Sunday, April 08, 2012

MAD MEN Partners' Meeting - "Tea Leaves"

Welcome to the Mad Men Partners' Meeting -- a roundtable discussion of this week's episode from your friendly neighborhood LowBrowMedia savants.
This is a spoiler-heavy zone. You have been warned.

airdate: April 1st, 2012

Mark: The times they are a-changin’ on Mad Men, and as the 60s are starting to become the real 60s, our favorite WASPy white folks at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce are starting to feel the pinch. Don has brought in a new African-American secretary named... uh, Dawn, an ambitious Jewish copywriter named Michael Ginsberg is gunning for Peggy’s spot as the firm’s rising star, Pete is pushing Roger further into the scrap heap over the Mohawk Airlines deal, and Megan Draper and the rest of the young folks are grooving to the crazy sound of the Rolling Stones. Roger and Don are struggling to understand what happened as the world continues to evolve beyond them, and they are bitterly coming to grips with the fact that they are no longer the coolest guys in the room.

That fear of being passed by and the subsequent search for meaning is an overarching theme of the episode, and it is especially prevalent in the main storyline. Betty has put on a bit of weight since we last saw her (January Jones was pregnant for the first half of the season, and her extra pounds are augmented here by an awkward neck prosthesis and an even more awkward body double). She is encouraged by her awful mother-in-law to get prescription diet pills from her doctor, but the doctor ends up finding a tumor on Betty’s thyroid. With her death possibly imminent, Betty reflects on her place in the world as she waits for the biopsy results Cleo from 5 to 7-style, and she finds her suffocating, unexpected life of quiet desperation lacking. This is a heavily Betty-centric episode, so your enjoyment of this week’s Mad Men installment really comes down to how you feel about her.

In the earlier seasons of the show, I found Betty to be an extremely sympathetic and deeply sad character. A jet-setting model who suddenly found herself as a suburban housewife with two kids, Betty’s struggle to cope with absolutely no coping skills was touching. No matter how awful she was to Sally (who, let’s not forget, is the fulcrum on which the entire show pivots), she was also being taken advantage of by Don, he was eavesdropping on her therapy sessions by proxy, and she was carrying on a very creepy and very sad friendship with that little weirdo Glen down the street. She was a confused child. But at some point, my sympathy dried up and Betty became just awful. Jones has always been a limited actress. I feel like detached, depressive sullenness is right in her wheelhouse, and any note that she is asked to play beyond that exceeds her grasp, but I also think the writers aren’t doing her any favors. But really, who wouldn’t want to give up and have a second ice cream sundae if they were in Betty’s shoes? She’s shut off from the world in a giant, musty Addams Family house with only a horrible ghoul of a mother-in-law around to remind her that her expiration date is approaching, and she’s doomed if she doesn’t do all she can to preserve her only value, her attractiveness to her husband. That’s a pretty sympathetic situation, but I don’t know. I can’t relate to Betty anymore. Something has changed. Ultimately, her tumor is benign, but she is still deeply depressed and wearing that depression with Bugles and hot fudge. Not sure what’s going to happen there, but at least Sally got some ice cream and sparklers. Phew!

If I’m not making myself clear, I didn’t really like this episode. It was a step down from the premiere, which I thought was very strong and entertaining. This episode was stylistically strange. I didn't care for the overtly symbolic dream sequence, and there were a few jarring dissolves that didn’t quite work for me and a few moments I felt were too on the nose. The civility between Don and Betty was interesting, as was the fact that Don was so gutted by the possibility of losing his ex-wife, and the ways in which Don and Betty’s new spouses react to that continuing connection will be fun to observe. But the phone call between Don and Betty where she asks him to tell her everything would be okay seemed very un-Mad Men to me.

Shit, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about Betty. I’m eager to hear what you guys think, so I’ll wrap it up. I liked Don’s interaction with the backstage teenybopper, which was pitched somewhere between a concerned parent, an old man envious of her youth and a market research coordinator, but I thought the rest of the business with the Rolling Stones was a little too goofy. At least Don didn't have sex with her. Harry doesn’t want to go home. He’s definitely headed for Divorce Town, USA. Lowbrow has its roots in the great state of Pennsylvania, so I was glad to hear Pittsburgh get a shout-out from the Heinz guy. Of course he is painted as an out-of-touch boob who thinks the Rolling Stones will shill for baked beans, but I’ll take what I can get. Anyway, we’re the new Portland now, so Pittsburgh gets the last laugh.

What did you think, Jon/Mike? Where do you stand on Betty? Did you like “Harry and Don go to White Castle”? How about Ginsberg? As long as he doesn’t get in Peggy’s way, I actually like this guy a lot. And I thought it was hilarious that he and Roger bonded over wanting to throw things out of the window.

Mike: Betty, Betty, Betty. Look, I dunno, man. I'm going to spend this whole time talking about her, too. But where to begin? As I courageously and iconoclastically stated in last week's installment, I'm kind of a fan. I like Skylar on "Breaking Bad" way less than I like Betty Hofstadt Draper Francis, even though both can be a real shrew. I want Betty to be happy, despite the fact that she is selfish, and has made a lot of bad decisions, and has undoubtedly poisoned her own children as a result. It's not completely her fault, but she's got at least one failed marriage under her belt, and her looks ain't what they used to be (thanks to some real-life circumstances and a little help from Peggy's season one fat suit). Things could go either way for her at this point.

[Side note: Mark keeps insisting, with maybe his tongue in his cheek and maybe not, that Sally's going to be important, that she's important even now. Well, I think Kiernan Shipka's portrayal of her is great, and I hope Sally the character can pull through with minimal permanent damage, but I keep coming back to feeling that she, even more so than little Gene or Bobby, is going to reap what her parents have sown.]

Now, with "Mad Men," we're ostensibly supposed to be rooting for Don. It's his animated representation, after all, that has been committing suicide in the credits each week for five seasons now. He's no Tony Soprano-level sociopath -- while he has shadings of it, and if he ever does end up committing murder onscreen (for, I'm sure, an excellent reason and with nothing but the best of intentions) I wouldn't be all that surprised.

This week, though, it's Betty's episode, and everything that Don does is either focused on, or filtered by, his feelings over whatever relationship remains between them. His cruel, cold side (let's go ahead and call it his "Don Draper" construct), who maintains absolute control of the meeting room, who can be so terrifying to me when he rears his ugly head, takes a backseat this week to some genuinely warm feelings and sentiment toward his ex-wife. Is Dick Whitman actually the one who shares empathy with others, who is starting to really concern Peggy with his kindness and patience in the office, and who is genuinely worried about Betty's physical well-being? Or does this cognitive dissonance theory of mine just sound incredibly stupid?

Anyway, a while back when Betty and Don traveled to Italy and a magical time was had by all, I thought that there might have been some hope, however slim, for sustaining their marriage. But as it turns out, that's been over for a while now. Both Don and Betty have moved on, with their children still providing a lasting tie between them. As that distance from their sustained everyday struggle produces a kind of memorial fondness, and as they fall back into familiar patterns of relying on each other for support, I'm forced to ask the question: is this really over?

(Yeah, I think it is, mostly.)

I'm going to have to go ahead and disagree with you, Mark, about the scene where Betty begs Don to reassure her. When he calls her "Birdie," and she asks him to say that everything was going to be okay like he used to do, it broke my heart a little bit. Am I just a big romantic at heart? Has Matthew Weiner lost his touch? Nah. It's interesting, really, to see how unguarded both Don and Betty can be with each other now that there is relatively little at stake, at least relationship-wise, between them. In a lot of ways, Megan Draper and Henry Francis will always be on the outside of these matters. Henry's palpable frustration at the end of the episode was telling. Though he keeps up a front of negligible civility with Don, as far as this New York State governor's advisor is concerned, the less of that guy in their lives, the better. Don will always be a threat to whatever the perceived stability is in that big, drafty mansion of theirs. For that matter, though, I don't think that what Don and Megan have is actually all that stable or permanent, either.

Okay, I've successfully avoided talking about everything else that went on in this episode, but the above is what stuck with me the most. Yeah, I'm pretty certain that this will not end up being my favorite episode of the new season. That said, I trust Weiner et al, and they've more than proven that they're capable long-form storytellers of the highest caliber. Wait and see, guys. This is gonna be a good one.

Jon: Sorry for lagging so behind on this article this week, fellas. I'm still basking in the sheer awesome that was the Spartacus finale a few days before.

I'm totally with you guys on not being particularly wild about this episode. And you know why? Too much Betty for my taste. She was entirely absent from the two-hour debut last week, so she was due a bit of screen time to keep us up to date with where she's at, but I'd be happy if she was off spending these episodes at a party with Sal Romano, Freddie Rumsen, Duck Phillips, that douche who got his foot hacked apart by the lawnmower, and the other members of Mad Men's past now lost to the abyss of disregarded characters.

Okay, I admit that was a little overboard and somewhat exaggerated, but I've never been a big fan of Betty's. Her immediate reaction after learning her tumor was benign says it all to me: "I may be cancer-free, but I'm still fat. Pass the Bugles." Perhaps I'm nothing more than a heartless bastard, but knowing that she's emotionally equipped as a third-grader to deal with the trials and tragedies of adulthood has engendered giant swaths of disinterest from me. Plus, now that she's on the periphery of the lives of the actual centerpieces of the show (Don and Sally*), I suspect her character will continue to fail to excite me until she snaps herself out of this funk.

* Is Sally Draper really the nexus of Mad Men as Mark asserts? I'm highly skeptical, but I've yet to derive a convincing counterpoint, so I'll roll with it for now.

Since you two covered just about everything there is to analyse about Mrs. Francis in episode 3, I'll branch out into an area I believe will be one of the more intriguing aspects of season 5 going forward - the unlikely alliance of Roger and Peggy in the coming weeks.

Mark, I think you're spot on with Ginsberg. He's great in his manic honesty, but the moment near the end of the hour with his father illustrates the potential that he'll be more than just SCDP's Jewish Stan, magically pulling resumes from his sleeves from his stupendous blazer on command. Speaking of Stan, I believe his warning Peggy to stick to hiring mediocre talent will prove to be prophetic, because although none of us wants to see Ginsberg get in Peggy's way, it seems crystal clear to me these two are headed for a major collision in a few weeks, assuming she doesn't find a way to oust him before it gets to that stage.

Of course, Roger is already embroiled in an ultra-competitive workplace showdown. Pete once again proves himself as being far more valuable than Roger in this post-Lucky Strike world, and has become increasingly brazen in rubbing Roger's nose in it to boot. After the embarrassing Mohawk presentation, a defeated Roger asks Don when will it all get back to normal -- a line that speaks to his (and his compadres, for that matter) reluctance to see the cultural upheaval of the times swirling around him has already become the norm as much as he intends it for he and Don's immediate troubles -- and it's hard to say for sure if this conflict with Mr. Campbell is a dead end or merely a speed bump for him. My guess is Roger's still got some fight left. Whether or not he's still a contender is yet to be seen.

And even if this Roger/Peggy partnership fails to come to fruition, I think the similarities between their storylines will still be ripe for dissection.

A few other bits that crossed my mind this week:
-- Ah, White Castle. Home to cinematic potheads since 1966.
-- "Who was it?" "Nobody." Harsh, bro. Even that clown Romney wouldn't have gone that far.
-- Mark, I was also relieved Don didn't sleep with the Stones' groupie, which is probably a first. When she stole his tie, I was swept in a mild panic. I'm usually all for his philandering as it's often coupled with some brash decision-making in other areas in his life. Nothing of the sort this time around on either front.
-- David Letterman would have a field day with Don/Dawn.
-- Judging by Betty's dream/nightmare this week, I think we can ascertain that Matthew Weiner played a large role in those similarly forced sequences during his time with The Sopranos. He did not learn his lesson.
-- Mike, Skyler White and Betty Francis may be shrews, but they ain't got shit on AMC's queen biotch, Lori Grimes.

Episodes 1&2 - "A Little Kiss"

1 comment:

Juanita's Journal said...

I still sympathize with Betty. Because I understood what she was going through back in Season 4. Nor did I demand that she live up to some ridiculous ideal that most of the viewers wanted her to do - either be the perfect mom or some 60s feminist icon.

Why are viewers so ridiculous when it comes to female characters? They tolerate the obvious flaws of male characters like Don Draper, but when it comes to a character like Betty, they have these ridiculous demands on what she should be.