moments of this episode.
It takes a special kind of character to be not seen but suggested. Think of the great white shark in Jaws. Better still, the Alien: female as well, and more terrifying for it.
Now we know: a glance at Betty would have given it away. She has gained weight, and this makes a certain kind of sense. Betty’s exhaustion is clear from her first lines (“Darling, I just don’t think I can go tonight”). She is slow to move and slower to speak, tired, sad. Then the girl who still grieves for her mother gets a bad scare of her own, complicating matters further.
My concern for Betty goes deeper than a cancer scare. I don’t see much of Betty at all in Tea Leaves. This impostor Betty – I’ll call her Betty 1966 – resembles Old Betty only in her general affect. Still just as folded-in as an origami swan, Betty 1966 won’t speak until spoken to. She inhabits her reserve like the imprisoned princess she is.
But I miss Old Betty. Betty Draper, then the newlywed Betty Draper Francis, is a woman with a definite edge. Always dressed to the nines and made up perfectly, silent and smoking, the Betty of the past three seasons knows how to enter and leave a room. She is unlikely to react to you until you touch her last nerve, and then she erupts. Betty can be a volcano of fury, and those closest to her are most often burned.
But in Tea Leaves she doesn’t light up once. No cigarette, no tantrum, nothing.
Of course there are upsides: Betty 1966 is tender with her children. Inhaling her toddler’s scent, leaning her head against his, Betty 1966 seems to enjoy her kids. At the close of the episode, she is sitting in her sunlit kitchen, calmly eating ice cream with Sally. When Sally asks Betty 1966 if she can go watch TV, I am on to this woman. Who the hell are you, lady? What have you done with Betts?
Come on. Betty Draper doesn’t eat in public. She’ll smoke, she’ll drink, but she will avoid food as if it has power to soothe only others. Betty is the one person you cannot feed, cannot make happy, cannot soothe. She will feed herself, but only when no one is watching: alone in her dark kitchen with a chicken leg, relaxed.
Who is Betty 1966? Will Old Betty ever reappear? And what will I do if she doesn’t?