When Matthew Weiner spoke of the ending to Mad Men (say, for example, at this link), he hinted at a vision of Don Draper in the present day, along with other, vaguer ideas like the basic endpoints of human life and the relation between Mad Men and its audience. But really, the standout piece of information there is an elderly (eighty-four, as of the year 2011) Don Draper, a Don Draper that’s wrinkled and saggy, having become either stronger or weaker, wiser or more jaded with each passing decade.
And if there’s any point where that transformation starts, it’s here, in “Tea Leaves.” The world of Mad Men is certainly not without change- we’ve seen old hands like Bert Cooper rendered obsolete, and the new firm of SCDP rise from the ashes of the old. But somehow, these changes only affect the very surface of the advertising world, for in the end it’s still a game run by the old, dominant white men.
In “Tea Leaves,” that finally starts to change. Whether it’s in the private offices of an ad agency or backstage at a Rolling Stones concert, it’s the young people that carry the most sway in these new, ever-changing times.
But what does that mean for Don Draper?
Only time will tell.
Coming off of the ninety-minute Mad Men premiere, “A Little Kiss,” what becomes readily apparent about “Tea Leaves” is that we no longer have ninety minutes to delve into every single character on this show. Sadly, this means that Joan, Lane Pryce and (for the most part) Pete Campbell are given the boot for this episode, and while they’ll be missed, I’m glad to see “Tea Leaves” shine a spotlight on the one character absent from the season five premiere: Betty Francis (formerly Betty Draper, and Betty Hofstadt before that). Betty’s put on a remarkable amount of weight since last season (a combination of actress January Jones’ real-life pregnancy, a fat-suit and some nifty makeup effects), but this drastic change in her appearance doesn’t feel like a gimmick or a cheap coverup to hide Jones’ pregnancy. Not even a little. This weight gain feels real (although, on occasion, it doesn’t look it) and it feels natural, like the culmination of everything Betty’s gone through up until this point.
Betty’s been circling the drain for long time now, having bore the weight of Don’s infidelities for too long and begun a long cycle of cutting herself off from those who care about her, to the point where she’s the closest thing this show has to an outright antagonist. So with this whole “overweight Betty” thing, Mad Men gains something that it hasn’t seen in years- a sympathetic Betty Francis. This near-death experience takes a lot of what’s made Betty so unlikable over the years (the distance she puts between herself and her children, husband, and anyone else) and hurls it out the window. She’s not exactly a changed woman, and her chilly treatment of a well-meaning Henry at the episode’s end proves that, but having her character be somewhat reinvented is a nice touch, and it’s easier to appreciate the earnestness in the way she navigates a minefield of a conversation with her mother-in-law, or turns to Don for guidance in a moment of desperation. Betty’s always had her share of good qualities and bad ones, but taking one of those flaws and blatantly throwing it up on the surface reminds everyone just how human she can be.
But the big conflict in “Tea Leaves” doesn’t revolve solely around Betty (despite the mystical remnants of her afternoon tea claiming the episode’s title). It doesn’t really revolve around Betty at all. Everywhere you look in “Tea Leaves,” older generations are slowly starting to cede to the young folks of 1966.
Just look at Don. Stuck on a mission with the increasingly inept and sleazy Harry Crane to convince the Rolling Stones to sing a jingle about beans, Don’s surrounded by teenage girls, rock stars, bodyguards, and all manner of hip youngsters. He sticks out like a sore thumb. In his conversation with a Brian Jones devotee, he comes off like a father figure more than anything else. This isn’t like back in season one, where Don was the one suit in a room with Midge and a hundred other beatniks. Back then, Don was aggressively mainstream but still very, very cool- just a different kind of cool. Backstage at the Rolling Stones, he’s long past the point of keeping up with the cutting edge.
And this whole thing boils over into his marriage with Megan. She’s far closer to the Brian Jones groupie than she is to, say, last year’s Faye Miller (although she’s certainly not the naive twenty year-old that Betty paints her to be), and this couldn’t be clearer when she tries to roust him out of bed for a trip to Fire Island. Megan’s bursting with energy and impatient at her husband’s inability to get out of bed, but his response? One word- “no.” Whether it’s due to concern for Betty or just a desire to not be around Megan’s hip young friends, Don’s starting to show the very first (if incredibly faint) symptoms of becoming a crotchety old man.
Roger Sterling, however, has rocketed past those first faint symptoms and is well on his way to being the next Bert Cooper. He’s certainly still charming and still a talented accounts man, but this is increasingly becoming a young man’s game, and the reigning young man of the day happens to be Pete Campbell. And while Pete’s successes are all obtained through the whiniest, most juvenile means possible, he’s still more than capable of outmaneuvering Roger to take credit for Mohawk airlines. As much as I love Roger Sterling (just seeing him onscreen is a guarantee that I’ll be giggling like a schoolboy in no time), he may be past the point of no return in his usefulness to SCDP.
But if Pete Campbell is well on his way to becoming the next Roger Sterling, Peggy Olsen’s similar transition to a powerful, feminine Don Draper isn’t going nearly as smoothly. It’s probably too early to tell just what the deal is with Michael Ginsburg (severe father issues? Obsession with Don Draper? Uncomfortable, somewhat sexist put-downs of Peggy?) but he fits in remarkably well at SCDP before he’s even worked a single day there, having not only impressed Don in his interview, but bonded with Roger over a shared interest in chucking stuff out a big window. Peggy’s caught somewhere between the old and the new here- she rose to prominence with the good ol’ boys, even if she’s still got one foot in the newness of the 60s. She won’t be totally safe when the youth are in revolt, and Ms. Olsen may just have to sharpen her competitive edge to keep young Ginsburg in check.
There’s a whole lot of moving and shaking going on in the halls of SCDP. Thankfully, we’ve got a whole season to see just who’s gonna stay in control, and who’ll be kicked to the curb. No matter what, I’m sure it’ll be great TV.
And on that note, I bid you Mad Men fans a fond adieu.