Mad Men: Season Five, Episode 2
For over a season now, Mad Men has had what can be called either a "Betty" problem or a "January Jones" problem. Early in the run of the show, it seemed that Betty Draper was going to be the housewife-turned-feminist for the series, going to therapy (but not being fooled by her duplicitous therapist), toting a gun to scare off birds, taking up horseback riding and trying to get back to work as a model. Yet all of those attempts eventually curdled and Betty became more Livia Soprano than feminist icon, growing bitter, jealous of her daughter Sally and deeply unhappy. After her divorce from Don, Betty is, at best an ancillary character on the series, and it has seemed that the show struggles slightly for what to do with her.
Enter the "Betty is fat," storyline, which was at first ludicrous, then engrossing, and finally a bit of a retread. At first, I thought this was a sort of desperate ploy to make Betty relevant again (and then I learned January Jones is actually pregnant, a fact I somehow missed while cloistered away in the library) and the story seemed frankly beneath Mad Men. When Frasier and Will and Grace did "pregnant actress as fat character" stories, it was kind of clever, but mostly cloying. But Mad Men doing it seemed somehow undignified and very unoriginal. Then came the first twist, in which Betty's weight gain might have been caused by Thyroid cancer. This was a much more compelling potential storyline, turning weight gain less into grift for cheap jokes and plodding meditations on how age fades beauty and more into a chance for a fairly shallow character to come up against the deepest problem she will ever face--her mortality.
But then came the second twist: Betty doesn't have cancer at all. This lead to a nice moment at the end of the episode which actually caused the storyline to dovetail with the rest of the episode (prior to that it had been, like most recent Betty stories, kind of unrelated to the main action except for Don's worrying), but it also meant that Betty's whole storyline in tonight's episode was pretty much a 45 minute trip back to the exact same place the character has been for seasons now: she is ultimately a shallow, child-like woman with a hole gnawing at her from inside, a person who will never be happy and grows angrier and angrier at her young daughter for the simple fact that Sally has her life ahead of her. I have never thought this was necessarily a bad way to handle Betty as a character (it seems consistent that a woman raised to be a housewife in the '40s and '50s might have real trouble adjusting to the way the world is changing, and that actually ties her, thematically at least, more closely to our main characters, who are watching powerlessly as they grow older and less relevant), but it means that she exists in a sort of permanent stasis. She may have gained weight, but what that means, as the episode's ending credit song "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" reminds us, is that we're in for another season of Betty being Betty (the "next week on Mad Men" with Sally yelling "I hate her!" into a phone, like she has done around 30 times before, confirms this in the absurdly vague way those previews have become famous for).
Just as this show has kept a lot of the decade's racial strife at arm's length from its entitled, often oblivious characters, it has also kept them detached from the nascent youth movement that was picking up steam in the mid-1960's. Yet if there is a clear theme emerging in these first two episodes, it is that the times, they are a-changing, and that our characters will have to deal with the ways their world is not what it used to be. Last time we really connected with the youth movement, in season two's excellent "The Jet Set," Don fit in well with his temporary companions, showing us what a great chameleon Dick Whitman can be once again. Not so in "Tea Leaves," when Don manages to pull off disaffected at best, but comes across more as completely detached. He tries to work his advertising magic on the young girl waiting to do whatever Brian Jones wants (man, is she going to be sad in the near future), but she isn't buying it, and Don and Harry never get to meet The Rolling Stones. They just aren't in the target demographic, and for once in Don's life, he isn't cool enough to get through the door.
If there's a problem with "Tea Leaves," its that it comes from the school of Mad Men that leaves subtlety aside and lathers on its messages a little thickly. Betty getting her fortune read while worried she might be dying? Yup. Don getting passed over for Harry? Sure. Roger being completely eclipsed by Pete? Check. I think if anything redeems all of this obviousness, its Peggy's storyline. Peggy is looking to hire a new copywriter, and wants to grab someone with the most talent. She is warned against it, as she may be hiring her new boss, but she plugs ahead anyway, prizing talent over gamesmanship. And then Roger, who praised her efforts, is shown that he made the mistake Peggy might be making and has lived to regret it. The last person he hired was Pete Campbell who is now giving speeches as if he owns the firm, and leaving Roger out in the cold.
And if one subtlety did run through "Tea Leaves," it was perhaps the most exciting possibility the episode threw out there. Don recognized his inability to fit in with the youth movement tonight, only to go home to Megan, who is as much a part of that movement as he is separate from it. Is it any surprise that after feeling well out of his element the night before, Don did not want to go to Fire Island to meet Megan's friends? If Don's first marriage was about his inability to fit with a woman who knew nothing about him, a woman he had married only for what it said about him, then perhaps his second will be about Dick Whitman's inability to fit with a woman who knows everything about him, and who he married mostly for what her skills with his children said to him about her. It may not be the most elegant inversion ever pulled off, but if that's where the show is going, I am very interested to see how it works out.
"Tea Leaves" gives us plenty of "changes are coming" moments, from Don's new secretary Dawn (the firm's first African American hire) to Michael Ginsburg (the firm's first Jewish hire) to all of The Rolling Stones material. So far, Mad Men has tracked people who have clawed their way to the top by pretending to be things they aren't and who have exerted authority over subjugated classes more through sheer will than through any actual attempts. If Dick Whitman clawed his way to the top, it was through deception. For Peggy Olson, its a question of sacrifice, of what she had to give up to get her position. And for characters like Roger and Pete, its a question of blind entitlement--they were born with silver spoons in their mouths, and they expect it to stay that way. For characters like Michael and Dawn, it seems likely they will make it to the top not by playing the game the way its been rigged for years, but by standing up and asserting their rights to a place at the table.
-"The other night she was playing this song. Time...Time is on your side?" "'Time is on My Side.'" "Yes it is, dear."
-"Mohawk is going to insist on a regular copywriter." "Someone with a penis." "I'll work on that."
-"They said that about Mein Kampf: 'He has a voice.'"
-"Brian Jones. He's a troubador."
-"She's a fighter." "Come on."
-"When is everything gonna get back to normal?"
Tags: Mad Men