If the Generation Gap was the tune playing softly in the background of the Season Five premiere, this week we got the lyrics. Tea Leaves is an episode filled with kids — actual children and teens, and of course, discussions about them.
“I’m the bay-bee,” Megan tells Don, of her relationship with her parents. “You know I used to love that kid?” Roger fumes, after Pete pops the champagne for Mohawk.
Then there are the actual kids: young teens smoking in a hallway, forming a flood when the Stones show up; children playing with sparklers on a lawn; and finally, two girls with sundaes. Never mind that one of those girls is the mother of the second: Betty still acts like a child, ensuring that others will continue to treat her as one.
Everywhere the kids appear, I sense something heavy and dark. In the vulnerability of Don’s backstage conversation partner, the gloom of the apartment new copywriter Michael Ginsberg shares with his father, or the dusk overtaking the children on the Francis lawn, I feel something coming for them.
The backstage girl sees only light. “None of you want any of us to have a good time,” she says to Don. “No, we’re worried about you,” he clarifies.
When you have a teenager, you realize exactly how young they are. At 12, Sally is at most a couple of years younger than the backstage girl. Don looks into that child’s face and sees his own. Is he thinking of Sally when he muses to Harry that he’s “not sure” the Rolling Stones are “good” for their young fans?
The kids think they’re fine. They’re healthy, smart, and capable, and they believe they’re ready for anything. “You need to relax,” the backstage girl chides Don. “I apologized because I’m brave,” Michael Ginsberg informs Peggy.
But are the boys ready for Vietnam? Are the girls ready for what free love will do to their bodies, their self-worth, their hearts? They are innocent of the terrible damage even the sun can do: Megan displayed her sunburn with the same pride Jane Siegel once showed in her own. How will they protect themselves against everything else?
History tells us that this generation finds its way, and if you see Mad Men as a story of the 1960’s, that is a comfort. I don’t have that luxury. To me, the show is as contemporary as a young woman bathing herself in ads. It’s as current as a flood of girl-children at a concert: ready to offer anything they have, believing that what they will get in return is love.
It is as modern as a young man who lives with his father. That is a story of now. As a parent of a teenager and a college senior, I know my kids wouldn’t identify with it. They imagine themselves cutting loose at will, enjoying the freedom they are sure is waiting.
I know their culture has something else in mind. And like Don Draper, I am worried.
(Thanks and apologies to Vampire Weekend, for inspiring this post.)