Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Mad Men 5-3: Tea Leaves

Maybe it's just that the glow of "Mad Men"'s long-awaited return has faded, but this week's episode, in my opinion, fell a notch below the premiere in quality.

I suspect other viewers might blame the (literally) larger-than-life return of Betty, who after being conspicuously absent last week, occupied center stage for a good part of this episode. Although I'm no Betty hater, I have to agree that she's become something of a drag on the show's momentum. The problem is she's alienated so much of the audience that it's painful to watch her continue to struggle to connect - with us and with those on screen with her. And I say this as someone who was her staunch defender until last season, when the writers decided to turn her into an irredeemable witch (one of the reasons I became so disillusioned with the show as a whole).

So it was with growing gloom that I watched "Mad Men"'s most reviled character slip into an even deeper funk than we've ever seen before. I shudder to think of the schadenfreude pouring out of who knows how many viewers gleeful at the sight of an older, fatter, more miserable Betty who might even be killed off by cancer! Unfortunately for those folks, early death for Betty is apparently not to be. As it is, the writers made sure to twist the knife one more time in her character with her extremely unsympathetic reaction to the good news - instead of being happy, she frets about being fat and insults her husband's mother! Oh, make it so difficult for those of us who want to stick up for you.

On the plus side, I thought January Jones did a great job under all that fat makeup (I think she was pregnant during the filming, but I don't think she put on that much weight), from her flinching when the doctor called her "middle-aged" to her terrified plea for reassurance from Don, to the conflicting emotions - surprise, relief, slight disappointment - washing over her face when she learns the tumor is benign. People rag on Jones' acting ability, but at least in the role of Betty Draper she's been consistently excellent, and this episode was no exception.

Despite my mixed feelings about the "Betty aging" storyline, it tied in pretty neatly - perhaps a little too neatly - with a theme the show's always been interested in and clearly intends to explore even more deeply this season - namely, the growing divide between old and young and the increasingly tenuous position of those characters who are starting to be, if not quite old, then at least no longer young. We see this in the friction between "square" Don and mod Megan; established but not completely secure Peggy and striving would-be up-and-comer Michael Ginsberg (more on him in a minute); ever-ambitious, reliably petty Pete and an increasingly irrelevant (and not happy about it) Roger; and, of course, Don/Harry (and by extension, the old dudes at Heinz) and the teenage Rolling Stones fans.

That RS backstage sequence - which I liked, even if the writing was sometimes, as is "Mad Men"'s wont, a little too heavily underscored - crystallized the tensions that threaten to pull apart not just Don but SCDP, and society, as a whole. Without quite realizing it, Don has become the Man, his perspective as alien to the aspiring groupies as theirs is to him. And yet - something about his deliberate detachment and maddening paternalism ("we worry about you") still makes him a million times cooler than that goober Harry, who's a textbook example of Trying Too Hard (and failing) to be cool. You can see it in the slightly squicky moment when the young girl chatting up Don messes with his tie and he puts her off with a condescending remark. He hasn't entirely lost his ability to charm and connect with the young, but he's on track to losing it - which doesn't bode well for SCDP. Will the younger Pete and Peggy - or lord forbid, Michael Ginsberg - save that connection? One thing's for sure: Harry Crane certainly won't.

Miscellaneous observations:

-I'm conflicted on the character of Michael Ginsberg. I think I like the idea of him better than the reality, which from what we've seen so far is too much of a walking "New York Jew" stereotype for me to take seriously. But perhaps that's deliberate? His last scene with his dad, where the schtick is nowhere to be seen, suggests as much. (Too bad the dad seems to take up the stereotype-slack from him.) Still, I'll reserve judgment, for now, especially since I think his interactions with Peggy could be interesting.

-Henry Francis' sideswipe at George Romney (father of Mitt): gratuitous dig by the writers or just more period detail? I think the former. Seemed unnatural coming out of the mouth of a Rockefeller Republican, but then I'm no expert on the political run-up to 1968.

-Favorite scene, hands down: Harry with the munchies, scarfing burgers in the car, as Don looks on in incredulous disdain. I would totally watch "Don and Harry Go to White Castle" any day.


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