Mad Men: Tea Leaves

Posted on April 02, 2012

We thought it was signaled pretty hard last week, what with all the eyeliner and miniskirts, but in case there was any doubt left in the audience, it’s gone now, like a puff of pot smoke backstage at a Stones concert. The sixties are here in the world of Mad Men, in full force, with all the generational drama that came with the decade. Don tries to get a handle on the younger generation, first by questioning them and then, because he can’t help it, by lecturing them. Betty sits in her gigantic fainting couch of a house, glumly eating Bugles, and considering a world without her, where her ex-husband’s new wife will replace her after she’s gone and never a kind word will be said about her again. Roger continues his desperate attempts to stave off irrelevancy only to have the very last guy he hired overtake him and humiliate him. Even Peggy is feeling the sting of possible replacement by a younger, hipper version of herself. From pot-smoking teenagers to hipster Jews in the Allen/Bruce/Hoffman mold, to well-mannered black women quietly blazing trails, the world we all knew was going to hit these people like a tidal wave has finally landed on the shores of SCDP, leading to the lament that could define the series going forward: “When is everything going to get back to normal?”

Poor Betty. This may be the one storyline that gets the audience back on her side after last season’s ill-advised mama villainy that ended with firing Carla. Certainly we felt more sympathy toward her than we have since before she opened that box in Don’s desk drawer. If anyone in the early days of the show deserved a better life, it was Betty and here she is, having gone through hell to achieve it, more unhappy than ever; stuck in a dreadful mausoleum of a home and shoving food into her mouth to dull her disappointment. Her scene on the phone with Don was truly heartbreaking because it was the first time in years we saw the character drop any pretenses and be one hundred percent herself. What made it all the sadder was that the person underneath all the armor clearly has feelings for Don – or at least, for that part of her life Don represents. “Tell me what you always say,” she pleads with him, desperate for some reassurance. “Everything’s going to be alright,” he says in return, echoing the thousand times he lied and said the very same words to her back in the day. Please, please. I need you to lie to me one more time. I need to believe that lie for just the next few minutes. He understood that as well as she did and it’s why her phone call affected Don so much. The feelings he was having surprised himself. And let’s be clear here: we’re not suggesting either Don or Betty have “feelings” for each other in the sense that they want to get back together; just that they can’t ever escape how important the other one is to their lives and they’ve reached a somewhat comfortable place in their relationship where conversation has been reduced to codewords and phrases unique to them.

But if her frantic phone call with Don revealed a relationship slowly becoming comfortable, it’s apparently the only thing in her life that is. That HOUSE. Just as we all tried to drink in every detail of Don’s swanky new Manhattan pad last week, we suspect many viewers were cataloguing every detail of the Francis home this week, for entirely different
reasons. We can’t imagine that Betty would ever be happy in such a dreary place and we’re dying to know the story behind it. It seems unlikely that she and Henry managed to furnish that place top to bottom with antiques in such a short period of time, so we’re wondering if it wasn’t in Henry’s family already. We keep trying to put it in context with her life; like noting that she grew up in a semi-stuffy Main Line home herself, but her father’s house was Falling Water in comparison to that dungeon. Sally seemed fairly okay in her short scenes here but it sure doesn’t look like a fun house to grow up in.

And Henry is clearly a better husband to her than Don ever was; affectionate, caring, supportive and protective. He’s there for her, figuratively and literally, in every way that Don never was. So of course she’s as unhappy as she’s ever been. Without the excuse of Don screwing up her life, it’s become clear that Betty simply can’t be a happy person, no matter her circumstances. And it’s extremely telling that her most articulately voiced concern over her impending death was over the idea that Don’s “20 years old” wife (because the truth never gets to Betty’s pain the way an embellishment will) would raise her children and they’d never hear a kind word about her again. In other words, Betty’s main concerns were being replaced by someone younger and worrying about what people said about her. Even when faced with death, Betty remains the trivial, unhappy person she is.

Megan continues to shock us. We found her shrugging over Betty’s condition to be kind of cold, but we also think there was a subtext of some tension between the two of them, which is entirely to be expected but we’ll feel cheated if there isn’t at least one Betty/Megan confrontation this season. What we found shocking was that after Don informed her that he wouldn’t be spending the weekend in Fire Island with her and her young friends … she actually got him to change his mind and go. If you don’t quite grasp the significance of this, go watch any early episode where Betty could barely get Don to agree to sleep in his own house 5 nights a week. Go watch any episode where a woman tried to get him to do something he didn’t want to and he ran in the opposite direction, every single time. The second (or third) Mrs. Draper has talents and depths to her that continue to make her an intriguing addition to Don’s life.

On the flip side, Roger continues to decline and we fear the coming years are only going to be more and more disappointing for him. Pete’s a shithead; we think we can all agree on that. And his performance in the lobby was humiliating to Roger. But Roger has mistreated Pete since the day he hired him and he’s been coasting solely on his name and money ever since his one and only client left. As much as we feel bad for Roger, he earned this – and not because he’s smug or because he’s the older generation, but because he spent the last 6 years putting down people with talent and ambition while sitting around waiting for the recognition he felt was owed him simply by virtue of his last name. It surprised us to see him getting so chummy with Peggy. It’s kind of a refreshing take on the various office relationships going on. We rarely see these two together and here they are, commiserating like co-workers. Remember when she asked him for Freddie Rumsen’s office, only four years ago?

Stan seems to think Peggy made a mistake by hiring someone potentially more talented than she is, and the theme of the episode seems to bear this ominous prediction out. Maybe we’re getting cocky and complacent in our feelings, but we can’t imagine that Weiner and Co. will do much to unseat Peggy from her hard-won position near the top of the creative chain.  On the other hand, Michael’s work really was very good. And it didn’t escape us how much his return home to his father echoed Peggy’s return to see her mother and sister back in “Flight 1” during season 2. Very similar apartment, very similar ethnic/religious tone. Michael Ginsberg IS Peggy Olsen. And we can’t be the only people who sensed an attraction, could we?

But we think the most telling moment of the episode (once again) came from Don: “We’re worried about you.” This in response to a pot-smoking teenager’s lament that grownups don’t want her to have any fun. Don can hang out backstage at a Stones concert, but he’s too square to get anything out of it (Harry, of all people, had an easier time of it) and when confronted with a Baby Boomer, can’t do anything but be a parental figure. That’s certainly appropriate on his part, but as someone whose entire professional life (and thus, his entire life) is based on his ability to understand people, his first response when face-to-face with the largest demographic in the history of the nation was to furrow his brow and lecture her. Don is no more ready for the youthquake than Roger is and understands it no better. It’ll be the Peggy Olsens and Michael Ginsbergs of the world who will wind up gently explaining to them that from now on, this is the new normal.

Just ask Dawn.


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