Mad Men - Tea Leaves

Mad Men: Episode 503 Tea Leaves Commentary

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Last week, I wrote myself into liking the episode, after initial reservations.  Not so this week.  Episode 503: Tea Leaves was a strong return to form, well directed by John Hamm.  We catch up with Betty, who is more Shelly Winters than Grace Kelly this season, thanks to the real-life pregnancy of January Jones.  Death is hanging over this season thickly.  All that’s missing are vultures on the reception desk at Sterling Cooper Draper & Price.

The episode opens with contrasting scenes of Betty and Megan being zipped into dresses for separate social occasions.

It’s our first glimpse of Betty this season, and boy has she put on weight (this story line is out of necessity, due to January Jones’s pregnancy).  She has Sally and Bobby trying to pull the zipper of a powder blue June Cleaverish number, but they can’t get it.  It was Gone With the Wind meets John Waters.

Cut to Megan in a modish, loose-fitting dress unzipped to her butt.  She’s talking to her mother on the phone in French, and Don walks up and easily pulls the zipper.  No fuss, no muss.

And thus, one of the main themes of the episode is launched – middle-aged Betty, struggling with her weight…and her mortality.  More on that, later.

Next, Don and Megan have dinner with the guy from Heinz and his wife.  At first, we see how Megan handles the dog-and-pony show.  It’s bumpy, but it works.  It’s another contrast with Betty, who knew how to look pretty without interjecting her thoughts and opinions into the evening – she was very much be seen, but not heard.  Not so much with Megan, who just blurts out, when asked how they met, that Don was divorced.  You could almost see him wince.

But it’s the conversation that happens next that sets up the next big theme of the night – youth, and generation gap.  The Heinz guy and his wife have a laugh over The Rolling Stones and how much their daughter loves them.  But he wants to market his beans to the younger generation and comes up with a play on the song Time Is On My Side which doesn’t bear repeating.  Don’s not impressed, but humors the guy by saying he’ll check out their upcoming concert at Forest Hills.

A secondary, but hugely satisfying storyline is developed when we find Pete and Lane waiting in Pete’s office for Roger.  When Pete calls looking for him, he’s informed by a secretary that Roger thought it was in his office, forcing them to come to him.  It’s a passive-aggressive power play in their cold war that’s as silly as the old Spy vs. Spy cartoons of the same era.

The reason for the meeting?  Mohawk has been landed, and they will need a dedicated copywriter to deal with the load and make them feel special.  Both Roger and Pete seem to be vying to credit on bring them back.  Hmmm.

The new secretary, one of the African American candidates, ends up working for Don.  Her name is Dawn, and there’s much fun had with the punning possibilities.  Roger, predictably insensitive, refers to her once as the darkness before Don.  Sometimes, progress ain’t pretty.

Don and Roger bring Peggy in and give her the good news about Mohawk.  They compound the good news by putting her in charge of hiring the new copywriter.  The qualifications for the position are that this person must possess a penis.  “A good looking version of Don,” Roger tells her.

One last plotline – Harry comes up with the Stones tickets and takes advantage of the opportunity to impress Don by guiding him into the belly of the youth culture – to great comic effect.

It turns out Betty’s afternoons are spent on the couch eating Bugles and watching The Andy Griffith Show.  That is, when her mother-in-law isn’t dropping in and meddling.  The lady’s mission is to protect her baby, who’s none-too-happy about Betty’s constant refusal to join him at social functions.  It’s upsetting to him, and the mother-in-law thinks she knows why.  “You get comfortable.  You give up a little, then it gets out of control,” she says of the eating.  When Betty asks her if that’s what happened to her, she’s ready for her and explains that she no longer has a man to please.  “It’ll be easy for you.  You’re just one of those girls.”  Snap!

So Betty goes to the doctor and gets to the point.  The doctor points out that for middle-aged women (ouch!) it gets easier to pack on the pounds and harder to take them off.   When she presses for the recommended diet pills, he refuses to do it without an exam, explaining that rapid weight loss is usually psychological in nature, having to do with everything we’ve seen in Betty over the four previous seasons.

He starts feeling around her neck and finds something he doesn’t like and schedules her for a follow-up exam, sending Betty into a free-fall panic.

It’s at this point that I connected Betty’s mortality to the comments about Don from the season opener and saw the cloud of death hanging over this couple.  Two episodes in, and it’s getting pretty dark.

Betty gets home, but can’t find Henry.  She calls Don, who seems genuinely concerned for her welfare.  He does the typical ledge-talking until she finally tells him to “say the thing you always say.”  He tells her that everything’s going to be okay.  Even though she’s manufactured it, just hearing him say it is good enough for this middle-aged little girl, and she gets off the phone and goes about her business.  He, on the other hand, is haunted by the news.  Is it out of concern and some love for her, or is it a reminder of his own mortality?

Just as I was getting bummed out, Peggy and Stan rescued me with their banter.  She’s on the couch, pissed off at the mediocre portfolios wasting her time.  And then she finds one with “Judge not, lest ye be judged” printed on the outside.  She’s interested, then rewarded by some good work on the inside.  She shows it to Stan who’s also impressed, but tosses it on the reject pile.  The ensuing argument perfectly showcases not only their personality differences, but the difference between Peggy (and by extension Don) and the rest of the SCDP gang (and most of the world).  Stan advises her to stick with a mediocre candidate, lest she be working for him someday.  She rejects the advice, saying that she’s inspired by good work.  Stan tells her to suit herself, but that mediocrity makes for more restful sleep at night.  Technically, he’s right, which is why it’s a C- world that we live in.

Peggy brings in the clever guy, Michael Ginsburg, an obnoxiously neurotic striver, and he immediately sees through Peggy’s pretending to be the authority.  He knows of Don’s reputation, and asks about him often.  Peggy sounds like a 13 year old on her first babysitting gig, declaring her authority.  But there’s a weird chemistry between the two, an Abbott and Costello-ish quality about them that had me rooting for them immediately.

At the hospital, to have her tests done, Betty runs into an old friend who’s unaware of the divorce from Don or marriage to Henry.  After an awkward hello (the woman is in for her own cancer treatment), the old friend – Joyce – invites Betty to lunch.

At lunch, after some small talk, Betty makes a bold move for her.  She asks Joyce a personal question – what it’s like dealing with the cancer.  Joyce tells her it’s like being in the ocean alone, paddling, but getting further from the shore.  But rather than panicking, she says her mind goes to normal things.   She tells Betty “You get tired, and then you give in and you hope you go straight down.”

Betty shivers at the thought as a gypsy approaches them, asking to read their tea leaves.  Joyce laughs at the thought of having their futures read and gives the poor woman Betty’s cup.  The gypsy does her thing, looks into the cup, and declares that Betty possesses a “great soul.  You mean so much to the people around you.  You’re a rock.”  This declaration drives Betty to tears, and Joyce tips her and shoos her away.

Later, when Betty is in bed with Henry, who must have a lot of pent-up desire, she initiates intimacy, which shocks him.  This, after refusing to let him see her get out of the tub.

Later, she has a dream, which Henry later, unknowingly and perfectly links to Scrooge’s Christmas Eve journey, where she sees her family dealing with the aftermath of her death.  It’s cold, just as you’d expect from her, with Henry chanting “if, if, if….”  It’s a trippy experience that wakes her from her sleep.

As Betty’s dealing with the impending news from her side, Don is in a funk himself, but he keeps the news from Megan, still keeping lids on some of his compartments.

As Don leaves to pick up Harry for the Stones concert, Megan kisses him and tells him he looks so square that he has corners, to which he says that he has to look like a man.  Interesting.  This whole episode, I had Dylan’s “The Times They Are A’Changin’” running through my mind – the verse about moms and dads and getting out of the way if you don’t understand what’s going on.

The generation gap is further delineated when Don and Harry are backstage at the concert with groupies and other hangers-on.  It’s another odd couple pairing, with Harry contrasting Don’s studied cool with his painfully awkward attempt at trying to fit in with the kids with his turtleneck sweater and jacket and bushy hair.

As they wait for an audience with Allan Klein, the manager of the Stones, a couple of fourteen year old girls approach them, looking for cigarettes.  One of them teases the two, calling them Derwood and Mr. Kravitz from Bewitched.  Harry works and works to gain their acceptance, using references they don’t get until at last, one of the girls takes him off to find the band, leaving Don with the other.

I have to admit that I wondered where Don would go with this one.  Last season he would have bedded her, but this is another season, and Don’s got deep thoughts on his mind.  He’s paternal with this girl, and refuses to answer her flirts.  Instead, he first goes into clinical-always-working Don mode and asks her questions about why she likes the Stones and how she feels when she hears them.  On the one hand, I think “man, he doesn’t get it.  The Stones weren’t/aren’t a product being bought and sold.  They were part of a revolution – THE SIXTIES!”  But another part of me immediately responded “Oh, really?”

And this is where Don’s going to live, I guess, this season, in the gap of not understanding or dealing with the changes to the world at-large and his world that are happening.  By choosing Megan he seems to have instinctively put his chips all-in on the young, optimistic, new, and frightening reality, turning his back on the old.  But it doesn’t mean he gets it or is comfortable with it.

The young girl picks up on his line of questioning, seeing it for what it is, and asks him if he’s a psychiatrist.  When Don asks her what she knows about psychiatrists, she looks down, then asks for a business card, saying she’ll use it to get in to see the band.  Later, Don asks her what she expects to happen if she meets the band.  She gushes over Brian Jones.  Don pushes the point.  “Then what?”  He keeps on until she tells him that “None of you wants us to have any fun because you never did.”  Don snaps back, “No.  We’re worried about you.”  It’s both very touching and very much a dad kind of remark.

I don’t think we’ve seen the last of this 14 year old girl who has Don Draper’s business card.

The night ends a failure.  Harry comes back bragging that he met the band, but instead met and signed the Tradewinds.  They have a nice moment in Don’s car.  Harry’s been smoking pot, and now he’s eating a bag of hamburgers meant for his family.  Don can’t get rid of him.  Poor, sad Harry.

The next morning, Megan wakes Don so they can go to Fire Island and hang with her friends.  He’s hungover and doesn’t want to go.  He has her sit down in a dramatic fashion that freaks her out (she knows his reputation).  When he tells her that it’s only Betty maybe having cancer, you can see how relieved she is.  But she’s a little bit pissed that he hid it from her.  He confesses that he didn’t know how she’d react.  When she brushes away his concerns, which sound like Betty, she takes the Don position and tells him “Come on.  There’s nothing you can do.”  It’s her version of everything’s going to be okay.  She reaches out her hand, he takes it, and follows her – content to let her do the thinking and worrying for once.

This is huge.  Again, it’s Don letting go – if just a little – of the clamped-down Don Draper who controls everything and trusts no one.  It’s a glimpse, perhaps, of the new Don Draper…of Dick Whitman.

We find out the date when we see Betty and Henry sitting in Adirondack chairs in front of Henry’s marvelous Hudson Valley mansion in the evening as the kids play with sparklers – it’s the Fourth of July.  And though there may not be explosions, the fuse has been lit on some big changes in this world.

Peggy is nervous about Don meeting Ginsburg, but the meeting couldn’t have gone better, which shocks the hell out of Peggy.  The Ginsburg in the meeting seems almost normal, aside from his plaid sport coat.  Despite that, Peggy tries to answer all of Ginbsburg’s questions for him until Don finally shuts her up.  Ginsburg defers to Don, appealing to his ego by citing Don’s Lucky Strike letter as an inspiration to him, and after an eloquent appeal, Don welcomes him to the agency, keeping Peggy behind to congratulate her.

As Don and Peggy leave his office, they find Ginsburg kneeling on a sofa, looking out the window of their high-rise office building with Roger.  It’s a weird picture that Roger turns weirder when he says “it turns out we both have a dream of throwing something out this window.”  For Roger, it’s probably Pete Campbell.  I have no idea what Ginsburg’s deal was.  But I couldn’t help going back to my wife’s prediction that Don will eventually take the plunge himself one day.  We’ll see.

The next day, Pete makes the announcement to the entire agency that Mohawk is back in the fold.  It’s a big production that he must have carefully planned, and in it, he took credit for bringing Mohawk back, of hiring the new copywriter, and of handing off the busy-work to Roger.  It’s a public humiliation that was lost on everyone but Pete, Don, and Roger.  John Slattery should win an Emmy just for the look he gives Pete in that moment – combination of hurt, shame, hatred and realization that his days as an alpha are over.  It’s Pete’s world now, an echo of Don’s youth storyline, except that Roger won’t embrace the new.  Rather, he tried to co-opt it by marrying young, but ended up hating Trudy just like he hates Pete.

Don follows Roger and they go to Don’s office to drink.  Roger vents his spleen, confessing that he feels as if he’s hanging from a ledge with Pete stepping on his fingers.  He goes on until Don springs his surprise about Betty.  Leave it to Roger to have the bottom line tastelessly figured out: Don – “Betty has cancer.”  Roger – “That would solve everything.”  Don give him a look, then he goes to the clichés – “She’s a fighter.”  Don – “Come on.”  Don, with on male to turn to, goes to Roger, a kind of father or big brother, and gets bullshit.  But then, Roger gets serious.  “Actual life and death.  I’ve given up on that.”  To which Don replies that he can’t do that.  Roger, confused and resigned or resolved to carry-on, gets up and pauses at the door to ask when it’s all going to get back to normal.

When Betty finally learns that her tumor is benign, she isn’t as happy as one would expect.  Henry’s happy and makes the Scrooge connection – that she’s been given a second chance.  But all Betty can see is that she’s merely fat…like Henry’s mom.  There’s no resolution, and their marriage seems more doomed that hers to Don.  There’s nothing real, no connection, no intimacy.  It’s a sham, and they both seem to know it while they’re powerless to do anything about it.

Later, when Don calls to ask about the news, Henry answers and is surprised to learn that Don knows.  He gives Don the news then blows him off, then lies to Betty about who it was.

Don is relieved at the good news, which relieves him of having to consider all of the implications of a world with no Bets.  Megan walks in, which cheers him up.  He’s glad to see her, declaring that she’s so optimistic.

The episode ends with two very touching scenes.

In the first, Ginsburg arrives home at a cramped and dingy apartment.  His elderly father sits in his chair, reading the paper, lamenting the passing of an old Redsox player.  Ginsburg announces that he got the job.  His father rises, comes to the kitchen, and says a prayer, in Yiddish, I presume, over his son that moved me to tears.  It was so well written and executed – the bare minimum in terms of information/exposition, but loaded with story and meaning.  Beautiful.

Finally, we end on Betty.  She has made Sundaes for her and Sally, who can’t finish hers.  After Sally asks to be excused to watch TV, Betty pushes aside her empty glass, and finishes Sally’s, as the showtune “16 going on 17” plays to close the episode.


You wait little girl

On an empty stage

For fate to turn the light on

Your life little girl

is an empty page

that men will want to write on


Will Betty take advantage of her second chance and take control of her life, at long last, or will she retire to the couch and give up?