Monday, April 2, 2012

"Mad Men" recap: Less attractive Betty

Spoilers for this week's episode of "Mad Men" below. Don't click through if you don't want to know.

On last week's episode, we had a bunch of characters who saw their lives in a certain way, only to find out that perception wasn't true. Don and Megan both realize that the other is more complex than they'd imagined, and that their marriage isn't the fairy tale they'd hoped. Joan thinks the office has moved on without her, only to realize it hasn't, etc.

This week, there's a similar underlying theme, as many of the character tackle "what ifs." Don and, especially, Harry, chase down the intoxicating possibility that the Rolling Stones might record a jingle for Heinz. Peggy is excited about the prospect of hiring a talented new copywriter she's found. Roger is excited about being handed the Mohawk air account. And, of course, Betty (and, by extension, Don) deal with the possibility that she might have thyroid cancer.

In every case -- as with last week's episode -- each situation turns out way differently than the characters intended. Harry, intoxicated by marijuana (and the presence of teenage girls) signs the opening act to sing the jingle -- not the Stones. Peggy's writer turns out to be crass, weird and a potential disaster to work with (but still oddly endearing in my estimation). Pete tells the whole office that, even if Roger is technically handling the Mohawk account, it's really Pete's, and Pete will be watching Roger's every move. And, of course, Betty doesn't have cancer, which means she'll be there for her family. It also means that she has no medical explanation for her astounding weight gain, and that she's back to square one with that problem -- moping, eating and, presumably, going back to her doctor for another run at those diet pills.

Let's talk a little more about Betty. After being absent in last week's episode, she emerged this week seemingly garbed in Peggy's prosthetics from season one. But Betty isn't secretly pregnant. She's just lonely and bored with her new life at Chateau de Francis. This is a fairly strange path to take the character. Did you ever think you'd see glamorous Betty in a dowdy housecoat scarfing Bugles? But it kind of makes sense. Unlike Don, Henry loves her for, apparently, reason that have nothing to do with appearances. He also seems to be faithful, unlike Don. So she doesn't have a lot of incentive for keeping up her looks. Plus, Betty, as we know, is pretty crappy at dealing directly with her emotions. When she's feeling bored or frustrated, she's far more likely to, say, make love to the washing machine or shoot at pigeons than deal with the problem directly.

Eating is an extension of that. I thought this story was going in the obvious "Betty gets addicted to diet pills" direction, but it surprised me by throwing in the cancer scare. It was interesting diversion (I'm sure we'll get to pill addiction at some point), as Betty did some very un-Betty things. She worried about her kids. She showed emotion in public. She called her somewhat cold ex-husband for support, because she knew she could count on him to feed her a line of BS about how everything was going to be OK. Don, being a fundamentally quasi-decent person, is genuinely worried about the fate of the mother of his children. He muses to Roger about the scary possibility of them growing up without a mother. Oh, come on Don -- you know Betty's not much of a mother and that Megan, judging from her scenes in last season's finale, has a much stronger rapport with the children. They might have been better off. But Betty is their mom, and growing up without his mother profoundly affected who Don is. Besides, he already lost one woman in his life to cancer (Anna Draper) and is likely scared about losing another.

In the end, all the worrying is for naught, as Betty turns out to be fine. But she's just as unpleasant as usual, brushing off Henry's loving declaration of her beauty with a crack about his mom being obese. Jeez. Good to have you back, Betty.

Some more thoughts on "Tea Leaves":
  • It should be noted that Jon Hamm, Don Draper himself, directed this episode, and did a fine job, particularly with the claustrophobic scene backstage at the Stones concert.
  • And how funny was that interlude? After we learned last week that Don can't stand Harry, he's forced to spend a whole evening with him. And Harry is at his most Harry-ish. He tries to impress the teenage groups, smokes pot and generally makes an ass of himself -- first with that hilarious story about naked Charlton Hester and then by signing the wrong band. And he caps it off by eating an entire sack of hamburgers. Rich Sommer is terrific throughout the whole sequence, illustrating Harry's complete inability to handle freedom and his underlying desire to please Don. In an episode filled tense moments, it's hysterical.
  • Some tempered comic relief also stems from Peggy hiring Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman), an incredibly talented young guy who is terrible in the interview with her (but much better with Don -- which frustrates Peggy mightily). He's kind of an oddball, but he might work well with the eccentric Roger on the Mohawk campaign. Not sure yet if he'll try to snake Peggy's job away from her, but that touching scene between Michael and his dad in their crummy apartment got to me. I like Michael. I don't want him to replace Peggy, but I do hope he sticks around.
  • Ah, Roger. Poor guy. After falling for Pete's Staten Island prank last week, he's tickled to know that the Mohawk guys asked for him personally. Alas, Pete again pulls out the rug from under him -- in public no less. It's particularly upsetting, as Roger hired him and shepherded him along. Now Pete treats him as useless. Pete is correct in believing that Roger is a dinosaur in this industry. And maybe Roger doesn't have a place in the firm anymore. But he still feels he's deserving of respect given how long he's been there, and he's probably right.
  • This episode actually had some nice Roger-Peggy moments, particularly when he tells her that she can't be replaced by someone like Michael. Of course, he then seeks her out after Pete's big announcement to tell her he was wrong -- Pete was the last guy he hired, and look how that turned out. Great. I now expect Peggy to be hip-checking Michael on her way to the bathroom just to let him know who's boss.
  • So, the guys indeed hired one of the black women who answered the fake want ad at the end of last week's episode. Her name is Dawn and, given that she's Don's secretary, everyone sees this as a little weird and confusing.
  • Nice juxtaposition of the image of zaftig Betty struggling with zipping up dress with the shot of Don easily zipping up svelte Megan's frock. This is, I guess, one of the perks of marrying a younger woman without a lot of hang-ups.
What did everybody else think?


Bill Scurry said...

I thought this episode was uneven, and can't decide if it was the script or the direction by neophyte Hamm that was responsible. But mostly, the prosthetics lacked credibility, just as they did the first time around. If they are so big into giving the female castmembers visible weight gain, why didn't they pad Christina Hendricks' chin last week? It was distracting...

I think the wife and I both groaned when we saw it was going to be all Betty, all the time. I was rooting for the tumor towards the end.

iscreen said...

I liked the episode, but think those who didn't like it are probably responding more to the presence of Betty. I guess she didn't bother me as much, because I thought the show really might make her sick, which I thought might have been interesting (a cancer plot is always more interesting when the stricken person is unlikable and unlikely to learn anything from the experience). I thought Hamm did a decent enough job, particularly in the 'date from hell' sequence with Harry and the scene between Michael and his dad. But yeah -- those prosthetics were very distracting.