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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Mad Men: “Tea Leaves”

Illustration for article titled Mad Men: “Tea Leaves”
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There’s a terrific moment in Kenneth Lonergan’s messy, brilliant movie Margaret that encapsulates everything about the weird tension that exists between teenagers and adults. Matthew Broderick plays the English teacher of the protagonist, Lisa (played by Anna Paquin). He has a tenuous hold on authority over his students, and they’re already challenging him on things he thinks he knows, something that provokes his anger. Around the film’s midpoint, Broderick makes his way through a park near the school he teaches at and sees Lisa and one of her friends smoking a joint while seated on a rock. He tries to shame them about smoking marijuana so close to school grounds, but it doesn’t work. They just don’t give a shit. As he walks away, Lonergan focuses on the back of his neck, and we can see just the barest hint of red creeping into his skin as we hear the girls laughing at him on the soundtrack. You can almost hear his inner monologue: “It’s not their fault they’re young, but do they have to rub it in my face?”

One of the things Mad Men viewers have been waiting for since the show started is the youthquake that took hold in the mid-1960s, when the entire American culture seemed (at least to those who were comfortable in their positions of authority) to take leave of its senses and pursue whatever was young or hip or new. For the most part, the series has kept youth off to the edge of the series. Peggy and Pete were the protégés for Don and Roger, respectively, but this was a series that featured more of the old guard, watching how they tenuously clung to power as the years rolled by. Now, it’s 1966, and the youth movement is in full swing, and these damn kids just can’t stop rubbing it in everybody’s damn faces how young they are.

I honestly wasn’t sure how I felt about “Tea Leaves” until the very last shot. All of the subplots in the episode had been effective—including my favorite Betty Francis story in ages—but they often seemed stitched together at random. Betty’s cancer scare and weight gain didn’t seem to have much to do with Mohawk Airlines, Peggy hiring a new copywriter, or Don and Harry trying to hang out with the Rolling Stones. (I was briefly worried the show might try to cast a Mick Jagger lookalike or something, before realizing it would never do that.) Plus, the whole “Hey, isn’t it crazy how quickly the young folks are taking over?” subtext was lathered on a little thickly, for my tastes. But the final shot drives it all home. Betty, who’s been enjoying an ice cream sundae with Sally after finding out her tumor was benign, pulls over Sally’s half-eaten sundae and finishes it off herself. Cue “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” from The Sound Of Music and fade to black. See?! Betty's getting older, too!

Let’s be honest, here: Mad Men can be a little overtly obvious in its symbolism when it wants to. The example I always turn to is that season one episode that spends a bunch of time showing us what Joan’s life is like, then ends with her holding a birdcage that, obviously, obviously, symbolizes how trapped she is, as if Ken Cosgrove stopped in with the end to his latest short fiction submission to The Atlantic. This isn’t my favorite side of the show, but I don’t mind that it pops up every once in a while. So long as it stays a slight flavor in the overall Mad Men stew, I’m content to let Matthew Weiner pop up from behind the couch and yell, “The rat symbolizes obviousness!” every once in a while.

“Tea Leaves,” for all of its virtues, is also an episode from the obvious symbols school of Mad Men making. Hell, even that closing song is meant to draw focus to how Betty is on her way down, while Sally’s on her way up (in three or four years, she’ll be that girl backstage at the Rolling Stones concert). But there was something that worked about the obviousness of the themes all the same. If this was just an episode about Don and Roger and Betty watching as they get older, while those younger than them seem to have everything out in front of them, it wouldn’t have worked. The key here is the Peggy storyline. No one would accuse Peggy of being a part of the establishment—if only because of who she is—but she’s still someone who has to watch a younger model wander in and potentially take her place, as Michael Ginsburg, hired specifically to write ads for Mohawk, gets hired on the strength of a good portfolio and a solid meeting with Don. (He’s an arrogant jackass in his interview with Peggy.) And even if Michael seems a prick, the kind of guy that we’re probably going to see some sort of will-they/won’t-they play out with regard to Peggy, he’s the other side of the coin of youth, a kid who can be a promise to the future for an aging father who’s just so damn proud. (Notice how the Betty/Sally scene fades in underneath the last moments of the father’s prayer for Michael.)

I’ll grant that some of the “young people are so fun, and God, I’m getting old!” scenes were pretty on-the-nose. The scene when Don talked to the girl at the concert was largely enjoyable, but when he said “We’re worried about you,” it felt like he was about to turn into Joe Friday. Similarly, Harry’s inability to fit in with people who are just barely younger than him was funny, but it was also laid on a little thickly. (That said, I would very much enjoy watching Harry eat, like, 20 hamburgers in every episode.) And the scene where the woman who reads tea leaves approaches Betty and her old friend out of nowhere at a restaurant was just goofy, as if Weiner and Erin Levy (who are credited with the script) needed some way to make Betty cry and couldn’t think of anything better. (I’m sure you’ll all point me to a New York Times article that shows this encounter happened exactly as scripted.)


One thing I thought would bother me actually didn’t, however: The show has chosen to disguise January Jones’ real-life pregnancy by saying that Betty’s put on a few pounds. Normally, this storyline (which a few other shows—most notably Frasier—have tried) is an excuse for fat jokes. Here, it’s an excuse to do a story about the unresolved feelings between Don and Betty (particularly on his end), Betty’s mortality, and, ultimately, her depression. It also offers plenty of excuses for Betty to face off with her new mother-in-law, who’s always a lot of fun. (I’m half convinced Weiner keeps Betty around, even if it would be pretty easy to cut the character, because he enjoys writing her catty comebacks to people who insult her.)

What I love about Betty’s depression is that there isn’t a firm reason for it. Many TV shows would say, “Oh, she had a controlling first husband” or “She had a bad relationship with her mother” or “She’s stifled by her life as a housewife.” Mad Men says it’s all of those things, but it also says that there’s something undefined about it. Betty will never be whole. She’s always going to be looking for a magic fix that won’t come, and even Henry—who really does love her unconditionally—is someone she’ll push away in bitterness, just because she doesn’t know many other ways to relate to people. When the series started, it seemed like Betty was going to fill the show’s “housewife becomes feminist” role, but she didn’t really do that. Instead, she increasingly became isolated, both because of things others did to her and things she did herself. She was miserable, and maybe she’ll always be miserable. The show teases us with the idea that she’ll someday become a “better” person, as if that means anything, but I think it’s clear, now, that she won’t, at least by the standards we’d like to put on her. Nothing will ever quite fill the hole.


But isn’t everybody on Mad Men chasing something they’ll never get? Take Pete Campbell. No matter what he does, nobody’s going to view him the way they viewed Roger Sterling, because Roger Sterling had an ease and confidence with which he held court that simply took people in. Even if Roger’s on the way down and Pete’s on the way up, Pete’s too desperate to be recognized. It’s not hard to imagine a grey-haired Pete who’s just as desperate, even though he’s running the whole damn company, while it’s similarly easy to imagine a Roger who mostly keeps his envies to himself as he works his way toward a retirement he must know is closer than he’d like.

This episode’s a little Don-light—probably because Jon Hamm directed it—but he’s also the guy, as always, who somewhat uncomfortably straddles the generational divide. The scene backstage at the concert is so revealing because it’s one of the first scenes in this series where Don isn’t the cool guy in the room. (Another scene like this? Last week’s party scene. This might become a thing this season.) He leans over to the side, successfully avoiding getting drawn into whatever flirtatious game the teenage girl plays with him, chain-smoking away, watching Harry make an ass of himself before he signs some group called “The Trade Winds.” (The Trade Winds were a real group, of course, best known for their lovely “New York’s A Lonely Town.” However, they don’t seem the best group to sell beans.) In the past, Don has seemed to possess that cool confidence because he’s not particularly interested in chasing the youth movement, and the few times he has (as in season two’s “The Jet Set”), he’s mostly fit right in. He’s a chameleon; it’s his strength.


It’s one thing, though, to be able to flit in and out of places and fit in as need be. It’s another thing to live in a world that’s increasingly a place for the young, particularly when that world makes its way into your very apartment. When Don tells Megan that she doesn’t know anything about death, it’s a little condescending, sure, because how does he know? But at the same time, there’s something true about it. What does she know of death, as a 26-year-old, with nearly all of her memories in a post-World War II world? Some of you were concerned last week that I don’t like Megan, but I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think Megan’s great; I just don’t terribly think there’s much chance of a good relationship between her and Don, if only because their respective ages and back-stories will always place an unbridgeable gap between them. It’s interesting to me that we see almost as many scenes of Don and Megan being ill at ease as we see of them being happy. Don doesn’t want to go to Fire Island because he knows there’s no place for him there. He’s more like the Heinz client—with his dreams of the Stones singing “Heinz Is On My Side”—than he would like to admit.

Maybe the question, then, isn’t youth, but experience. Peggy’s not that much older than Megan, and Don relates to her as well as he does any other human being. But Peggy’s been through shit. She’s lived a life. And even if Roger’s had a pretty easy life, he still went to war, while Pete was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and is now stunned he has to fight for what he believed was going to be handed to him on a platter. There are reminders of those who are willing to fight and take what Don and Roger have gotten a bit lazy about throughout this season, be they Don’s new secretary Dawn (the firm’s African-American hire) or the arrogant but really good Michael Ginsburg. The gulf isn’t between those who are forced to walk away and remember their own youth as it viscerally taunts them, neck blushing. It’s between those who’ve lost things and those who haven’t. And now there’s a whole generation coming that’s barely had to fight for anything or deal with loss. What are they going to fight for? That’s what worries some of these characters, and that’s the battleground the season is being fought on.


Stray observations:

  • I enjoyed all of the Dawn/Don jokes. I guess I am easily amused by stupid wordplay.
  • Honestly, if Betty let herself go for a few more years and/or decades, then had “The Destruction Of Sennacherib” tattooed on her back, would that really be a bad thing?
  • Speaking of Betty, the makeup used to make January Jones look heavier than she is was… distracting at times. Makeup has rarely been this show’s strong suit, and this was just kinda weird-looking.
  • I’m almost alone in Mad Men fandom in liking “The Fog,” so I was primed to enjoy tonight’s Betty dream sequence. If nothing else, it was a nice reminder that I find Kiernan Shipka’s rapid growth mildly unsettling (because I can’t handle how old I’m getting, man).
  • Lots of fun to be had between Roger and Peggy tonight, though when he pointed out that Pete was the last person he hired, there was a nicely unsettling undercurrent to the whole thing. I hope the show doesn’t have Peggy get pushed out by Michael, because I just don’t think I could handle it. (Also, Roger does have a point in this episode about feeling stepped on by Pete. He really did do work to get Mohawk on board, it sounds like.)
  • Pete Campbell tantrum counter: one. Roger wants to have the meeting in his office! The nerve!
  • The shots establishing the Francis Independence Day celebration were beautiful. The person on the staff who found that location deserves several raises, because that’s a hell of a house.
  • I loved the scene where Betty calls Don when she can’t find Henry. I find it interesting that these two seem to almost have a stronger relationship now that their marriage is over.
  • Harry Crane would like to let all of you considering getting married and having kids to “eat first.” He really is an ad man!
  • There is no way the actress playing the teenagers backstage knew anything about Bewitched when asked to say those lines. Hey, now I feel old! There was a time when Nick At Nite showed more than Friends reruns, kids!