The most interesting new character in the “Mad Men” world received the shortest amount of screen time in her debut episode, “Tea Leaves,” on Sunday: Dawn Chambers (Teyonah Parris). The black woman was hired as Don’s secretary in the aftermath of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s “equal opportunity” advertising stunt, but aside from several lines remarking on the potential confusion involved thanks to name similarities, this new addition to the staff stayed in the background. She may not stay there; Don’s secretaries have a way of finding themselves in the spotlight, whether by dying at their desk or marrying their boss. But it’s how the writers will treat Dawn and other minorities from now on that will determine not just the longevity of the show, but its importance. If the characters can no longer ignore the radical social changes in 1966 America, the show can’t, either — and that goes beyond casting a black actress to play a bit role to represent racial tensions. No doubt Dawn has a story to tell. I’d love to hear it.
“Tea Leaves,” however, didn’t have many interesting stories to tell, and it fell short trying to maintain the energy of the two-episode series premiere. Instead, we were treated to tales we’ve grown numb to, namely: Betty is sad. Now she’s eating her feelings. Much time was spent on Mrs. Francis and her new-found predicament of gaining weight, and a health scare concerning her thyroid was thrown in for good measure. The problem is we know this plot device was concocted to work around January Jones’s pregnancy and wasn’t developed as part of her character’s dramatic arc. The timing situation is unfortunate, though of course no one faults Jones for having a child. I do fault the writers for working in a story that obviously won’t go anywhere and for wasting our time only to say what they’ve been saying about Betty for years: she’s not happy. Of course her mortality frightened her, as did the thought of her family going on without her; she’s not a monster. And of course Don was concerned about her health scare; he’s not a monster. We didn’t need the extra padding and makeup on Jones mixed with Betty’s Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come-style dream to realize the character is human. Hiding Jones’s stomach behind packages and potted plants would have been smarter. Or give Betty weight problems but lose the thyroid bit and make it an ongoing issue. This gimmick was about as deep as Betty.
The introduction of Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) shows promise, a quirky character to unsettle Peggy and give her someone to compete with. He’s hard to pin down, but his behavior during his SCDP interview for a copy writer spot pointed more to desperation than anything. Going home to a humble apartment and his father reiterated Michael’s desire for a chance at work in his field, and that small scene, complete with his father reciting a Hebrew prayer in thanks for his son’s new job, contained more meaning and emotion than anything involving Betty. Even Roger garnered more sympathy, as Pete belittled him in front of the staff as he announced Mohawk Airlines is returning to the agency. Don was right, though, to remind Roger that Pete is doing what he was trained, or “raised,” to do, which is leave his elders behind: “He grew up. What’d you expect?” Now I expect Roger to get even, or at least refuse to fade away quietly.
The generational divide theme continued, first as Don and Megan dined with a client from Heinz and his wife. They fumbled the simple question of how they met, Don finally saying “At work” and Megan blurting “Don was divorced.” They aren’t as comfortable with their story as they thought, and Don immediately credited (or rather blamed) Megan’s age to even-tempered reaction to the possibility of Betty having cancer. “Megan, you are 26 years old,” he said. “So I don’t understand death?,” she replied. Damn sounded even older when talking with teenagers backstage at a Rolling Stones concert — Teen: “None of you want any of us to have a good time just because you never did.” Don: “No. We’re worried about you.” Why the sudden parental concern for the youth of America, Don? Is that what turning 40 does to a fella? Just as the premiere’s opening scene was pulled from Page One, this scene may have come straight from an episode of “Dragnet.” The entire scenario felt forced, as if the writers are trying every which way to introduce the high points of social change in the ’60s except organically.
On cue, Roger asks Don at the end of “Tea Leaves,” “When is everything going to get back to normal?” It’s not, Roger. This has long been established knowledge for the audience, but the show is taking its sweet time having the characters catch on. What we need is action, and quickly. Give them something to do, or at least something dramatic to react to. You’ve got to change with the times.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in Texas, and she will not judge Betty for wanting more ice cream.