It’s been six years in the world of “Mad Men” since we were first introduced to Don Draper sitting in a bar scribbing pitch notes on a napkin. In the first episode of the season, we watched him — or at least his assumed identity — turn 40, and in last night’s “Tea Leaves” we see more evidence of how time and the changes that come with it are sitting with both Don and other characters — and in an episode directed by the leading man himself, Jon Hamm.
This episode brought the return of Betty Francis, and provided an explanation for why we didn’t glimpse January Jones in any “next week on” clips. The show’s been holding onto the reveal that former model Betty has put on a few pounds, and is solving the problem of not fitting in her dresses by faking sick when it comes time to accompany her husband to events. A trip to the hospital for diet pills turns into a cancer scare when the doctor discovers a lump on her thyroid gland.
Self-centered and childish, Betty has often been a difficult character, and how “Mad Men” would continue working her into storylines after she and Don parted ways seemed like a valid question going into this season. But “Tea Leaves” managed not just sympathy for Betty but actual growth, as she gave serious thought to the fact that her life might be ending soon and to what would happen to those she left behind.
Betty’s life has been defined by her being young and beautiful and something to be admired, but those are qualities that (weight gain or not) are fleeting. From her mother-in-law chiding that she’s “give[n] up a little bit” to the doctor who didn’t look her in the eye, the world is not treating Betty the same. And she’s changing accordingly. Though she frets over tea with the friend getting serious treatment about how no one will hear one good word about her when she’s gone, the dream she has later about her mourning family sitting at the table without her portends a shift toward actually thinking about the others in her life.
Others, like Roger Sterling, are weathering the changes less well (his plaintive “When is everything going to get back to normal?” to Don may be the saddest moment, even in an episode focused around a major illness). You can’t be on top forever — someone shinier is always going to be nipping at your heels. Roger’s continuing to get pushed out of the picture at the office, and though the return of Mohawk Airlines as a client seems to offer something for Roger to actually do, Pete Campbell sweeps in to take credit (that’s due to him), making Roger sound like his underling.
Paralleling Betty’s fears about no longer being there is a workplace one about the dread of being replaced by someone newer and hungrier, of being made unnecessary. Roger’s humiliation at the hands of someone he once hired has echoes in Peggy Olson’s hiring of a socially awkward copywriter named Michael Ginsberg (and played by Ben Feldman), who, like her, is an outsider (he’s Jewish) at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and is very talented. Peggy hires him despite Stan Rizzo’s suggestion she pick someone mediocre who won’t show her up, and insists she’s not threatened by him, though the fact that he actually nails his interview with Don despite her concerns about it appears to irritate her more than the prospect of his failure.
And finally there’s Don, who’s had to deal with death all his life — his father, his brother and Anna, the only person who really knew him. For Don, this episode is less about mortality than realizing how little he has in common with the younger generation coming up around him, even his new wife Megan, who’s more focused on heading to Fire Island than understanding how upset Betty’s news has made him. Waiting backstage in the unlikely hopes of signing the Rolling Stones on to do a Heinz commercial, Don tries to talks to a teenage girl about the band and what she wants from them, a variation on the questions about desires he’s used to guide his craft before, back to the first episode and his querying the waiter about Old Gold cigarettes.
But the lecture turns parental where at one point it might have turned lascivious. Don’s not a stranger to vulnerable girls looking to have fun, but it’s evident that all he can see when looking at this would-be groupie is his daughter, who’s facing the prospect of growing up without a mother. As much as he likes Megan, the awkward dinner with the Heinz couple (“Don was divorced,” she says baldly) and the talk about the trip to the beach make it clear just how much she’s not Betty.
But Betty, at least, is due for something new. That specter of being shown up and replaced comes back one last time in the final scene in which she’s eating sundaes with Sally. Sally, played by the ever-prettier Kiernan Shipka, can’t finish hers, and leaves the table. So much of Betty’s conflict with her daughter has been based around a subconscious rivalry, but Betty doesn’t treat this as a competition of self-control (something that’s been such a part of her personality before — “you’re just one of those girls,” as her mother-in-law observes). Instead, she reaches for and digs into Sally’s leftovers.