Mad Men, “The Monolith”


I’m so happy Mad Men was able to wax poetic this week. The episodes filled with symbolisms and calculated visuals are always the most intriguing to me. I still have some mixed feelings about the overall episode (which I can delve into more later), but I’m happy there’s more to sink my teeth into than there previously had been. Overall, this episode examines the rise of technology, mainly the human relationship to technology and all that it stands for, as well as human relationships to one another, and what it means to take responsibility for it all when you choose to.

Let’s examine the technology of it first. I neglected to mention Harry Crane going on and on about needing a computer in the office to be able to counter their competitors. Cutler – though he seems a harder person to win over – succumbs to Harry’s desire for one. It’s funny I didn’t think much of Harry Crane last week – there are always tiny drops of future set ups in each episode. So much of every action will inform another, whether we see the completion of it immediately or watch it develop over time. Given the time we’re in, I should’ve given more stock to the computer. But perhaps my growing dislike of Harry Crane prevented me from speaking about it. But I digress.

The announcement of the computers comes as Don arrives apparently late for work, staring into a black abyss akin to the monolith in 2001. (Hint hint with the episode title?) He enters a scene of the unknown – the stark, dull colored office empty of its human inhabitants. It’s as uninviting as the first day he returned to work. It’s a real punch in the face that the arrival of the computer literally and symbolically kicks out the creatives from their center pit. It’s no wonder Ginsberg feels so threatened by the move – he says it himself, that he suspects a machine will lead into the slow burn of removing them entirely. (Of course, that statement comes from a place of fear, since we know it’s not necessarily the machines that do the creating) I almost feel a revolutionary side of Ginsberg emerging (I miss this side) when he really takes stock in a couch that belonged in that area, wanting to hold a piece of it in his actual office. It’s interesting that Stan takes not necessarily a defeatist episode, but an accepting one, and it’s a beautiful image of him setting aside film reels, packing them away in the space where a machine is to be brought in and built. Out with the old, in with the new. We can maybe say Ginsberg and Stan represent the two sides of the coin of how people in general must have felt about the rise of the computer in that time – today’s society takes for granted a bit how much technology feels a natural part of our lives, but for them, it’s total science fiction coming to life.

What adds more flavor to the philosophical conversation about humans and technology is when the computer installer, Lloyd, sits and has a conversation with Don. There are two things lovely about this scene: the writing, and seeing Don truly at work, in his master artform. Lloyd takes an immediate liking to Don after sharing a cigarette light as the construction began. When the office is left empty again, we see Lloyd draw himself into Don’s world again, asking about advertising. Don treats Lloyd like he would a client, even breaking the fourth wall telling Lloyd if he was truly with a client he would proceed in a certain manner. Lloyd describes the development of the computer in such a poetic way – it’s a machine, but he reminds that people built it. It’s a human invention, and he sees the work and love people put into it when he sees the machine itself. And we almost treat the ushering in of the first SC&P computer with a sense of awe – as it’s rolled into the room, everyone sort of stops and stares at it, the construction at a standstill, the computer sitting in the quiet white of the room. Don however gets more science fictiony before the computer takes its place in the office, drunkenly confronting Lloyd before the construction finishes saying, “I know who you are.” There’s an eeriness to the way Don confronts Lloyd, something that’s the stuff of conspiracy and sci-fi. Will there be more to this? Who knows. I assume computers needed a lot of maintenance back then. Maybe we’ll see Lloyd again.

While the psyche of the office breaks itself down with the arrival of a machine, there are three people who explore their own struggles with conquering their human relationships: Peggy, with Don, her former mentor; Roger, with his daughter, his spawn; and Don, with himself. These particular types of relationships are vital to the human experience, and to explore them alongside the possible disintegration of human need is so crucial to add meaning to this episode. I mean, basically, you are what you make of your relationships with whoever (or whatever) is around you. Even Lloyd mentions that the computer will ultimately be what people make up their minds it will be for them. The same goes for Peggy, Don, and Roger, and each experience different levels of failure and success confronting these relationships.

For Peggy, she is not just dealing with gaining the respect of her mentor yet again, she is dealing with power, something that always seems stripped of her. I find it highly suspicious that Lou complacently agrees with Ted’s suggestion to let Peggy creatively lead the pitch for Burger Chef. It almost feels like Lou is calculating, too, and Peggy kind of sees it when she vents to Joan – it’s like she’s being set up in a situation where someone must fail, possibly her. The partners, in a terse phone conference (with Lou in the room, no less), assign Peggy and Don to Burger Chef. Lou puts the ball in Peggy’s court to lead, undercutting the power Don once had. He seems to take pleasure in the idea of putting Don in his place, but we’ve also seen him treat Peggy like crap before. Is that maybe his method? Don also put Peggy to the test all the time, but his manner of challenging her was a little less condescending than Lou. In any case, Peggy treats the situation with much fragility at first, getting used to the taste of power while trying not to rock the boat any more with Don. She plays the office politics card heavily – she’s next door to Don, yet she wants to show she is the one in power. Instead of knocking on his door, she has Don’s secretary call him into her office. Even Don sees the silliness in these ploys, but he swallows it for the moment. Peggy calls Don and the other creative, Mathis, her team, and assigns them to give her 25 tags to begin the approach on the Burger Chef account. Peggy doesn’t know what to do when Don clearly undermines her at first: he refuses to show up to the meeting. She does play it cool by rescheduling the meeting, but her frustration resurfaces when she sees Freddie escorting Don to a Mets game. Joan drops in some hot gossip for Peggy as she complains about the way Don is behaving, and it leaves you wondering if Peggy will tattle on Don. Instead, she takes the confrontation up herself, but finally with some level of success: she knocks on his door to chide him, and we see Don accepting his new place, typing away at his typewriter, and telling Peggy he will have her pitches by noon. Now, if this were any other time in the run of Mad Men, I’d really be rooting for her. I’ve envisioned Peggy as the future of SC&P, having risen up at the hands of Don. But her new attitude has been soured lately, to me. It almost makes me wonder if she will fall after a slow climb up. I can see pride getting the best of her. But for now, Peggy has at least managed to feel some level of accomplishment managing her relationship with Don.

Roger kind of sees the antithesis of technology in his hunt for his runaway daughter, Margaret. His ex-wife and son-in-law visit the office in a state of emergency, enlisting Roger’s help to pull Margaret out of a hippie commune upstate. Margaret now becomes the representative against modern technology, against the suits, against materialism – it’s the total opposite of what’s happening in the office (and it’s really defining that Roger is barely there when the computer rolls in and Don takes his last fall to the bottom) Roger entertains Margaret’s new lifestyle for the day – he and Mona really have the good cop, bad cop parenting approach down it seems – and sees a day in her shoes. It almost seems a perfect day he’s spending with his daughter, even up to the moment they fall asleep together under the stars, taking the same position with the arm raised up behind the back as they close their eyes. But something stirs in Roger when he hears Margaret sneak off with a man in the commune, presumably to have sex. It’s like the idea of responsibility kicks in, as it did when he finally agreed to drive up with Mona (he at first brushes off the father responsibility when the issue first arises) He even uses parental responsibility to reel in Margaret and make her come back home. But Margaret throws it back in Roger’s face – when was he a responsible father when she was growing up? What a sting. Roger seems to be failing at protecting and taking responsibility for the people he “raised” – his daughter, Pete Campbell (he can’t always defend him when he’s up against Cutler), and Don. Roger is a far more reflective person than Don (although the way he hashes stuff out is sometimes equally destructive), so I wonder what toll this will take on Roger, who also is barely able to claim responsibility over his and Joan’s son.

At long last, we have Don. There’s a dreamlike eeriness with Don and the visuals, symbolism associated with him. He enters an empty office, kind of faced with his own loneliness, and almost his failure. The empty office could even be a symbol of what could happen to his life’s work (not all businesses last, right?) Moreover, he comes back to work and occupies Lane’s old office, and it certainly haunts him a bit. Don doesn’t know how to deal with the ghost of Lane – a man who was so far down the hole, who Don refused to help, and hung himself. He finds an old Mets flag Lane once had. He at first throws it away, like he’s trying to forget about Lane. But then it’s hung up on the wall, and the camera lingers on it. When Don goes into his first drunken office frenzy, he stares at it, upside down and dizzily. It’s almost like he’s deciding whether or not to go the same path as Lane, doing himself in at the office, knowingly breaking the rules. He calls Freddie and asks him to take him out to the ball game. Freddie immediately recognizes it’s an alcoholic act of desperation and tries to get Don out of it unscathed. He escorts Don to Don’s apartment and confronts Don in the morning, challenging him: “Is that what you want? For them to see you kill yourself?” It’s funny that it’s Freddie who gives Don the pep talk. But perhaps it’s fitting, as Freddie reflects on his life as a freelancer versus Don’s position as a partner. Freddie has to fight for his every day in his career now, belonging nowhere. Why should Don give it up? For the first time in a while, Don takes responsibility over himself – at least, for now. It’s almost like we’re watching Don rise up again from the bottom – the seriousness of his work probably being similar to when he first started working after being the fur coat guy to Roger. The last shot of him lingers, Don plucking away at the typewriter, focused, back in his prime, put in his place. Now we’re left to wonder what else will change with him?

Again, while picking apart this episode has been more meaningful than the last, I still feel a little meh about the whole thing. I think if we didn’t watch Don in a slow freefall from the top for a whole season, it’d be easier to swallow his complete wallowing. However, Don is far more watchable when he’s at his best, and the failing Don is starting to wear out its welcome. We know this final season is stretching across two years, but come on. Get Don some action!

Until next week, here are a few odds and ends:

-A little nugget of info that can come back: Pete hearing about Trudy’s father through his former client, who actually walked away from Vicks. Let’s see if this puts the damper in his sunshiny life. He sobers a moment after trying to play the client card. It’s humanizing, but it’s also great that he barely acknowledges the full weight of the moment with his new boo.

-The sound effects of the construction outside Don’s wall as he ruminates over his new lowered position is great. It’s like the machinery is grating at his psyche as well, when he both passes the day by with zero responsibility, and then when he refuses to accept his new (lowered) responsibilities.

-Bert was SO cutting when he reminded Don he is working in the office of a dead man. Who knew he was capable of such coldness! But he’s right: Don has his comeuppance, thinking SC&P would totally fail without him.

-I loved watching Dawn take office manager control of the situation, reminding everyone to remove their stuff from the creative pit. Go Dawn, you’re our only hope.

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