"Mad Men" Recap: "Tea Leaves"
Sure, the show was a little heavy-handed in some of its themes, especially in its treatment of the generational differences, but the fashion was so fabulous and it’s not like anyone could get “Zou Bisou Bisou” out of their heads the day after, so, mission accomplished?
Yes and no: There were definitely some key players missing from last week, and they finally came on screen. This week’s episode – number 3 in the season, since last week’s was a double – was directed by Don Draper himself, and focused on some of the relationships that were missed in the premiere: namely, that of Henry and Betty Francis. The last time we saw them, Betty was missing the pep of their initial meetings, so much so that she admitted her feelings to Don.
And throughout this episode, we can see that not that much has changed for Betty. She’s still ambivalent about her mother-in-law, who entreats her to attend to the desperate-to-please Henry. In addition, her self-esteem has plummeted due to a noticeable weight gain, her treatment of which leads to a doctor discovering a tumor on her thyroid. Betty tries to hold onto the life she currently leads, but when a psychic tells her that she is “a rock,” she feels the irony of it all: of leading a life where she feels more like a prop than a player, in which someone else’s mother can dictate her obligations.
So when her calls to Henry don’t go through, it’s Don she turns to for comfort, and her potential forecasting of mortality is the jumping off point for this entire episode. For while Betty sees the end of the line and craves reassurance instead of reality, Don and Roger are the ones feeling their age at the office and trying to understand where they fit into the new social and professional norm.
With Don, this generational gap comes up often enough with Megan, who resists being treated as a child even though everyone, including her husband, points out her youth, which is often correlated with her so-perky-it’s-almost-unreal optimism. It’s no wonder that at the Heinz meeting, which ended up being an awkward speculation on what young people want (and a showcase for Megan’s continuously spectacular wardrobe), that she’s the only one that knows the proper name for a Rolling Stones song.
And when Don and Harry visit a venue the Stones are playing to try and get them to record a jingle for Heinz, Don sees the young people there and feels worried. The young people, the generation from below, are rising fast and living just as fast, something that he sees both in the precocious girl who tries to coyly wrap his tie around her neck and in Harry’s attempts to fit in with this crowd.
Maybe season 2 Don would’ve went along with that girl’s skirting-legality propositions, but he must see some of what Megan was in her, and so he shies away partly to protect her (as he does when he tells Megan about Betty’s tumor) and partly to protect himself: He knows better than these kids… right? Instead of going along with the rush and tumble of the crowd and getting swept over by it, like Harry, Don does market research.
At SCDP, Pete and Roger’s office politics seem to come to a standstill when Pete offers Roger “control” of the Mohawk account. The airline’s in debt, and the folks at Mohawk require a traditional (read: male) copywriter, but Roger is giddily up to the task. It’s up to Peggy to make the new copywriting hire, and in her efforts to remain the person who “knows” Don better than anyone else, she tries to pass over the conversationally transparent and cocky (but talented) Michael Ginsberg, who both insults and apologizes her without making much note of it, and is so enamored of Don that even Peggy feels awkward listening to him.
But when Don meets the new copywriter, he’s pleased with the praise, of this stamp of approval and admiration, that he okays the hire of the man (who, admittedly, had toned down the crazy from his initial interview – has Peggy ever sounded so indignant as she sounded toward Michael after their roundtable with Don?).
At the close of the episode, Betty’s tumor is revealed as benign, but instead of pure relief, it almost seems as though she’s, in a way, disappointed: the clunky dream sequence in the episode did serve to showcase how, while not happy to die, Betty wanted that je ne sais quoi of something meaningful in her life (even if it came from illness), something that Henry, for all his reassurances – which sound eerily like the one Don offered her over the phone – cannot give her.
And at SCDP, Pete stamps all over Roger’s happiness by proclaiming himself the real head of the Mohawk account in front of the entire office, delegating “the day-to-day” to Roger. When Roger and Don speak alone together, Roger speaks of Pete in sadness as well as anger – the son has overtaken the father, so to speak, and all Roger can really do is ask, “When is everything gonna get back to normal?”, not fully understanding that “normal” is long past.
That parent/child dynamic wraps the show up, as Michael’s father (who does apparently exist) clasps the head of his son in his hands in what could be pride (anyone up to translate?), and Betty furtively finishes her daughter’s ice cream. And if the theme of naïve youth could not be clearer, this week’s episode closed with the wide-eyed “Sound of Music” ditty “Sixteen Going On Seventeen.”
Some closing thoughts:
No Joan, which leaves this writer worried that the main cast won’t ever be featured as one whole component again.
What about Sally? All the other “children” got their time in the show spotlight, but Kiernan Shipka’s been on screen for maybe 5 minutes total this season.
The fact that Don’s new black secretary is also named Dawn (? – female homonym for Don), which is sure to cause massive confusion later.
When Don adorably called Betty “Birdie” over the phone, it really fueled the idea that these two characters could have a future together. But then again, that’s what people speculated at the end of season 4 too.
Peggy and Stan’s frank talk about competition; if there’s any doubt that Peggy’s really come into her own, just listen to her appraisals of her own copywriting talents.
That was a beautiful shot of Betty sitting in the lawn of the Francis’ creepy old-looking house (seriously, could the comparison between the Francis’ and the Draper’s residences be more stark?) watching her kids play with sparklers.
Well played on that subtle Romney dig, all involved.
This was a slower episode than last week’s for sure, but it feels more in line with what “Mad Men” is about: Everything’s changing, and it’s not necessarily up to the people living in these times to see where they’re going to end up. And though the show really hammered home those themes in this ep, it was fulfilling to watch some of the more callous characters in the season premiere (namely Don and Roger) get fleshed out. If there’s anything “Mad Men” is excellent at, it’s at portraying people as products of their environment, and the tide seems more and more to be turning against the proverbial squares in the suits.