Julia, you've hit on something I've always wondered about: Is Mad Men just a guilty pleasure, or is it saying something more? I don't mean to suggest that television is under any obligation to plumb the American psyche or be anything more than entertaining (hell, I'm a mouth-breathing devotee of Flight of the Conchords, which is about … well, you tell me what this is about). But the combination of soap-style couplings, period fashions, and absurdly lush, eye-catching visuals has always left me wondering, when the buzz wears off on Monday morning, whether Mad Men isn't a delicious but ultimately meaningless immersion in style over substance.
I realize I might ruffle some feathers here, but this is the way I've always felt about the films of the late, great Anthony Minghella. His production design was so distractingly exquisite that my chief reaction to, say, The English Patient or The Talented Mr. Ripley was: I need to move to Italy immediately. And wear more linen. And get a tan. Don sometimes talks about ads as if they're one-hour dramas, exploring deep truths about the American condition. But Mad Men has always risked the opposite: that by being so easy on the eyes and so crammed with period outfits and objets, it amounts, basically, to a TV commercial.
So I'm ready for the show to be about something, as you say, and if Sunday's episode is any indication, we're off to a very good start. I'm glad you mentioned Carla. She's a great character, with a wonderfully assured way about her. (Remember Carla suggesting, when Betty was spending her days face-down and boozed-out on the couch, that she might be less depressed if she tried going outside.) I loved her snappy exchange with Gene. ("We don't all know each other, Mr. Hofstadt.") The history of power dynamics between African-Americans and whites has always been more complicated when they're essentially co-habiting, and I wonder whether the changing times outside the Draper household and Carla's longevity and indispensability inside it might allow her to assert herself more this season.
As for Pete Campbell's discomfort, John, you're right, the guy's not exactly a progressive. Here's my theory: As Don wryly observes at the party, Pete is always on the job. Frayster Alex19 points out that Pete and Trudy's dance is conspicuously show-offy. "He doesn't like dancing, he likes winning—that smile was as phony as when he's meeting with clients." Given Pete's peculiar brand of impish servility and glinty-eyed ambition, I think Roger's minstrel serenade makes him uncomfortable not because of any principled objection to blackface but because his boss, whose name is on the building, is acting like a clown. Don tells Roger people think he's a fool, and for the Boy Scout in Pete, there must be something very unsettling about seeing the man whose job he wants down on one knee, greasepaint accentuating the wrinkles, carrying on like a frat boy.
All that said, Roger still gets a classic line, when it turns out Jane is legless drunk and he calls upon his Old Faithful. "Can someone please get her a glass of milk?"
I got nothing on Henry Francis, save one observation: I'm glad you mentioned how put-together Betty is for someone who is about to pop, Julia. To me, the belly massage, and the fact that Henry would hit on Betty, had everything to do with Betty's vanity. Throughout these first three episodes there has been a constant patter about her appearance (mainly from Betty herself, though Roger did joke that "Princess Grace has swallowed a basketball"). Betty has always seemed to think that a stunning appearance and a certain kind of arm-candy charm are all that she has to offer. (It was played for laughs, but I always thought the moment in Season 1 where Betty suggests that Sally might have died in the car accident, or—even worse—survived, but with an ugly scar, was kind of devastating, and revealing.) Looking like "an open umbrella," as she puts it, Betty can't adopt her usual role as sex object, which leaves her playing the earth mother—something her indifferent and sometimes downright negligent parenting might suggest she's less than comfortable with. The (possibly kinky) novelty of Henry is that the earth mother/sex object binary doesn't seem to be a contradiction—he looks at her and sees both.
Enough work disguised as vacation. On Carla's advice, I'm headed outside.