Mad Men, Season 5, Episode 3: “Tea Leaves”
Written by Erin Levy & Matthew Weiner
Directed by Jon Hamm
Airs Sundays at 9pm (ET) on AMC
Insecurity is an affliction suffered by even the most intelligent and successful people. It’s hard-wired into the human condition. Often stemming from self-doubt, it offers both a believable and sympathetic literary device, as it is universally experienced. The third episode of season five examines this theme in great abundance. In Jon Hamm’s directorial debut, January Jones returns to the small screen, as the now not so glamorous Betty Francis. Her experiences provide the framework for this week’s episode. During which, the show also tackles its typical themes of race and age relations.
Having put on weight, which is later revealed to be as a result of a benign thyroid tumor, Betty is left with feelings of insecurity and low self-esteem. Hampered by her own insecurities, Betty is ignorant of the importance she plays in the lives of those around her, particularly Henry’s and her children’s. In characteristic fashion, Weiner weaves a beautifully plotted account of Betty’s attainment of this fact. This begins with Henry’s desire for Betty’s company at a meet and greet, with the Junior League of New York. Then upon re-acquaintance with Joyce, an old friend, the significance of the episode title comes to the fore. Although admittedly a little forced, during their lunch together, a passing fortune-teller “accidentally” strikes a chord with Betty. “You’re a great soul. You mean so much to the people around you. You’re a rock.” Betty’s realization culminates in picturing Henry and the children without her. This sequence is well captured by Hamm’s direction, in particular, his utilization of a beautiful close up on Betty, post-“dream”.
While in the interim, Betty’s diagnosis has prompted Don to assess his ex-wife’s importance in his own life. Mainly, we suspect, her role as the mother of his children. However, interestingly, this opens up a dialogue between Betty and Don. Without informing Henry, she turns to her ex-husband for words of advice and support. This in turn causes tension in both their marriages. Cue the theme of insecurity. Driven by their own insecurities, Megan and Henry each react defensively to news of this re-established connection.
Jon Hamm’s use of Christopher Manley‘s striking cinematography leaves the offices of SCDP looking even more visually stunning than ever. This sets the scene for the restoration of the Mohawk Airlines account. In an episode truly brimming with character insecurity, Pete gathers the entire SCDP workforce in his office, to remind them of his part in the return of Mohawk, and as with last week’s episodes, cannot help throwing a barb back at Roger. Following Pete’s briefing, Roger confesses his own insecurity to Don. “I’m tired of trying to prove I still have any value around here.”
Meanwhile, under instruction from Roger, Peggy is entrusted the command of hiring a new copywriter (preferably a Jewish copywriter, Roger informs her). In her desperation to appease Don, having “recommended” newbie Michael Ginsberg, Peggy’s need to please her boss leaves her looking a little foolish. In fact, the interview, which is supposed to be between Don and Michael, ironically ends up being more about Peggy and Don, than Michael himself.
At the same time, Harry has been granted backstage access to a Rolling Stones concert. In an attempt to convince the band to feature in an advertisement for Heinz, Harry and Don go backstage. Upon arrival they discover that they must wait outside like every other Stones fan. Rarely do Weiner and his team give us reason to question the show’s pacing, however, in a sequence that really only seems to deliver a thematic beat (Don expressing his concern for the youth – “we’re worried about you”), even Hamm himself seems bored by the scene. The only engaging aspect of the sequence is Manley’s cinematography.
The theme of age relations between Don and the young girl outside The Rolling Stones door is nicely paralleled in the following scene. Don remains resistant to associating with Megan’s much younger friends. This episode paints him as impatient and intolerant of youth. In fact, all three episodes thus far have portrayed Don as an aging, almost weary man. He takes regular naps and seems to have (at least momentarily) retired his wandering eyes.
Already, the title of director seems to sit comfortably with Hamm. Thoughtfully shot, he utilizes a fine blend of nicely framed close ups and a hand full of neat wide-angled shots. The best example of the latter comes during Betty’s phone call regarding her tumor. It depicts her moment of isolation brilliantly, before cutting back to a mid-shot of a focused Betty in the foreground, and an apprehensive, and out of focus Henry. This shot captures her emotions superbly.
The episode concludes with a thankful Betty, indulging herself with a chocolate sundae, leaving us to contemplate what further insecurities these characters will exhibit next week. One suspects we haven’t seen anything yet.