Monday, 2 April 2012

Television - Mad Men 'Tea Leaves' analysis / review

'When is everything going to get back to normal?' Roger Sterling asks, still fuming at having been usurped by a Pete Campbell power play. I suspect most adults in 1966 were asking themselves the same question. With youth culture firmly on the rise, old institutions and traditions were being torn down left, right and centre, with bands like the Rolling Stones epitomising a new generation ready to take their parents and bosses to war for control of a changing world. Roger has tricked himself into believing he still has a measure of control over the future, relying on charm and money to hold back the inevitable, but the tide is coming in and men like him will be the first dragged out to sea with the rest of the flotsam littering the shore.

Last week, we saw the older generation struggling to keep things, in Roger's terms, 'normal'. Megan couldn't understand why Don wouldn't want a birthday party; Roger, the man who was dancing in blackface not so long ago (and now makes fun of Don's black secretary), accidentally put his company in the front line of a burgeoning civil rights movement; Joan, sadly absent from this episode, found that a life stuck at home with a baby wasn't quite as fulfilling as hoped. This week, the youth of America took the fight to their elders' doorsteps.
Much as I adore Mad Men, 'Tea Leaves' layered on the symbolism with an uncharacteristically heavy hand. The programme isn't always subtle in helping its viewers absorb a message, but generally folds it more elegantly into the narrative than it did last night. There was plenty to enjoy, and everyone who spent last season hating on Betty will have enjoyed Matt Weiner dishing out many of the worst punishments imaginable to a woman previously only able to define herself by her beauty, but occasionally felt like the plots grew out of a pre-set theme, rather than the other way around.

Since I've already mentioned Betty and she wasn't in the previous episode, we'll start with her. Cut a long story short, she's put on a fair bit of weight since we last saw her handing over her keys to the old Draper household. Her days seem to be spent lying around at home, chomping on a box of snacks, trying to make sense of an increasingly meaningless existence. When Henry's equally rotund mother pays a visit and encourages her to take diet pills, she reluctantly agrees, no doubt realising that she has done nothing in her life but try and please men, which she's now failing miserably at because her weight is making her feel sorry for herself, even though Henry seems to love her no matter how she looks. To her, such an idea is inconceivable.

She visits the doctor and is told there is a possible tumour in her throat. In her desperation, she calls Don and asks him to tell her everything will be OK, as if that has ever been possible for a woman so self-absorbed. Like Roger, she wants things back to normal, though she probably doesn't even know what that is. The phone call was a cleverly written scene, emphasizing how little happiness Betty is getting from her new marriage, despite her husband's obvious adoration. She saw in him a dream, a fantasy escape from Don's control, failing to recognise that for his many faults, Don could at least empathise with her need to put on a fa├žade. Henry loves her, but doesn't understand her and isn't equipped to handle her neuroses like Don can. In turn, she can muster up little intimacy for him - refusing to let him see her naked, apparently only making love to him when feeling her mortality creeping nearer - because she let him into her life as a dream, and now feels bitter after realising he is all she has left.

After a clunky nightmare sequence, wherein the young Sally hung up her mother's place at the family table, Betty discovers her tumour is benign. Rather than taking the chance to re-evaluate her life, though, she goes deeper into self-indulgence than ever. In the damning final scene, Sally foregoes the rest of her ice cream sundae, which Betty promptly gobbles up. Betty has always lusted after her daughter's youth, and few images have conveyed how damaging that insecurity has been for her than the sight of her taking down that second dessert. She'd like to be thin again, but lacks the self-control. She wants things back to normal, but her inability to recognise what that is will only push her deeper into depression. She doesn't know what's causing her weight gain and sadness, but it's obvious to the rest of us. Despite the distracting fat suit, it's a cruelly logical outcome for a woman never able to accept the idea of growing up.

Don, meanwhile, is still struggling to get his young wife to behave as he'd like - his discomfort when she admits over the dinner table that he's divorced is painful to watch - unable to accept that she has a lot more she can teach him that he can her. Following a demand by the Heinz executive - whose name I forget - to capture the Rolling Stones for a beans advert, Don finds himself with the ever-unbearable Harry backstage at a concert, trying to make sense of the fourteen year old girls smoking pot and roadtesting their youthful sexuality. They don't really know what they want, other than to have a good time, and Don worries about their behaviour. He sees them as out of control and directionless, throwing themselves without a plan into a world they have no knowledge of. This is a generation which has grown up in post-War affluence, learning to express themselves by rebelling against the rules laid down by their parents. They think Don needs to chill the hell out, not exactly his forte, even though it's exactly what he needs.

Returning home and feeling despondent over the possibility of his children growing up without their mother (given what an awful mother Betty has been, Megan seems a much better bet as someone more attuned to their way of thinking), he tells Megan she doesn't understand life and death because she's too young. On the contrary, she understands it better than he ever has: life is not lived behind a set of rules or by sitting in places of comfort. Sometimes you have to get out and try new things, even if they make you uncomfortable. As a young man, Dick Whitman took a risk that gave him a life he could never otherwise have dreamt of as a new man. Now, as his youthful wife Megan leads him out of his comfortable bedroom, she's helping him break out once again, seeing the optimistic possibilities of a more liberal, open-minded future, rather than fearing for the collapse of the rigid rules which men like Roger locked themselves into.

Even Peggy has to face the fact that, as pioneering as her work has been, all her progress has made has been in the kind of institution destined for collapse. Encouraged to hire a new copywriter, she picks the portfolio of a talented Jewish boy, Michael, with little respect for the manners and habits of his elders: she is terrified he will make her look bad in front of Don. Like many of his generation, he's reckless and blusters his way towards a vaguely defined goal without taking much notice of the traditional ways of working his way up the ladder. At home, his life is dreary and dominated by a father who doesn't understand him (to the extent of needing to say a prayer for his salvation). The prospect of work gives him a taste of freedom which he is almost out of control in his hunger to devour.

Peggy claims to be excited by working with talented people, but is talking about her narrow definition of what a 'talented' person is, e.g. studious, efficient, able to put in hard graft and produce results. The wild Michael is the id to her ego, and she's going to have to adjust her goals or else risk reaching the top of a structure soon to crumble beneath her. Though Pete is rapidly gaining ground on the ever-backwards Roger, he may soon have to confront the same reality. With the world shifting beneath the foundations of Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce, the only certainty is that things will not be getting back to 'normal' any time soon.


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