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MAD MEN RECAP 2: TEA LEAVES

Television
by Deborah Lipp
April 2, 2012 8:59 AM
20 Comments
  • |

Watch a clip from Mad Men Season Five, Episode Two: "Tea Leaves."

"When is everything going to get back to normal?"

In recent interviews, Matt Weiner has been sharing this quote, uttered by Roger at the end of Tea Leaves, as a kind of capsule of the entire season. There is no normal to get back to, and as Don said in episode 105, 5G, "I have a life, and it only goes in one direction. Forward." At the moment (late June and early July 1966), forward is a very strange direction indeed, for Don, for Betty, for Roger, for SCDP, and for the United States as a whole.

When forward gets strange, backward looks pretty good. Betty reached out to Don because she knew what she would get: "Say what you always say," she begs, and Don knows exactly what she means. There was a time she hated when he said that; "You don't know that," she answered, but now she reaches out to Don, not because she's in love with him, or threatening his marriage or her own, but because he is familiar, and she knows what he'll say, and she can use that to calm herself. Betty's parents are both dead, the only past that Betty can touch is Don, and it works, she calms down enough to breathe.

The title Tea Leaves suggests the future, and a fortune teller arrives a little before the halfway point to remind us that attempts to predict the future are a fool's game. Mad Men has treated tarot reading quite respectfully in the past, and even uses a tarot card as a production logo. The tea leaf lady doesn't represent a condemnation of the whole idea of divination so much as a demonstration that the belief in a controllable and containable future just doesn't withstand scrutiny.

"Time is on My Side" is the Rolling Stones song everyone’s talking about, and not because it was a big hit in 1966. In fact, the Stones recorded it in '64; if Mad Men simply wanted to reference a current song, why not "Paint It Black,"  which was released in May of 1966 and was huge. No, the song was selected for its title. Is time on Betty's side? On Roger's? On Megan's? Betty might not have cancer, but there's a kind of awakening to the future, to tea leaves, to the choice to reach forward or back.

It's also not a coincidence that the doctor refers to Betty as "middle-aged." Man, that's got to hurt. Betty is now all of 34, which we wouldn't call middle-aged now, but was not an unreasonable label in 1966. Still, I can't imagine she likes it. She's seething that Megan is 20 (she's 26 but hey, what's six years between enemies?). Youth culture has arrived. Our closing song, "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" (from The Sound of Music), Harry lusting clumsily after young girls, even Megan calling Don "square": it's all about the passage of time. Don's inability to communicate with his mother-in-law (he doesn't speak much French) seems symbolic of the gulf between Megan's youth and Don's age. These old squares can't even tell whether or not they've met the Rolling Stones! (I don't know how much scrutiny a closing song gets, but Hammerstein died of cancer shortly after The Sound of Music opened on Broadway, before it was made an Academy Award-winning film in 1965; that bit of musical trivia sure fits with the contrast of youth and death, which is one a theme of this episode.)

Naturally everyone will want to talk about Betty's weight gain, and naturally, the storyline was written to accommodate January Jones's pregnancy. It's strange that in Season 1, Peggy's story was that she looked fat but was actually pregnant, and now January Jones is pregnant, and Betty looks pregnant but is actually fat. The fourth wall kind of melted for me when I saw Betty, and I had a hard time understanding, for a few minutes, that this was a tale about Betty Francis becoming fat, because instead I was thinking, "Oh, that's how they are dealing with January's pregnancy." I was wondering if Betty was pregnant, instead of seeing the evidence on-screen: From the moment we saw Betty struggling to get into her dress, we saw a story about a woman who had gained unwanted weight. Thinking otherwise comes entirely from reading gossip columns and knowing what's going on behind the scenes. We really undermine ourselves when we suck up all that backstage stuff, because it prevents us from seeing the drama on its own terms.

Anyway. Betty got fat. Again, in interviews following Season 1, Matt Weiner expressed a lot of interest in the way that fat women are treated in our world, and he got to tell some of that story by having Peggy gain weight. In Season 2, we met Betty's friend Sarah Beth, who couldn't string three sentences together without including one about how awful it was that her daughter was fat. The oppressiveness of that ongoing monologue was palpable.

As is Betty's self-hatred. It's one thing to get fat, it's another to decide that your husband can no longer see you naked, and you can no longer go to fancy events unless you fit into your old, glamorous clothes, and you can no longer have an active sex life. One thing I've always loved about Betty is her libido: she may be prim and judgmental, but in the sack she is desirous, playful, and rarin' to go. Betty is denying herself things she loves: going out, showing off her beautiful clothes, making love, being admired. She's doing this because fatness is hateful to her.

I am not a doctor, but it seems to me that even a benign tumor sitting on the thyroid could cause weight gain, so it surprised me that the show played, at the end, with the notion that Betty is fat because she's eating extra ice cream. Maybe that's true, or maybe she's giving herself permission to indulge because she's unable to lose weight even when she starves herself (which is exactly what happens with a thyroid problem). Betty watches every bite she eats, even during pregnancy ("Jesus, Bets, have some oatmeal. That baby’s gonna weigh a pound," Don said in episode 3.09). This is why her silent, private indulgence in a chicken leg (episode 2.13) was so moving and so sensual. If there's a loss of control it's more than just "letting herself go;" Betty is control.

The other major theme of Tea Leaves is appearances. Betty is not just fat, she is deeply concerned with being seen as fat, and she is sure that Henry is incapable of seeing her accurately. Megan is concerned with how she appears to the Heinz people, and awkwardly makes sure they know she didn't sleep with a married man. Harry wants to look cool in front of, well, he's not sure...the girls backstage? Don? The security guard? If only someone would think he's cool, he'd feel better. Meanwhile, he's hiding his eating, which seems like a nod at Betty. Michael Ginsberg is a talented nebbish who wants to appear so obnoxious that he'll be mistaken for bold and exciting. And Peter, as ever, wants everyone to know how important he is. (Note Peter in a black suit, when he usually wears blue or green; he's dressed as the Head of Accounts and he doesn't want anyone to miss it.) Part of what Tea Leaves is about is the show we're all putting on for each other so much of the time.

Some additional thoughts:

In Season 1, Harry advised Pete that looking and flirting were the kinds of pleasures a married man can have. His one infidelity left him remorseful and quick to confess. I don't know if Harry is cheating, but what he's doing is worse, in a way. He's longing. Jennifer can't know what's hit her.

Henry is working for John Lindsay, who was Mayor of New York from 1966 through 1973. He doesn't want the mayor seen with (George) Romney because "Romney's a clown." Ha! I'm allowed to enjoy the cheap shots, aren't I? Mitt's father, George, was governor of Michigan at the time, but I'm sure the writer's room had a nice laugh sticking that in the script.

"Romney's a clown" would be the quote of the week if it weren't for "Someone with a penis."/"I'll work on that." My son came home from work just as Peggy said that, and I was laughing so hard he thought something was wrong.

I think we can give Jon Hamm's directorial debut a thumbs up, don't you?

Deborah Lipp is the co-owner of Basket of Kisses, whose motto is "smart discussion about smart television." She is the author of six books, including "The Ultimate James Bond Fan Book."

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20 Comments

  • ben | May 9, 2012 3:04 PMReply

    I can't say I would ever have described Betty as "in control"...
    she maybe tries very hard to be in control, but she is never in control of anything. Her weight, her emotions, her kids, her marriage. She hits her daughter, is married to the ultimate Alpha male Don, needs to go to a shrink.

    That's what I got from the ice cream and Cheetos indulgence.

  • Michelle | April 2, 2012 3:51 PMReply

    Great stuff - even though I found this episode very awkward ... Not Jon's direction, but the writing. Without confirming when they filmed the episode, I figured January was either pregnant or post-partum. From the few real-life/paparazzi pics I saw of her pregnant, she didn't get very big. But if the writers had already sketched out the fat storyline, they likely panicked and placed her in the fat suit. Too bad. The chin/neck area was SO distracting. UGH. I agree that weight has been a lifelong issue for her. She reminisced about her Mother making her walk home from somewhere for being too fat! (Season 1 or 2, I can't remember. I think her Father was still alive.) I also feel the show captured how cancer was rarely spoken of back then. Different times ...

  • Nomi | April 2, 2012 1:33 PMReply

    Although January Jones was definitely pregnant, she apparently wasn't "fat" enough. Seems she got some help: http://theclicker.today.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/04/02/10981325-fat-suit-wearing-january-jones-returns-to-mad-men-in-a-really-big-way

  • Nomi | April 2, 2012 3:10 PM

    Right, I wondered about her chin/jaw in particular too.

  • Deborah Lipp | April 2, 2012 2:20 PM

    There were media photos of January Jones snapped during her pregnancy and her face didn't puff up like that. She's wearing a pretty obvious chin prosthetic.

  • Steve Gerow | April 2, 2012 12:26 PMReply

    I'm glad everyone got a chuckle out of the "Romney's a clown" cheap shot. To me, being more center than left, the comment left a gratuitous bad taste in my mouth. I no longer will enjoy the show quite as much. Much like the "I'm not a Republican, I'm not a schmuck" comment in Julie and Julia. The writers are having a cheap laugh by insulting a portion of their audience.
    It would have been more accurate to have the mayor meet with LBJ and to have said "Johnson's a clown" in 1966. I was a liberal then (20 yrs old in college) but all the kids I knew hated Johnson and looked at the Vietnam War as Johnson's ego-driven enterprise. Romney was almost unknown - a favorite son candidate.

  • Frank | April 3, 2012 6:29 PM

    There was plenty of snark about Jack Kennedy in season one, as SC worked on Nixon's campaign. Even a crack by Sal about Jackie.

    But more to the point, George Romney and John Lindsay (Henry's boss) both had their eye on the 1968 Republican nomination in 1966. Romney was campaigning for reelection to as Michigan governor, and would likely have looked more like a national political player with an appearance on his behalf by the Republican mayor of New York. Henry doesn't want to give him that but needs a reason, so he calls him a clown (probably having nothing of substance to offer - Romney was more successful as Michigan governor than Lindsay was in New York).

    Made sense to me.

  • Deborah Lipp | April 2, 2012 2:21 PM

    In fact, if it makes your bipartisan heart feel any better, the show took a shot at LBJ in last season's episode The Good News.

  • marley greiner | April 2, 2012 11:57 AMReply

    Really nice summary of last night. One point, though, I had a different take on Betty and the ice cream scene. I thought that after her "near death" experience Betty may have been thinking (if only momentarily) to hell with it. I'm tired of denying myself whatI want (even if she doesn't in many respects). I want this ice cream I'm going to have it. A minor re-invention

    I'm sure we've all noticed how Sally moves and uses the same speech patterns as Betty. Last night, I felt like Betty was speaking exactly like Sally.

  • J Fields | April 2, 2012 2:41 PM

    Deborah:

    Although we do agree on many things, especially love of Mad Men, I disagree with you about the Romney swipe. It was not subtle, and seemed especially intended to be taken in exactly the way many are viewing it today. Matt's (or Jonn's?) politics are of little interest to me, but he is normally very careful not to interject any element that might take away from the illusion that we are actually viewing life in 1966. A study of politics and political writings shows that George Romney, while falling out of favor with the hardline conservative side of the Republican Party, was a well-connected and influential governor and still would have "relations" with the Rockefeller Republicans of New York State. It was almost as if, given the very politically incorrect comments made by others during the episode, the writers felt the need to remind everyone of their own political leanings. It was still a good episode, but not anywhere near as good as the first two.

  • Deborah Newell Tornello | April 2, 2012 11:43 AMReply

    Terrific summary, Deborah. I'm such a Betty-supporter--in fact, I'd go as far as to say that Betty, Joan, and Peggy are the primary "voices" and points of view driving this drama, more so, certainly, than those of Don, Pete, or Roger.

    People reflexively hate on Betty: She is beautiful and comes from a monied family, so she's always had it easy, right? At the end of Season 3, Don's comment to Betty--that she had everything she wanted and dreamed about--would seem to reflects unsettling (but not unexpected) reactions to Tea Leaves I'm seeing elsewhere today (not here, thankfully). I mean, a few people are saying they'd hoped she really did have terminal cancer so the writers could get rid of her! Others are just savoring the schadenfreude at seeing a beautiful woman--one whose looks once conformed to their culturally-engrained notion of "hot"--get taken down a peg or two (or ten). "Betty is fat--hahahahaha!"

    Ironically, spiteful and superficial viewer reactions to Betty's weight gain and attendant unhappiness underscore how women are so relentlessly judged on our appearance, to this day, to the detriment of any real understanding of Who We Are and where We've Been, an understanding that can't even be approached without looking below the surface, be that surface beautiful, plain, fat, or thin.

    Because a fairer assessment of the delightfully complicated Betty would take into consideration such things as her upbringing, wherein she was groomed to be a pretty house cat, even as she was sent to an excellent college to pursue a degree in a not-exactly-a-cakewalk subject: anthropology (and how interesting is that?!). A fairer assessment of Betty would remember her career pre-Don, when she lived in Italy; her mastery of Italian; her crushed disappointment at not getting the Coke commercial--she'd been so thrilled at the prospect of re-entering the workplace--and coming home, making dinner as promised, and ultimately, taking out her frustration by shooting at the neighbor's birds. And consider: Betty's choices in feminist reading material; her Yankee thrift (she's quite adept with a sewing machine, despite being well-off enough to send things to a seamstress, and as someone who pays extraordinarily close attention to the costumes, I noticed that the cream cotton eyelet shirtwaist dress--with crinoline!--that she wore in Season I, when Glenn walks in on her in the bathroom, had been rendered sleeveless and crinoline-free in a later episode, because that's what you did with nice clothes--you hung onto them and updated them rather than throw them out); her kindness (remember her babysitting for Glenn's Kennedy-supporting single mom? The mom everyone else in the neighborhood could only criticize and gossip about?); her faithfulness to Don, even as he screwed around on her again and again? Those are things that get lost in the rush to demonize her for her brittle, Nordic personality, her mean-spiritedness and lashing out at the kids and Carla, and, let's face it, her extraordinary beauty.

    We are a culture that loves to worship beauty and youth and perfect thinness in our women, and God forbid you get older or gain weight, even today. Men continue to react as though you've STOLEN something from them--"What happened to that hot little thing in the tennis shorts?" I was once asked, having already gained 20 lbs in the early months of my first pregnancy. "I used to love checking you out!" This was in the 1990's. I wish I could say I'd observed an improvement in this body-policing, in this ownership of women's bodies by everyone but the women themselves. I haven't.

    I can see potential for Mad Men developing a potent narrative with regard to this matter, by the way. We've got an intelligent, well-educated, world-traveled woman who was raised in a very schizophrenic era, when we were being told on the one hand that we must be beautiful as possible and that having a home, children, and a MAN, are what will make us happy; and on the other hand, that we must go to college and get a degree--and/or pursue a career (at least until we meet said MAN)--because that's what people do. Peggy has rejected all of that, because "nothing interests (her) more than what goes on in that office." Joan is torn, and she goes back and forth: She wanted the wife-of-a-successful-doctor life very badly, but she also clearly misses the satisfaction, camaraderie, and day-to-day accomplishments she enjoyed at SCDP (and who among us cannot relate to the exhaustion and crushing loneliness--not to mention the shock at how very much work newborn babies are--that Joan feels now?)

    Two last points, tangentially: One, I found the closing-credits song to be a perfect choice--most saliently, that line about being a blank page for men to write on. Which was what the men were doing throughout this episode, wasn't it? And two, did you LOVE Pete's Big Moment, when he stood before the entire staff and whipped off the veil covering the Mohawk Airlines model? With the revelation of that very phallic symbol, everyone applauds Pete, even though it was Peggy's brilliance--her forward-thinking, consensus-budiling-as-opposed-to-competitive-and-threatened approach--that brought the talented copywriter on board, that sealed the deal? And Hamm's cutting to Peggy's stone-faced observing of all this, while Roger does a bitter golf clap?

    Because I did! What a fabulous and fabulously feminist show Mad Men is. I can't wait for next week.

  • hm | April 3, 2012 9:16 AM

    Deborah...PRECISELY! Thanks for your insight.

  • Claire | April 2, 2012 2:17 PM

    Finally someone who really gets it! Thank you for your comments. I also am a Betty supporter and lived the sixties!

  • TJ | April 2, 2012 11:03 AMReply

    The ice cream scene at the end did go pretty out-of-character for Betty, though I imagine that's the point. Still, most of the Betty stuff just did not work very well and the episode overall felt a bit off. Also, you're missing one of the all-time awful Betty moments: she forgets she even has children to leave behind before Don brings them up re: her tumor.

    I was wondering at the beginning whether Betty was pregnant and I don't think it was just because of January Jones' pregnancy. I am 100% that if Betty were pregnant, she would be acting exactly the same way about her appearance. Remember season 3 and all her talk about looking good "for someone in my condition."

    I have no problem saying Jon Hamm did a pretty good job directin. To the degree that it felt "off," it's similar to the ways the premier felt "off" and likely had more to do with the script than the direction.

  • lindsay | April 3, 2012 2:05 AM

    I completely second that, Claire!

  • Deborah Lipp | April 2, 2012 2:58 PM

    I am not inclined to condemn Betty or any other human being for thinking entirely selfishly in the first few minutes after being told they have a tumor.

  • Brandon | April 2, 2012 10:42 AMReply

    Great Recap! And good eye catching Pete's sartorial shift from blue to black (I guess he took the Rolling Stones's 1966 hit to heart!) Of course, the new duds is just one of the ways Pete is changing his image at the agency. In "A Little Kiss" he pitches for a bigger personal workspace by calling a partners' meeting in his office. Lack of seating forces all four to cram onto a small couch, illustrating Pete's point, namely, that if he is to bring in the big dogs, he will need a bigger yard (Note that the Campbell's have a yard now--big enough for an inground pool--and are thinking about getting a dog). Likewise, in "Tea Leaves" Pete stages another piece of persuasive theater, this time gathering the SCDP team in the lobby to unveil their newest client, Mohawk Air. This unveiling--complete with model plane--is designed to demonstrate who's piloting the firm into the future (Hint: it's not Roger...). In both instances, Pete takes a page from advertising by creating meta-events to shape self-serving narratives, thus, improving his standing in the office.

  • Deborah Lipp | April 2, 2012 2:23 PM

    The observation about meta-events is very sharp.

  • David Horowitz | April 2, 2012 9:32 AMReply

    Nice analysis and recap Deborah, thank you! Loved your insights into Betty's weight issues. I too found it odd that after finding out she had had a benign tumor, she chalked her weight up to "I'm just fat" - what about the tumor affecting the thyroid, even a benign one?

    On an unrelated note, I find some of the cutaways to commercials this week and during last week's opener to be so abrupt. I wonder if the production company has something to do with this or if it's just the network. I understand dramatic cutaways that leave you hanging, but sometimes it seems just too abrupt, and I wonder if it really is intentional on the part of the producers/editors/director or not.

    All in all, great episode. And great recap! :)

  • gabe | April 2, 2012 3:03 PM

    I've noticed this abrupt commercial shift as well. I have 2 thoughts on it. #1 Weiner and company are producing the shows for DVD/BluRay and posterity and no longer creating "clean" act breaks for commercials. #2 For those who DVR the show, these abrupt transitions in and out of spots makes it harder to anticipate the end of commercial breaks. Whereas last year they ran those fake spots that mirrored the look and feel of Mad Men (http://adage.com/article/madisonvine-news/marketing-unilever-launches-mad-men-blitz/145212/) this season the show appears to just ignore the fact that spots are running around it.

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