Thoughts on Mad Men s7e4, “The Monolith”

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(theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey plays somewhere in the distance) images courtesy of Slate

My God, this episode had SO MUCH jammed into it. So many Kubrick references. So many self-referential moments. So many goddamned hippies. Where the hell do I even begin?

In short, The Monolith” is about evolution and advancement, fear of technology and change, and how if these characters don’t begin to evolve, they’re going to be obsolete. Or, you know, clubbed to death by the apes that have learned to use tools. That massive computer taking over the creative lounge is both a literal and figurative symbol of the way things are headed – everyone has to get on board with it or be left behind.

On a deeper level, these characters have to move past the failed versions of themselves in order to get on with it, to continue to exist in any meaningful capacity. They have to learn, move past what does not work, and just get on with it already. Don being popped in a dead man’s office is no mistake – and in order to become relevant again and remain that way at SC&P he needs to Do The Work, both in the sense of Peggy’s requested tags, and the sense of actually working on his damn self in his own life. Keep moving forward, another recurring theme on Mad Men.

Don walks into the SC&P office to what appears to be telltale signs of The Rapture; abandoned desks, a phone hanging off the hook. Sadly, no Jesus is kind enough to rapture Lou – it’s just LeaseTech Lloyd yapping about the new gigantic computer they’re going to be installing. Cutler enthusiastically shares the news of the agency entering the future, appropriately at a time when man is so close to the moon. 1969 brings in some hope after the turbulence of 1968, and that computer brings in a giant leap forward for SC&P; One Giant Leap for Mankind, as it were. As much of a boob Harry Crane tends to be on a regular basis, he’s on the nose about needing a computer to move forward and keep ahead of their competition.

Lloyd Hawley is eerily reminiscent of HAL-9000, and that’s absolutely no mistake. His calm, near-monotone inflection, his generic happy face and demeanour, all point HAL to me. Their interactions are laced with an undercurrent of bizarre antagonism, The Future versus The Ape, and if Don doesn’t get with it he’ll soon become the fate of the now-defunct creative lounge.

(And don’t think the irony of Don playing Solitaire at his desk while the engineers are installing the new computer was entirely lost on me.)

True to ridiculous form, Lou is attempting to grasp at whatever sense of glory he has as Creative Director. He immediately denies the need for Ted to come back east to work on Burger Chef, entirely so he can pit Peggy against Don and keep Don at bay as much as possible. As an aside, I’m glad that Pete isn’t totally lost in the LA haze. Running into a former Vick Chemical colleague, he manages to snag the Burger Chef account while bonding with him over his former father-in-law having a heart attack. Apparently, the guy’s a nightmare to work for so I suppose this is good news? He ain’t dead, but incapacitated for the time being, so I guess it’s okay that they both joke about it. But hey, Pete’s still got it!

Shocking news at 11pm: Lou doesn’t perceive Peggy as competition for his job or even as anything close to resembling an equal. He has an agenda to keep Don from actually accomplishing anything and taking away “his” glory, and uses Peggy to do his bidding. He throws some money at her (much more tactfully than Don did in s5’s “The Other Woman”) in just the right way with some guidelines, and his plan is set into motion. I mean, it’s always been obvious that Lou is a complete dick from the first episode, but this just cemented it for me. He’s manipulating Peggy because he’s too damn lazy and entitled to deal with Don himself, and frames this grunt work as a promotion to her. Rude.

We’ve seen Peggy evolve from mousy secretary to junior copywriter to copy chief, and watching Peggy become Don’s boss is pretty satisfying. As this reality slowly sinks in to Don, he ain’t too happy about it. In fact, it looks like he’s trying to telekinetically burn a hole in her fucking head as she’s diplomatically asking him to be on her team and turn in tags for Burger Chef.

daaaaaaaamn, Don. image courtesy of Previously.tv

Turns out he accepted SC&P’s offer because he thought he was calling their bluff, and it appears they were playing it straight after all. Don, still ever-resistant to being taken down a few pegs, sees an opportunity with Lloyd’s needs to advertise LeaseTech and floats the idea to Cooper. And of course, Cooper knocks Don right back down to size. He firmly reminds Don that he needs to show he can crawl before he can run, and Don takes this .. not so well. He backslides with a bottle of Roger’s vodka, which is understandable given his shitty circumstances of returning to work, but nonetheless still hard to watch. Don is forced to embrace being a dead man for the second time in his life, and it’s not going well.

As an aside, Don being in Lane’s old office is a trip for sure. He finds Lane’s discarded NY Mets pennant under the radiator, and hangs it on the wall as something of a reminder. The only other things on the walls in there are his advertising awards, so to have something so personal hanging up is a little different for Don. After all, him and Lane started that agency together. And hey, 1969 is the year of the Miracle Mets! Initially dismissed as a team that year, they rose from a season of mediocrity to defeat the Orioles in a massive World Series upset, since that particular Orioles team was one of the most flawfree in the history of Major League Baseball. I guess we’ll see how this parallels with Don’s own hopeful rise among the ranks at SC&P.

Switching gears for a hot second, let’s talk about Roger Sterling. Roger has a pretty meaty storyline in this episode with his absurd adult-ass daughter suddenly running off from her life and marital responsibilities (and her kid who strongly resembles Danny from Kubrick’s The Shining) to join a bunch of filthy hippies at some gross commune upstate. Roger and Mona team up to retrieve her when Brooks gets arrested for punching some yokel at a bar, and seeing their version of Park Avenue faux-royalty at a terrible commune is pretty great. Roger sticks it out and stays overnight, as he’s more in tune with the counterculture than Mona. His bottom line is that he wants to bring Margaret (Marigold?) back home so she can be a mother to her kid and wife to Brooks, to stop running away from her responsibilities. Remember the last time we saw her, she smugly told Roger she forgave him for being an absent father; I guess “hippie cult” was the answer to her self-satisfied faux-lightenment. As someone who’s supposedly happy and at peace, she sure has a lot of vitriol to sling at Roger when he tries to forcibly get her to come home already.

“But what is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.”

-Don, s5e12 “Commissions and Fees”

A recurring theme on Mad Men is the pursuit of happiness, whether it’s within reach, and what that specifically means to each of the characters. Margaret seeks instant gratification, and Roger has been doing the same for decades in different forms. Margaret is more similar to Roger than she’s willing to admit, and Roger is faced with this fact when he tries to step in in a legitimate parental role for probably the first time ever. At first he thinks she’s being idealistic in shirking her nice life for a simpler existence, but instead he’s faced with his own glaring irresponsibility. It serves as a wake-up call.

Lying in the open-roof barn and staring up at the stars, Roger and Margaret talk about everything except what’s actually happening in their lives right now. Roger has pretty much had it when some unwashed creature comes into the barn in the middle of the night to bang Margaret and they sneak off together. Something in that moment clicks for him, and the next morning he’s set to bounce. Seeing all of this in the daylight, he snaps back into reality, recognising that they’re all running from real life – just like he has been in his haze of booze, drugs, and weirdo orgies of free love. He doesn’t end up getting her to come home, but I feel that it’s the start of some heavy self-realisation for him. It all remains to be seen, of course.

Speaking of Roger, watching how Don uses booze as a crutch really makes me wonder if Don just shouldn’t drink at all. I know that’s a taboo thing to say about a character who exists in 1969, but the guy has gone too far down. The fact that when hit with an obstacle he immediately makes up an excuse to raid Roger’s bountiful stash is troubling. He’s not the type to become a Friend of Bill W. anytime soon, but the fact that he calls Freddy in his drunken stupor is telling. How many allies does Don have left at this point?

Don’s drunk ass thinks they’re going to a Mets game, but Freddy instead brings Don home to sleep it off. Right back there the next morning, Freddy drops truth bombs and black coffee, since he’s been in something very similar to Don’s shoes before. He simply states, “Do The Work“. He reminds Don that he’s been given a second chance and to not fuck it up. Freddy is the closest thing he has to an actual friend at this point in time, and Don realistically doesn’t have any options anymore but to listen.

Relinquishing that kind of control is difficult for anyone, for Don especially, as this series has shown us time and time again. Sure it’s degrading, but he’s been given another chance at work, and at life: this is not something everyone gets. Start at the bottom, play by their rules, work your way back up and prove yourself; wise words from Freddy Rumsen, a man who’s been there/done that. Freddy is living proof of the “after” side of that equation. He’s freelancing all over the place while living a sober life, and trying to help Don get back to where he’s supposed to be. If Don behaves as he’s been clearly instructed, things will fall into place in due time. Arriving at the office that morning, Don gets right to work on tags for Peggy.

As much hope as the end of last week’s episode gave me with how he handled himself, I wasn’t expecting Don not to stumble; nobody is that good, not even Don Draper. Don’t run, Don: Do The Work. Evolve.

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Mad Men s7e4, “The Monolith”

  1. You write about TV with more smarts than I do. I’ve been seeing the whole series as Don’s fall, interrupted by grasps at genius. Lou was great in this episode. And I love the thought that Don was calling their bluff by taking the offer. I just saw it as his continuing fall. I’ll have more thoughts on my site tomorrow – http://todd-a.com

    • hey thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed reading!

      Lou was sharp as a tack in this episode, agreed. that guy will apparently do anything in the interest of self-preservation and personal pride.

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