In what many had thought would serve as the season opener, Mad Men fans are finally treated to the directorial debut of actor Jon Hamm (Don Draper) while the series pushes the audience further toward the notion that everyone gets old, becomes useless and eventually dies.
‘Tea Leaves’ also brings the former Mrs. Draper and current Mrs. Francis back into the spotlight after being noticeably absent during last week’s two-hour season premiere. Her absence is made clear in the first moment that we see Betty (January Jones) struggling to fit into a dress as a result of a substantial weight gain. After some choice comments about her daughter’s figure in seasons past, the idea of this trophy wife taking up more than her fair share of space on the proverbial mantle is especially funny – until it’s not.
After seeking help from a doctor in regards to some diet pills, Betty is faced with the possibility that she may have cancer. While this kind of scare is drama enough for any television show to tackle, the before and after brings two substantial Betty interactions that help tone down the Terms of Endearment factor a little and puts things right back into solid Mad Men territory.
For one, the entire doctor visit was spurred on by a particularly testy interchange between Betty and her mother in-law, Pauline Francis (Pamela Dunlap), where the elder woman suggests Betty could get back to fighting shape with little effort, to which Betty responds with a typical snide remark regarding Pauline’s rather robust figure. As Pauline puts it, though, she’s not really in any need to attract or keep the attention of men.
Secondly, following the doctor’s visit, Betty calls Don in a panic and asks him to say what he always does, which is that everything will be alright. The tone of the situation is so non-confrontational and almost tender that one begins to feel a bit of remorse for any distasteful feelings toward Betty.
But of course, the whole waiting on the biopsy results allows plenty of time for the larger examination of mortality and the smaller discussion of “what if” concerning Don’s kids, should Betty’s diagnosis turn out to be of the unpleasant kind. While Megan (Jessica Paré) assures Don that she’ll take in the kids, it’s not exactly the conversation he was getting at. But he didn’t want to have that talk, because what could Megan possibly know about death anyway? And Don was sort of looking to use the whole ordeal as an excuse to skip out on a trip to Fire Island to hang out with Megan’s friends, who Don has absolutely no interest in.
Which brings us to the core of ‘Tea Leaves.’ Just as in ‘A Little Kiss,’ (the premiere) Don and the rest of the SCDP big shots are beginning to feel the effects of an acute generational shift that has them on the bubble of irrelevance. No one at the company is feeling this more than Roger Sterling (John Slattery), who is slowly being pushed out by the last person he hired, Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser). For his part, Pete is so eager and pushy to receive the acknowledgement for landing Mowhawk Airlines that he ignores Roger’s help (i.e. plying the clients with copious amounts of booze) in the deal.
It’s a tough lesson for Roger; one he doesn’t realize is coming until too late and may make the recent hire Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) made in Michael Ginsburg (Ben Feldman), also seem like a bad idea. Especially since she hired the obnoxious, but incredibly talented young copywriter based on Sterling’s constant prodding. Of course there’s always the chance that Michael and Peggy will work out to be an item (or another of Peggy’s regretful dalliances), or she’ll have to go the shame route as she did when dealing with self-proclaimed nudist Stan (Jay R. Ferguson). Time will only tell.
And time, that commodity that Mad Men is detailing to be in short supply this season, once more rears its head when Don and Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) head out to a Rolling Stones concert in the hopes of signing them to sing a little ditty about Heinz – based off a particularly awful idea presented by the head of the company to riff on the Stones’ track ‘Time is on My Side.’
Naturally, Harry thinks it’s a great idea and goes along more to try and carouse with Don and escape his family than any sort of actual business venture. Meanwhile, Don is left waiting backstage with a very young girl – not too far removed from Sally’s age – while Harry supposedly takes a meeting with the band. All the while, Don is tortured with the evidence that the girl before him is in one way the target demographic for what would be a failed venture with a company trying to promote beans, a the reminder that, someday, her or someone very much like her will be gunning to take his place like how Pete is usurping Roger’s position in accounts.
Though Betty is cleared (supposedly, since there’s something about her personality that suggests she might lie about the diagnosis given to her over the phone) Henry (Christopher Stanley), has more to worry about since Don continues to be a phantom in the Francis marriage.
Mad Men continues next Sunday with ‘Mystery Date’ @9pm on AMC.