Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 5.3
"Blindness and Insight"
Guest Writer: Robert A. Rushing

Monday, April 2, 2012

posted under , , , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[The second in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 5 of AMC'sMad Men,prior to the publication of MAD MENMAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]

"Blindness and Insight"

Written by Robert A. Rushing (Comparative Literature, Italian, Cinema and Media Studies)

“Tea Leaves,” the follow-up to last week's Season 5 premiere, is a curious episode for Mad Men: it is less tightly organized thematically than most episodes of the series are. There is some suggestion, however that the episode is more tightly structured than might first appear—it begins and ends (or more precisely, almost begins and almost ends) with two sequences of people speaking in a foreign language, left untranslated for the viewer. The second sequence and the second to last sequence feature Megan speaking French, and Michael’s father speaking Hebrew. Megan’s conversation is banal, about the July heat and how she misses her mother; Michael’s father is performing a blessing, of course—but one could hardly say that the episode is about the transformation of the everyday into the sacred. In between these near bookends, we follow Peggy hiring a new copy writer; Don and Harry on a wild-goose chase to get the Rolling Stones to sing about Heinz beans; the continuing humiliation of Roger Sterling by Pete Campbell; and of course, the show’s primary plotline, the one that really bookends the episode, Betty’s weight gain and subsequent cancer scare.

(By the way, the idea of co-opting youth culture and rock-and-roll for selling banal household goods—specifically the ludicrous idea of trying to connect British rockers to Heinz beans—would be definitively mocked on the front cover of The Who’s The Who Sell Out, released the following year, 1967. The Who were in fact doing precisely such commercial jingles even at that time, however, long before they provided the theme song for C.S.I. One of the many things I love about Mad Men is that so many of the show’s most bizarre and ludicrous advertising campaigns, obviously fictional, turn out to be entirely real.)

The sequence that gives this episode its title, however, consists of Betty and her old friend Joyce having tea—perhaps the episode’s “thematic core” may be found there. They talk about the cancer Betty may have, and the cancer that Joyce does have. Their conversation is perhaps more about the present than it is about the future—indeed, Joyce talks rather distantly about living with and fighting against her cancer as a kind of eternal drowning, one you give into, sooner or later. Her tea leaves cannot spell out any future, since she is living without one.

Then “Cecilia” arrives—a fortuneteller, to provide the ladies with some amusement (”it’s always good,” Joyce says, urging Betty to play along). She offers to read Betty’s tea leaves, and pronounces: “You’re a great soul. You mean so much to the people around you. You’re a rock—” but breaks off when she realizes that Betty has broken down. The name Cecilia comes from the Latin word for “blind” (caecus), and one might wonder just how blind Cecilia is, and what kind of blindness she represents (one might wonder as well about the various forms of blindness that run through this episode, from Roger’s failure to see that he was being played by Pete to Harry’s inability to distinguish the Trade Winds from the Rolling Stones). On the one hand, Cecilia’s attempt to see the truth of Betty appears as an almost comic failure: Betty? A great soul? Has anyone on television ever been as brilliantly self-centered and small-minded as Betty? A rock? (When Roger calls her “a fighter,” Don snorts, rolls his eyes and says, “Come on.”) As for how much she means to people around her (exception, perhaps, for Henry Francis), when Don informs Roger that Betty has cancer, Roger morbidly quips: “well, that would solve everything”—and if we laugh at all, it’s because we realize how close that is to being true, both for Don and for the show.

(What is this show to do with Betty? It cannot keep her, so wholly divorced from all of the rest of the show now that she is divorced from Don, and yet she is part of the essential iconography of Mad Men, and a favorite target—albeit a negative one—for audience identification. Betty is one of contemporary television’s most hated characters, pronounced on countless blogs as “worst mother ever,” but this is also part of what brings viewers back to the show: how will she mistreat Sally to gratify her own petty needs this week? And indeed, some fans reacted with predictable glee to Betty’s misfortunes in this episode. But one has to wonder if Betty’s cancer scare isn’t also Mad Men’s way of fantasizing about getting rid of this increasingly heavy burden. As it stands, the show seems forced to relegate her to an occasional “Betty-centric” episode that presents her totally separate existence, connected to the world of SCDP only by the rare phone call.)

But perhaps, as with Tiresias, one kind of blindness is another kind of insight—perhaps Cecilia’s failure to see the true nature of Betty’s interior is symptomatic of Mad Men’s long-standing concern not with depths, but with surfaces. The show may have derived all kinds of recognition for its superficially appealing qualities (set design, historical mimicry, meticulous mise-en-scène, dandies in slim suits and full-figured women, and so on), but it was curiously insightful from the beginning that the clothes really do make the man, in a quite literal fashion. The most salient example, of course, is Don’s ability to drape himself with the right clothes and the right name and the right identity really do transform him from a nobody, a whit of a man, into a Don, a minor title of nobility; or the way the credit sequence tells that same story in a miniaturized, even more superficial form—an outline of a man dissolves, collapses, and re-forms himself. It could be Don, or Roger (”exhausted from hanging on to the ledge”), or even Betty. So we should look for “the truth” of this sequence not in Cecilia’s facile fortune cookie, but in the specific exterior form that her fortune-telling takes: reading tea leaves.

Betty’s very precise fear in this episode indeed revolves around bitter remainders: “I’m leaving behind such a mess,” she confesses to Joyce—but about her life, not her tea—”he’s my second husband… his mother’s domineering and… Don’s girlfriend—well, they’re married—she’s twenty years old. They’ll never hear a nice word about me again.” She is unhappy both with what she will leave behind, and what will remain of her: bitter words, recriminations, her shortcomings and failures, all pronounced by a chorus of her mother-in-law, her ex-husband and his new, younger wife. Later, in a dream sequence (Don has flashbacks, but is it only Betty who has surreal hallucinations and dream sequences?), Betty will imagine a mise-en-scène of these remainders (it is unclear if she dreams or simply fantasizes while unable to sleep). She enters the kitchen to find her family dressed in mourning. Her husband intones his own series of bitter remainders, fragments of what could have been: “If, if, if,” and Betty glances down to see an emptied tea cup at her son’s side. Sally takes her mother’s chair and sets it, upside-down, on the table, like a restaurant after closing time. All the while, her mother-in-law serves breakfast and watches. They are the remainder, what is left over after Betty is consumed by the cancer we will soon discover she doesn’t have.

(A commenter on the last post noted that Lane’s fantasy photo of Dolores might have been a reference to Nabokov’s Lolita. I keep wondering about Henry Francis’ curious and enigmatic “If, if, if…” at the breakfast table, and thinking that it was perhaps a call-out to the big if, the great maybe, the I.P.H.—Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter—from Nabokov’s 1962 Pale Fire. Obligatory Nabokov reference accomplished!)

Naturally, it’s no accident that all of these images—the tea cup, the chair upended like a restaurant, the funereal breakfast of pancakes and sausages that Betty can’t share even though she is hungry—revolve around food; the show’s central premise, also a kind of tragic visual gag, is that Betty has gotten fat (January Jones was pregnant at the time the episode was filmed, but was also wearing a fat suit). All of these are remainders produced by Betty’s excess of consumption (not, perhaps, unlike the empty bag the stoned Harry leaves Don holding after he scarfs down twenty sliders).

The end effect is a kind of miracle for viewers of the show—without changing Betty’s essential nature at all, “Tea Leaves” manages to almost humanize this character whom audiences have long loved to hate. She is still a tough pill to swallow (”It’s nice to be put through the wringer and find out I’m just fat,” she snaps bitterly at her husband’s happiness, when he discovers she doesn’t have cancer), just as self-centered, and just as infantile (she still calls Don for reassurance, and it’s no accident that she eats the ice cream sundae her daughter has grown too mature for while “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” gives the viewers a sound bridge into the credits). Betty ends the episode curiously contented, however, sitting in the chair imaginary Sally overturned, happily polishing off her daughter’s sundae while ice cream drips from her spoon onto the table: the bitter dregs of her life have become something sweeter, and Betty seems determined that this time, nothing will be left over.


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zina said...

I am not sure that the show is fantasizing about getting rid of Betty. Why would they? If one of the main threads of the story is the changing destiny of women, a housewife needs to be in it, though obviously not at SDSP. Her potential death is rather a way of teasing the public about their own ghoulish expectations (according to pop culture, if a mother is not saintly, she is a monster, and is thus deserving of a horrible death) : this is what this storyline acknowledges. It dangles the potential punishment under the audience's nose, and then withdraws it (exactly what Pete does to Roger about the Mohawk account, and Roger complains bitterly about that torture).

Betty's weight gain was also due to a fat suit (not only to the actress's pregnancy), so the show went out of its way to make her look as bad as possible (which is not that much, given that this is January Jones). Matthew Weiner has been quite vocal about his strong belief that the reason that Betty is so hated is because the actress who portrays her is so undeniably, so ethereally beautiful. Some people have expressed their glee that the hated mother (figure?) was "ugly" and sick. But many have now found some new measure of sympathy for a character more hated than hitmen and serial killers.

I think that the show is playing with the audience's expectations, and that the joke is on us. On a similar note, newly happily married Don is now living in the ultimate sixties hip bachelor pad that the public expected him to rent after his divorce. In fact, the divorced man was drinking his self-loathing away in a dark and gloomy apartment, shattering the public's fantasies one puke stain at the time.

Francis Boyle said...

i first saw the Stones live around 1968 in the Chicago Amphitheater. It was well known they would/will do almost anything for a buck. So obviously Don et al were very unprofessional in their lackadaisical approach to them. If the price had been right, the Stones would have sung for the Beans. In this regard, soon after Serbia had terminated their genocidal war against the Bosnians, the Serbian Government signed a contract with the Stones for a concert in Belgrade for the obvious purpose of rehabilitating that gang of genocidaires on the world stage. They promised the Stones an enormous guaranteed up-front and also an enormous percentage on everything about the Concert. It would have been an astronomical payday for the Stones. Instead, i undertook a purely private, back-stage, behind the scenes initiative to get the Stones to cancel on the grounds that the Stones did not want to rehabilitate the Gang of Genocidaires in Belgrade. to their everlasting credit, the Stones cancelled Belgrade. Thus proving that they do not have "A Heart of Stone." And Justice did "get some satisfaction." But i still think they would have sung for the Beans. fab

e said...

The alternating hatred of and sympathy for Betty reveals more about our culture than about this show. Just as in the world of the show, she is supposed to reflect on the men around her, she serves the same function for viewers.

I think that the viewers who hate her for violating their expectations of motherhood view her weight gain as fitting punishment, rather than a humanizing force. But at, I read it as a tool for her to access human connections she was unable to when she embodied gender/beauty norms.

Robert Rushing said...

Well, I'll go in order, and say first, @zina, I didn't mean to suggest that we read Betty's cancer scare as either the show's desire to get rid of her, or a desire to keep her around and rehabilitate her—rather, that we read this episode as expressing both desires, even though they're completely opposed. I agree absolutely that one of the goals is to show "the changing destiny of women," as you so nicely say; I just think the show has a structural problem in that the main character who would give that perspective is now (and has been for more than a season) completely cut off from all the other characters, who are all focalized through SCDP. @Francis Boyle, that's quite a Nabokovian tale about The Stones! It takes us a little outside of my purview here, but I can say that the whole idea of "selling out" and the avant-grade have their own interesting history, and are fairly modern inventions (even so, the Stones should have known better, I would think!); @e, I think this is exactly right, and it was the oat surprising thing I found when I looked at fan reactions. Many were gleeful about Betty's weight gain, suggesting that she "deserved to get fat." Others, however, found Betty's plight surprisingly humanizing. Ultimately, of course, all the characters on Mad Men, and the reactions to them, tell us more about ourselves than they do about the 1960s—otherwise, it wouldn't be a very good show!

lilya said...

it occurred to me while watching this episode that Betty is of course not the only woman to gain weight this season--in fact, Jane is looking rather pudgy, and Trudy and Joan are both still very much looking the part of the new mother. In other words, weight is playing a role here that goes beyond "good and evil," but in fact, is speaking about changing bodies. other bodies introduced in this episode are Dawn and Michael, both of whom represent the non-white (since for the 1960s Jews were still not white, but ethnic, and this difference from the 'norm' is stressed by the Hebrew prayer at the end).

Mad Men isn't getting rid of Betty, of course, but the point is well taken--either we think of the show as being focused around its main characters (in which case, Betty is central), or we think of it being focused around the offices of SC now SCDP (in which case, she is marginal, even more now than Trudy who is taking her place as the lonely wife out there in the burbs). And this episode is a way for them to have their cake and eat it too (or, their ice cream sunday, if you will)--can we get rid of Betty? would't that just make everything easier?

Now, instead, they either have to keep her in that fat suit, or figure out a way to help her "reduce."

fab said...

"Now, instead, they either have to keep her in that fat suit, or figure out a way to help her "reduce.""

my guess is that they will get Betty addicted to weight loss pills-- one of "Mothers Little Helpers" a la The Stones. so they can slim her down again. so that way they can keep her around until the bitter end of the series as an upper class junkie. Meanwhile, they will have their daughter start in on pot and ultimately dissipating away on drugs--making their statement against the gratuitous drug culture of the 1960s.and at the very end of the series i can see the FBI/MPs taking Don away in cuffs to face a court-martial for desertion--done a few of those myself. See my book Protesting Power: War, Resistance and Power (Rowman & Littlefield 2009). so many people now know Dick/Don's secret that it is only a question of time before someone rats on him--especially people he has ratted upon. Or maybe the ruthless Pete will turn Dick/Don into the Feds in order to take his place. but i dont think i could help Dick/Don. about 5 years for desertion at Ft Leavenworth. I guess a suitable end to the series since Weiner made it clear that "evil ways" a la Santana (saw at the Chicago Amphitheater live in 1972) must have consequences. A little morality play. No Sympathy for Don the Devil. The series will end with Dick/Don sitting in Leavenworth and Pete sitting in Don's old office, his wife and kids ensconced in suburbia, and the Don Cycle will begin all over again with Pete falling into the abyss. Gimme some Shelter, Or I'm gonna fade away. Don't fade away?

fab said...

"Appearing on "CBS This Morning" the following day, President Obama's top campaign adviser, David Axelrod, used the reference to George to tie the other Romney, Mitt, to backward policies of the "Mad Men" era: "I think he watches 'Mad Men' instead of the evening news. He's in a time warp.""
i think it was grautiously unfair for Weiner to slam Romney Sr in order to go after Romney Jr--my HLS sectionmate, who richly deserves being slammed. And as a Native Chicagoan Ax should know better than to follow up on it. I grew up in Chicago and vacationed every summer in Michigan. Sr was a moderate, reasonable Republican--an extinct species these days, like the dodo bird. Sr courageously stood up for civil rights for Blacks both in the Republican Party and in the Mormon Church. It made absolutely no sense for Francis to say that Lindsay would not appear with Sr, and that Sr was "a clown." His being dumped upon by the MSM for saying that the Generals "brainwashed" him in Vietnam is the height of hypocrisy. The Pentagon brainwashed everyone including the MSM. Of course not those of us they wanted to send over there to fight and die: Hey, Hey LBJ, How many kids did you kill today? and then: Dick Nixon before Nixon dicks you! Shall the Sins of the Son be visited upon the Father? as the father of 3 sons whom i have raised to be pretty independent minded, I certainly hope not. Sr was head and shoulders above Tricky Dick Nixon--no one believed he had a secret plan to end Vietnam. And with his turnaround on Vietnam War, Sr was better than Hubie, who was hopeless. Sr's Statement that the Generals had "brainwashed" him on Vietnam indicated that he had finally seen The Light--unlike Hubie and most of the Dems. I was at the 1968 DNC Convention in Chicago---both in the Ampitheater and on Michigan Avenue.My Man was Clean Gene.RFK was just an interloper and an opportunist. Hubie went down with the LBJ ship--good riddance! Romney Jr spent his political career running as a RHINO like his father. Then when he became Mass Gov he immediately veered to the extreme right in order to lick the boots of the Republican Reactionaries to win the Primary, which apparently he has now done as of today. At least Romney Sr had the courage of his convictions, which is why he lost to Tricky Dick who had no convictions to begin with, just a lust for power, like Romney Jr. I think Weiner owes an apology to the Romney Family.Not going to hold my breath waiting for it. fab.

Lauren said...

Greetings everyone and welcome (back) to Kritik. I enjoyed reading all of these comments. Zina, I'm glad you have found us once more!

I agree with Rob that the incorporation of Betty's story has become structurally complicated. In the first three seasons Mad Men had an elegant economy for its multiplots in constellating its many strong female characters in relation to its leading man. Whereas Joan and Peggy's stories were embedded primarily in a workplace that otherwise would have focused less interestingly on male competition and advertising alone (much though those stories are always great in MM), Betty's story came out of another significant dimension of Don's live: the public/private split and the office/home spaces that organize it. Also, because Don was such an incurable philanderer the "private" dimension included lovers (more strong female characters) who were often encountered in the "public" world of the workplace. When Rachel bumps into Don having a drink with Bobbie Barrett in Season 2, the former knows exactly what's going on between Don and the latter. (There is no such thing as an unerotic happy hour rendezvous between a married man and an interested businesswoman on Mad Men--even though Roger enjoyed turning down his old flame.) Now, except for the Sally connection (a gift that keeps on giving!), Don and Betty could lead largely separate lives. That is, Don has his own public/private divide which he shares with Megan (and though as Lilya noted, she got it all wrong when she made that surprise birthday party in their sanctum sanctorum that doesn't seem like the kind of mistake she'll make twice).

I think the show is trying to complicate the Don/Betty separation in some interesting ways in order to overcome this structural challenge. First, there's the intimation that Betty still relies on Don (we don't know if it's only because Henry wasn't around when she needed him while Don, for once in his life, Don was there--of if there is something about Don's manner that comforts her in a way that Henry's doesn't. This would be truly ironic since Henry has been presented as such a reliable anti-Don). Further to that point the Francis marriage and the new Draper marriage have been so marvelously and aesthetically differentiated. Don and Meagan live in such a cool pad (I'm guessing Upper East Side though I haven't caught the address yet). Betty and Henry appear to have bought some stone variation on the house in Psycho or the Addams Family (Don calls them Morticia and Lurch). I'm not sure what if anything is being developed about Henry's role as a Rockerfeller republican or if the aesthetic contrast between the two "homes" will simply speak for itself. But that house is way creepy, like Henry's mother (whom we haven't seen since Season 4's premiere). As with most plots on Mad Men there will always be a pull back toward SCDP/Don: the configuration that advertisers on AMC are paying big bucks for. But it would be interesting to see something develop with this gothic Francis narrative. Perhaps Henry Francis is not the only husband with a few skeletons in his closet. What might Mad Men's version of the shower scene be? ;)

Well, I've used up my time and said nothing about Dawn/Don (raised by Lilya in the comment section on her own post) or on Mad Men's first totally "out" (i.e., explicit instead of implied) Jewish character since Rachel.

fab said...

@Francis Boyle, that's quite a Nabokovian tale about The Stones! It takes us a little outside of my purview here, but I can say that the whole idea of "selling out" and the avant-grade have their own interesting history, and are fairly modern inventions (even so, the Stones should have known better, I would think!);
My point was that the Stones could not care less. all they ever cared about was making a Buck. So Don could have gotten them to sing for Beans if he had really wanted to. in any event, i did figure out a way to penetrate the Stones' Heart of Stone for the Bosnians. In this regard:Today is the 20th anniversary of the siege of Sarajevo and the genocidal war and massacre against the Republic and the People of Bosnia and Herzegovina. RIP. At least the Stones did not play Belgrade. An exercise in Art, Culture, Music and Politics. fab.

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