Mad Men: Tea Leaves

"It's nice to be put through the wringer and find out I'm just fat."

Despite being set in the early 1960's, it's easy to be thrown out of joint when it comes to Mad Men's timeline. When we think of that era, we're usually inclined to think of the rebellious tokers at the forefront of cultural change, jumping into new music and new experiences with an unrivaled fearlessness... sort of like the ones we glimpsed in Tea Leaves. What we don't really think about are the ones left behind from that culture shift, the ones that lived their lives emulating the personalities and styles of their parents, the thought of becoming something sort of groundbreaking or different completely out of question. In all three episodes this season, a lot of emphasis has been placed on that swing, and how the Mad Men ensemble are merely observers to it...

Joan opined about being replaced last week, here Roger feels resentful over Pete's growing success, Henry can't help but wish he had the freedom of youth, Don doesn't understand it all. When backstage at the Rolling Stones concert, Don asks repeated questions to a teenage girl about her love for the band, trying to figure out what it is that has captured an entire generation. Not only does this fold in with Don's own aging, but it also reflects the differences between him and his new wife. While he's there struggling to understand this band, Megan knows the names of their songs. Dislike her for arguably screwing her way to the top, but Megan represents a necessary age group in the advertising world, a person who naturally 'gets' the growing social changes that Don and his friends are still trying to wrap their heads around.

Peggy is another character who feels at odds with up-and-comers. Copywriter Michael Ginsburg is able to seamlessly cater to every type of audience. He arrives to his interview with this very showy, artificial personality. When Peggy doesn't buy it, he effortlessly bends it and shows his true self, talks about how he has no friends or family and is a perfect fit for such a frantic industry. But that isn't the real him either, becoming a sort of aspirational kiss-ass during his meeting with Don, and later going home to his proud father. Ginsburg himself isn't hugely interesting right now, but Peggy's own actions as a result of his arrival created some interesting new angles to her character. She spends the entire episode panicking over hiring a new copywriter, terrified about how her recommendation will reflect on her and how Don will see her as a result. Then there's this guy who is so savvy and flexible, and all Peggy can do is sit by and watch. It's another episode in which she bristles with resentment at others, not only because she doesn't have Ginsburg's social aggression or Megan's seductive appeal, but because these newbies are taking full advantage of the youthful confidence of the time, already light years ahead of the environment that Peggy arrived in back in season one. Everybody this season seems so old, and terrified of that next generation.

Elsewhere, the real watercooler moments occurred with the return of Betty Draper. There's always been an annoying dichotomy with Betty, and her decreasing presence on the show over the last two seasons has only perpetuated that. Betty, in those early seasons, was sometimes flighty and self-absorbed, but her subplots were always there to show us the reasons for that angst -- the inner turmoil of a woman who had given up so much opportunity to be the type of person she thought she should be, and should enjoy. Only for it all to be actually sort of tragic and empty. There was so much sadness, which balanced out her flaws elsewhere. But as Betty became less integral to the show, the writers seemed to forget about the person behind the ice queen, making her this monstrous caricature of a mother-from-hell. There's a reason the vitriol headed Betty's way has only gotten more vocal over the years, and it's because that shading disappeared.

Season five seems to be returning to Betty's underlying tragedy, but it's again a little disappointing to see the show almost ghoulishly poking fun at her. The 'weight gain to disguise an actresses' pregnancy' idea isn't new, Frasier did that years ago, but there's definitely an element of 'let's point and laugh' when it comes to how horrible Betty became as a mother, and her subsequent imprisonment in Henry Francis' Munsters Castle of Doom with the eating-from-cereal-boxes and extra helpings of sundae. But the writers are seemingly aware that Betty only truly works as a lingering connection to Don, and I loved the small indications of that shared love for one another glimpsed here. Don's phone-call was surprisingly tender and reassuring, he seemed to value her a lot when he thought about her potential demise, and Betty did immediately call Don when she learned about her tumor. As long as the show grounds Betty's weight in something real and emotional and avoid 'gimme some more candy!!!' freak-outs, this could be another poignant story for her.

I ordinarily prefer Mad Men when it produces a more eclectic tone and utilizes its fine ensemble in varying subplots, so Tea Leaves, which essentially featured just two stories, wasn't a total powerhouse for me. But you can already spot the major themes that should be present this year, and I think it's a really intriguing collection of ideas. There will be a time when Don and the current SCDP players are phased out in favor of bright young things, and right now we're seeing the very first hints of it. It already feels disquieting.

Notables

- They actually hired a black secretary! Yayness! I hope we see a little more of Dawn, especially since we seem to be getting to know Ginsburg's family life already.

- I may be entirely wrong with this, but is it really likely that a 15/16 year-old girl in the 1960's wouldn't know who Charlton Heston is?

- I wasn't a fan of Betty's dream sequence, which felt like a sledgehammer of not-so-subtle... and that's different for Mad Men. And I'm not even sure the tea leaves motif worked all that well, either.

- God, the Francis family fireworks bit was gorgeous! Well done Jon Hamm, who directed this week.

- I loved the irony of Henry's mother telling Betty that 'women like her just snap back', since we all know that Betty was a pudgy kid.

- Romney? Smooth show, real smooth...

Quotage

Alice Geiger: Raymond and I met in high school.
Don: Well then we've been married longer than you.
Raymond Geiger: I told you he was smooth.

Roger: Baked beans and the Rolling Stones -- a client's idea if I ever heard one.

Don: Mohawk is going to insist on a regular copywriter.
Roger: Someone with a penis.
Peggy: I'll work on that.

Betty: Say what you always say.
Don: Everything's gonna be okay.

Stan: You're suddenly not competitive? The chick who races people to the toilet?

Roger: I had drinks with Mohawk. I sat down with two of them and, I swear, by the end there were three.

Roger: Did he smell like pee?
Peggy: Who smells like pee?
Roger: Writers!

Roger: I wanted to smooth the ground about working with a Jew. Turns out everybody's got one now.

Bonnie: None of you want us to have a good time because you never did.
Don: We're worried about you.

Roger: You know I used to love that kid? Used to hold his hand and help him up onto the swing-set?

Previously posted at Unwelcome Commentary.

4 comments:

Suzanne said...

I had mixed feelings about this episode. I was glad that they were doing a story line that involved weight gain as a result of depression or boredom instead of alcohol, yet the scenes with Betty did not seem like Mad Men somehow. I always prefer the office stories, though so it might be my bias. Thanks for reminding us about the connection to Betty's past struggles with weight issues as a child. I had forgotten about it.

maxpower03 said...

I haven't got a problem with non-office stories, but there's been something especially detached with Betty since she left Don. As much as I love watching her, she could easily be lifted out of the series by this point.

And I remember she said that she started swimming one summer as a teen, and that the weight came right off. But I guess there's the possibility that that wasn't actually the case...

Thanks for reading, Suzanne.

Suzanne said...

I believe you are right on the mark about her comment. I seem to remember it now, too. It certainly adds depth to her story.

Billie Doux said...

I had a busy week and finally got to this episode. It wasn't a great one, but I liked that Betty was given something real, and that they showed that she and Don still cared about each other. She's been so unlikeable for so long. I was also pleased that Don hired an African American secretary, even if it was the result of that stupid ad thing.

Max, this is a terrific review. You have such a good feel for this show.