The second episode of Mad Men’s fifth season aired last night, with Jon Hamm taking over as both director and lead actor.  In a solid-to-occasionally-great episode, Season Five’s still-forming primary theme seems to be that of change—both the rampant social/political/cultural changes of the 1960s, and the inevitable changes (including death) brought on by aging—as Don is forced to be less than cool at a Rolling Stones concert while a now-obese Betty faces her own mortality.  Check out our review of “Tea Leaves” below.

The Players:

  • Director:  Jon Hamm
  • Writers:  Erin Levy and Matthew Weiner
  • Cast:  Jon Hamm, Elizabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks

Episode Title: “Tea Leaves”

[Spoilers ahead!]

Independence Day, 1966.  Betty Francis is finally seen—after her absence from the Season Five premiere—and discover what she’s been doing since the close of Season Four:  eating.  A now quite obese Betty spends her days drowning the deep existential maw that looms inside of her with pounds and pounds of food.  Her chilly depression is then exacerbated with the news of a possible fatal tumor, driving Betty to actually be kind to her new husband, to her children, and to even cry (gasp!).

Elsewhere, Peggy hires the handsome yet annoying Michael Ginsberg as the office’s new copywriter, while Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has gained an African American secretary—SCDP is no longer immune to the sweeping social changes happening outside of its windows.

Meanwhile, Don and Harry must attend a Rolling Stones concert (the band was then touring behind the Aftermath LP) to try and sign the band to perform an advertising  jingle.  While there, Harry makes a fool of himself to those only slightly younger than he is, and Don, once the chameleonic ladies man, no longer has a drive to flirt with the beautiful young women at the concert; rather, he begins to show a fatherly concern for them.

The Good:

  • Betty:  In a novel attempt to mask January Jones’ real-life pregnancy, Betty has plummeted into depression and is now self-medicating with food.  Watching her sink further and further inside herself, while struggling with the news of a possible mortal illness (spoiler: it’s benign), was one of the highlights of the episode, as the Ice Queen finally let slip some of her humanity.  Also, it’s notable that when faced with the bad news, Betty called Don after she was unable to reach her husband.
  • Ch-ch-ch-changes:  It seems the ‘60s have finally caught up with Mad Men, in terms of integration and the rising youth movement.  Watching the world of SCDP confront this massive social upheaval is going to be a joy in Season Five.  Also, many of the characters, most especially Don and Betty, must now finally confront the two things over which they can exert no control: aging, and death.

The Bad:

  • Betty’s fat suit:  While the necessity of a fat suit is understood, the obviously fake suit required a high degree of suspension of disbelief to get past its awkwardness.
  • Heavy hands:  One of Mad Men’s occasional faults is the Matthew Weiner’s inability to trust that the audience is smart enough to understand the themes of the show.  Look, Matt, we get it–the characters are getting old.  We get it.  Did we really need to see Harry behaving like an out-of-touch grandpa with a group of kids who are barely younger than he is?  It almost felt as if there was a neon sign over this scene, repeatedly flashing the words “GET IT, GUY?” over and over again.

Overall:

While not quite the entry that last week’s stellar opening episode managed to be, “Tea Leaves” was a solid entry into the burgeoning Season Five, and, with the Betty’s mortality/ Don at the Stones plots, a fairly massive escalation of the thematics introduced in “A Little Kiss”—namely, the ‘60s have truly arrived, and that our cast of characters may no longer be nimble, or youthful, enough to balance themselves atop such precarious and ever-changing times.

Rating:  8/10

Mad Men airs Sundays on AMC.