Mad Men season 5 episode 3 review: Tea Leaves

Could it be? Has Mad Men finally turned in a below-par episode? Read our review of Tea Leaves here...


This review contains spoilers.

5.3 Tea Leaves

This week’s Mad Men was brought to you by the fear of replacement and the number 1966. Baby Boomers were jostling the Silent Generation out of the way, leaving the old guard wondering when everything was going to return to normal. 

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Tea Leaves was a Betty-heavy story (all puns intended) that saw the former Grace Kelly double grow an extra chin and meditate on death. Meditation though, is the wrong word. The episode sped through Betty’s cancer scare at a pace uncommon to Mad Men, rattling through her doctor’s visit, Lynchian death nightmare, and all-clear in the time the show would usually take for Don to pour himself a whisky and stare into the middle distance. Jon Hamm’s directorial debut responded to the question of what Mad Men would be like if someone chopped out all the ponderous pauses. The answer? Not quite as good as usual.

Writers Weiner and Levy didn’t face an easy task in having to incorporate January Jones’ real-life pregnancy into the series, and their solution – to dust off Peggy’s old season one fat suit – was understandable, if a little hard to swallow. Conspicuous by her absence from the opening two-parter, Betty, it was revealed, had been whiling away her days since the end of season four eating corn snacks in front of the TV and wearing a quilted housecoat that made her look the image of a knitted toilet roll cover.

The speed of Betty’s plot line felt uncomfortably melodramatic for Mad Men, the show in which nothing much happening tells a story about everything. Quick cuts from the macabre Francis mansion to the examining room and back again left the episode feeling uncharacteristically breathless.

The music also felt oddly insistent for Mad Men, with capital D dramatic moments scored by swelling strings, though the Sixteen Going On Seventeen closer neatly underlined the episode’s ‘youth is mobilising’ message alongside Betty’s arrested development.

Hamm’s direction successfully conveyed the suffocating dark décor of Betty’s new home (a set that seems to have been chosen in direct opposition to the Drapers’ airy, modern high rise apartment), but moved too quickly for my taste. Just what is Mad Men without all the glacially paced staring? 

The dark humour of previous Betty-centric episodes (season one’s Shoot for instance, which ended on that glorious scene of everybody’s favourite toxic mother, rifle in hand and fag hanging from her mouth, taking aim at the neighbour’s pigeons) was absent, replaced by kitschy clairvoyants and a Lifetime Movie cancer plot. It’s difficult to admit, but Mad Men took a real dip with Tea Leaves.

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Just as Betty was picturing being replaced as a mother by Don’s twenty year old “girlfriend”, the rest of Megan’s generation (and the one below it) were busy inheriting the world. Roger and Pete’s generational pissing contest continued, culminating not in the fisticuffs action proposed in last week’s episode, but in Pete humiliating Roger about the newly acquired Mohawk account in front of the whole office.  

Meanwhile, Don and Harry had been sent on a fool’s errand to sign The Rolling Stones for a Heinz ad, but instead came face to face with the kids who in just two years would be piling into the streets as the May ’68 generation (and specifically the teenager that Don’s daughter Sally was five years away from becoming). 

Mad Men has historically done this kind of encounter – between “the man” and the burgeoning elements of counterculture – brilliantly. Season one’s Babylon, Season three’s Seven Twenty Three, and season four’s The Good News showed Don being mocked, robbed, and flirted with by hip young kids all of whom saw him as a suit (or as Megan puts it this week, a square), and the backstage antics in Tea Leaves were no less interesting. Harry, who’s long been the butt of jokes in the show, got the munchies and managed to sign the wrong band, while Don came over paternally responsible towards the wannabe Stones groupie who put the moves on him. Too reminiscent of his daughter perhaps?

Peggy’s own fear of being replaced came with the introduction of a new character, unpredictable but talented copywriter Michael Ginsberg, whose book showed that sex sells. It’s too early to tell if Michael’s caricatured Brooklyn quipping will transcend this week’s broadly drawn introduction, but let’s hope. Last season’s Dr. Faye proved that Mad Men was capable of more agility in its Jewish characters than the show’s been accused of by some critics, and Michael’s certainly an intriguing addition to the creative team, and possibly, to Peggy’s story.

The retort of the episode has to go to Peggy this week, by the way, for her whip-quick response to being told Mohawk Airlines wanted a copywriter with a penis: “I’ll work on that”.

Another stand-out moment was the exchange between Don and Roger about Betty’s illness. Exactly the kind of elliptical conversation the show is known and loved for, Don’s disbelieving “C’mon” after Roger insists, as etiquette demands, that Betty is a fighter was gloriously Mad Men, and set up for the best line of the episode when Roger asked: “When is everything going to get back to normal?” 

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Roger’s question is the perennial question of tragedies. When is the chaos going to be resolved? When will the established order resume? History and hindsight has the answer, but it’s not one he’s going to like.

Read our review of last week’s episode, here.

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