Sunday, April 1, 2012

"Mad Men" Review: "Tea Leaves" (Season 5 Episode 3) - "Everything's going to be okay..."

Jon Hamm and Jessica Parè as Don and Megan Draper on "Mad Men"

The long-awaited fifth season of Mad Men continues, and I’m reviewing and analyzing every episode as it airs!  Tonight, we’re taking an in-depth look at the season’s third hour, “Tea Leaves.”  This review contains heavy spoilers, so don’t read unless you’ve seen the episode.

Spoilers for “Tea Leaves” after the jump….

“Actual life and death.  I’ve given up on all that … When is everything going to get back to normal?” – Roger

In my review of the season premiere, I suggested that Megan’s outburst to Peggy – “What’s wrong with you people?” – could serve as a thesis to this fifth season.  In those first two hours, Megan’s question seemed to be the one on the show’s mind: why do these characters act so self-destructively so much of the time?  “Tea Leaves” (the second episode to air but the third numerically due to the premiere’s double length) continues this thematic arc by providing a possible explanation for our characters’ behavior: death.  Or, at least, the relentless passage of time – symbolic of life’s finality – which influences all of these characters to varying degrees. 

Take Roger, for example: “actual life and death” may not be a concern of his, but the swift evaporation of his usefulness sure feels fatal, and that’s what’s made him more childish than ever this season.  Here, he clings to the Mohawk account like it’s some magic medicine that will give him new life, but by the end of the hour, it’s clear that his number is going to be called just the same.  “I’m tired of it,” he tells Don, admitting how weary it makes him to fight the inevitable.  He then chews out Pete, failing to realize that his young rival fights so hard for the same reason Roger does: survival instinct.  Pete may not have the same awareness of literal mortality as Roger does, simply by virtue of his age, but the figurative threat of ‘death’ looms all the same; if Pete’s become ruthless, it’s because he wants to go on living the life he’s built for himself, just as Roger would like to somehow get his life back to ‘normal.’  If these two men ever figured out that their motivations boil down to identical psychological archetypes…well, they still wouldn’t get along, but perhaps they could get something done together.

While Pete and Roger – along with Harry, experiencing a rather brutal mid-life crisis – are worrying about the frailty of life, Peggy starts questioning life’s worth.  She’s come further than any other character on this show – timid secretary to creative second-in-command in half a decade – but there are still avenues closed for her because of her gender.  Mohawk wants “someone with a penis” on their account, as Roger so kindly puts it, to which Peggy – always gifted with the best one liners – humorously replies “I’ll work on that.”  It’s the funniest moment of the episode, but it’s also poignant: as far as she comes, as hard as she works, no amount of effort will allow Peggy to overcome certain obstacles, and at that point, all her accomplishments feel a little less significant.  It only gets worse when she interviews the rude, deceptive Michael Ginsberg, and suddenly finds one of Roger’s petty mistakes upturning her carefully structured professional life.  Peggy’s frustration at the hour’s end is easy to comprehend: if life can become this undesirably complicated this quickly – and randomly – then what does it all mean?  The sad truth of mortality rings its ugly head for Peggy as well.   

Even the seemingly imperturbable Ginsberg is motivated by the shroud of death.  He tells Peggy he’s in the business because loves and lives for it, but as we see when he returns home to his cramped, filthy apartment, he’s lying.  His life is in bad shape, he seems to be supporting his elderly father, and he desperately needs a job.  Like Roger, Pete, and to a certain extent Peggy, he does the job to survive. 

These characters all have self-awareness about death, though, and the person in tonight’s episode literally grappling with the end of life is the one whose capacity for self-awareness rests somewhere between slim and none: Betty.  Returning after her absence in the premiere, we see that Betty, typically a flawless physical specimen, has put on a few pounds.  It’s a visually shocking change to the character’s status quo, but if you’ve watched Mad Men for any length of time, it takes all of ten seconds to realize that Betty’s predicament was inevitable.  She’s an emotionally stunted person who spent years stuck in one horrible marriage to Don Draper, ended that relationship with incredibly frail mental health, and immediately jumped into a second marriage that is equally, if not more, unfulfilling.  She’s an unhappy person stuck in a life she doesn’t want with no resources to help her recognize the source of her problems.  Betty’s issues were bound to manifest themselves in physically unhealthy ways at some point.

In keeping with her character, Betty is sadly oblivious to all of this; she doesn’t know why she’s obese, her confusion leads to further frustration, and she copes with her frustration through overeating.  Knowing Betty the way we do, it’s clear that this vicious cycle is going to continue until some external force throws a wrench in it, and that wrench comes in the form of a lump on her thyroid.  The tumor turns out to be benign, but before learning this, Betty actually –startlingly, I might say – attempts some introspection.  She thinks about what her life has been worth; she worries about how people might view her when she’s not there to defend herself; she dreams about a future where her family copes without her.  These thoughts all reveal her deeper neurosis – particularly her self-centeredness, which prevents her from worrying about her own children in the midst of all this – but at least she’s contemplating all this, and that’s a big step forward for the character.  I don’t want Betty to die, but for the sake of her own mental health, it’s a bit of a shame the tumor was benign.  If she suddenly had an expiration date, she would be forced to continue this self-exploration, and maybe become a healthier, fuller human being for the experience.  As it stands, Betty’s life isn’t going to improve one iota, for she immediately returns to her old ways after the Doctor gives her the good news, bottling all her problems deep down and coping with dissatisfaction by finishing the ice cream Sally barely touched. 

Death isn’t currently a big concern for Don.  With Megan, his job, and occasionally his kids, he’s happy with his life, and has little reason to worry.  But death still affects him, as he is deeply unsettled by the prospect of Betty’s cancer leaving the kids in his care.  It’s not that he doesn’t want or love his children, but that the absence of his own parents was an ordeal he wouldn’t wish on anybody.  Whether it’s us dying or someone else, death leaves scars, and Don Draper is a deeply scarred man.  Perhaps that’s why he and Megan don’t see eye-to-eye on this issue: it’s likely she’s never had to deal with mortality, at least not the way Don has, and that’s why she feels it will all be okay no matter what. 

The ironic thing is that Megan may, once again, be wiser than the other characters in this regard.  Things probably will all be okay in the end, and if they aren’t, death won’t be the deciding factor.  If Roger has outlived his usefulness at SCDP, he’s got the money and privilege to fill his life with other pursuits; Pete’s got a family now, and they won’t stop loving him because his career isn’t going just the way he wants it; even if Ginsberg’s presence makes Peggy’s work life hell, she’s got the intelligence, talent, and spirit to set things right again; and at this point, a fatal illness wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen to Betty.  Our characters are either conflating smaller issues to the size and scope of death or ignoring the positive messages one should learn from mortality; either way, we’re learning more and more about why these characters act the way they do, and the results continue to be fascinating.

SPECIFIC THOUGHTS:

--“Tea Leaves” marks the directorial debut of Jon Hamm, and he did a fine job with the episode.  I wouldn’t say Hamm went above and beyond the way John Slattery did in the two hours he helmed last season (which are two of the most creatively staged episodes of Mad Men ever), but he stayed entirely true to the show’s established aesthetics without missing a beat. 
--Since she was a fairly minor player in the fourth season, this marks the first Betty-centric hour since season three.  I’ll admit, I’m not a huge Betty fan, and that held “Tea Leaves” back for me in some regards, but after turning Betty into a de facto antagonist last season, this episode seemed like the start of a promising character rehabilitation.  I want Betty to have an actual arc this year, one where she gains some modicum of stability, and I think there are many dramatically satisfying directions the character can go after tonight’s episode.
--Don and Harry going backstage at the Rolling Stones concert was my favorite part of the hour; Harry’s antics provided some welcome comic relief, while Don’s conversation with the young Brian Jones fan was a marvelous piece of writing.  In keeping with the hour’s overarching themes about death, mortality, and the passage of time, their dialogue honed in on the generational gap, something that’s going to become all the more important as the sixties march along.  Though Don denies it, I think the girl hits the nail on the head when she says: “None of you want any of us to have a good time just cause you never did.” 
--I rarely have complaints with any aspect of Mad Men, but once in a while, the ending song seems a little too precise, and this was one of those cases.  “16 Going on 17” is obviously meant to represent Betty’s stunted emotional growth, but after five seasons with this character, do we really need that explained through song? 
--In the ever-expanding parade that is Don’s revolving door of secretaries, the firm’s racial insensitivities last week means he now has an African-American woman also named Dawn working his desk.  When you go through that many people for one position, I’d say it’s probably inevitable you wind up with one who shares your name.

Come back next Sunday night for my review of
Episode 4, “Mystery Date”

“Mad Men” reviews will go up every Sunday night an hour or two after the episode airs

4 comments:

  1. I think Don's new secretary is named "Dawn"..and I believe Hamm also directed last week's 2 hour episode.

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  2. lovely review. blundered into this page looking for thoughts on the ep. I pretty well agree with everything here, but I want to stick up for the choice of closing song.

    first, it's not just about Betty - it's about the whole theme. you could easily put Megan, the groupie, Pete, or anyone else in Liesl's ingenuous role.

    second, of course, in keeping with the sixties, none of these relative youths have any interest in being kept in their place; all are rebellious and pushy. so it's quite the opposite of the song, which I think adds irony to the choice.

    third, starting with the intro is sly; only the more die-hard fans would recognize the song, so it made a wonderful gradual reveal, I felt. saccharine and sweet and perfect.

    fourth, The Sound Of Music film from which it was taken came out that very year. and was a throwback to 1959, when Mad Men was first set.

    and then fifth! think of The Sound of Music - the stiff man of the house and the rebellious younger woman who comes to take care of the children, because the biomom is gone. what more perfect closer source could there have been? none, I tell you.

    so great an episode. thanks for your otherwise wholly agreeable investigation!

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  3. KS - You are correct about Dawn. Thanks for pointing that out, I've changed it in the review. But the premiere was directed by Jennifer Getzinger. Some thought the premiere was directed by Hamm because this episode, Tea Leaves, was shot first in the production schedule.

    Windows to Sky - thank you for your thoughtful comment and analysis. I had not considered some of your points, so I'm glad you contributed to the discussion. Your third point especially makes sense to me - starting with the into was very effective, at the very least.

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  4. thanks! to clarify, by "throwback to 1959", I meant, that's when the play was written. the story takes place earlier and its non-musical predecessors are also from earlier, but still, I like the 1959 coincidence. :)

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