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Suzanne or Betty? Betty or Veronica? Why am I always forced to choose?

December 23, 2009

We get mail here at #437, (a lot of it is misaddressed slobbering fan mail for Draper next door), most of it is digitally rendered in the comment boxes below.  Ruth! Ruth!, very concisely and with great reasonableness, explained to me her issues re: Suzanne Farrell and asked, in turn, that I expand my thoughts. Well I expanded, and expanded, way past the perimeter of a normal comment response. You could say I crossed some boundaries in a big way, and we would chuckle because that was very much an issue.  Anyway it’s a longwinded response so I moved it up to the front page here.

Here’s a pertinent excerpt from Ruth’s comment —

“I think one of the reasons for the strong reaction to Suzanne has been because of the very Betty-centric show this season – there is a sense of having to make a choice between Suzanne & Betty, certainly that’s what I felt at first. I’ve a lot of sympathy for Betty because she keeps trying so hard (really to the best of her ability)to get through to Don & failing. However I welcome the opportunity to try to look sympathetically at Suzanne through the prism of your analysis.

I agree that Suzanne is a Rothko, that is a very good analogy. Whether or not her mind is running on the same lines as the schoolteacher in Butch & Sundance – I don’t know – it’s certainly a plausible and sympathetic explanation for her behaviour but I don’t think it’s the only one.

My main concern with Suzanne is not really the fact that she is involved with a married man (this is Mad Men, after all) but rather that the said married man is the father of one of her students – and in particular a student in whom she has taken a special interest, and who is particularly attached to her. I can understand how all of these matters might actually make Don more attractive to her – but they also make her behaviour less excusable. There’s a lack of boundaries here I think, something off-centre, which was highlighted by the fact that she had no problem with waiting in the car outside the house of the family she was possibly contributing to breaking up … wild horses could not have dragged me there in her position. What gets me is – not just that she did all of the above (we’ve all done stupid & out-of-character things when besotted) but that she apparently felt no conflict, no guilt about doing so.”

Here’s what started as a quick response; watch how it takes on a life of its own, —

This is good. Good because you’ve defined the ground for our discussion, staked out the boundaries. 

We agree artistically the presentation of Suzanne’s storyline is really not an issue. The acting works, her character is written with intention.  

But to summarize, you want a sympathetic explanation of her boundary-crossing and you have an issue with her seeming lack of guilt about this aggressive behavior.

Let me try.You’re right to dismiss my Etta Place example, it works on the surface similarities alone; Suzanne’s psyche doesn’t appear to reflect anywhere near the degree of existential desperation that Etta conveys in the self-assessment soliloquy I used earlier. Suzanne isn’t explained by desperation. So consider that forgotten.

Suzanne and Betty are set in contrast and conflict here. I’ll use that to eventually shine some light on Suzanne.

Betty is the woman who had all of the apparent necessary elements and features to make a success of the American Dream. She had the grooming and schooling, the looks and the resources; everything needed to step into the role of successful suburban housewife and mother. And she could have made that work for her by fully adapting and conforming to that defined role like many others do; by tempering the desire of full personal expression, by suppressing her individualism. At one point Betty saw herself growing into a full expression of an individual human being. Then she met Don, fell in love, got married and had children. And this seemed to be a perfectly normal and societally proper thing to do. However, the contradiction and conflict these new roles would eventually present to her individual growth and expression was well-hidden from her by the structure of the culture and the patriarchy. (They were well-hidden from Don too, but that’s a chewy tangent to gnaw on at another time.)

Then one day the fog lifts, or she looks intently at herself in the mirror, and it all crystallizes. She realizes she’s not the individual she was, nor the fully developed individual she had expected to become. Betty took three seasons to get to the same realization that Peggy did (and expressed so well for moi,) at the end of S2.


” One day you’re there and there’s less of you and you wonder where that part went. If it’s living somewhere outside of you and you keep thinking maybe you’ll get it back and then you realize it’s just gone.”

Betty made her own choices and decisions but she did not fully understand, until way after the fact, those actions would eliminate parts of her, parts of who she could potentially be. Peggy was able to grasp that realization quicker. She probably had her revelation in the hospital bed, maybe after Don’s visit. She woke up and realized as an unwed mother with a newborn that there was now, figuratively, psychologically and yes, ironically physically, less of her; less of the potential of who she could be. Peggy reflected on her new role here and understood that if she chose to keep the baby and shame Pete into her life then her desires and dreams to be an independent, creative, individual and career person would be compromised and lost, perhaps forever. I felt Peggy’s measured but emotional statement to Pete was a metaphorical observation about her regret of having to make such a selfish choice: the choice between establishing a connection with a baby and the father who she felt love for; or maintaining her independent identity and nourishing her own individualism and self.

She chose herself. Betty by divorcing Don is now choosing to try to salvage some of her self. And this, believe it or not, gets me all the way back around to explaining my understanding of Suzanne.

I don’t like archetyping when the story tries to present some identification with, and in, the real world, and one of the many things I love about the show is that the writers and actors always work to reveal a detail of personality in the characters that helps destroy any lazy stereotyping by us viewers watching at home. Having said that, I keep finding myself trying to explain Suzanne by referring initially to a fairly common archetype of the era. This feels lazy to me but we don’t have much of her backstory so maybe this is the only way I can get where I want to go.

Suzanne is the workaday prototype model of the radical Sixties feminist. Suzanne doesn’t want to be pigeonholed into the properly appropriate roles society has sketched out for a woman of her standing. She probably never had the proper upbringing nor the money, like Betty, to aspire to the glossy version of the American Dream so she’s more able to see and understand the evident truth in MLK’s Dream.

And she embraces that fact of her self. It is truly her.

She’s a realist about the world. Her brother is a societal outcast; she does what she can do for him and hopes it works out but she knows it might not. Remember her quick skeptical look when Don tries to bullshit her about the “nice” place he dropped Danny.

She’s a realist about romance. She lives and works in an environment where privileged married fathers, the very guys who are allegedly living the Dream she’s supposed to aspire to, routinely feel entitled to hit on her. She was most likely enough of a naive romantic when she was younger (she is a teacher after all) to be seduced into believing the horseshit a few of these cynical horny hypocrites pitched to her; like how they were trapped in unloving marriages and yearned for true love; and she got burned for believing it, maybe fired. Much of her experience tells her she knows how things like this turn out.

She breaches some boundaries to make a connection with someone she perceives is similar to herself, yet disconnected from his life.

These are arbitrary boundaries defined by society, based on the proper roles this same society deems to be appropriate and requires each individual to play.

Why is Suzanne viewed as the boundary jumper?

If the loving husband sexually responds to the flirting unmarried teacher, isn’t he choosing not to be the loving husband?

If the caring father has an affair with the unmarried teacher, isn’t he the one choosing to ignore any possible consequences regarding his daughter?

Is the unmarried teacher required to more thoroughly consider the repercussions than the caring father?

Specifically regarding Suzanne feeling any guilt about how this affair would impact Sally, I suspect if the teacher believes the children can handle the truth about racism and profound inequality and injustice she probably thinks Sally can deal with the truth about Daddy’s new girlfriend. I basically agree. 

Suzanne and Peggy and Betty I think, are the emerging second wave feminists choosing to reject the definitions of their places and roles in society and the rules that make sure every person plays her/his part. Suzanne is choosing the needs of her self as an individual over the meek acceptance of her pigeonholed part in the whole charade. Suzanne thinks her time is now, or coming very soon. And she’s running toward it.

It’s selfish no doubt, but the full expression of the individual has always been a major theme in the continuous struggle and existence of humankind. I wouldn’t want to deny Suzanne, Peggy or especially Betty any of that. Someone might get hurt.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ruth permalink
    December 23, 2009 11:54 am

    Thanks so much Less of Me – this is really superb analysis. My mind is literally buzzing with all the various issues raised by your post so I’m not going to be able to put down any coherent thoughts at the moment, which may well come as a relief to you – I think you need a well-deserved break from my questions over Christmas. Also, I’m really looking forward to watching the Don-Suzanne scenes again – I was postponing them until I heard back from you, and I’m glad I did so. Have a lovely vacation – I’ve really enjoyed our discussions over the past few weeks and I’ll be back in the New Year. Nollaig Shona duit.

  2. less of me permalink
    December 23, 2009 12:16 pm

    Ruth, I liked being urged to think about it too. The give and take was fun, and I may read Jane Eyre again just for the hell of it too.

    I plan to parse Don and Suze’s scenes when they’re either re-run here or I get the DVDs in March.

    You have a great holiday too! Be well.

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