In a well-written novel or TV drama you shouldn’t be able to notice the signposting of historical events. In Downton Abbey, this can be clunky, mainly because the series is a sort of posh soap opera, about life on the Downton estate. In order to give the viewer a historical context, the writer has the characters discuss politics and events taking place in the wider world. On occasions it seems contrived, particularly where Irish chauffeur turned estate manager, Tom Branson is concerned.
With whichever character he is talking to at the time, Tom seems remarkably well-informed about the Easter Rising in 1916 and then latterly the war for independence in Ireland. It’s all the more admirable, when you consider that he spends nearly all his time stuck in the middle of rural Yorkshire. And his only source of news, (apart from letters) are newspapers, as the BBC didn’t even exist before 1921 and radio broadcasts only began at the end of 1922.
Mad Men pulls off the trick of creating the historical story world rather better:
Season 5, Episode 8 is set at Thanksgiving in 1966, when New York is shrouded in a cloud of poisonous smog. Don Draper and his team at Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Price have won the Heinz baked beans account. In an ironic parallel storyline, suburban housewife Betty Francis, Don’s ex wife is pinning her hopes on losing weight with a future Heinz owned company – Weight Watchers.
Weight Watchers is barely three years old in 1966, and if Betty’s breakfast is anything to go by, still had some way to go with its eating plan. Like many on prescribed diets, Betty is required to eat a bizarre combination of foods she wouldn’t normally eat and, we see her joylessly eating burnt white toast, half a grapefruit and carefully weighed cubes of cheese.
Watching the point in history when the diet industry was born is fascinating, particularly as it is 50 years ago now since Weight Watchers was dreamed up by New York housewife Jean Nidetch. And although the company may well have helped many people lose weight, it has made far more money out of failure, from yo-yo dieters who have had to go back on the programme after they’ve put it all back on.
Betty personifies the kind of person for whom no amount of weight loss classes or dietary advice is going to help, unless she can address that her overeating is a symptom and not the cause of her unhappiness. Like many of us, Betty is an emotional eater. And in the week before her weigh-in, there is one huge diet-wrecking emotional trigger that sends Betty overboard.
When picking up the children from Don and Megan’s, Betty can’t resist letting herself into the apartment while Megan is busy. As she walks around the light filled Manhattan apartment with its trendy décor and fabulous views, she seems to be comparing her former life with Don to the one he has with Megan, and in that moment finds her own wanting.
But it is when she spies Megan getting changed, casually throwing a sweater over her lithe and beautiful body, that so cruelly drives the message home to Betty: Don has replaced her with a younger, much thinner model and as Betty looks down at her frumpy shirtwaister dress, her self-esteem has shrunk to an all-time low.
This emotional trigger of the loss of her own youth and beauty sends Betty straight to the fridge when she gets home: she’s not hungry, she’s after a quick fix to allay her anxiety and grabs the nearest junk food, a can of Cool Whip (fake whipped cream) and squirts it straight into her mouth. And the advertising agency that won the Cool Whip account? SCDP, of course. But even Betty in her moment of despair comes to her senses: she spits the mouthful out.
And in another neat history defining moment, Cool Whip (luckily for the rest of the world, never sold anywhere outside North America) is perhaps the first food product manufactured in a lab – consisting of high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated vegetable oils, the baddies that helped make America and the rest of the Western world fat.
It is little wonder then that at her first Weight Watchers meeting, Betty is unenthusiastic about having to stand up and have her weight recorded in front of the meeting at the group weigh-in. While the woman who loses the most weight that week is politely applauded, this immediately invites negative comparisons from the other women there who couldn’t find the necessary willpower that week. By the downcast look on her face, Betty regards her half-pound loss as failure, although the group leader tries to mitigate her disappointment with encouraging words. Betty feels the need to explain herself and without going into detail tells the group, that she “had a very trying experience the previous week.” We the audience know exactly what Betty is talking about, even if the weight loss group doesn’t.
It’s not just Betty who comfort eats in this episode, either. She finds husband Henry cooking himself a late-night steak as he confides that he’s worried about his political future. He tells her that he can’t live on fish five nights a week. Betty apologises, as she is genuinely fond of Henry and doesn’t want to alienate him. She willingly participates in the midnight feast and we see him feeding her pieces of steak.
Back at the final weigh-in at Weight Watchers before Thanksgiving, Betty and her fellow group members are warned about the food temptations that will be lurking around every corner this holiday weekend. Betty hasn’t lost any weight, and her group leader tells her that staying the same is better than gaining. Betty finds the homilies a little difficult to believe but is ready to trot them out again at the Francis family Thanksgiving dinner. When it’s her turn to give thanks, she says, “I’m thankful that I have everything I want. And that no-one else has anything better.” We all know that this is a lie – in that Megan, in her eyes seems to have it all. As if to underscore Betty’s feelings at this point, she turns to food once again, to try to solve her emotional problems and grabs a bite of (presumably forbidden) Turkey stuffing from her plate. There is an emotional beat as Betty’s face lights up in a moment of sheer pleasure. Food is the drug here, and she’s just scored.