Note: Do not read on if you have not seen Season 5, Episode 3 of AMC's "Mad Men," entitled "Tea Leaves."
So all the Betty Francis fans out there got a special treat Sunday night. Woo, um, hoo?
Sunday's episode, "Tea Leaves," wasn't one of the more profound episodes the show's ever done. There was some reasonably interesting office jockeying, a few good zingers were launched, a couple of interesting new characters were introduced and there were some very "Mad Men"-esque meditations on mortality and feeling left behind by changing times.
Still, it was very clearly an interim episode, not really an hour full of compelling payoffs. Even the creator of the show, Matthew Weiner, acknowledged in a recent interview with HuffPost TV that the early going of almost every "Mad Men" season causes fan grousing, and I certainly got a lot of emails and comments on my review of "A Little Kiss" indicating that some hardcore fans weren't impressed with the first two hours of the show's fifth season.
As if to give the people exactly what they expect, "Tea Leaves" was almost designed to set off certain segments of the show's most devoted fan base: It was a slow, meditative hour that featured one of the show's least popular characters -- and it came complete with a dream sequence!
It was like Christmas came early, am I right? Kidding!
Now, I didn't really dislike "Tea Leaves," but let's face it, your enjoyment of it is going to hinge on how much you care about Betty Draper Francis. Let me put my thoughts about Betty in context: I love "Mad Men" like crazy (and I certainly enjoyed the season premiere), but when it comes to the former Mrs. Draper, I think this otherwise stellar show hasn't done a particularly good job in three areas (and the three points below refer to Betty problems in Seasons 1-4, especially Season 4).
Problem Area 1: January Jones isn't an actress with a huge range. We've known this for five years now. She can play chilly, remote and angry, with a few other notes in between, but she's no Jon Hamm; she simply can't do every single kind of emotion easily and it's not in her particular skill set to always give a multilayered performance.
Problem Area 2: Jones is also not a performer whose presence inspires investment from the audience. There are actors who make you like their characters no matter what horrible things they do (Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul are able to do this on "Breaking Bad," to just make a comparison to another fine AMC drama). Jones just isn't one of those actors, and that's fine. But it's problematic when Betty is called to be shrill, selfish, cold or unfeeling in most of the scenes she's in. That's the only note we get, and it makes her predictable, if not downright unlikeable at times.
Problem Area 3: You could call this the Sally Problem, or the Balance Issue. Picture one of those scales with two trays. On one side of the scale, pile on the especially mean way that Betty treated Sally in Season 4, who is a child and someone we like a lot. Pile on the fact that Betty treated her maid, Carla, in a horrible fashion, and Carla is someone we like a lot. Pile on Betty's passivity and her desire to have the handsome, wealthy men in her life save her from everything. Pile on the fact that we never see Betty doing anything well; we rarely, if ever, see her being competent at anything. All in all, the show doesn't give her enough opportunities to show other colors or display skills or emotions that would draw the audience into her world and her plight. We get to see most of the main "Mad Men" characters -- who have been depicted in all different kinds of situations during the life of the show -- display many different facets of their personalities and lives. If they're not useful at the workplace, they're good at quipping or being a friend or what have you. There's usually at least one or two things about each person that we like, but Betty, especially in Season 4, rarely got a chance to show a quality that we might enjoy, want something we might want for her, or do something we might sympathize with. The way she's been depicted has weighted the scale toward the "Ehhh, I've had enough of Betty!" side of things.
Let me be clear: Many of the problems with Betty are problems that stem from the way that she is depicted by the writers, to the point that I've wondered in past seasons if the goal was to get the audience to dislike her. Certainly in Season 4, she was so rarely present and so rarely nice, that I enjoyed the fact that she wasn't around much. She's simply not someone I want to spend that much time with. When she is around, the Betty Problem affects the show. This is a drama with a huge ensemble, and whenever Betty turned up, especially in Seasons 3 and 4, I was frankly disappointed. Don't get me wrong, Jones has done some good work on this show here and there (especially in various confrontation scenes with Don), but the character is often one-note and her plight a lot less compelling than other things that were going on.
Knowing all that, you might be surprised by the fact that I didn't dislike Betty in "Tea Leaves." I cringed at the dream/fantasy sequence in which she pictured her family's life after her death ("The Fog," which had a much more ponderous Betty dream sequence, is my least favorite "Mad Men" episode ever). All things considered, I think Jones did a reasonable job with the script she was given, but Betty's not a character I'm ever going care much about. That ship has sailed, as it were; "Mad Men" has had years to make me like Betty, but the best I can do is tolerate her, and she was tolerable here.
Overall, I thought that the theme of the episode -- which really involved both Don and Betty -- was reasonably well executed. And as a co-worker pointed out, the episode featured a lot of Peggy and Roger interactions, and that is a combination we don't often see on the show. So even if I wasn't particularly drawn in by Betty's weight gain or medical issues, "Tea Leaves" was what it was -- a decent, if not particularly memorable, early-season episode of "Mad Men."
We got to spend a little more time at the homes of both Don and Betty, and I've been thinking a lot about how the show uses sets and clothing to communicate and reinforce certain meanings and ideas (I've been thinking a lot about it because I've been reading Tom and Lorenzo's "Mad Style" posts, which examine these topics with wit and insight and are absolutely unmissable for any "Mad Men" fan). And one of the words that came to me as I looked at Betty's Victorian home was "entombed."
Betty is living in a heavy, somber old house that looks like something the Addams family would have rejected for being too depressing. She's gained a ton of weight, which is yet another way that she's encased herself in her growing sadness. Everything about her life -- from her frumpy clothes to her funereal house to her intrusive mother-in-law -- is dragging her down and weighing on her, quite literally. She's only around 34, but her doctor calls her "middle aged." This is sad, but also annoying: She's too young to be considered matronly, but those were the times. Once you were past 30 and had a few kids, you might as well have been 100 years old.
And that's what both Don and Betty are facing: Mismatches with their spouses and the feeling that they're no longer the hottest, coolest person in the room. Even when she was married to Don, Betty turned heads; she was gorgeous. How about that scene in Rome a couple of years back, when she looked like an incredible Fellini heroine? Even as a suburban mom, she knew that she could turn on that fierce side of herself when she wanted to.
Now she can't. Nobody thinks she's all that hot, and even an old friend barely recognizes her. As was the case with Don in Season 4, her view of who she was and her expectations of life have been not just altered, but nearly crushed. Betty is someone who has always gotten by on her looks, and without those, what is she? Who is she? No wonder she sits on the couch eating Bugles, because figuring out that question is incredibly hard. Add a brush with mortality to the mix and it makes for an even greater sense of isolation and confusion.
And it's not as if Henry understands. Oddly enough, I felt Betty wanted Henry to say that she's overweight, because she wanted her size to be recognized as an aberration, not the norm. She did not want to be put in the same category as Henry's mom -- in her mind, that would be even worse than being called "middle-aged" by the doctor.
To be lumped in with Henry's mom would be, in Betty's mind, an admission of defeat. She'd won Henry by being the beautiful princess. To her, Henry should retain that image in his mind and think that's who Betty is, and might be again. For him to accept this Betty -- a Betty with a different body and a hopeless affect -- would be like him admitting to her that he never cared about who she used to be. And if that's true, well, who does he care about now? Does he even see who she is? Does she know who she is?
But disconnect -- and even distrust -- were all over the place. Both Megan and Henry clearly have issues with their spouses' exes. Megan sees Betty as an inveterate manipulator (and Megan's not necessarily wrong, but she's too young to really understand the kind of bond that Don and "Birdie" still have, despite everything that's happened). As for Henry, he clearly still fears Don's influence in Betty's life, as if the newly married Don is going to leave his hip pad and his hot young wife to steal Betty away from the Henry's turreted castle. Not likely, Henry.
Don does still have bonds to Betty, even if they are fading. His relationship with Megan seems all right, but it's telling that both Betty and Don wanted to turn down events that their spouses had organized. It's not easy for Don to be truthful to his women, as we know, but I thought it was significant that Don simply admitted to Megan that he wasn't emotionally up for a day at Fire Island, given what was going on. That's the kind of emotional admission Don wouldn't have made a few years ago, but even that level of openness doesn't matter much to Megan, for whom real intimacy is taken as a given. She wheedles Don into a day at the beach, but his heart isn't in it. After they divorced, both Don and Betty got what they wanted, but neither appears to be significantly more connected to their new spouses than they were to each other.
For Don, being married to Megan is one way to assert that he's connected to the younger generation, but he still feels the need to interrogate the young fan at the Stones concert. The very first episode of the show featured Don questioning an African-American waiter about his preferred cigarette brand, and Don has never changed in that regard -- he's always working, always wanting to know what people think about the things they enjoy or use every day. He gets the information he wants, but at the price of being thought a hopeless square who resembles a character from "Bewitched." Don doesn't make Harry's mistake of trying way too hard to be cool -- Don knows that trying hard is innately uncool -- but it's still hard for him to accept just how out of touch he is.
That's one thing that will not just affect the agency this season, it'll affect the whole course of the show. SCDP finally snagged another account, but Mohawk Airlines isn't a really that new -- they're a returning account from better times. Can the agency understand and cater to what the increasingly important Baby Boom generation cares about? It'll take more than trying to get the Rolling Stones to sing about baked beans (truly, "a client idea if I ever heard one"). It'll take understanding of what they want and what their passions are and how they're different from the more staid culture that Don, Roger and even Betty grew up with.
The agency has hired an African-American secretary to work for Don (and kudos to "Mad Men" for doing that so quickly -- I hope we get to know the self-possessed Dawn well this season). And it's hired a memorably intense and quirky copywriter who is Jewish (Ben Feldman did a great job introducing a really well-written new character, who, intentionally or not, threw Peggy off her game repeatedly and made her regret the day she'd picked his portfolio out of the pile).
But these are surface actions: The jury is still out on whether SCDP is truly connected to the culture, or if the couples we see here are truly connected to each other.
A few final notes:
- Jon Hamm did a fine job of directing the episode. He really understands the "Mad Men" style, and he executed it with subtlety and economy.
- There were some classic looks this episode: Peggy's increasingly weirded-out glances during the interview with Don and Michael Ginsberg; Don's frozen smile when he was compared to Derwood; and Roger's furious look when Pete made a point of humiliating him during the Mohawk celebration.
- I didn't particularly like how the Rolling Stones subplot ended: Even if he was high, how on Earth would Harry accidentally sign the wrong band? Surely he knows what the Rolling Stones and their managers look like. That just didn't make sense, and if it was meant to be a comic grace note at the end of the hour, it didn't work for me.
- Presumably Caroline is now working full-time for Roger, which has to be the cushiest job at the agency, considering Roger specializes in doing nothing.
- When I write about the body-image issues Betty's dealing with, please don't think I necessarily share her views; my own personal opinions on these topics are not aligned with Betty's. I'm just trying to think about these issues the way she might, given what we know of her attitudes and thought processes.
- For more on how the show worked around Jones' real-life pregnancy this season, check out this story.
"Mad Men" airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on AMC.