'Mad Men' Spoiled Bastard: Episode 3: 'Tea Leaves'
Forget fat Betty, but don't forget sad Roger Sterling.
This is a Spoiled Bastard. It contains spoilers. That's the point. If you haven't seen the current episode, come back when you have.
While there’s a lot of momentum to talk about Betty’s weight – one of the more jarring images we’ve seen on Mad Men, if only because Betty’s been perfect Ice Princess Grace since we first met her – it was another character who really stood out in this episode who truly deserves the attention.
I’ve always been fascinated with Matthew Weiner’s insistence, to the designers who were creating the opening montage, that he wants it to feature a man who walks into work, puts his briefcase down and jumps out of a window. It certainly looks like Don Draper. And the little oh-it-can’t-be-that-simple nagging question in the back of my mind was whether the series would end, literally, with Don jumping out of his window.
But I don’t wonder about that anymore. After Sunday’s episode, I’m more convinced than ever that if someone goes out the window, it’ll be Roger. It just makes so much more sense now and it was hard to ignore Roger’s line about always wanting to throw something through the office window. This will be my little wait-and-see obsession now.
Yes, Betty’s weight issues are important here, but only in the context of the episode’s underlying point, which had a lot to do with a sense of being inadequate and worrying about being forgotten somehow.
This is where Roger plays a key part. Since change is the ongoing issue of Mad Men, what has Roger been but unchanged for too long now. He’s the guy who drinks early and often, who breaks clients down to what booze they like best and the one who most blatantly announces how unhappy or unfulfilled he is in life. It’s a Roger Sterling constant – never being content.
In the premiere double-episode of Mad Men, Roger was left to beg his secretary to sit outside his door so he’d seem important. But Pete’s phone rings more, so she stays mostly with him. That causes Roger to get nosy about Pete’s schedule and attempt to horn in on potential customers. Roger, it’s clear, seems irrelevant. And in “Tea Leaves,” that point is driven home when he gets absolutely no credit for Mohawk Airlines, when he so desperately wanted some and, worse, is mocked by self-centered Pete in front of the whole staff.
“I’m tired of it, Don,” Roger says, both down and whining. “Tired of trying to prove I still have value around here. I’m exhausted from hanging on to the ledge and having some kid’s foot on my fingertips.”
For the longest time in Mad Men, Roger tried to portray himself as a guy who loves life, unburdened by the self-doubt and questioning that plagues Don. Roger just wants to be the party boy, to feel no guilt while enjoying life. But, like a lot of Mad Men characters, he finds no joy in that. Even when he gets Jane, his trophy wife, he's almost immediately unhappy and dismissive (and mean) to her. So too has Roger always been scared. He grew to resent Don’s growing power in the earlier seasons. He’s hinted that Bert Cooper was getting old for the business but realizes, almost too late now, that he’s too old for the business himself. That Don is where the value in the company’s reputation rests and Pete’s zest to work hard and prove himself makes Roger the new Bert Cooper. You don’t need to hear Roger talk about the new copywriter for Mohawk being a Jew or Don’s new secretary, Dawn, being black, to understand he’s a relic now. Roger is not a man of the late 1960s. His time has passed. He feels forgotten.
Another person feeling forgotten – for almost the same reasons – is Betty. She’s put on weight. And lots of it. (This is always tricky to do on camera. There were moments where it was clear that it was January Jones’ real baby weight at play on her face and arms, but at other times there appeared to be make-up work in effect to make her look heavier. And the scene of her getting out of the bathtub seemed dramatically overdone as far as how her body looks). In any case, how long has Betty been unhappy? The best answer would probably be “always.” And it’s been clear from Season 1 that Betty has psychological issues that haven’t been adequately dealt with. And there’s no question that most of Betty’s self-esteem rests in her beauty. To have that all melt away as the pounds piled up contributes greatly to her sense that she’s forgotten – she’s no longer Betty Draper, she’s Betty Francis, on her second husband, with three kids and just another person who realizes too late about that grass-is-greener idea and its pitfalls.
As Henry’s mother, Pauline, tells Betty, bluntly: “Honey, I know how it happens. You get comfortable. And you give up a little bit. And then it just gets out of control.”
And the doctor Betty sees is more blunt than she’s probably used to: “With middle-aged women, it gets easier to put it on and harder to take it off.” Ouch. But worse, when Betty asks for diet pills, he says: “Mrs. Francis, when a housewife has rapid weight gain, the cause is usually psychological. Unhappiness, anxiety, boredom, things that cause us to lose our self-control.”
Of course Betty has never been in control, so this is all quite logical. She’s definitely been unhappy, anxious and bored – traits she’s held since Season 1. And we didn’t need to see her struggling to zip her dress in contrast to Don zipping up this-year’s-model Meghan (with ease) to be reminded how change has been unkind to Betty. She feels replaced, certainly. And typical of her, she’s blind to the love that Henry is giving her and even blinder to how far she’s pushing him away. While it’s true she shouted for the absent Henry upon learning she had a node/nodule in her throat, she turned to Don for help. Later, upon learning this, Henry is pushed one step closer to the door by Betty’s actions. Imagine if he leaves her. (It’s a pretty easy argument that Henry seems forgotten as well...though he could probably find someone else to watch Ozzie and Harriet with in his mansion).
Interestingly, it’s Stan Rizzo, usually played for laughs in Mad Men, who warns Peggy about not risking herself being forgotten (by an ambitious if slightly off new hire). I’m a little worried that Peggy’s role is taking a back seat in these early episodes because, given the timing of the series, she represents the leading edge of women in the workplace. And there’s so much more to tap into, especially since she’s eager to be the new Don while Don is eager to relax a bit and be with Meghan. But Peggy was used deftly here in the service of portraying women struggling to succeed in that era. She’s confident in her own abilities – enough to not worry about the new guy, Michael, who’s actually pretty good. But it’s Stan who warns her that she needs to stay hyper competitive and pass this guy over or one day he’ll be her boss. It’s a small scene, but validated later when Peggy realizes she could be overlooked quite easily. Roger: “I know what you’re worried about. Sweetheart, no one is going to replace you.” Why is that a great line? Because “sweetheart” says so much. Peggy’s reply: “I’m not threatened by his talent. He’s not that good” (looking miffed). It’s a little testament to the times there (and here’s hoping this storyline plays out). Separate from Peggy, the introduction of Michael Ginsberg will be a breath of fresh air, clearly. There's a bigger story at play with him.
By the way, I’d say there were three visually jarring/odd elements in “Tea Leaves.” First and foremost was bloated Betty, of course. Her face – you couldn’t stop looking at it. And the camera was transfixed by its fleshy illusions. Second, Weiner used a dream sequence (still rare in Mad Men) from Betty, where her kids, Henry and his mother are all in black, apparently mourning (but not) Betty, who maybe ate herself to death. What was interesting to me was Henry repeating “If...if…if…” over and over again. Lastly, while those two elements were jarring, periodically Mad Men tosses in scenes that are quick and odd and you don’t quite know what to make of them. Such was last night’s scene where a strange woman walked up to Betty and her old friend (suffering from cancer) when they were having tea. “Hello ladies, my name is Cecilia and I have the gift of sight.” Um, what? “Could I offer you a reading.” She then reads Betty’s tea leaves – and is wrong. Betty is not a rock (as Don reiterated to Roger later).
What we do find is that the one thing that hasn’t changed with Betty is her iciness. Once she realizes she doesn’t have cancer, she pouts about being fat, isn’t happy about Henry’s relief that she’s going to be fine and calls Henry’s mother obese. Ah, Betts, don’t ever change.