In seasons past, the theme of mortality was dealt with at the margins of Mad Men. Grandpa Gene died, but he was old. Don was advised by his doctor to cut back on smoking and drinking, but, some "performance issues" aside during a getaway with Betty, lead being in his pencil has not been an issue. While Roger flirted with death in Season 1, his back-to-back heart attacks are now mentioned only in passing. It was probably inevitable that as the show migrated into the heart of the 1960s, where youth was coming into its full flower, the generation that fought World War II and Korea would start to feel the creeping grip of death.
The writers of the show also made a virtue of necessity by converting January Jones's real life pregnancy into a storyline related to middle age weight gain instead of a more predictable "new baby" storyline, but Betty's cancer scare is the closest the show has come to bringing life and death into the conversation around the show's main characters since Roger was wheeled out of Sterling Cooper nearly 6 years (in show time) ago. If Don has always been a handsome cipher (as the reporter from Advertising Age described him in Season 4), Betty has always been a blank page, drifting through years of suburban anomie with little direction or motivation. Her one move of empowerment saw her jump from the bed of one accomplished, yet distant white collar professional to another.
Whereas Henry and Megan seem to be mirror images of each other, the former, taking his second chance at marriage as an opportunity to erase the mistakes of the past, the latter not having been corrupted by the years of drudgery typically associated with children and a house in the suburbs (see, Campbell, Pete and Crane, Harry, but more on Mr. White Castle later), Betty is very much a woman locked in her past. Upon receiving her potential diagnosis, she immediately picks up the phone to call Don, all she wants to hear is "what he always says," that everything will be ok. He easily shifts to calling her "Birdie," his pet name for her. Their shared concern is for *their* children, not the people who they are now married to. Betty falls to pieces when a charlatan reads her tea leaves and calls her a strong woman because she knows she is not. She is a college educated model who has trafficked on her looks that are now fading and, along with her attendant weight gain, make the idea of burning out, rather than fading away, more appealing (perhaps that is where Neil Young got the idea?).
A different kind of mortality is being shown within the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. After landing Mohawk Airlines, Pete makes an ostentatious display of humiliating Roger in front of the entire office, asserting his alpha status by reminding everyone that Roger will have day-to-day oversight of the account while he (Pete) is kept fully advised of its status. Don feels the hot breath of youth on his collar too, he just refuses to submit. Although Megan may not be that much stronger as a dinner companion than Betty was, Don lowers himself to slinking backstage at a Rolling Stones concert with Harry Crane after his Heinz contact suggests a twist on "Time Is On My Side" as a jingle for a commercial.
The choice of song was not unintentional. Time is something that Mad Men typically does a good job of inserting into the show's broader tapestry. Harry is a man attempting to evolve with the times, in his clothing, in his attitude and his style. He is taking the skirt chasing mentality of his elders and transferring it to the burgeoning free love movement, expertly handles marijuana and the looser morals of the day while expressing the same lament of boredom and tedium in his marriage. Don, on the other hand, rebuffs any flirtation with a backstage groupie in favor of attempting to pick her brain about understanding the youth movement and how to market to it. Don is quickly sized up as a square who is not hip to the culture, but that is because the gap between Don the ad man and Don the parent is not that acute. Although he wants to understand how to get young people to buy things, he also lets slip a deeper motivation - "we're worried about you" - he tells the groupie, a clear nod to the slowly expanding generation gap that will threaten to tear the country apart.
My one quibble with the season thus far is the dissonance between, on the one hand, the ham (and heavy) handed and, on the other, the deft touch, the writers are applying to the rapidly changing culture. Whereas Don's 40th birthday party and the backstage at the Rolling Stones scenes felt like they could have been done by some of the cheesier (and short-lived) shows like American Dreams, the writers have shown they do not need to be that obvious in commenting on social change. Pete's total emasculation of Roger spoke volumes about the power structure within SCDP, and more generally, about the torch passing (or grabbing?) of one generation to the other in a much more organic way than Harry taking deep pulls of a joint at a rock concert. Along a longer spectrum, Peggy's slow accretion of power and prestige has been noted at multiple points along the show's history - from Don's selection of her (over Kinsey) to leave with him to SCDP, debating who to fire at the end of Season 4, and now, in Roger's acknowledgement to Peggy of her enormous value to the firm. The introduction of Dawn, Don's new black secretary, spoke for itself, but a caricatured "loud Jewish" copywriter felt forced and obvious, especially since Peggy's boyfriend seemed to be similarly stereotyped last season.
One thing is clear. This season will be about birth and death, of a generation looking at the precariousness of life and another just coming into its own. For those who are lustily booing from the bleachers, I sympathize, but also recall that in past seasons, the sum was always greater than the individual parts. While each season does have its stand out episodes, when you watch them in full, you come to realize it is the accumulation of storyline and character development that makes the show unique. So sit tight and have some faith. Who knows, maybe Harry will dose the office coffee pot and we will go through the looking glass too.