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Caged Birdie: Replaceable Pieces, Replaceable People on Mad Men

"When is everything going to get back to normal?"

Just how unique are we? Are we ever, in a sense, irreplaceable, or is our position in this world, and the lives of those around us, so tenuous that we're able to be replaced the very moment someone new and shiner appears on the scene?

There's an irresistible sense of replacement hovering over the action of the latest episode of AMC's Mad Men ("Tea Leaves"), written by Erin Levy and Matthew Weiner and directed by Jon Hamm, which served to not only fill the audience in on just what happened during the between-seasons gap to Betty Francis (January Jones), but connected her plight to something deeper and more poignant. Just as the old guard must give way to the new guard, progress and change are inexorable twin spectres in the lives of all of us.

Standing on the precipice of incalculable change ahead, there's a sense of both doom and possibility, that our lives--even in the face of such monumental life-and-death stakes--are forever changing. You can either plant your feet and get left behind or move with the changing tide.

It's through this perspective that we see several sets of pairings emerge over the course of "Tea Leaves," the title of which makes an unmistakable emphasis on the unknown, unseeable future. (Even an alleged fortuneteller, sifting through the tea leaves left behind by Betty, can't predict just what will happen to the unhappy housewife.) Just as Megan (Jessica Paré) has supplanted Betty in Don's life, so too has Betty's new husband Henry (Christopher Stanley) in Betty's life. There's even a symbolic allusion between the two women, connected not only by their relationships with Don, but by a gorgeously simple narrative device in which the two women zip up their dresses at the beginning of the episode: Megan's is zipped with ease by Don in the bedroom of the house they share, her slim figure slipping easily into her modern dress; Betty struggles, however, with hers, enlisting the aid of her children to squeeze into the too-tight silhouette, before climbing into bed and feigning illness.

Betty's psychological struggles have been a hallmark of Mad Men since the beginning of the series, her sense of ennui, of boredom, of being a caged bird echo sharply throughout many episodes. I was curious to see just how Weiner would work Jones' advanced pregnancy into the storyline here, and simply assumed that Betty and Henry were having a baby, though I felt that it was an easy out of a situation that would feel repetitive amid Joan's own new baby storyline. Not so. Instead of simply making Betty eight months pregnant (as Jones was when this was filmed), Weiner instead chooses to put Betty through yet another crucible, with the episode becoming a look at her own personal demons, and in a potential battle with cancer.

Despite its place within the human body, cancer becomes an external struggle: it's a physical battle with one's own body and with the foreign invader. But Betty's problems are once again internalized here. Put aside the Victorian fainting couch, the shotgun, the child psychologist; Betty's latest struggle is again with herself, manifesting now in a monumental weight gain that, we learn over the course of the hour, isn't hypothyroidism or cancer, but rather a need to fill the emptiness in her life with food.

There is a shock in seeing the Grace Kelley manqué reduced to sitting around her hulking mansion in a pink housecoat scarfing Bugles by the handful, or indeed seeing her--after coming through her ordeal more or less unscathed--finish Sally's dessert after eating her own. Betty has always been brittle and icy, and out of touch with her own sense of self and her body. By making her plight resonate in her physical self, Weiner imbues Betty with an even deeper sense of tragedy and horror, her need to tamp down any semblance of emotion with food, rendering her once perfect physical form even more imperfect. Despite the fact that she herself is already remarried, she sees "20-year-old" Megan (who is, actually, 26) as her successor in Don's life, seeing the younger woman as her replacement. But Betty is also being replaced here by Sally (Kiernan Shipka), the blonde, slim, feminine youth who denies herself the pleasure of ice cream beyond a few bites because she's "full." Is Betty's decision to finish Sally's dessert her way of conceding defeat, of giving over to her daughter, even as she comes into her own?

For the Betty-haters out there, I'm sure this episode fulfilled a lot of revenge fantasies. But I've always had a soft spot for Betty, primarily because she can't help herself but be so icy and impregnable, a product of outmoded ideas about femininity and motherhood. And there's a sense of commitment on the part of January Jones here to make her so outwardly ugly and weak, a vast 180 degree turn from how we've seen Betty depicted in the first four seasons. There's a moment of connection between her and Don when she calls him to tell him that she may have cancer, a tenderness that's been lost amid their divorce and years of discord. (I loved the callback to him calling her "Birdie," a term of endearment we haven't heard from Don in several seasons.) And there was a real beauty and tenderness to the scene in which Betty holds Gene in her arms. With the sparklers crackling around them, she feels the weight of her baby in her arms, breathes in the scent of his hair, not knowing whether this will be one of the last times she'll do so. Will she see this boy become a man? Will she leave her family in mourning, a ghost at the breakfast table, her space not co-opted so much as eliminated entirely?

I thought that scene in particular was gorgeously and subtly acted by Jones and evocatively directed by Hamm, a sequence that captures the heat of a summer night, a mother's love, and the fragility of our lives. While it may have only been a few seconds in length, it was powerful and savage in its emotional realism.

Betty isn't the only one who feels that they are being replaced. It's keenly felt in the Roger (John Slattery) and Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) storyline as well. Pete manages to land Mohawk again, returning an airline account to the SCDP fold. It's a key victory in a time of "stability," and Pete makes it clear that he's the one responsible for winning them back, though Roger will be overseeing the account. The "celebration" enacted by Pete is little more than a public power grab, a way of emasculating Roger and boxing him into a smaller, less potent role. The student has replaced the teacher, the son replaced the father. It's the natural way of the world, but it doesn't make it hurt any less. Roger's entire language about helping Pete off the swings reinforces the notion of the child/parent divide, of youth co-opting their elders, something echoed in Don's encounter with the girl backstage at the Rolling Stones concert. (Her belief: her elders don't want her to have fun, because they didn't. His: we worry about you. Rather than see the girl as a potential object of sexual conquest, like Harry (Rich Sommer) does, Don instead sees her as a daughter figure, seeing her as Sally in a few years.) After all, Roger hired Pete, the last person he hired in fact, only to see his protege usurp his position in front of his eyes. Sorry, Roger, but this is "normal." You'd best get used to it.

I'm intrigued by the dynamic unfolding between Roger and Peggy, two characters who haven't had a lot of screen time together up until now. After getting Peggy to hire Jewish copywriter Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) because he's brilliant and eccentric (and because having African-American and Jewish employees makes the agency seem more "modern," according to Roger), Roger tries to impart his realization to Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), reversing his earlier position. Peggy doesn't see Michael as a threat, but the truth is that he is potentially. Just as Pete supplanted Roger, so too could Michael take away the influence that Peggy currently wields within the agency. But that is the risk you take. Peggy believes that it's better to surround yourself with creative people, that it makes your own work better. Roger now sees his own folly: he's essentially made himself redundant by hiring a younger version of himself.

That all of this is unfolding amid cultural and political change is compelling. Seeing that Don has hired Dawn (Teyonah Parris), an African-American applicant, as his new secretary is a clear sign of progress. That the previously anti-Semitic Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has willingly hired a Jewish copywriter--unlike last season's Danny (Danny Strong) who they were forced to hire--also reflects a changing environment and atmosphere. Equal opportunity may be had soon, regardless of religious belief or skin color, but the youth revolution, the enormity of the youthquake ahead, is only just beginning to rock the foundations of the world that Roger and Don exist in.

On the next episode of Mad Men ("Mystery Date"), Don runs into someone from his past; Joan makes a decision; and Roger gives Peggy extra work.

Comments

dkellergrl said…
Thank you for focusing on Betty's ongoing storyline besides her being really fat and "evil". I also love how Weiner and his writing team are making things sure that the world of SCDP will never be "normal" again at this stage of the series.
Jeremy said…
I've been reading your site for years now have always been in awe of your weekly analyses of Mad Men. They illuminate for me why it is I love this show so much, and they've shaped the way that I view all television.

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