“When is everything going to go back to normal?” That’s what Roger Sterling asked Don Draper near the end of Sunday night’s episode of Mad Men, and it is perhaps creator Matthew Weiner’s way of acknowledging the confusion that a lot of fans are experiencing right now. To up the cliche factor of this recap by a couple thousand eyerolls, the times they are a-changin’ for everyone in America, but especially for men like Don and Roger.
Last week we saw that the women of this show are quickly changing, and now in Season 5, Episode 3: “Tea Leaves”, we are realizing that everything is different in our late-’60s Mad Men. Don Draper isn’t cool. Peggy just hired a Jewish copywriter. There’s a black secretary in the office (yay!). And, perhaps most shockingly, Betty is fat. Yes, Betty is back and she is fat, fat, fat. Naturally, January Jones (the actress who plays Betty) was 8 months pregnant during the time of filming, so this Betty-is-fat storyline was just the show’s way of working around her preggers belly. (One good thing about the ‘60s: It was a time when no one would have used the term “preggers,” except for maybe Michael, god bless him.)
Back to Betty. The Ice Queen has lost her whisper-thin waist and it’s basically her worst nightmare come true. Remember how she freaked out about Sally becoming fat a few seasons ago? Betty relies almost entirely on her looks, and losing them to age (which will happen) or fat (which has already happened) is stripping her of the little power she ever had. Now Betts can’t fit into her couture dresses and she can’t flirt with men. The young-ish doctor she visits to ask for help with losing weight doesn’t even pretend to entertain her girlish questions and then basically carves “YOU ARE UGLY” into Betty’s forehead by calling her “middle aged.” Oof.
Anyway, it turns out that Betty’s recent weight gain might not be entirely due to her sitting on the couch eating Bugles in the world’s most disgusting pink housecoat. Her doctor, the UGLY-carving one, notices that she has a lump on her thyroid and wants her to get it checked out. Forget looks, now Betty is going to lose her life?
Betty rushes home to tell Henry the news about her possible thyroid cancer but he isn’t home. So, instead she calls Don, looking for a strong man to reassure her that everything is going to be OK. "Say what you always say," Betty tells Don. "Everything is going to be OK." This calms Betty down. However, when she tells Henry when he comes home and he essentially says the same thing, but with a much more dismissive attitude, she gets more nervous. And we get nervous too. Matthew Weiner has hinted that he might be killing off main characters this season, could Betty be on the way out? Yikes.
But let’s move on to the office. Pete asks for Roger’s help to seal the Mohawk Airlines deal since Pete is about as charming as a paper bag filled with poop. Roger is willing to work his Silver Fox magic but says that they’ll need to have a dedicated copywriter for Mohawk, and that copywriter better have a penis. (Apparently Mohawk doesn’t like little ladies writing their taglines.) Peggy agrees to find someone for Mohawk, even though she isn’t allowed to write for them.
While looking through a massive stack of books from prospective writers, Peggy finds one that looks interesting from someone named Michael Ginsberg. Stan, ever the cynical clown, tells Peggy that she shoudn’t hire someone who has the potential to be better than her since they might end up replacing her some day. Peggy isn’t fazed and says that she enjoys working with talented people. This is what separates Peggy from the rest of the mid-level “creatives” floating around the office. She isn’t going to hide her mediocrity by hiring someone who will just make her look good by comparison. In a way this makes her very much like Don, someone who never had to worry about other people being better than him because he’s actually good at his job. (This also led to Don hiring Peggy over Kinsey when he moved over to his own agency in Season 3, dropping the talentless goof-off for the hardworking and talented young creative.) There’s no doubt that Peggy knows how this connects her to Don, so maybe this is her way of “passing it forward,” in a sense.
Everything appears to be going well for little Peggy until she actually calls in this interesting young copywriter for an interview. Oh gawd, this Michael. He’s pretty much the exact opposite of Don Draper. He’s crazy, he talks too much, he’s disrespectful, he’s wearing JEANS to the office. (Jeans within 50 feet of Don? We never thought we’d see the day.) However, Michael is talented and desperate for a job. He has no friends, no real connections, and only an old immigrant father waiting for him at home. More importantly, Michael might be the only person in the office who believes in Sterling Cooper Draper Price. He only fell into advertising because it’s the only thing he as ever good at, like Don and Peggy, and he needs to support himself and his dad. Peggy decides to give him a shot.
Michael is obviously going to be a big character in the office and his new role could pose problems for Don and Megan. More and more hints are being dropped that Megan actually likes advertising and working as a copywriter, even if Don makes it known that he only hired her to work there because she’s his wife.
Michael is a desperate minority who needs to rely on his talent to get hired so he can earn money while Megan is a pretty woman who relies on her connections and looks to get hired for a job that she wants. Megan enjoys making ads, but all she does is write the garbage stuff that no one else wants to do. (Essentially, she’s doing intern work.) You get the sense from Michael that he doesn’t enjoy writing ads. But then again, who would at this point? As the girls backstage at the Rolling Stones concert made clear, being an advertising hot shot isn’t exactly cool.
On to the Rolling Stones concert. Was anyone else worried that we might actually have a Rolling Stones-meets-Mad Men moment? Thank god we are in Matthew Weiner’s capable hands and were spared that awkward Forrest Gump moment. Don and Harry head over to a Stones concert because the Heinz bean guy (you know, the one who didn’t like Peggy’s bean ballet) thinks that the Stones will be down to appear in an ad for baked beans. Roger’s reaction is perfect: “Sounds like a client’s idea if I ever heard one.”
When Don and Harry end up going they get cornered by a couple of teenage girls who think that their suits and ties might help them get better access to the Stones. The only problem is that Harry and Don aren’t entirely familiar with the Stones, and mistake another band for them and get them to agree to appear in the Heinz ads. Oops. Oh well, they’ll always have bean ballet to fall back on.
The Stones backstage moment was interesting because it showed us that Don is really starting to age. Roger isn’t the only lion who is starting to get phased out of the pack. While Mr. Draper used to get a girl take off her top with the slightest furrow of his brow, this new generation of girls just don’t care for him. See, Don isn’t cool. I mean, Don is cool to us with his suits, slicked hair, and deep voice. But to two suburban girls trying to sneak into a Stones concert in the late ‘60s he just isn’t it. And that indefinable quality of “it” really baffles Don as he keeps pressing a young girl to tell him why she likes the Stones. Really, you’re asking someone why they like the Stones? They’re cool, and cool-ness is completely undefinable and hard to market. This deeply concerns Don who is concerned with what he can sell to the new breed of consumers. Don is used to definable, marketable elements that he can easily sell in a pitch meeting.
The Don Draper model isn’t the shiniest and brightest one on the lot anymore. Now girls (and really, everyone) wants the guy who exudes freedom, can prance around on stage and swivel his hips, and wouldn’t be caught dead appearing in a commercial for beans. The traditional model is out and counter culture is taking over and Don just doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who can swivel his hips.
In the end, it turned out that Betty doesn’t have cancer and she’s just fat. She’ll probably start taking speed so she can lose the weight fast, but at least she has her life. Don will figure out something that doesn’t involve the Stones for Heinz beans. Peggy and Michael will make it work somehow, as long as he loses the jeans and the plaid jackets.
Roger is the only one whose fate is somewhat up in the air. After Roger put the final touches on the Mohawk deal, Pete takes full credit for it in front of the entire company and Roger starts to realize what being really powerless feels like. The new WASP Pete is taking over the old WASP Roger and there isn’t really anything that he can do about it. Nothing will ever be normal again for guys like Roger and Don now that a new breed of young people is moving in.
The only thing that fans might find unsatisfying about this episode is the relatively low profile of Dawn, the new black secretary. We waited five seasons for a black character to get hired as something other than “the help” and now we only get a few lines from her and a couple Don/Dawn wordplay jokes? This show is all about chipping away at the WASP-y, white male standard of pre-counter culture America through characters like Don and Peggy. However, now that we are in the counter culture era, it would be great to see, oh I dunno, how a black woman is dealing with mixing into a traditionally white middle class job.
Other things that need to be discussed:
- Betty and Henry’s house. UGH. Perfect for Downton Abbey but not for a show that is all about modernism. You can practically smell the mold on Betty’s couch. No wonder she stuffs her face with junk food and sundaes.
- By my tally, we have already seen six plaid jackets on men during this season. Is Season 5 shaping up to be the worst season ever for menswear?
- Watching Harry stuff sliders into his mouth make him look like the Hamburglar. Weiner is really trying to make us not like Harry this season.
- How did the episode NOT end with Rolling Stone’s “Mother’s Little Helper”? It was released in 1966 so it would have fit in perfectly, timeline-wise and context-wise.
Watch the next episode of Mad Men on Sunday, April 8 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on AMC.
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