In a recent interview with W, January Jones revealed that Betty
Draper Francis wasn't originally in the pilot of Mad Men, and that creator Matthew Weiner wrote the character for Jones after she lost the role of Peggy Olsen to Elisabeth Moss. Here is what Jones told the magazine:
I read for Peggy two times—it was between me and Elisabeth Moss, who eventually got the part. At the end of the scene, there was a casual mention that Don was married. Matt went home that night and wrote two scenes that featured Betty. I auditioned a couple of days later, and he made me a verbal promise that the character would grow. I took the part on faith—there was no script or fleshed-out character or Betty plotline.
And can I just say: thank God, because January Jones as Betty is one of the — many — best things about Mad Men. Now, I know this isn't a popular opinion. There are probably a bunch of you who think Jones and Betty are the worst part of Mad Men. (You are wrong.) So here's my impassioned defense of both actress and character. Warning — some spoilers do follow:
January Jones Knocks Betty Out of the Park: I have seen Jones in exactly three things: Mad Men, her ill-fated Saturday Night Live episode, and Love Actually, in which she basically played "Hot Girl #3" for all of two minutes. So I can't comment on her performances in Unknown or Pirate Radio. But I don't need to, because Jones is amazing as Betty. She's snappish, aloof, cold to her children and mean to her friends. She's as selfish and self-centered as the most annoying brat in daycare with an emotional maturity level to match. And while I would never want to know Betty, I find her compulsively watchable.
Harsher critics have said that Jones isn't playing Betty at all; she's just a very pretty actress with a limited range who lucked into a role that called for case-study levels of emotional suppression. And for all I know, they're right. (Many of these people pointed to SNL as proof, but lots of demonstrably great actors have hosted that show terribly.) The point is, whether she's acting-with-a-capital-A or just reciting lines in period clothing, she's hitting all of Betty's notes perfectly. Maybe she'll go on to other, more varied roles and fall flat. But that's beside the point: what's on film is an exquisite portrayal of a woman so out of touch with her own emotions and so angry at her own life that she's become the model of a suburban ice queen.
You May Not Like Her, But Betty Is a Fantastic Character: There are so many reasons to hate Betty. She's a bitch, she acts like a child when she doesn't get her way, she is a pretty terrible mother. Somehow, that's convinced a lot of people that she is the weak point of the show. But the woman has her reasons: she herself was raised by a terrible mother and she married Don Draper, a serial cheater who not only lied about his identity but consistently undermined her whenever she tried to stand up for herself. (But, naturally, we'd all bang the shit out of Don. And probably stick around for breakfast.) Does that excuse the heinous personality? No, but at least it gives her context. Plus, she does have some golden moments — remember when she shot up her neighbors doves? Because that was baller.
What's more: terrible people are real. If you've made it through this world without encountering one person who is annoying, spiteful, or cruel, then I would like to move to wherever you've been living. And all those terrible people, much like Betty, probably have things in their lives they are deeply unhappy about. And that's the world! You can't like everyone, but with the exception of Betty and Joan's rapist husband, the audience seems pretty friendly towards all the characters of Mad Men. Betty's contemptible personality didn't pop up out of nowhere, and not every character can move through the turmoil of the time with grit and grace. Sometimes people get warped by life; that's the story of Betty, and it's a good one.
So again, I say: thank you, Matthew Weiner, for creating this blonde monster in beautiful clothes, and thank you for giving it to January Jones. You've done us all a great favor.