Mad Men 5×03: “Tea Leaves”

I am torn on how I feel on this episode as whole, to the point where even some quality Joan Time might not have boosted my opinion.  I want to like this season the way I want to like to drink whiskey without a bunch of soda in it or the movie Blue Velvet: I can try to pretend, but I still make a face.

Someone I know pointed out how the last episode approached Don’s fears of getting old, and I think that element was delivered with an even heavier hand in this episode.  I think that at the core of my own conflicting feelings about this episode are that I want to see Don Draper evolve as a character, but at the same time I miss hard-drinking, heavy-smoking, womanizing Don Draper.  Of course, if Season 4 proved anything, it’s that this Don Draper was unsustainable long ago, and watching Don hit bottom in “The Suitcase” and drag himself back up from “The Summer Man” on was what made Season 4 so enthralling.  In fact, one of my biggest complaints against the whole of Season 3 (I believe the weakest Season as a whole) was that it seemed for a while that Don’s life was becoming too fantastic, too limitless: his and Betty’s marriage seemed at one of their strongest points (for a while, anyway), he had a girlfriend he planned a romantic getaway with (and they would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for that meddling wife!), he was Conrad Hilton’s go-to guy, and Season 3’s finale seemed like a Mad Men version of a sports movie.  Don was unstoppable.  And then his drinking became unstoppable.  And then he threw up on himself and cried a lot and saw a ghost and slept in Peggy’s lap.

And now we have Season 5 Don, the Don who just wants to go to bed after his fortieth birthday and who is out of place at the Rolling Stones concert.  Mad Men often throws Don into social situations where he sticks out.  Let’s not forget Season 1’s beatnik party (“we’re going to get high and listen to Miles”) or Season 2’s rendez-vous with the Sisterhood of the Traveling Euro-Trash.  If there are similar situations in Seasons 3 and 4, I can’t think of what they are.  Here, Don embodies The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (or, as he even says , simply “The Man”) backstage at a Rolling Stones concert with a bunch of teenage girls who smoke weed and want Brian Jones to take advantage of them.  One of the girls backstage sums it up very succinctly as she gives Don and Harry a look: “They don’t look cool.”  In light of the exploding youth culture, blah blah blah.  I like seeing Don out of his element, like how he’s toeing the line between market research and chit-chat.  But again, slightly too on-the-nose about Don aging.  I’m trying to remember 2×01, where Sterling Cooper is forced to hire young people just to get the perspective, but Kurt and Smitty don’t give us a huge insight into youth culture.

Okay, now onto the Betty story, which actually opens the episode.  Betty has put on a lot of weight, and she’s not pregnant (you may recall in 3×02, Roger says of Betty’s pregnancy “Princess Grace swallowed a basketball”).  And because it’s Mad Men’s makeup department, the new weight looks like it’s mostly in her chin (forget not Peggy in Season One).  Instead, Mad Men goes the route of possible thyroid cancer: after a humiliating visit from her mother-in-law, she seeks diet pills from a doctor who finds a lump.  It’s weird to hear of the mid-thirties as “middle age” these days in a world that includes Sex & the City, but then it becomes scary as Betty gets home from the doctor.

This might be the most sympathy I’ve ever felt for Betty.  There’s a scene with her in the bath where she won’t let Henry watch her get dressed when she (and by “she,” I mean an obvious body double).  If you’re read anything else on my blog about Mad Men, it’s that the characters who blatantly show their insecurities to others bother me.  In Season One, the show treated Betty almost as a child: a basket case whose entire life revolved around what her husband thought of her.  And I’m perfectly aware that Season One takes place well before the feminist movement.  But there are also wives like Mona Sterling who have the maturity that Betty doesn’t.  Betty connects with Creepy Glen, not adults; she is set up to be a child.  In Season Two, she becomes more manipulative and mean, but I respect her “A Night to Remember” and “Meditations On an Emergency.”  Season 3 Betty is pretty mean to her kids, and her good moments become more rare, but they do exist.  But in Season 4, she’s written as a monster.  And it’s not just “things were different in the 60s” again; Henry’s mother comments on how her children are frightened of her, and don’t forget the scene in “The Beautiful Girls” when the whole office comes out to judge her.  And as soon as we find out it’s not cancer, Betty turns into her old self again.  When I write that, I feel as though I’m guilty of oversimplifying Betty, but whenever I watch her, I feel like the depth just isn’t there.

I found Betty’s chance meeting with Joyce at the oncologist’s and the subsequent lunch was very moving.  Again, Mortally Vulnerable Betty has the kind of quiet desperation that makes her less mean, and paired with the grim, resigned, and wise Joyce, she can let her fears out in a manner that makes me sympathize with her.  The AV Club reviewer thought that the tea reader was pretty dumb, and so did I.  The dream sequence wasn’t much better, but I’ll take it over Ghost Anna any day.

In addition to pointing out how Don and Betty are aging, this episode really plays up Don and Betty’s relationship and how many things aren’t going too well for either of them the second time around.  When Betty can’t find Henry, she calls Don.  He calls her “Birdie” and she demands that he tell her everything will be okay, or “Say what you always say.”  Don can’t talk to Megan about the possibility of Betty being sick, and it spurs a fight between them.  Henry is pissed that Betty told Don, but obviously Henry sucks at reassuring Betty.

Ah, Mohawk Airlines: the client in my beloved Season Two that Don had to dump.  Peggy is put in charge of finding the new guy.  The best one who turns up is Michael Ginsberg, who is pretty much the batshit.  He’s rude, he’s arrogant, he’s desperate, he fakes a connection to Allen Ginsberg and he gives Peggy the brush-off because she’s a woman.  Plus, that jacket.  But in the room with Don, Ginsberg comes out of left field and makes himself look good.  Peggy’s prediction comes out the opposite of how she thought and suddenly she might be in danger of getting overlooked.  I’m interested to see what happens with Ginsberg.  Last season, in “Waldorf Stories,” SCDP was forced to hire the “cure for the common [insert here]” hack because he was Jane’s cousin.  Ginsberg is the opposite of that: presented as a breath of fresh air against the regurgitated Volkswagen ad.  And in case there was any question before the end of the episode, when we hear Ginsberg’s father say a prayer, that SCDP now hires Jews on both Don and Roger’s watch.

Pete vs. Roger has a brief appearance in this episode, but it’s important.  I love Pete.  I think his phasing Roger out in front of everybody is the best type of slimy revenge move he could make after last week’s office shenanigans.  And it leads to some good old-fashioned brooding about how Don and Roger are getting old in Don’s office.

I don’t know how I feel about this episode.  I re-watched it hoping that the way the themes hinted at would reveal themselves to me in a more clear way.  But I felt like it was either saying too many things or just one thing: time is passing and it is not always kind.

Thoughts?

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