Mad Men is one of television’s best period pieces. It not only uses the 1960s as a backdrop and setting for the show, it imbues its dialogue, story, and characters with the details of the times. Every character reflects the 1960s in one way or another. In this article, we’ll analyze how Betty Draper’s tragic character arc was developed and written to reflect the times. Be warned there are spoilers ahead.

Mad Men Betty Draper Analysis

The tragedy of Betty Draper

While every character in Mad Men is extremely complex and written with depth, a few take the shape of more typical character archetypes. Toward the later seasons of Mad Men, Betty Draper subtly takes form as a tragic character. What is a tragic character? Let’s define it.

TRAGIC CHARACTER DEFINITION

What is a tragic character?

A tragic character is often the hero of the story, who is destined for an inevitable downfall or defeat.

Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle defines a tragic hero as “a person who must evoke a sense of pity and fear in the audience. He is considered a man of misfortune that comes to him through error of judgment.”

Examples of tragic characters in film and literature

  • Romeo — Romeo & Juliet
  • Jay Gatsby — The Great Gatsby
  • Charles Foster Kane — Citizen Kane

Mad Men Betty Draper Character Study

The tragedy of Betty Draper

Every tragic character needs a tragic flaw. This flaw is often what leads to their downfall. Betty Draper’s tragic flaw could be described as vanity and pride. This flaw ironically stems from her power of beauty.

Throughout the run of Mad Men, Betty’s beauty is her defining characteristic. It is what attracts other men. It is also what she values most in herself. Betty is a beautiful, yet vain housewife. She prides herself in the status of being a housewife, despite evidence that she is not the best fit for the role. Following our guide to TV character development, this is the “who” of Betty Draper’s character.

How to Create A TV Character and Develop Their Arc  •  Betty from Mad Men  •  Subscribe on YouTube

If the video above interests you and you wish to learn more about TV writing and development, check out our masterclass series on writing for television where we analyze more great shows like Mad Men, Breaking Badand True Detective.

Not only does Betty know she’s beautiful, it is what makes her feel valuable. During the 1960s when Mad Men took place, women had no voice. Betty felt that her beauty gave her a voice and value. Without it she says she would rather disappear.

Just take a look at this scene from Season 1 Episode 6 that we brought into the StudioBinder Screenwriting app. Notice how Betty discusses beauty as if it were the only thing valuable about a woman. 

Yet by highly valuing her beauty, she inhibits herself from growing in other areas of her life. Peggy becomes a successful copywriter. Even Joan at the end of the series starts her own company. But Betty makes minimal efforts to find value in herself in other places.

When Betty’s beauty declines as she gains weight, she becomes incredibly unhappy. She does not find value in herself because the main thing she valued she has now lost.

Betty Mad Men Character Analysis

What did Betty want?

The second part of Betty Draper’s character derives from the “What?” What happened to Betty and what does Betty want? Betty establishes throughout the show that she had a weight problem as a child. She also establishes that she had an incredibly critical mother.

This answers, “What happened to Betty Draper?” These events also influence who Betty is as a vain housewife striving to maintain her beauty. But it also influences what Betty wants.

Don and Betty Draper are not the best couple, yet she’s quick to make it seem like they are. Betty wants to be seen as perfect. However, throughout the show’s run, Betty is unhappy. Despite playing the role of the content housewife at parties, internally Betty experiences genuine turmoil. What keeps Betty from being happy?

To discover this, let’s take a look at what she desired and what kept her from obtaining it.

Mad Men Betty Draper’s Arrested Development

Despite the life she lived, Betty thrived when she was most free. She often reminisces about modeling in the city when she was younger. She thrives on vacation. She loves the attention at parties and gatherings.

Yet the majority of her life is spent alone tending to the house and kids. Betty wants to take control of her life. Her attempts to do this, however, fall short. Many of her obstacles present themselves as societal oppression toward women.

And Betty’s will of falling into the role of housewife, ultimately made her too resistant to the change that would make her happy.

Betty Mad Men tragic ending

A casualty of change

Over the course of seven seasons, Mad Men covers a decade of history. From 1960 to 1970, societal norms began to change. Specifically, gender roles and expectations were challenged. Characters like Peggy were among women who trail-blazed the movement. Joan was among women who were initially hesitant, but eventually embraced the change.

Betty Draper, however, is a product of the decade. Everything she knows has been shaped by these societal norms despite how suppressive they were. All around her, things were changing. Yet Betty did not.

Even in her last note to Sally, her vanity was just as present as Season One. Betty did attempt to return to school to study psychology, but for her, the change came far too late. Did Betty Draper die spontaneously? The tragedy of Betty dying was a plot point that Matthew Weiner always knew would happen.

Matthew Weiner on Betty Draper Death

As Weiner says in the interview, Betty Draper has always had a sense of tragedy about her. Even when the news of Betty’s illness came about, the tragic irony of her death was that of all characters, Betty dying may be the least surprising. Her tragic flaws and unwillingness to adapt to changing times made her a casualty of change. When times began to change, everyone around Betty had to look internally to learn how to adapt. However, Betty never stopped looking externally for validation.

To be clear, this is not an argument as to why Betty Draper’s death and downfall was of her doing. The tragic flaws and characteristics that led to her downfall were largely shaped by the times.

This is why Mad Men is an important show for any aspiring television screenwriter. Not only does the show write in historical events and dialogue that reflect how the 1960s were, but within the characters themselves are forensic details that reflect the way America was evolving throughout the mid-twentieth century.

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How to Develop a Character for TV

Did reading this article spark any ideas for a character of your own? Be sure to check out our masterclass on TV show character development. We dive into the who, what, and where to help you add depth to your characters for your TV project.

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  • Kyle DeGuzman graduated from San Diego State University with a Bachelor of Science in Television, Film, & New Media. He currently resides in Denver, Colorado spending his time writing, filmmaking, and traveling.

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