Mad Men: “The Monolith”
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Mad Men: “The Monolith”

“Do the work”

Sonia: It wasn’t until after we filed last week’s review that a crucial component of “Field Trip” clicked into place for me: Sterling Cooper & Partners put Don in Lane’s office—quite literally, the office of a dead man. Mad Men is not always a subtle show—the significance of Don’s new office is lost on no one, including Don himself, who this week finds Lane’s old New York Mets pennant under the radiator. But it made me laugh to hear the show comment on its own un-subtlety this week, with the following exchange: “It’s not symbolic.” “No, it’s quite literal.” Unsubtle too is SC&P’s choice of office for Don, which builds up in glances and asides to Bert Cooper’s pronouncement to Don, as the latter is standing in stocking feet in the former’s office: You and the dead man are in the same boat. Both founders of this company, and both useless to the rest of us.

“The Monolith” is a pretty clear-cut episode of Mad Men, but that doesn’t prevent it from being fascinating. We’ve been with the characters and the show long enough by now that we can anticipate what the story might be trying to tell us. And there is nothing subtle about kicking the creative team out of their lounge so that Harry Crane can finally get a huge computer to take up the same amount of space—Harry insists it’s not “symbolic,” to which Don retorts with the obvious. It’s not symbolic, it’s literal—this is the literal displacement of progress, the physical manifestation of change. As Mad Men is (slowly) wrapping up, it’s looking more and more at whatever the future is going to bring, and much like that huge IBM computer, the future is a looming, loud presence that will, inevitably, displace them entirely. The monolith is a memento mori, and Michael Ginsberg’s yelling about it might not be admirable, but it’s certainly understandable.

The other memento mori in the episode—more obviously—is the Mets pennant, which Don tacks on his wall. I love that Don pins that, of all things, to his wall. There’s little else in there besides his advertising awards, which you can see over his shoulder in a few shots. But the pennant? Does Don like baseball? Does Don like the Mets? He’s a fan, sort of, by the end of the episode, when he’s drunk and rambling and fully prepared to sabotage his second (third?) chance at life. But it seems then that Don has fully embraced being a dead man, and it’s only Freddie Rumsen and the gospel of hangover coffee that can bring him back to life.

As Don transforms through the episode, so too does the meaning of the pennant. At first it’s a macabre oddity; then it’s a warning; then it’s a prophecy. By the end of the episode, I think it’s a memorial, of sorts, to what could have been.

As much as I felt for Don in this episode, his behavior is also extraordinarily frustrating—on purpose! Here is a man who has somehow finagled a second chance—and yet he’s now on the verge of blowing it. It’s very real—too real—for both Don Draper as a character and Don Draper as a symbol of the casually privileged white man. After all our speculation last week about why he accepted the terrible offer the partners gave him, the reason now as to why Don said yes is obvious: He really didn’t think they were serious. Or if he did, he suspected he’d be able to charm his way out of it. On some level, he came back to work, but as I’m sure many of you can attest, an office is not always the best place for work. There’s socializing and politics to be addressed, first.

It’s a relief to see Don sit down at his typewriter at the end of the episode and just start writing. I laughed out loud again at hearing the music that began playing over that scene and into the credits: The Hollies’ “On A Carousel,” which is a nod both to the endless rat race of the corporate world and also to the first season’s epic finale, “The Wheel,” that is the closest Don Draper came to a Hershey incident before the Hershey incident. It’s also a pitch Ken remembers Don by in “Field Trip.” I’m so excited to see the show making connections within itself, even as it constructs broader arcs for these characters; I love that it is able and willing to reckon with the idea that “The Wheel” matters, both for the show and for Don.

Todd: The connections run not just within this series, but within this season and even within this episode. “The Monolith” struck me as a bit clunky in places, though I appreciated the way the show called itself out for this, but it had a circularity I found oddly pleasing all the same. Look, for instance, to how Roger references Shangri La, something that came up back in the season premiere while Don was watching TV. Here, Roger means to use his reference to it as a way to mock his daughter’s dream—of living at a hippie commune—as unsustainable. She’s a wife and mother. She has responsibilities, and she’s behaving awfully selfishly. But what happens when the life that we want runs directly counter to the life that others want for us, especially when those others are dependent on us in some way? Contrary to what you may have been taught, a little selfishness is a good thing. Margaret (excuse me, Marigold) is right when she says that her son won’t be served well by an unhappy mother. But he also won’t be served well by a nonexistent mother.

And yet that hope for happiness informs everything that happens in this show, and it remains elusive, always just ahead of the characters, who futilely reach after its trail. After six previous seasons of discussing that very thing, you might think the show would be running out of ways to look at it, but here’s “The Monolith,” where people’s happiness is, they believe, tied to their self-determination and not having to worry about the feelings of others. But it’s really, really not. Just as Marigold is abandoning her son, Don is abandoning Peggy. No matter the love lost between the two of them, he still owes her those tags. And no matter how much he dislikes the idea of Lou starting from the tags and then circling back around to the central idea, he answers to the man now, and he doesn’t have a lot of choice.

I mentioned the episode makes connections within itself, and I can think of none better than the scene of Roger and his daughter looking up at the stars through the open holes in the barn roof. It calls back to an earlier conversation Don had with the computer guy, about how the computer could count as many stars in a day as a human being could in a lifetime. The potential for what a computer can do is infinite, while our own potential is quite finite, even as we, as a species, have somehow mastered the infinite. But, Don says, does anybody lay on their back and count stars just to count stars? Isn’t counting stars almost always about something else, about contemplating your own place in the world and the cosmos or even just getting your mind off of whatever’s troubling you?

It certainly is for Roger and Margaret, who use their look up at the stars as a way to talk about anything but what’s really going on, the way that Roger feels disappointed in Margaret and she feels doubly disappointed in him. They talk about the moon shot and the barn’s roof, but they don’t talk about themselves. What I think the episode is saying here is the flipside of the earlier scenes: We have responsibilities to others, yes, and it’s important that we make their lives as good as they possibly can be if they rely on us. But it’s also, ultimately, we ourselves who are responsible for our own happiness. Saying that you’re never happy because your parents were bad parents may be true, but it’s also only you who can fix that. And in the process of saying that, of worrying about yourself, you ignore all of the damage you do to your own children. Happiness is a useful pursuit, but too much of it, and everything starts to spin off its axis in the course of the chase.

Sonia: Roger’s entire story with Marigold and the commune surprised me, in part because it offered up a connection that I would have never made before—that Margaret takes after Roger more than Mona. Roger’s reluctance to get involved—and then his sudden insistence on staying involved—still eludes me a little bit. And then his sudden, whiplash reversal into the stern father—even going so far as to pick her up and carry her to the car? Perhaps I read too much into the scene, but it looked to me like Roger gets upset specifically because Marigold went off to sleep with Cletis, or whatever his name is. That was his breaking point into sudden anger—and ironically so, because if anyone is a shameless adulterer, it’s Roger Sterling. The show doesn’t go for subtlety here, either—they both end up rolling around in the muck. Roger doesn’t have the high ground. But as you point out, Todd, I think it’s crucial that Margaret doesn’t, either. It’s telling for her character that she went out of her way to “forgive” Roger and then unleashed a lifetime’s worth of venom at him; it’s telling that she thinks she’s happy now.

Roger’s ruptured relationship with Margaret seems like a memorial, too, just like the Mets pennant: an image of what Don’s relationship with Sally could be like, if Don doesn’t straighten out his shit. The hippies lounging on the porch of the commune evoked for me the whores lounging on the porch of the brothel that Don grew up in—different intentions, similar outcomes. More and more, I feel like what Mad Men is offering with its last season is snapshots of what didn’t work—what isn’t the way forward. It’s clear that the only way anyone will survive this decade is to evolve, and even then, they will only survive a bit longer. The status quo just isn’t an option anymore—the world is moving too fast. Not even the Pete Campbells of the world can coast by without changing. Margaret’s not evolving, though—she’s running, and that won’t work. Just as Don’s trip down a bottle of vodka won’t work, or Peggy’s hesitation to knock on Don’s door. If there’s a message to this episode, it is: Don’t run. “Do the work,” indeed.

And perhaps I’m waxing poetic about Margaret because I’m avoiding discussing Peggy, her unlikely namesake. I confess I don’t quite know what to make of Peggy anymore. (From the conference call between Pete, Ted, and the partners in New York, it seems like they don’t really know, either.) In part this is because Peggy, I think, doesn’t really know why she’s so mad all the time anymore. Her whole life, since the first season, has been about being pissed about something: frustrated ambition, frustrated romance, secret babies, authority issues. It’s fascinating to me how unhappy she is, given how far she has gotten in so many ways. Peggy keeps making more money—she keeps getting more work! Is there more nonsense to slog through? Of course there is, and she’s smart to see it. But Peggy seems to think that at some point there will be a thing she will achieve, and then she’ll be happy. Or at least she’ll be powerful, which is like happiness, in that it is a thing people want. But in the meantime, she loses all the power and happiness that is within her grasp now. Peggy is stuck in a sad, dull place, and it’s making her into a bitter, middle-aged woman. The production is already framing her that way: The costumes she wears look the most dated to us, even though they’re modern for the time—because the women who wore those outfits wore them for decades, long after the world had passed them by. Even just the lines on Elisabeth Moss’ face as she’s staring down the hallway have begun to settle into a mask of washed-up unhappiness. I want better for Peggy—and at the same time, I can understand her bitterness.

Todd: God, I can, too. This episode is so full of shots of people looking at each other, trying to understand each other and failing, because they’re so preoccupied by their own concerns. Take, for instance, the way that Don sits there on the couch while Peggy tells him all about BurgerChef, staring at her in incredulous anger before mustering a few questions that he doesn’t get the answer he wants to. Or think of Roger, trying to understand his daughter and realizing he doesn’t because he doesn’t really understand himself. Everybody on Mad Men is the master of glib assholery, and they trap themselves too often by being so (though it’s so very entertaining to watch them do so).

This keeps me circling back to the title of the episode and one of its opening shots. Say the words “The Monolith,” and just about anybody with any pop culture knowledge whatsoever will think of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, that giant black piece of alien technology that granted unto our ape ancestors knowledge enough to use tools and will grant unto future versions of ourselves a greater understanding of our place in the cosmos (and the ability to turn into star babies). And if you look quickly, there’s a shot of a monolith in this episode. Okay, it’s not actually a monolith, but the elevator doors opposite the elevator Don gets out of as the episode begins. Scott Hornbacher frames the shot both so that we know what the shot is (an elevator, dummy) and so it evokes the famous object from 2001. Somewhere inside this office is the knowledge Don needs to unlock whatever the next stage of his evolution is.

Really, that’s what “The Monolith” is about underneath it all. The characters are pushing toward the things that will let them move past the failed versions of themselves that you’ve talked about, Sonia, past all of the wrong versions of events, toward something right. Deep down, I think that Matt Weiner and his writers don’t want to punish these characters or even have them see a real comeuppance. That comeuppance came last season, for the most part, and now, they’re heading into a new era, one that may bring new consciousness or a dream of men who’d dare walk on the moon. Change isn’t coming for these characters; change is already here. Now if only they’d recognize it.

Sonia’s grade: A-
Todd’s grade: B+

 Stray observations:

  • Pete learns that his soon-to-be former father-in-law just had a heart attack, and he primarily sees it as an opportunity for business. Never change, Pete Campbell! [TV]
  • Don is reading Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, which is famous for having a sex-obsessed narrator and several depictions of masturbation. So, you think Freud watches Mad Men? [SS]
  • It gives me great pleasure that Mad Men decided the big client for this episode would be BurgerChef, because one of those random things I like to research in all my spare time are failed American restaurant chains. And, in a way, BurgerChef represents both the monolith and Don: It became so huge because of technological innovation, but it eventually faltered because it was too cocksure and circled the drain. Anyway, if you want to eat at a BurgerChef now, you can’t, but you can sort of replicate the experience at a random restaurant in Illinois. (Please go check it out for me, Sonia. It is one of my dreams to eat there.) [TV]
  • Another example of the show using our knowledge of the present to inform the past: Whatever “LeaseTech” is, it’s not around today. But IBM is. [TV]
  • I didn’t get a chance to write about it, but Joan and Peggy’s little interaction towards the end of the episode spoke volumes about these two women and how they’ve changed. And Joan’s comment to Peggy is both so flip and also so true: “Well, Peggy, I don’t know if this will make you feel better, but I don’t think they thought about it at all.” [SS]
  • Sole script credit for this episode goes to Erin Levy. It’s the first script to not feature Matt Weiner’s name since last season’s penultimate hour, and it’s the first hour to be credited to a sole writer not named Matt Weiner since season six’s “To Have And To Hold,” also written by Erin Levy. [TV]
  • “Believe me, there’s always a hierarchy.” [SS]
  • AMC would like you to think of all of that outdated computer technology as an advertisement for its upcoming Halt And Catch Fire. [TV]
  • “Harry Crane took a dump, and we got flushed down the toilet.” [SS]
  • Next week on Mad Men: Don really got his flow going with those tags. It’s night, and he’s still typing. [TV]
  • UPDATE: Somehow in the process of inputting this review the “-” got left off of my “A-.” So I’ve updated the review to take that original A down a notch. Still a fantastic episode, but you gotta save those As for something. [SS] 
Filed Under: TV, Mad Men, AMC

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