"I'm tired of trying to prove I still have any value around here."
Roger (John Slattery) speaks those words after Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) belittles him in front of the entire Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce staff, in regards to the just-landed Mohawk Airlines account ("Mr. Sterling will be handling the day to day; rest assured, everything he knows I'll know"). But the feeling of irrelevance is something many of Mad Men's characters seem to be struggling with in "Tea Leaves, directed by Don Draper himself, Jon Hamm.
Just three hours into the AMC hit's fifth season, series creator Matthew Weiner is already sowing in the seeds of subtle discontent. Are we all doomed to be replaced by younger, newer, and smarter versions of ourselves? It's a question everyone seems to be grappling with, particularly in terms of aging.
Whoa, Fat Betty (Bam-a-lam?)
OK, so that's not the song goes, but it's an apropos lyric to describe Betty's (January Jones) new look, which features her face being swallowed by her neck, and with enough chins to go around. Fat Betty is a plot construct introduced to incorporate January Jones' pregnancy, but it's neither clever nor particularly plausible. We don't know if we can effectively believe that a newly married Betty could let herself go when she's proven to be one of Mad Men's most egocentric characters, dependent on the praise she's regularly fed for her appearance, and happily accepting compliments from both children (Glen) and married men (Roger) without regard to appropriateness.
But at least, in that respect, we can understand why plus-sized Betty looks so miserable. She's gorged herself on ice cream, yet she's compliment starved, and her new diet doesn't suit her. Henry (Christopher Stanley) may say she's beautiful during the episode's bathtub scene (when she emerges looking like the Loch Ness Monster, no less), but her mother-in-law is not as kind, and presumably, neither is her self-perception. She brings up Don's 20-year-old-girlfriend (who is really his 26-year-old wife) in a chat over tea with a friend, and we see just how threatened Betty is by Megan (Jessica Pare). In Betty's mind, she's been replaced by a younger, more beautiful version of herself, a fact we're reminded of when Betty cannot fit into her dress, and in the next scene, Megan easily slips into hers.
Peggy is "a chick who races people to the toliet."
Stan (Jay R. Ferguson) describes Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) this way, pointing to her competitive nature when she's tasked with finding a new copywriter for newly-returned account Mohawk. Stan suggests that Peggy should "stick to mediocre, you'll sleep better," but Peggy insists that she likes "working with talented people." It's a sign of Peggy's maturity as a growing professional, but also of her confidence.
Based on his promising portfolio/book, Peggy calls fresh-faced Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) into the office. When he belittles Peggy, confusing her for a secretary, repeatedly insists on Don's presence, and produces a folded piece of paper out of his sleeve and calls it a resume, Peggy is understandably underwhelmed. Roger makes it clear that she needs to hire him ("Having a Jew makes the agency more modern"), implying that her hesitations stem from the fear of being replaced (projecting much, Roger?), but Peggy still seems self-assured ("I'm not threatened by his talent... He's not that good.").
Still, when Ginsberg is able to check his social awkwardness and actually convince Don to hire him, Peggy looks a little shaken. Is she worried that she'll be replaced as Don's favorite, or just pissed Michael called her "Margaret"?
Don, for his part, is "square enough to have corners."
With Betty's beauty fading, Roger's workplace relevance on the decline, and Peggy's monopoly on talent (and Don) threatened, everyone is starting to experience the inevitable gravity of aging, the feeling of "some kids foot on [their] fingertips", especially Don. Sir Draper takes Megan (Jessica Pare) to a schmooze supper with Heinz head Raymond (John Sloman) and his wife, and Ray thinks that Don should get the Rolling Stones to transform their hit "Time Is On My Side" into a commercial, beans-selling jingle. The idea is ironic because the suggestion itself shows time is not on Raymond's side, who reveals how out of touch he is with both pop culture and business in thinking Heinz could snag a band like the Stones for an endorsement deal.
Time isn't on Don's side, either. Megan calls him out for dressing like an old man as he leaves in his suicide mission, along with Harry (Rich Sommer), to get Mick Jagger on board, and in the smoke-filled hallways backstage, we see the most uncool Don we've ever encountered. He turns down a joint, lectures young girls instead of flirting with them, and seems genuinely baffled by the youth of America. When he tries to psychoanalyze a 15-year-old's obsession with the Rolling Stones ("What do you feel when you hear them?"), we feel awkward for him. But also, a little proud. Maybe Don finally acting his age (and feeling it) is a step in a positive direction. At least he's getting away from chugging martinis and chasing tail.
Don's awareness of aging is amplified by Betty's weight issue, which turns out to be a lump on her lymph nodes. He seems genuinely distressed by the possibility of Betty having cancer (and relieved when it turns out to be benign), and it seems to soften him towards her. He even calls her "Birdy."
Meanwhile, Betty doesn't seem as concerned with aging or dying as she does with not being needed, or even missed. When the tea reader looks into Betty's cup and says, "You're a great soul, you mean so much to the people around you," Betty bursts into tears. Maybe she perceives just how inaccurate this really is, suddenly aware that she hasn't been the best mother. She dreams of Henry and her children at the dinner table, little Gene looking into his empty tea cup and eating pancakes for dinner. Sally puts Betty's chair up, Henry mutters, "If, if, if," and Betty suddenly says, "You know what? I am hungry." Maybe she hasn't had an appetite for Henry (hence, their first-time-in-a-long-time sex scene) or for parenting (see: Mad Men seasons one through four), but faced with not having a place at the table, she's full of regret.
Meanwhile, after the Stones concert, Harry is taking down sliders (20 in a bag? That's got to be White Castle!) and delving into his own food metaphors. When Don calls him out on his burger binge ("I thought you were getting it for your family?"), Harry is unapologetic: "You know what? Let them get their own. You bring home a bag of food and they go at it and there's nothing left for you? Eat first. That's my recommendation to people who say they're getting married and having kids: Eat first."
Even Harry is feeling his oats. The concert girls, "those young girls" who are "so much fun" and "all on drugs," make him realize that there's no room for wild self-indulgence in marriage. His days of eating first (with new people) are behind him.
Other Points Of Interest
- Was it just us, or were Megan's schmoozing abilities far inferior to Betty's? You can call Betty out on many flaws, but girl knew how to charm a client.
- Roger, describing Mohawk's requirements for a copywriter, calls for "someone with a penis." Peggy's response: "I'll work on that."
- Betty is once again accused of having psychological problems. Doc says, "When a housewife has a rapid weight gain, the cause is usually psychological. Unhappiness, anxiety, boredom—things that cause us to lose our self control." Sounds about right!
- Was it just us, or were the musical cues in this episode really heavy and overwrought? Did we really need that super-foreboding music as Betty runs around the house, calling for Henry?
- Henry still seems threatened by Don. When he calls to check on Betty, he seems annoyed that Don was even privy to the information, and lies about Don calling.
- Lastly, what was up with Michael's dad, looking for women instead of dinner and chanting some Hebrew prayer over him? Looks like yet another dysfunctional parent!
Written by Shanté Cosme (@ShanteCosme)