Mad Men Watch: Time Is (Not) on Their Side

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Michael Yarish/AMC

Betty Francis (January Jones) - Mad Men - Season 5, Episode 3

“When is everything going to get back to normal?”

Fans loyal to Mad Men for the past five years have seen large evolutions in the show. There were divorces and remarriages; Sterling Cooper was bought, then sold, then sold again, leading to the coup that spawned Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. But even casual fans can’t fail to see the incredible transformation Mad Men’s design team has accomplished, showing the passage of time from 1960 to 1966. Nearly everything – clothes, furniture, electronics have changed. I say nearly, because a quick glance at Don and Roger reveals that these titans, once at the height of influence, now find themselves the old guard, unsure of where they fit into the new universe.

Last night’s episode, “Tea Leaves,” was directed by Jon Hamm (Don Draper), the second actor to helm one of the show’s chapters (Jon Slattery, who plays Roger Sterling, directed the penultimate episode of Season 4), and was a tale with three large threads. In the first, Betty is back and has gained a great deal of weight in the elapsed time of the narrative (presumably to hide January Jones’s real life pregnancy, but the writers used the change to create much of the episode’s drama). We quickly learn Betty has a tumor on her thyroid gland, setting up the questions of whether or not she has cancer and what will happen to the kids if she does.

(READ: Top Ten Things We Miss About the Mad Men Era)

In the first of two work threads, Mohawk Airlines has agreed to return to SCDP, and Peggy has to hire a new copywriter. She chooses the best portfolio by one Michael Ginsberg, a somewhat off kilter (that’s kind for crazy) young man in a loud plaid blazer who lists Allen Ginsberg as a reference, saying he figures they have to be related somehow. But the bottom line is he’s talented, and Peggy doesn’t believe that working with good people will lead to competition. She thinks working with someone gifted will make her better.

Over dinner with Don and Megan, the head of Heinz says he wants to get the Rolling Stones — who his daughter loves — to do some kind of TV jingle along the lines of “Heinz, Heinz, Heinz is on my side…” (No, really.) And so Don is forced to spend a Saturday night with Harry Crane trying to track down the Stones’ manager at their concert and pitch the idea. The scenes back stage while Don and Harry try and see the band are the heart of the episode. Don goes to the concert wearing his trademark grey suit, skinny tie and slicked-back hair. Harry, who’s always been a bit less formal, doesn’t exactly wow the young crowd in his black turtleneck and plaid blazer. The scenes are wonderfully crafted, starting with the costumes and set design. “We looked at a lot of archival photographs from the actual concert, and they were kids,” Hamm said of the scenes, which popped with young extras in mid-60s concert garb.

In conversations with two teenage girls, Don and Harry realize just how different the youth culture is. After getting stoned, Harry tells a story about seeing Charlton Heston naked, which is a big dud because the girl doesn’t even know who Charlton Heston is. The more talkative of the teenagers is skeptical that the Stones would ever do a TV ad, and when Don tells her they did one for cereal in England, she says that must have been a long time ago. “It was three years ago,” he says — a blip for a middle age executive, but a lifetime for a teenager. When Don tries to analyze what she loves about the Rolling Stones, the young girl tells him “Brian Jones…I’ll be his Lady Jane.” She’s the picture of innocence, who doesn’t know that only three years from then, Brian Jones would be dead, drowned in his swimming pool after having been booted out of the band because of his drug habit. The young girl hits the generation gap on the head, telling Don, “None of you want any of us to have a good time because you never did.” “No,” Don replies, “we’re worried about you.”

(READ: Mad Men’s Return: Surprise!)

In reality, Don is worried about his children and what will happen if they have to grow up without a mother. There are several wonderful scenes, such as when Betty calls Don to tell him she might be sick and we remember that, at one time, they had a deep connection.

The threads wind to conclusions in the end — Betty’s tumor is benign, Michael Ginsberg joins the SCDP copy department, giving us the firm’s first Jewish employee (we see earlier that they already have their first black secretary thanks to last week’s the Young and Rubicam prank)  and Harry manages to botch signing the Rolling Stones. Then as Pete Campbell announces Mowhawk’s return, he takes some pot shots at Roger, who was once his mentor. Roger has a moment of existential collapse in Don’s office, where he asks what is ultimately a rhetorical question: “When is everything going to get back to normal?” We know they won’t — things never were normal. Roger ruled the kingdom as the son of a founding partner who brought in the big bucks with Lucky Strike. Now the kids are taking over the show and he can’t seem to find his place.

Depending on how he approaches changes that will only accelerate, Don might soon join Roger in lost bewilderment. But Don has Megan, who is only 26 and has a sharp mind. He has Peggy, who has proven she can spot talent in addition to writing great copy. If Don sticks like glue to his fedora, crisp tie and classic standards, he too might find himself shut out. He has the tools and the right supporting cast in place, and soon we’ll see if he’s willing to use them to try and keep time on his side.

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