The return of Mad Men last week was incredible; an epic, ninety minute return to a world that both resembles our own, and shares little with it, which is why I was skeptical about the second episode, “Tea Leaves.” How does a show follow up such an acclaimed opener?
In short, by reintroducing a few characters we didn’t see last week, by keeping some plot threads moving, and introducing a new element to the show. “Tea Leaves”, at its core, revolves around the generation gap, and how even the unflappable Don Draper begins to see it. The subplot of Betty’s possible cancer adds a poignancy to her character we haven’t seen in a while.
I know that most critics are focusing on the generation gap aspect of the episode, so I’ll start there first. Don and Harry, backstage at a Rolling Stones concert, seem somewhat out of place; more Don, who is in his classic business suit and refrains from using the marijuana offered him, but even Harry comes off as being separated from what is going on around him. The humorous follow-up involving Harry getting the munchies wraps it up nicely.
The ongoing plot thread with Heinz beans is an interesting one, especially since the man they deal with feels like he has great ideas and SCDP should execute them. It holds a great potential, especially when Don tells him he is full of it, and to leave the creative aspect to the agency, which we all can see coming.
The generation gap, though, permeates even the ongoing battle between Roger and Pete, as Roger is able to acquire Mohawk Airlines, who Sterling Cooper dropped at the start of the second season to chase after American Airlines, and Pete claims the credit. Both Roger and Pete come from an upper class, self-entitled background, in stark contrast to Don and Peggy, and the revelation that Roger was there when Pete was a kid reinforces that he is hurt, but also angry that his role in the agency is slowly diminishing, akin to that of Cooper, who hasn’t been seen much.
The return of Mohawk brings in a new character: Michael Ginsberg, whose personality changes based on the circumstances and what he feels is necessary to get along. His discussions and confrontations with Peggy show that he is a wild card, with tons of potential; his final seen, with his strong-willed father, shows us where he comes from, and the dichotomy is astounding.
The major subplot of the episode, though, revolves around Betty. The idea of getting cancer scares anyone, and being told by your doctor that you have a tumor is scary unto itself. Her weight gain, presumably as partially resulting from the growth, is noticed by her mother-in-law (something she conveniently didn’t have to deal with when married to Don), who reminds her of a woman’s place in the world.
Well, I suppose the best way to phrase that is the old world. After all, Betty is stuck between two worlds: the old world where a woman is a housewife, and the woman’s best and only place is the home and hearth, and the new world, where a woman is free to live, to work, to provide, and to leave the home when necessary; Betty was comfortable in the old world, and took a step out when she divorced Don.
Betty’s mother-in-law, however crass, inadvertently prompts a series of events that rocks not only her marriage, but Don’s. In her desperation for comfort, and in the absence of Henry, she calls Don, who in his trademark manner assures her that “everything is going to be all right,” showing that underneath all those layers of unpleasantness between them, they still care. Of course, Betty and Don’s spouses, Henry and Megan, respectively, both have to deal with the fall out. It’s not fair to either of them, but I love the way Jessica Pare and Christopher Stanley play it: Megan, who gets the grim news early on, urges Don to be concerned but not let it ruin their good time; and Henry, who realizes at the end that Betty and Don have been talking outside of his knowledge, and the look on his face says it all.
The generation gap theme runs through the episode, from the idea of being liberated and free, as the kids at the Rolling Stones concert show, to having to work and be subjected to employers’ demands, as we see through Peggy (who chafes under such direction), Pete (upper class and wants what’s his), and Megan (who is trying to fit in with a world she doesn’t quite grasp), to the older generation at SCDP, whose attitude is best expressed through Roger Sterling, who asks “when are things going to return to normal?”
I love the way it’s directed (by Jon Hamm), and the fact that, unlike the opener which put the civil rights movement front and center, this episode merely points out the generation gap theme, has some fun with it, then leaves it be; the theme of mortality, something Mad Men doesn’t always deal with, is brilliantly handled, and the discussions between Don and Betty, continuing a thread from the fourth season’s finale, shows that they are increasingly able to be civil with each other, and not just for the sake of the kids. It is well-acted, especially Elizabeth Moss, whose best scene is when Michael interviews with Don, and her facial expressions say more than dialogue ever could.
My rating: 4.3/5.0