Mortality is not something any of us want to think about. We don't want to be like Levin in Anna Karenina, who watches his brother slowly dying and must think about the meaning of his own life because he is seeing his brother's fade away. We carry on in this world, distracting ourselves with new things, new situations and new people in order to prevent ourselves from thinking about our own mortality. And that's one of the reasons why we want our television to be good.
"Tea Leaves," the second episode of the Fifth Season of Mad Men, was the first time that Mad Men has addressed the mortality of one of its characters. There was Roger's heart condition in the First Season, but at some level, you always knew that he was going to survive-it never felt as serious as it was supposed to be. Last season, Ms. Blankenship died at her desk, but that death was used for black humor and to progress the Don/Meghan storyline that was evolving under the surface. Betty's thyroid diagnosis represented a real meditation on death, a death that seemed very possible.
Betty's absence from "Little Kiss" was extremely noticeable. We were able to pick up with nearly every other character on the show and see them from the new perspective that this new season leant, but not Betty Francis. And as "Tea Leaves" exhibited, Betty's situation has changed more drastically than perhaps any other character. The trim, sexy, depressed Betty Draper is gone, replaced now by an overweight housewife. Betty's character always represented the suppressed 1950's housewife who still had to maintain appearances, but here we get the housewife of the 1960's: a woman who is still suppressed, but it has become harder to maintain the façade that came so easily in the decade prior.
Mrs. Francis, Henry's mother, confronts Betty about her weight gain and her situation as an idle housewife, which Betty does not take well. No matter what happens to Betty, no matter what position she is in, she will always be proud and intelligent, so naturally she fights back against Mrs. Francis who tells her she could use a pill to solve her problem. Betty goes to the doctor to ask about the "mother's little helper" and instead is told there is a growth on her thyroid gland, sending her into a spiral. Betty spends the rest of the episode questioning her life, what she means to her children and what will happen to them when she is gone. In the end, the tumor is benign. As soon as Betty finds out the news, she immediately reverts to her prideful, cold ways. She challenges Henry by insulting his mother and then ends the episode by finishing Sally's half-eaten ice cream sundae. Betty Francis does not know what she wants, but that won't stop her, while she is alive, from letting anyone tell her what to do.
Meanwhile, the "mother's little helper" aspect of Betty's story connected to Harry and Don's mini-odyssey at the Rolling Stones concert. Don and Harry are clearly out of their element at the Stones concert as they talk to two presumably teenage girls about the Stones themselves and more generally about life. The backstage scene was done perfectly. Harry is overzealous in ingratiating himself with the girls, Don and a band he mistakes for the Rolling Stones. Don acts like his normal self: he is removed, unflappable and constantly questioning. His dialogue with the one teenage girl was exemplary. Everything about it was subtle, but reverberated outward. Life is changing and evolving all around Don and there will be a struggle to keep up. Don has always been a protean character, as Season One's "The Hobo Code" showed. His appearance and his curious nature allow him to shape shift and gain access to all the different spheres of society. Now, though, things are moving more rapidly-there is a greater disconnect between the spheres of American life. When things are fragmented that badly and you are moving further and further away from the agility of your youth, there is no true way to keep up; you can only ask questions, try to understand and do your best not be immobile. Don showed flashes of that ability tonight in his dealings at the Stones concert and his attempts to understand and compromise with Meghan. Yet, Don and Meghan's relationship is still showing signs of inevitable doom and we will see if Don can find some sort of solid ground in his relationship with the changing world at large.
At the end of the episode, Roger asks Don, "When will everything go back to normal?" That question may end up being the theme of this entire season and perhaps for the rest of the series. Pete makes another power move at Roger when he announces the acquisition of Mohawk Airlines to the entire SCDP staff and proceeds to belittle Roger in front of everyone. "Little Kisses" set the stage for the Pete and Roger clash and it seems like it is going to continue to get worse before it gets any better. Roger is the establishment and while Pete is by no means the counter-culture, he represents the changing of the guard-the fact that all things must pass and that things can't always be the way once were.
Roger is falling further and further from the professional heights he once had and he warns Peggy of the same fate after he had forced her to hire the young, eccentric, but very sharp, Michael Ginsberg as a new copywriter. Peggy's storyline with Michael was logical for most of the episode: Peggy has to hire a male copywriter because the Mohawk men are still old fashioned and will want a male copywriter. Peggy is competitive and smart so she wants to hire someone good. But she might be getting more than she bargained for in Michael who seems to be somewhat of a shape shifter in the same way as Don. For most of the episode, he really plays up his jewishness as well as his youthful, eccentric nature; but when he interviews with Don, he composes himself with a certain polish that manages to impress Don. And Peggy doesn't know what to make of it. When she yells at Michael in the hall, you can see that she is frustrated by him, but there is a slight facial tic that shows she is impressed and maybe even attracted by his intelligence and ability.
Then we have Michael's scene with his father. Michael enters, bringing groceries to his family's run down apartment. Michael is the breadwinner and he asks his father what he wants to eat. His father tells him that he should have two women, an old one and a young one-clearly, a mother is absent. Then, Michael's father says a prayer in Hebrew while holding his son's head. Mad Men is operating at a high level when you are able to follow a character or a storyline and are then given a curveball at the very end that makes you question just what it is you watched.
Things are changing in Mad Men. "Little Kisses" gave us glimpses of change in large doses that were at times messy and hard to fully take in. "Tea Leaves" was more concise, yet it served as a rumination on death. Everyone is figuring out how they fit in, whether within the framework of the 1960's or in the framework of their own lives. And as a viewer, we are struggling to do the same. The only thing we know are these characters --and we know them so well that it hurts. That's why all the changes they go through, all their journeys, are going to carry weight.
Everything is important and everything is up for change.