Monday, April 2, 2012

"Tea Leaves" Mad Men Season 5 Episode 3 Reviewed

My reading of Mad Men's tea leaves might not end in tears, but I don't love what I'm seeing. For the second week in a row, I've understood what the show was trying to do with an episode, but felt that it didn't quite hit its mark.

This week's episode brought back Betty into a huge subplot. Betty is at her best when she is dealing with Don, and last season's conclusive drink in the house they shared was the best that I've ever seen January Jones. However, Betty's subplot felt like a soap opera, replete with a dream sequence, a potential illness, and weight gain. Mrs. Francis clearly has pangs for Don, as witnessed by her reaching out to him and whimpering for him to call her Bets and tell her everything will be alright. Her depression and subsequent weight gain are the result of Betty's nature and the realization that she isn't any happier with Henry than she was with Don. You can practically see Betty's mind thinking of the 20, or really 26, year old Megan with Don as she finishes Sally's sundae. Betty will never be 26 or with Don again and she is clearly reeling from the loss of both. But, a fake health scare and awkward sex with her husband don't address the most interesting dynamic of Betty's character. Instead, we were treated to what felt like half the episode with Betty's health up in the air, and while we saw Henry and Megan's reactions, the show missed a great opportunity to dive into Don and Betty's relationship. Don clearly cares about Betty, which doesn't diminish his relationship with Megan but it certainly could muddle the picture if it only got the chance.

The show seems determined to clumsily integrate the '60s into the plot. The understated, but professional role of Dawn was a good touch as was Roger's acknowledgment that hiring a Jew is probably good for modernizing the firm. Don and Harry's foray into pop culture in the form of a Rolling Stones concert did not go over as well. The scene seemed like it was trying to be pay lip service to Heinz, and the firm's business in general, portray Don as out of touch, and show the burgeoning cultural movements of the time period. The fact that I can barely recall why they wanted to talk to the Rolling Stones, but do remember Harry eating 19 burgers probably means that the show missed on all three goals. However, it's promising that the show continues to touch on the generational differences between characters.

Roger and Don used to be the men bringing sisters back to the office, the envy of the Campbells and Cranes of the office, but their influence is waning. Pete Campbell's snotty competence was summed up by Roger bemoaning how his power is dangling from a ledge and asking to return to a previous generation. The show continues to push this conflict of power and it will remain to be seen if Roger has any zip left on his fastball. While his comments might be in rare form, "it's always darkest before the Dawn," his exhaustion after a wet lunch with Mohawk Airlines and the fact that he would share it with Peggy seems unfathomable two seasons ago.

Don's power isn't waning, as witnessed by Michael Ginsberg fawning over him, but he has lost his touch with the current generation, something which doesn't bode well for a man in advertising. I pitied Don and wanted his interaction with a young Rolling Stones fan (and Brian Jones stalker?) to end. Don's charm does not resonate with this current counter-cultural movement like it did with Midge five years ago and you can see him sadly realizing it as he takes his tie back. Don might have to spend a few more weekends on Fire Island with Megan's friends to truly understand the culture of the generation that is getting more power and finally figuring out what to do with it. This isn't the end for Don and we've seen him a lot lower, (has he had a drink in the past two episodes?), but things don't look good.

Outside of my complaint about the length and subject matter of Betty's subplot, the episode deserves credit for taking the show in an interesting direction with the new copywriter. Ginsberg's mix of repulsiveness and endearing charm give him the potential to be more interesting than Joey (remember him?), Stan, Duck, Freddie, or any of the other random office characters Peggy interacts with. Additionally, the show ditched Lane for the time being, and hired an African-American secretary for Don. Henry Francis making a dig at Romney, albeit the former, was a great moment and so was the comment that the Heinz client made to Megan that time was on her side.  Oh, and in the imagined words of Ginsberg's abba, Megan wearing a bra in the majority of her scenes is not too shabby.

On the minus side, the show was overly dramatic and the trailer for next Sunday suggest things will only get worse. Mad Men is at its best when it is not a soap opera but an office, with a task and a climax and quip after quip after quip. Hopefully the addition of Ginsberg suggests more focus on office issues and relationships instead of hitting the audience over the head with blatant emotions. Too much of the episode felt like caveman speak: Pete celebrate Roger mad, Peggy no like Ginsberg, Henry no like Don. Nuance and subtlety and wit make Mad Men and tonight's episode didn't have enough.

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