Mad Men Discussion, Season 5, Eposode 3: “Tea Leaves”

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Peggy prepares to interview the bristly, eccentric new copywriter Michael Ginsberg in the third episode of Mad Men's fifth season, "Tea Leaves." (Photo courtesy of AMC.)
Peggy prepares to interview the bristly, eccentric new copywriter Michael Ginsberg in the third episode of Mad Men's fifth season, "Tea Leaves." (Photo courtesy of AMC.)

Alex: Hi Katie,

I guess we should start with the metaphorical elephant in the room – the return of Betty. I’m sure that the increased focus on Betty had a lot to do with Jon Hamm’s directorial debut on the show, as having Hamm on the other side of the camera means that Don can’t get as much screentime as usual (and, thusly, that there can’t be as many scenes set in the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce office).

Even so, this was the most compelling Betty has been since Season 3. The show seemed to be punishing her for a minute, first making her grotesquely obese, and then giving her a cancer scare, but it eventually revealed itself as a juxtaposition of the marriages Betty and Don have found themselves in. Don has clearly changed for the better – if he was still married to Betty, Don would have been all over that floozy at the concert. Betty, on the other hand, is unhappy, and seemingly trapped in a downward spiral. Either way, I thought her dream sequence was the biggest false step in the episode. Maybe it was because “Mad Men” rarely indulges in dream sequences (I’m pretty sure this was the first one?), but I thought this one was a bust, overly obvious and oblique. What did you think?

Katie: Hey Alex,

I have to be honest, despite my delight at Betty's return (sometimes it feels like I'm the only person who cheers when she appears), I wasn't a fan of this episode. Maybe it's just the come-down from last week's two hour extravaganza, complete with Megan's star-making song and dance number (anyone else still suffering from "Zou Bisou Bisou" fever?) but this week felt a little thin, even by "Mad Men's" sedate standard.

That said, I have to disagree with you on a few things. First of all, I definitely wouldn't call Betty's new... um... look obesity, grotesque or otherwise; it was more like a less drastic version of the unfortunate fat suit they strapped on Elisabeth Moss toward the end of season one. In fact, I even assumed at first that Betty's weight gain was a result of the character's pregnancy, and that Matthew Weiner was just accommodating January Jones' real-life pregnancy.

And do you really think Don is that well off? Last week's "A Little Kiss" sowed the seeds for a growing generational divide that will surely alienate characters on each side of the line — both the older traditionalists like Don and Roger, and the groovy young'ins like Peggy and Megan. This episode just served to reenforce that theme, if a tad more subtly than last week: Don is loath to join bikini'd Megan on Fire Island to party with her friends, and could have not looked more out of place than backstage at that Stones concert running his micro-focus session on a teenage girl.

Finally, I do agree with you about Betty's dream sequence, although it's not the only one the show's ever done. Remember Betty's drugged-up childbirthing daydreams in "The Fog?" Or even Don's vision of Anna Draper's ghost last season? Not all of these are strictly "dreams," but I agree that in "Mad Men's" world, they do usually feel a little on the nose and out of place, not at all as effective as they were used on Weiner's alma mater "The Sopranos."

On to another notable feature of "Tea Leaves:" What did you think of new SCDP hires Michael Ginsberg and the African-American secretary Dawn (not to be confused with her boss, Don)? Did you detect a possibly brewing romance between Michael and Peggy in those bickering sessions between the two, as I did?

Alex: The first thing I thought of when we got our first look at Betty was the great prosthetics work the "Mad Men" team did on Elizabeth Moss in the first season. At the same time, what made that work stand out was the subtlety of how she slowly ballooned throughout the season. I think it's been roughly a year in "Mad Men" time since we last saw Betty, and while I forgot to consider Jones' pregnancy, it was still jarring to see such a drastic change in her. And I don't think grotesque is entirely unfair, as the episode goes out of its way to showcase her size (think about those big mumus she's wearing, or that frankly gratuitous shot of her getting out of the tub).

I agree that there's always going to be some tension in the Don-Megan relationship because of that generational divide, but their pillow talk in "A Little Kiss" implied to me that those two are definitely very much in love, but still learning about each other. And part of that is going to be Don learning about 1960s culture, something that we've been getting a lot of in the last two episodes. That party Megan threw last episode was time-appropriately groovy, and it's hard to find something more quintessentially '60s than smoking pot backstage at a Stones concert.

I'm especially curious where SCDP found the cash to make those hires, since last episode made a big deal out of their budget issues. Even so, I thought all of the office goings-on were consistently funny, and watching the characters react to the Dawn-Don situation was my favorite part of the episode.

As far as Ginsberg goes, I'm going to reserve judgement on the character until we get to know him better. He came off as a bit tactless and grating, something that Weiner and company no doubt intended, and I'm interested to see where they go with his character. While a romance with Peggy wouldn't be surprising, I hope that "Mad Men" is smart enough to keep things from getting too incestuous at the agency, and I also hope that Ginsberg gets another suit before he starts work. However, I was completely baffled by that final scene with his father, and I'm curious to get your take on it.

Katie: Yeah, the minute, day-to-day office dramas still maybe give me the most pleasure of anything this show, and maybe that's why I've been put off by this season so far; what with all the table-setting, the SCDP office itself seems to have been getting the short shrift.

And in that vein: no Joan this week! Last week her entire conflict centered around her stifling boredom at home raising new baby Kevin. This week I expected her to at least be back to work (where she, let's face it, really belongs), but she wasn't anywhere to be found. I'll tell you what I'm psyched for though — I'd love to see her go face-to-face with that uppity new copywriter Ginsberg. No one messes with Joanie in her domain. I was similarly baffled by Ginsberg's moment with his father, however.

A few stray details I enjoyed in “Tea Leaves:”

• Henry's dig at George Romney (father of Mitt), who, at the time, was a rising star in the Republican party,
• Betty's call to Don to tell him about her medical crisis — they've seemed to reach a place of comfortable respect, and Don even called used her old nickname “Birdie.” Awww. Am I the only one who wants those crazy kids back together?
• Don's constant dismissals of bumbling, pervy Harry: “Saturday night was fun.” “Okay.” Hilarious.
• Peggy's adorable green dress with the orange bow and white collar.

Alex: To wrap things up, let's touch on the increasingly irrelevant former half of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. As we saw last week, Cooper is rarely even included in meetings anymore, and Sterling is becoming a fossil far more quickly than he'd like.

As great as John Slattery is in the role (and he really is great - look at that ice in his eyes as he applauds after Pete disses him in the lobby), I think his days in the agency are numbered. A wayward comment to one of the agency's diverse new hires or a similar screw-up could prove to be the nail in Rogers's coffin, and I'm looking forward to seeing how he deals with his company slipping away from him. My prediction - it won't be pretty.