‘Mad Men’ – ‘Tea Leaves’: Harry and Draper go to White Castle

Senior Television Writer
04.02.12 379 Comments

A review of tonight’s “Mad Men” coming up just as soon as I have a resume up my sleeve…

“When is everything going to get back to normal?” -Roger

We’ve now passed Independence Day of 1966, which means the counter-culture is ever more ascendant, and which means the generation gap is about to turn into a generation chasm. We’ve already dispensed with the period when it was considered fashionable for someone like Paul to take on the airs of a much older man; now there’s confusion and hostility between the older generation and the one that’s eager to replace it.

And it’s that threat of being replaced – even if it’s not necessarily by a future flower child – that links all the stories of “Tea Leaves.”

In our most prominent story – and, unfortunately, the weakest one, as it involves the show’s least compelling main character – Betty gets a medical scare on a routine trip to the doctor for diet pills. She spends the episode convinced she’s going to die – and, worse, that the kids will grow up raised by some combination of Henry’s mother Pauline and Megan. (Betty is so threatened by the idea of Don with Megan that she still tries to think of her as Don’s girlfriend and not his wife, and shaves six years off her age for dramatic effect.) And in that story’s closing moments, we’re reminded of just how threatened Henry is by Don – even though it was Henry who stole Betty away from Don, he’s constantly on edge that the arrangement might reverse itself, and he likes the idea of Betty talking to her ex-husband not one bit.

I didn’t especially miss Betty in the season premiere, and though she’s packed on some weight since last we saw her(*), she’s unchanged in many other ways: chronically unhappy, reluctant or unable to fully articulate the reasons for that unhappiness, and almost stubborn in her myopia. Betty gets the good news about the tumor being benign, and her impulse is to quickly turn it back into a discussion of her being fat, how hideous she is, how she’s started to resemble Henry’s mother, etc., where Henry, for whatever his faults, is just happy and relieved that his wife isn’t going to die of cancer.

(*) Having a female character get fat is one way of dealing with an actress pregnancy you don’t want to write into your show. “Frasier” did it with Daphne, for instance. But because January Jones is so slender to begin with, and didn’t pack on that much weight, the show apparently had to resort to some of the makeup tricks they used on Elisabeth Moss during Peggy’s pregnancy late in season 1, plus a non-pregnant body double for the bath scene. I get that it’s an awkard position to be in, story-wise, and Betty having another baby so soon after Gene would not only complicate her life but go against the suggestion here that Henry and Betty’s sex life tapered off not long after they moved out of the Ossining house.  

“Mad Men” tends to move at a very measured, leisurely pace, but most of the time, I love that. I could have taken a good five more minutes of Don and Harry in Don’s car after the Rolling Stones debacle, with Harry desperate to avoid going home, for instance. About the only time I actually become impatient with the pace is when we’re spending as much time with Betty as we did tonight. There have been some interesting and/or sympathetic Betty episodes over the years – “Shoot” from season 1 and “Souvenir” from season 3 come to mind – but this wasn’t one of them.

Fortunately, Betty’s story was at least woven in with some strong material over on the work end of things, where the men and women of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce are also contemplating the idea of being replaced.

In Roger’s case, he already has been replaced by Pete in every way but the name on the door, but he keeps fighting it, and he keeps resenting it. And his self-pity doesn’t even allow himself to see that he invited Pete’s Mohawk stunt in the lobby with his own behavior throughout the season premiere. Roger’s tired of feeling challenged by the kid, but he’s the one who invited the challenge first by being too complacent with Lucky Strike and the rest of the job, and then by trying to draft off of Pete when nothing else works.

And Roger winds up pushing Peggy to hire new copywriter Michael Ginsberg – who, given both the overriding theme of the episode and Stan’s prophetic comments (which very much echoed Dr. Faye telling Don he’d be married within a year), seems likely to usurp her role as the rising young star in SCDP creative.

But at least Roger’s aware that the times, they are a-changing, even if he doesn’t like it. At the start of the series, it was a joke to him that the agency might have a Jew in a prominent role, where here he acknowledges to Peggy that having someone like Michael “makes the agency more modern.”(**) And Michael is a transition figure of sorts, from the traditional immigrant Jews represented by Rachel Menken’s father – or by Michael’s own father, who reacts to news of his hiring by reciting the priestly blessing in Hebrew – to the secular hipsterism of Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce.

(**) That he does it a half-breath after making a racist crack about Don’s new black secretary suggests that he still has a long way to come.

Throughout the episode, we see various misunderstandings and awkward moments between the generations. Don worries that Megan doesn’t fully appreciate death, while Megan genuinely doesn’t understand how Don could be okay enough with Betty’s condition to go out one night, and then be in a funk the next day. Don’s backstage friend Bonnie has no idea who Charlton Heston is, just as Michael is puzzled when his father mentions the death of former Tigers and Red Sox outfielder Pete Fox, while Raymond from Heinz understands little about The Rolling Stones and assumes Don can get them to do a jingle for beans.

But there are also moments where the older generation demonstrates a pretty good handle on the replacements. Roger does realize the value someone like Michael might have for the firm’s image, after all. And sure, Don’s much more in his element charming an older woman like Raymond’s wife than he is making small talk with Bonnie, but he also zeroes in on enough of what makes her tick that she feels the need to step away from him for a moment, asking to try his business card on the doorman as her transparent excuse. And we see at the end of their encounter that the new generation doesn’t fully understand the people they hope to replace, either, when she complains that older men like Don don’t want her to have fun “just because you never did,” which allows Don to get as fatherly as possible and suggest, “No. We’re worried about you.”

By the close of the episode, we know that Megan won’t be replacing Betty as the kids’ mother figure anytime soon, but Roger’s still feeling threatened, Peggy might soon be, and there will come a point where Don probably can’t carry on a conversation with a teenager without telling him or her to get off his lawn. Roger wants things to get back to normal, but the rapid change going on in this period of history – or, as we can see in present-day, the rapid change that happens in life – says that anyone who thinks things will ever go back to exactly the way they were before is just itching to be replaced by someone more eager to look forward than back.

Some other thoughts:

* Jon Hamm made his directorial debut with this one, which was actually filmed ahead of the season premiere to give him adequate prep time. (It’s the same reason Bryan Cranston has only directed “Breaking Bad” premieres, and why Zachary Levi wasn’t prominently featured in the two “Chuck” episodes before the ones he directed; the pre-production work eats up too much acting time otherwise.) Though I had my aforementioned issues with the Betty material, I thought Hamm did a good job with the visual style, and also working with his familiar co-stars in a different capacity. As i said before, all the Don/Harry material was light and engaging, and Betty’s desperate phone call to Don was a strong moment for both January Jones and Hamm himself. One thing I didn’t love – which could have been Hamm or could have been the editor – was not only the frequent use of dissolves, but the way they at times seemed to cut the first scene too short before moving into the second. It was particularly jarring going from Betty getting out of the tub to Betty at the doctor’s office.

* Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has now taken on two notable new staffers, both of them minorities. I already talked about Ginsberg, played by Ben Feldman from “Drop Dead Diva,” while Teyonah Parris plays Don’s new secretary Dawn, who inspires various bits of amusing Don/Dawn confusion/wordplay. I think the jury’s still out on Feldman here, as he seemed very mannered in the first interview with Peggy. But there’s also a sense that he’s always “on” at work, and the guy we saw coming home to his father’s apartment was dialed back a fair amount, so the affect may be intentional.

* “Bewitched” debuted a couple of months before the events of the fourth season premiere, so it was only a matter of time before some character on the show would compare Don to Darrin Stephens (or, here, by mother-in-law Endora’s dismissive nickname for him, “Durwood”). I’d always figured Roger would be in that scene and get compared to Larry Tate, but instead it’s Harry being held up as some kind of Abner Kravitz, the poor bastard.

* Was this the first significant Roger/Peggy interaction since she asked for Freddie’s office late in season 2? Either way, more please. Elisabeth Moss and John Slattery were terrific together (though who is Slattery not good with?), and it’s a mark of how far Peggy’s come in the agency that he’d be treating her as, if not an equal, than someone at least worthy of attention and some small respect.

* So who was the band that Harry thought were the Rolling Stones? A Twitter follower pointed out that some of the members of Styx called themselves The Tradwinds in the early ’60s, but they changed their name by 1965 because a Rhode Island band called The Trade Winds had become successful. Even stoned, would Harry confuse a bunch of guys from Rhode Island with one of the bands at the forefront of the British Invasion?

* As mentioned last week, I’m screener-less for the rest of the season. I wound up staying up tonight to write this one, but as I’m about to publish, I’m feeling very much the old man on the verge of being replaced by hippies. So my guess is future reviews are going to come sometime in the late morning on Monday. UPDATE: And, of course, when I stay up to write them, I inevitably forget things, so a few more bullet points: 

* The Stones/Heinz thing may well have been Weiner and Levy referencing “The Who Sell Out,” which had Roger Daltrey posing with a can of Heinz beans on the album cover. That was in 1967, and of course they were making fun of the idea of sponsoring such a product.

* Henry makes a reference to “Romney” being a clown. That’s him talking about Mitt’s father George, the Michigan governor who was big enough in the Republican party that he ran against Goldwater for a time during the 1964 primaries. Let me remind you, as always, of this blog’s No Politics rule, which for the most part has only had to cover contemporary politics. If you want to talk about George Romney and why a top aide of John Lindsay might not like the guy, go ahead. If you want to discuss whether Weiner and Levy were taking a shot at Mitt, that’s a no go. Any comments about the Romney currently in the headlines will be deleted. Thank you.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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