Barker Chappell Daglas Mad Men Roundtable: Tea Leaves

Welcome to the second installment of the Barker Chappell Daglas roundtable discussion. If you happened to miss last week’s installment on “A Little Kiss” (readily available over at TV Surveillance), Cory Barker, Andy Daglas and myself have teamed up for the fifth season of Mad Men to break down each episode in a long email exchange, and will be rotating coverage between our blogs as the season progresses. This week, we’ll be discussing the third episode “Tea Leaves” where (spoiler alert) TIMES ARE CHANGING. We recommend a diet of White Castle sliders, ice cream sundaes and champagne if you’re a fan of method reading.

And as always, if there’s any feedback on our discussion or topics you’d like us to tackle in future episodes, feel free to leave comments below or reach out to Cory, Andy or myself on Twitter. Without further ado, let’s read the “Tea Leaves”:

Les: Now that we’re past the season premiere and 17 months of waiting to see where the story was going to start, it’s time for us to move past that time of anticipation and get into the groove of a Mad Men season with the third episode “Tea Leaves.” And in this episode, we can see that despite their continual jokes and racist comments, the changing times are in fact still creeping up on Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. After last week’s equal opportunity ad SCDP has hired an African-American secretary named Dawn (Teyonah Parris), now tending Don’s desk in the space filled by Allison, Ms. Blankenship and Megan, and yielding several jokes and laughs both by virtue of her race and her name’s assonance with her employer’s. We also see an addition to the agency talent pool in the form of copywriter Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman), who’s presenting an attitude that Peggy normally wouldn’t put up with but that’s excused by Roger and dismissed by Don, which is enough to bring him on as the agency’s point man for the Mohawk account Pete was fighting tooth and nail to bring back to the agency.

But the face that occupied the majority of my attention this episode belongs to Betty Francis, who after a fairly noticeable absence in the premiere is front and center to this episode’s action. We see that Betty may have grown a little too comfortable in her role as housewife of Rye, NY, and has gained a bit of weight* in almost a year since we saw her last. When she decides to visit a doctor to wheedle a prescription of diet pills on her mother-in-law’s suggestion, she learns there’s a growth on her thyroid gland that may or not be cancerous. This throws her into a state of panic, almost breaking down in tears after a gypsy fortune-teller calls her a “great soul” and once again reaching out to Don for comfort in his usual nicknames and assurance that everything’s going to be all right. It eventually turns out to be a benign growth – to the relief of her past and present husbands – but the uncertainty seems to have caused her to realize how unhappy she is as both a housewife and a person, as well as remind Henry he doesn’t much like the fact that she still calls Don when she needs some attention.

*This plot is likely an outgrowth of the real-world fact that, as I mentioned last week, Jones was pregnant at the time they shot this season, and they probably didn’t want to introduce another subplot of that nature so soon after Betty had already had a new baby.

Now, Betty has always been one of the most polarizing elements of Mad Men, both in how cruel she is to much more beloved characters like Don and Sally and how somewhat lacking Jones has been perceived as an actress in comparison to the rest of the cast. Cory/Andy, how’d you feel about the return of Betty Francis, or how do you feel about Betty in general?

Andy: Les, I had quite the opposite response to Betty’s story this week. Far from occupying my attention, it had me checking out of almost every scene. It’s true she’s a polarizing character, and while in the past I’ve felt both pity and scorn for the ex-Mrs. Draper, the emotion she most often elicits in me is boredom. Part of that is January Jones’s performance, which runs the gamut all the way from sour blandness to bland sourness. Part of that is also the writing, which seems to jerk the character into one rotten circumstance after another, but seldom bestows any agency or growth as a result.

Now, divorced from Don and ensconced in her mansion with the equally dull Henry, Betty is more disconnected from the rest of the show than ever. Honestly, I was hoping her role would be drastically reduced this season. If spending this much time with her means spending little to no time with Joan, Pete, or hell, even the ebullient Kenny Cosgrove (Accounts!), that’s not my idea of a successful episode.

I had much more positive feelings about the rest of “Tea Leaves,” though. But before we get to that, I’m curious to hear Cory’s take on good ol’ Bets.

Cory: I’ve long felt more sympathy for Betty (and maybe even January Jones) than most, which probably colors my admittedly convoluted feelings on her story in this episode. I was actually happy to see Betty and felt some satisfaction with her current predicament, consider she is just so loathsome. But at the same time, I’m naturally inclined to feel for her and so it was a bit odd to me how, as Andy said, the episode’s writing jerked her around a lot. I’m not a fan of any story where a character thinks they have cancer, everyone else prepares accordingly and then the rug is pulled out from under us. Even when used well, as to, perhaps, convince a character to change their ways, it’s still a massive crutch that comes off… manufactured.

Here then, it honestly felt like Matthew Weiner and his team were just fucking with Betty to fuck with her. Weiner’s been a long proponent of the character, so it was really weird to see this episode make her A.) fat B.) miserable and C.) unwilling to change the first to fix the second. It’s as if Weiner finally cracked to the pressure and gave the internet what they wanted: an opportunity to laugh at Betty, even in the face of pretty awful circumstances. This was only further emphasized by the way the episode strongly contrasted Betty with Megan (the dueling dress zip-ups come to mind most notably). Sometimes, Mad Men can push a theme too hard that it becomes obvious, and I think this was one of those times. We presumed Betty to be awful before this episode. The episode didn’t seem to interested in us sympathizing with her, even despite her circumstances. And now, it was all a scare anyway and she’s not changed, only further confirming our prior feelings towards her. What the hell is the point of that? Les, you set us up with this Betty discussion, but you didn’t express much opinion: How do you feel about the character and this story?

Les: I’m mostly in the same boat as both you gentlemen, in that I didn’t think it was a plot that added much to either our understanding of Betty or the arcs the season seemed to be setting up last week. I’ve never been as opposed to Betty as a character or Jones as an actress as I know a lot of people are, but I do believe that she’s the least interesting part of the series. It’s on the record that Betty was written specifically for Jones and wasn’t part of the initial pilot script, and it’s always felt to me like the character’s been playing catch-up with the rest of the ensemble since. When I said she captured the most attention for me here, it was more due to the extent she’d changed from how she looked when last we saw her, so at least part of it was shock value. If she’d looked almost identical to when she and Don said goodbye in the season finale and this plot was born out of her being bored with her life, I’d probably have tuned out as much as Andy did.

It also didn’t help, as you say Cory, to make the story focus on the possibility of Betty having cancer. I do think Jones had some legitimately strong scenes here – the twilight of the Fourth of July on her lawn, the dream sequence where she’s a ghost art breakfast – but throughout those scenes my brain was rooting for the outcome we got. Not for the benefit of the character, but because there is no way I wanted this season to waste its time focusing on Betty’s fear of death. That’s a plot that I think would only work if she was still married to Don and he had to deal with the repercussions closer to home.

That said, Mad Men is still all about its symbolic connections between its narratives, and if this plot didn’t work as a whole it still managed to reinforce the episode’s theme of replacement and fear thereof. Andy, you said you felt more positively about the rest of the episode, what’s your take on how this played out in the other arcs?

Andy: One thing the episode certainly reinforced, for the umpteenth time, is that a pugnacious Peggy is a Peggy we can all get behind. Every one of her scenes this week popped – whether she was schooling Young Mr. Ginsberg (who clearly shares Pete’s tailor), insisting to Stan that she wants to work with the best talent around, or matching no less than Roger Sterling witticism for witticism. (“One with a penis.” “I’ll work on that.”) With the new Mohawk copywriter joining Megan on the SCDP creative team, Peggy’s subtly transitioning from senior staff to de facto manager. We’ve noted how Don seems to be losing his professional hunger, even though his name still commands respect. Could he decide to fade away gracefully and let his protege take over, rather than suffer the same indignities Roger puts himself through, fighting a losing war for relevance against the next generation?

If so, Don’s anxiety may be less for himself than for those coming up behind him. I was taken aback by his exchange with the young, chemically-altered woman at the Stones concert – it struck me as a very different, perhaps more mature Don Draper than we’ve seen in the past. Instead of putting the movies on her, he downshifted into paternal mode almost immediately. Part of that could be faithfulness early in his marriage, part of it could be the perspective of a man whose daughter is approaching teendom. Either way, when she accuses him (and his generation) of not wanting the kids to have fun, his reply – “No. We’re worried about you.” – was strangely affecting, a softer spin on the infamous culture clash of the era. Don Draper: Ambassador of the Generation Gap.

And then there’s Harry, who, I think will be soon revealed, fell and hit his head on something very hard sometime in 1964, because he continues to regress into full-on degenerate-hood.

Cory, Les, what worked strongest for you this week?

Cory: I keyed in on similar feelings while watching those scenes with Don and Harry at the Stones concert. I’m very curious to see how the series works with Don and the “youth cultures” swirling around him, and in two weeks, we’ve been given the two typical responses: Confusion and concern. I don’t think Don is going to fall into grumpy grandpa mode, telling kids to get off his lawn, but it’s definitely interesting that Weiner has put the character in situations where he has to face the generational divide twice in two weeks. I know I said this about the Betty story, but I’ll use it again and note that this seemed a little obvious to me, in that the series is hitting on it so hard. It’s not that I don’t want to see Don be challenged by younger people (that’s one of the things that makes his relationship with Peggy so engaging), but I’m also not sure I want to see him have a confused look on his face for 12 straight weeks, perhaps with a shrug or two thrown in. I appreciate that he didn’t cheat on Megan (progress?) and I loved his probing of the girl and why she liked what she liked, but I think I need a week breather on TIMES ARE CHANGING, even after just a short period of time.

Of course, I’m going to follow that up by saying everything Peggy-related, and especially everything Peggy- and Roger-related was great. I don’t recall Peggy and Roger having many diegetic interactions previously, but unsurprisingly, they’re lovely together. Peggy gaining more and more power around the office is a wonderful story, and one that gives a taste of the shifting winds without smacking us in the face. I couldn’t get over how much respect Roger seemed to have for Peggy, even if he had a little fun with her along the way. We’ve been trained to appreciate Peggy and her talents because Don feels that way about her, but other partners have rarely commented on her work; this was a nice change of that pattern.

On that note, I’ll say that while I didn’t necessarily love this episode, it still reflected something I admire greatly about the series: The ability to mix tones from scene-to-scene with relative ease. We talked about the humor and comedy last week, but this episode nicely balanced the (somewhat pointless) Betty drama with some broad Harry Crane humor and more subtle, but still enjoyable stressful Peggy-induced laughs.

Les: I know we’re all probably tired of discussing the way things have changed, but remember this interaction from the pilot?

Roger: Have we hired any Jews?
Don: Not on my watch!

The times they are et cetera.

I’ll make it a hat trick and agree this was a terrific episode for Peggy (and Elisabeth Moss by extension), who has been so marvelous ever since becoming head copywriter it’s almost jarring to picture her as the meek uncertain secretary of the pilot. I think of all the characters she’s had the most organic growth, and this episode was a nice demonstration of how she’s both more comfortable both with a position of authority and the attitudes of her coworkers. She’s frustrated but doesn’t become irrational by Ginsberg’s informal interview style, resigned but not frightened by Don’s increasing detachment with the agency’s business, and similarly (as you noticed Andy) has now risen to the level of parrying Roger Sterling’s rapier wit. Cory, you’re right that the two have chiefly been on opposite ends of the office, but when they’ve combined before it’s spectacular – one of Peggy’s proudest early moments was when she asked Roger for Freddy Rumsen’s office in season two, and he gave it to her because she was the only one with the nerve to ask. I’d personally love to see him ducking into her office on a regular basis for a drink when things get rough.

I have to say, I’ll be very interested to see how Mike Ginsberg fits into the creative dynamic of Peggy, Stan and Megan. In addition to being talented enough to at least somewhat impress Don and Peggy, he’s not as chauvinistic or naive as some of the previous creative drones SCDP employed and he has an impressive ability to roll with the punches. He doesn’t doesn’t flinch once when he realizes that Peggy’s interviewing him instead of Don, he instead roceeds to whip his resume out of his sleeve like he’s pulling rabbits, a resume with the gall to Allen Ginsberg as a reference (“We gotta be related somehow!”). Between the confidence he showed in interviews and the more subdued persona he had with his apparently very traditional father, he’s another contradictory sort who’ll play well with the other contradictory sorts that make up the agency.

In terms of the office dynamics we talked about last week, what struck me even more than Don yielding control to Peggy is that after his practical joke last week Pete’s very much on the offensive against Roger, and is parading his reacquisition of the Mohawk account around like it’s a trophy kill*. Not only is he proud of proving his worth, he’s dictating Roger’s level of involvement in the case and barely hiding his contempt in front of the rest of the agency, calling him out with lines like “Roger will be handling the day to day, but rest assured – everything he knows, I know.” Roger’s clearly seething at this, but he also seems aware that he doesn’t have any cards to play in terms of worth to the agency. Last week I thought that Roger and Pete would be coming to blows before the end of the season; now, it doesn’t even look like Roger’s heart is in the fight. (A thought occurs: if Pete’s attitudes continue to intensify, might Roger find an ally if Peggy finds herself equally irritated by him? Certainly no one knows Pete like she does.)

*A kill which in Pete’s mind he likely picked up, threw its back legs over his shoulder, and dragged through the snow to this little cabin. I’m sure he’s picturing Trudy waiting with a cast-iron skillet as he takes his big hunting knife cuts the loin right out the side. To eat while she watches.

Shifting gears a bit, one thing I wanted to touch on is that this episode was also the directorial debut of Jon Hamm, following in costar John Slattery’s footsteps from last year’s “The Rejected” and “Blowing Smoke.” Any thoughts on Mr. Hamm’s skill behind the camera? I thought it had its moments, glaring use of dissolves aside.

Cory: Ginsberg is an intriguing character for sure, and I’m excited to see how the series integrates him into the world moving forward. While he also added to the surprisingly hefty cumulative effect of TIMES ARE CHANGING in these first three hours, the character presented a certain depth and complexity that makes me think he’ll fit in quite swimmingly moving forward. This is especially true because of the weird impact he has on Peggy. It’s long been assumed (and really, confirmed) that Peggy is the series’ gateway to countercultural and youth movements, but I’m intrigued as to how she will react to someone like Ginsberg, especially now that she’s been given so much responsibility. Peggy is definitely not Don or Roger, but she’s still fairly established in the workplace’s rhythms and expectations. Will she have trouble controlling someone who is even more “countercultural” than she is? Will she realize that she’s not as interesting or edgy as she thought? And will she have to sacrifice some of herself to be a better boss? Those are big questions I hope the season continues to address.

I had completely forgotten that this was the episode Jon Hamm directed, and I don’t know if it was the lack of sleep I’m running on or what, but I didn’t notice anything… out of the ordinary. I quite liked Betty’s dream sequence, but other than that, it played and looked like a typical Mad Men episode, which is exactly what he was supposed to do. Andy did you notice anything?

Andy: I wasn’t aware Hamm directed until after the fact either, though I suppose it would explain all those shots of Jon Hamm looking impossibly handsome. Or that could just be due to reality. Either way.

Cory, you bring up an interesting point about how the shifting sands of society will affect not just the oldsters being swept away but also the youngsters expected to fall into place. We’ve seen Peggy explore a lot of counterculture elements, but I often got the sense that she was merely experimenting – seeing what different subcultures have to offer, the way one does in one’s 20s. Even her dalliance with committed undergrounder Abe usually seems half-hearted (though they have been dating for quite a while now.) Now she’s approaching the point in life when people tend to become who they’ll be; it’ll be interesting to see how she faces the transition.

Conversely, how will Pete respond now that he’s seemingly displaced Roger once and for all? He’s often come across as a child mimicking the behavior of grown-ups around him, hoping they’ll believe he’s a grown-up too. But the more he becomes settled in a position of authority in his own right, the less he needs to emulate his predecessors. Could maturing lead him to embrace his relatively progressive side more confidently, possibly begin to reject the chauvinism and callousness he learned as an apprentice? After all, I doubt Pete Campbell has any desire to end up like Roger Sterling, or to some extent even like Don Draper.

Les: We’ll have to see who settles down and who reacts best to the CHANGING TIMES. One last question: was anyone else really disappointed that an episode called “Tea Leaves” was comparatively light on people actually smoking pot? Because the only thing better than a pugnacious Peggy is a stoned Peggy.

Andy: I don’t know what you mean. There was plenty of pot-smoking from where I was watching. Wait, did I write that part or just think it?

Les: And on that note, see you next week!

About Les Chappell

The Mad Hatter of media criticism. Co-founder of This Was Television, contributor to The A.V. Club, founder of A Helpless Compiler and The Lesser of Two Equals.
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5 Responses to Barker Chappell Daglas Mad Men Roundtable: Tea Leaves

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