Sunday, April 1, 2012

"Sixteen Going On Seventeen"--They Wish

"Mad Men," Season Five, Episode Three, "Tea Leaves"

I liked this episode much better than last week's: the theme of the business world and their advertising campaigns' commodification of the '60s culture continued--but in a much funnier way with Don and Harry trying to get the Rolling Stones to sell a song to Heinz for a baked beans commercial; the interesting focus on the generation gap took central stage this week; I could relate to Betty for the first time in ages--she spent this episode gaining weight and worrying about a cancer scare that fortunately turned out to be benign; and I appreciate the way the series' writers decided to adapt to January Jones' pregnant body and bring out some serious issues.

The generation gap played a significant role from the opening scene's juxtaposition of images--Sally and Bobby struggling to zip Betty into her formal dress and Don easily zipping Megan's dress as he walked by--to the singing of "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" at the episode's close. Betty feels the age difference between her and Don's new wife and exaggerates it to her friend who has cancer: "Don's girlfriend--well they're married. She's twenty years old. . ." Her doctor tells her that weight gain is a problem for "middle-aged women" and you can tell she does not like being called middle-aged (I heard it and thought 'she's not middle-aged yet,' but perhaps in the '60s, one was middle-aged upon getting close to forty). Yet suddenly Betty has to face the existential specter, death, and the possibility that it might come sooner than she could have had cause to imagine. And this possibility causes Don to focus his thoughts and worries on her--the ex-wife closer to his age--and away from Megan, who he thinks is too young to understand anything about this crisis. She bridles at that. When Don blurts out, "You're twenty-six years old," she retorts, "So, I don't understand death?" It's experience, more than age, that allows one to gain an understanding of death. Don's been confronted with death in a number of ways since he was an infant and a child, Betty not until her father died; we don't know about Megan. Megan did minimize the whole period of wait and worry; upon hearing that Betty doesn't have cancer, Megan tels Don, "She just needs to have something to call you about." I thought that was unfair, but it was also unfair for Betty to lean on Don after her initial doctor visit, but then not call him with the news the tumor was benign. Henry was clearly bothered that she had told the "nobody" on the phone, but Betty appeared to have forgotten she'd done so. Unlike her friend, Betty doesn't have to worry about saying 'good-bye' to her family too soon; and, I would think, with the tumor off her thyroid, she could start to lose weight again. Though, the added weight might be more than just a physical outcome of a thyroid issue. Her doctor also told her that when a housewife has a rapid weight gain, there is usually a psychological cause of it--unhappiness, boredom. Her looks and weight have always meant a lot to Betty. We've seen in a previous season how her mother pushed her to be thin and stressed attractiveness as central to a woman's main job of snaring and keeping a man. The weight gain is a blow to her identity and self-worth. Being fat, to her, is not as bad as having cancer, but it's still an unwanted diagnosis: "It's nice to be put through the wringer and find out that I'm just fat," she tells Henry after talking with the doctor toward the end. She has to face it that she's not the young, thin woman she was for so many years. This is hard for her when so much of her identity is wrapped up in her looks.

Don, Harry Crane and Roger are also pushed to recognize--in different ways--that they are not young anymore. The scenes in which Don and Harry are backstage waiting for the Stones to appear so they can try to sell them on an ad campaign for beans was fascinating. The episode kept flashing back and forth between the pre-rock concert scene and that of Betty's potential cancer crisis--between the carelessness of the new youth culture and the worries of impending death. The teenaged girls whom Harry and Don talk to illustrate the stark difference between the ad men and the young people of the decade. As cool as Harry tries to be--smoking their joint, dressing in a jacket but no tie, attempting to talk 'hip'--he's not young and cool. He's a dissatisfied husband and father, stuffing hamburger after hamburger into his face, lamenting that he can't be with the young girls, having fun. Don no longer even wants that. He tells Harry, "I need to get home." And when the one teen tells him, "None of you want any of us to have a good time because you never did," he responds, "No, we're worried about you." He's now being fatherly to someone whom in past seasons he would have bedded. And Roger--Roger is Laertes being murdered by Pete, who's passed him by on the road of successful client recruitment and managing. While last week, Pete was looking old, here he represents the 'young' upstart who's taking the increasingly irrelevant Roger's place--and happy to lord it over him. The tea leaves that read the future have less to show for these men and for Betty than for the Megans, the Petes,and the new guy Ginsberg (who seems interesting; I look forward to seeing more of him).

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