“A Little Kiss” & “Tea Leaves”
March 25th/April 1st, 2012
When James Poniewozik announced a few weeks ago that he wouldn’t be reviewing Mad Men’s fifth season week-to-week, I quietly made plans to follow suit given a busy semester with a whole lot of Monday deadlines. The idea of covering Mad Men without screeners in addition to covering Game of Thrones (for which I have screeners), all on the night before my busiest day of the week academically-speaking, was simply inconceivable until at least the end of May.
However, a few people sent emails and tweets wondering where my coverage was, at which point I realized that I had never exactly made these plans public. While I’m sad to be in a position where writing about the show weekly isn’t a feasible option, I’m also a little bit glad, if we’re being honest. I didn’t get to watch “A Little Kiss” until Wednesday night, but there was something freeing about watching it without a computer on my lap.
This doesn’t mean that I didn’t have opinions, and I want to share a few reflections on the first two episodes after the jump, but there’s a point at which the exhaustive writeup becomes, well, exhausting. As has become clear this year in particular, I no longer have the time to write post-air reviews of every show I watch, but I also think that with time I lose the inclination. Between the long hiatus and the weight of writing 2000+ words per episode for four seasons, Mad Men has simply transitioned into a show I enjoy more when I don’t feel the need to stake my authority over each episode in the hours after it airs.
However, as noted, I do want to offer some thoughts on the season’s beginnings, and would like to write with more regularity (if not necessarily on a weekly basis) once the semester ends and the season moves into its final episodes.
It was a weird experience, watching “A Little Kiss” three days after everyone else. I had successfully evaded spoilers enough that I hadn’t learned much in terms of details, but “Zou Bisou Bisou” was so ubiquitous in online conversation that it was hanging over the episode like a precocious cloud floating by and speaking in a French accent. It’s obviously the centerpiece of the two-hour episode, but it’s also far from the point of the episode, an exaggeration of a far more subtle statement about Megan’s place within Don’s world.
The decision to bring Megan into the workplace is an interesting one, solving a problem that the show always had with Betty (who is notably absent in the premiere). It means that Megan has relationships with characters other than Don, albeit relationships that are all operating in the shadow of her relationship with Don, which is the only reason she’s really in this position. She is not irrational when she suggests that everyone hates her, but she’s perhaps irrational to think it would be any other way: she’s the boss’ young trophy wife being forced down their throats.
However, what “A Little Kiss” captured nicely is that she isn’t going anywhere. Much as Pete isn’t just going to lie down and allow Roger to push him around, Megan is going to assert herself into Don’s life and life at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, even when he gives her ample opportunities to run away (like when he refuses to even associate with her after the party). Their relationship is messy, perhaps doomed to fail based on her fiery spirit and his lack of patience, but Megan is not just a fling anymore, a fact that “A Little Kiss” makes abundantly clear. It also makes a similar statement with Pete, allowing the character to assert himself in ways that suggest a shifting center of power within the agency structure.
“Tea Leaves” shifts focus away from Megan’s integration at SCDP, although bits and pieces (a particularly cold interaction with Harry, in particular) remind us of the awkwardness of the week before. “Zou Bisou Bisou” may be in the rear-view, but the show is as cumulative as ever, and here we get to see Megan’s place within the pre-existing connection between Don and Betty. Obviously, the big news is that Betty is suffering from a thyroid condition that, while benign, has resulted in some substantial weight gain. The scare throws another wrench into Megan and Don’s relationship, but the former refuses to allow it to change things, a determined spirit that I’m not convinced will wear down Don’s defenses in time for her to maintain her sanity.
Mostly, though, “Tea Leaves” is about Betty Draper. There’s a degree of wish fulfillment for the Betty haters here, watching as she loses her figure and faces the reality of her own mortality, but I continue to find January Jones highly compelling in the role, even when in a fat suit. It’s a bit of a cheat in terms of getting us to relate to the character, as she’s really been removed from her role as a mother (with her relationship with the kids largely congenial) and we don’t really care enough about Henry Francis for us to be too concerned as to whether she’s being a good wife. Instead, she’s just a woman who has fallen on hard times, wants an easy way out, and ends up deciding that finishing off Sally’s ice cream sundae is worth it despite the impact it might have on her waistline. It’s a decidedly human turn for the character, with her lunch with Joyce offering insight that we are robbed of without Betty having any friends to confide in normally.
On a broader thematic level, as was made perhaps too clear (as Todd notes over at The A.V. Club), “Tea Leaves” is focused on the rise of the younger generation, with young wunderkind copy writers entering the picture and Pete doing everything in his power to marginalize Roger even while giving him what he thought he wanted. You could also connect it to a new age of diversity, as both race and ethnicity enter into the equation at SCDP. And yet, ultimately it feels more apt to center it on the women, given how central they were in these two episodes: if the premiere was about Megan and Joan (absent in tonight’s episode), “Tea Leaves” is about Betty and Peggy. This isn’t new for the series, and it will obviously be shifting over the course of the season, but Mad Men is definitely positioning those characters at a crossroads of sorts as the agency enters into a new era.
- The Rolling Stones subplot was a bit meandering, and the space in which the conflict between Don and the younger generation became a bit too broadly deployed, but I appreciated the time for Harry and Don to interact with one another.
- The decision to use the new African-American secretary to deliver a “Dawn/Don” joke results in some nice awkward moments, but I’m wondering if it doesn’t deflate any sense of real racial conflict that could potentially arise from the hire. Curious to see where that goes from here, perhaps in an episode that spends more time in the day-to-day at SCDP.
- I didn’t talk too much about Peggy, but I quite enjoyed seeing her indignance at Ginsberg actually getting the job, going against her immediate instincts about his suitability for the position. Both “A Little Kiss” and “Tea Leaves” have placed her at odds with Don’s decision-making, believing the Don she knew would make a different decision, and I’m liking that disconnect as it plays out.
- As I said, I intend on dropping in a few times during the season when I get a spare moment, but for weekly coverage check out The A.V. Club or Alan Sepinwall at HitFix.