Monday, April 2, 2012

Mad Men, Season 5, Episode 3: "Tea Leaves"

Fat Betty! I'm of two minds about Betty's new predicament: 1) It seems kind of out of left field. like the writers didn't know what to do with her this season, and thought, "Let's just put her in a fat suit." It seems a bit hokey. 2) On the other hand, it's some nice karmic comeuppance for her terrible mothering, and provides some further insight into her character by (re)emphasizing that she is perpetually dissatisfied with her life, and is actually happier when she can find something to blame it on. Either way, it’s great that she doesn't understand calories. "Ho hum, well I guess I'll just finish Sally's ice cream." Also, it was great that we got to see Henry’s reaction to Don knowing about Betty’s cancer scare. His disappointment that Betty felt the need to reach out to Don, and couldn’t rely on Henry’s support alone, is almost palpable. Once again, I find Henry to be a very sympathetic character.

Loved the contrast between the beginnings of each of the two scenes that open this episode, with Betty trying (and failing) to zip up her dress, and the ease with which Don zips up Megan. Seeing Betty and Megan contrasted like this in the episode made me think about another possible reason the writers had for Don to marry Megan (a reason that was also very evident in the season premiere): Megan’s youth is a way for them to explore the youth culture of the 1960s and make it personally relatable to Don. Megan is arguably the show’s best regular representative of our contemporary image of the 1960s – Peggy’s the other best candidate, but she’s too careerist, and other characters like her current boyfriend and her lesbian friend are too marginal. Megan affords the writers the opportunity to somewhat easily put Don in contact with 1960s cultural change, even if we don’t see their day together with Megan’s young friends. Incidentally, I was extremely glad to see Don acquiesce to going out with her friends – despite the naysayers, I still think Megan’s a positive force in Don’s life, and I don’t want him to lose her because of his own social hang-ups and the age difference between them.

Although, as we saw in this episode, they don’t always need Megan to fulfill this function: Don and Harry’s foray into backstage at a Rolling Stones concert is ample evidence, in addition to the “Zou Bisou Bisou” musical number of the premiere, that season 5 is where Mad Men is finally going to address our contemporary sense of what the 60s were like. That scene had or implied a lot of touchstones: precocious sexual promiscuity, drugs, rock and roll as aphrodisiac, star worship, etc. Something I found particularly incredible about that scene was that it made what we think of as the cultural change of the 1960s seem like some alien, hostile thing by placing Don in the middle of it – we can see Don trying to figure it out in his conversation with the girl he talks to (and “girl” is definitely the right term for her). She has a rather naïve, and potentially unsafe and unhealthy attitude toward Brian Jones, one that is rightly cause for concern for Don (who says as much when she tells him that he’s so uptight because he never had fun like people her age are now: “We’re worried about you.”). A lot of the popular treatments of the 1960s (contemporaneous or otherwise) that I’ve been exposed to have rarely shown the older, more conservative generation as being more sympathetic, yet Mad Men has done just that by inserting Don into the situation.

In any case, Megan is still interesting in her own right: the power dynamics of her and Don’s relationship are very intriguing, to say the least (as we saw near the end of the premiere), and I strongly suspect there to be some pretty great conflict down the line between her and Peggy. Megan’s position at SCDP seems highly likely to come between Don’s mentorship of Peggy, which, after the events of “The Suitcase” is finally in the healthy place I’ve always wanted it to be. Megan’s a possible fly in that ointment, which should make for some good drama (and yet oddly, I still like her character, possibly because I don’t think she harbors and ill intentions. Although really, after Betty, anyone would be a breath of fresh air for Don as wife number two). Plus, I love her reaction to Mrs. Heinz’s “This is boring, am I right, Megan?” Megan clearly disagrees, but is afraid to give the wrong answer after earlier awkwardly blurting out “Don was divorced,” so she replies: “Yes?”

And I am nothing but delighted at Pete and Roger’s newfound rivalry. I feel like both parties are equally sympathetic and antipathetic. Pete’s a sociopath who last year became surprisingly sympathetic (saving Don’s ass when his identity was almost exposed, getting bailed out by Don when the firm needed money, and becoming a father), whereas Roger’s a smug, yet clever, lazy asshole. Okay, so maybe Pete’s the more sympathetic character, but I still love Roger for his pithy quips, and for his often insightful observation into the nature of the people he surrounds himself with (and I also pity him for his sagging marriage). In any case, it’s a pleasure to watch these two go after each other, and to watch Roger quietly simmer as Pete threatens to box him out, if he keeps coasting – just look at the hardness in Roger’s eyes as he hollowly applauds Pete when Pete asserts his oversight of the Mohawk account in front of the entire office.

My god, could I not stand Michael Ginsberg in his first scene. Doubtless this was the intention: the cheap, ill-matching clothes; the half-assed resume (that he pulls out of his sleeve!); the disrespect for Peggy; the smug sense of self-satisfaction… ugh. On top of all of that, the guy (who looks like the lovechild of Dustin Hoffman and Scott Baio) is playing “Jewish,” and poorly, like Woody Allen set on “extra-nebbish.” He became slightly more tolerable in his interview with Don, when he drops the schtick somewhat, but I have a feeling most of his scenes won’t have him reigning it in so much. I was hoping that his last scene in the episode, where he comes home to his tiny apartment with his father would make him more sympathetic. It did, but only slightly, and made me sympathetic to his father more than to Michael. Hopefully he’ll become less of an annoying stereotype and more of an interesting character in subsequent appearances. At the very least, maybe he’ll bounce off Roger in an interesting way. However, I fear he’ll be like Sal in the early going: a character clearly designed and used only as a comedic foil (Sal eventually turned to gold, so there’s reason to be optimistic).

Other random notes:
- The parade of hilarity at the position of Don’s secretaries continues. After the sinking of the Blankenship, we now have Dawn, whose name, for all intents and purposes, is identical to Don. I look forward to all of the ways Don and Dawn will get confused over the course of the season. Also, since Don’s rotating secretaries have always would up being prominently featured in one way or another, I would not be surprised if Dawn ends up being an entry point into the implied promise of the premiere: perhaps this will be the season to address the civil rights movement more explicitly. We truly are getting into the 60s as we know it today.

-Good Harry Crane episode overall. What a putz.

- As my roommate pointed out, Betty’s dream of Henry and company mourning for her must have been a dream, because Sally was upset that Betty was dead.

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