Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Tea Leaves" (season 5, episode 3)

Mad Men - "Tea Leaves" (season 5, episode 3)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of seasons four, five, and six. Both parts of season seven will be covered in the summer of 2022 (now updated to winter 2021-22). I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on April 1, 2012/written by Erin Levy and Matthew Weiner; directed by Jon Hamm): Betty is back onscreen, concerned about her dramatic weight gain and a lump discovered on her throat. Awaiting results of the biopsy, she struggles with which option is worse: that she may be staring down the barrel of her own imminent mortality or that this horizon holds nothing but years of quiet loneliness, surrounded but untouched by wealth and an affectionate family, with her best years behind her and not much to show but vague heartache. This passage toward middle age (a doctor consigns her there already, and she barely winces in resignation) is represented by the loss of her figure and the shame she feels over her own body, even in front of her husband. She can only weep when a psychic, reading her titular tea leaves during lunch with cancer-stricken friend Joyce Darling (Adrian Tennor), offers a glowing personal assessment of Betty's importance to those around her. In a dream she speaks to her black-clad family as they sit at a table - in what looks like the old Draper home - and they can't hear her, staring grimly into space until Sally lifts Betty's chair and places it upside down atop the table; is this fear of the future or an allegory for the present? Receiving the good news from a doctor at episode's end, Betty feels both relieved and deflated - or as Wikipedia's description bluntly puts it, "She ponders her life as a sad, fat housewife."

Don, deeply concerned after Betty shares her condition, spends several scenes with Harry shoved into the crowded backstage area of a Rolling Stones concert, surrounded by sweaty, stoned teenagers - most notably Bonnie (Hayley MacFarland), whose attempts to flirt only make her seem more like a kid out of her depth. As the twentysomethings onstage conquer the world, those a decade behind and those a decade ahead of them look lost in the rubble, though they draw different conclusions from their disorientation. Don and Harry are there at the behest of another spontaneous whim offered by the Heinz representative; greedy manager Allan Klein offers a seeming "in" with the Stones, though the notion of them recording a cheesy beans jingle as late in the game as '66 seems pretty remote. Harry, high on a shared joint, accidentally signs the opening band instead (The Trade Winds - a real if largely forgotten mid-sixties group), spoiling the whole concept and leaving Don with a kind of comeuppance for consigning Peggy to that weekend of extra work after the last Heinz feedback session. Peggy, for her part, is roped into Heinz's search for a head copywriter; impressed by Michael Ginsberg's (Ben Feldman's) out-there submissions, she calls him into an interview and is horrified by his erratic, unprofessional behavior. Roger insists she hire him anyway - he's already gone out on a limb promising movement on the campaign and both he and Don are bemused by Michael's wackiness. Peggy, whose idea it was to reward his work in the first place, remains perturbed by the pass the eccentric young man receives (something she presumably never would as a woman, though she's also not hesitant to toss out "he's Jewish" when Roger suggests him for Heinz).

Elsewhere in the episode, Pete uses Roger to seal the deal with Mohawk Airlines and then stab him in the back in front of the whole office, treating him as a subordinate and driving the ever more dejected senior partner Sterling into his luxurious digs to drink and brood. "When do things get back to normal?" Roger asks Don. He probably knows the answer, as they all do - it's no accident that one of the Stones songs cited ironically in the episode's dialogue is "Time is on My Side" (which Raymond accidentally calls "Time is on Your Side," chuckling in response, "Yes, it is, dear," when Megan corrects him).

My Response:
"Tea Leaves" offers new insight to one of the show's core characters, alongside an introduction to an intriguing new arrival. I've often struggled with Betty, or perhaps merely recognized and reflected the show's own struggles with her: in a series all about characters who adapt, transform, and engage with each other and the world around them, Betty's place in the secluded suburbs (where she provided a fragile anchor for a restless ship) has always stuck out in the ensemble. I've known that eventually she would end up in a "fat suit" since before I began watching the series, but I was surprised how well the cosmetic makeover suits the character. I did not find it as physically unconvincing as I expected to, probably in part because January Jones embodies the "new" Betty with such subtle conviction. More importantly Betty's different appearance, and the consequent insecurity, corresponds quite well to a tender, sweet vulnerability that has always been present in the character although sometimes her brittle defensiveness obscured it; without the shield of glamor, Betty may be less comfortable in her own skin but somehow she seems more at home, if not exactly "comfortable," in her own soul. We believe Henry when he tells her he doesn't "see it," or rather - if that's a clumsy and unconvincing formulation - we believe that what he sees is what he always saw in her. The question is if, without being able to rely on an assured public/domestic appearance to masked her personal anxiety, Betty can be re-oriented toward a sense of peace and contentment with herself. (On the other hand, since this concept was essentially a workaround for Jones' real-life pregnancy, I won't be shocked if it goes away eventually, leaving her more or less where she was before.)

As for the new character, Michael is also a bundle of contradictions. Exasperating in his lack of a filter, Michael's motormouth honesty simultaneously hits as quasi-charming authenticity and obnoxious affection accumulated over a lifetime of defensive maneuvering. He can be abrasive and schmoozing, proud and pathetic in the same breath. One of Peggy's criticisms, after the interview with Don goes well, is that if he's able to turn his "crazy" on and off like that, she has even more to worry about: what's wrong with him if he actively decides to be as uncouth as he was in their initial conversation? Michael and Peggy seem situated to become the perfect creative pairing, an SCDP odd couple equally out of place in the WASPy male network of Madison Avenue but with different socially-conditioned responses to that displacement. If Mad Men's many female writers have a bead on Peggy's struggles, Weiner himself (among other writers - including some of those women) can connect to Michael's self-perception as a Jewish outsider, a theme Weiner previously explored with Rachel Menken in season one and has expounded upon in interviews for years. (One critic, Eric Edelstein, even went so far as to headline a thinkpiece "Why 'Mad Men' is Really All About Being Jewish" in 2015.) As one of the younger people to be incorporated into the office culture, Michael will also perhaps pioneer SCDP's foray into the brave new world of the counterculture, but it's a callback to the old world that is most affecting. Shy and softspoken in his small apartment home, Michael receives a blessing in Hebrew from his father Morris (Stephen Mendel) who rises from his newspaper once he hears that the boy landed a job. In an episode where Don tells an undoubtedly underage would-be Brian Jones groupie "We worry about you," this moment of stern but tender parental affection delivers a similar, if more optimistic message in another language.

Next: "Mystery Date"Previous: (season 5 premiere) "A Little Kiss"

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