Mad Men - The Monolith

TV Review – Mad Men episode 704: The Monolith

Spoiler Alert! If you haven’t seen episode 704 of Mad Men, be warned that this piece contains spoilers.

Mad MenEarly in episode 704 of Mad Men, titled “The Monolith”, Don arrives late to work to find that everyone has been gathered for an announcement. Jim Cutler and Harry Crane wear hard hats and are flanked by Lou and a representative from Lease Tech, who is set to install their computer. Cutler announces, with great gusto, that the computer will take the place of the creative lounge, “to let every client know we’ve entered the future!”

Late to the game and out of the loop, Don looks around the room, puzzled at what is going on at the agency he created. The place is evolving without him.

After the announcement, Roger calls Don over and lets him know they’ve purchased a computer. “It’s going to do lots of magical things, like make Harry Crane seem important,” Roger says. When Don asks about the decision, Roger merely shrugs and tells Don to take it up with Cutler, removing all doubt where the true power lies at SC&P.

As Don makes his way to his office, he passes his team, who are packing boxes and bitching about being shunted off into offices. Ginsberg is the loudest of the bunch, perhaps voicing what Don is thinking. But it’s Mathis, the low man on the totem pole, who nails it when he says offhandedly that it was the creative lounge that made SC&P unique. As the agency hurries to the future, intoxicated by the promise of the monstrous computer, they are unknowingly sacrificing their creative identity at the cost of becoming a commodity that will look like every other agency.

This week’s episode is about evolution, with a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and as the agency embraces the evolution of the advertising business, Don and Roger are forced to come to terms with their place in that future. The episode gets close to being heavy handed at times, and will likely prove to be a pivotal moment in the final season of Mad Men, setting the table for their fates.

Three weeks alone in that cave and he hasn’t clubbed another ape yet.

A literal definition of monolith has to do with a large, stone monument, and in Don Draper, that’s what we have. He’s been back on the job three weeks, but hasn’t been given a single assignment. He seems to simply show up to work and hang out in his office all day, reading. He is a living monument to the origins of the agency, a primal figure, like the apes early in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Burger ChefRoger drives home the symbolism during a partner’s meeting where he, Pete, Lou, Ted and Cutler strategize on how to handle Pete’s opportunity with Burger Chef. Cutler sees a chance to bring Ted back and consolidate his power once and for all, but Ted nips that idea in the bud, suggesting Peggy for the lead. Lou, feeling threatened, seizes on the Peggy idea. Pete wants nothing to do with her and asks if Don is free to work the account. Roger supports Pete and reminds everyone that Don has “spent three weeks alone in that cave, and he hasn’t clubbed another ape yet.” It’s a direct reference to the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the apes find the first monolith – a watershed moment where apes are inspired to build tools and evolve to an eventual godlike status.

It’s interesting that in six previous seasons, Don’s biggest threat always been Don Draper, and just as he seems to get the upper hand on his demons, another unforeseen threat emerges to possibly topple him once and for all. Danger comes from without as well as from within, and while both battles are fought simultaneously, victory in one doesn’t necessarily mean victory in another.

Sure, Don is sticking around, instead of running off like Roger’s daughter Margaret/Marigold. And yes, he’s drinking less, though maybe not in this episode. But the world doesn’t care, and SC&P certainly doesn’t care. Time marches on, disguised as progress, and Don Draper has been relegated to a supporting role in a drama he inspired. He doesn’t like it. He feels like he should be doing his old job, but Jim Cutler and the rest of the partners won’t let him. For now. This leaves Don with a choice – fight back or give up.

Lou gives Peggy the lead on Burger Chef, along with a $100-a-week raise. As with Don’s return, the money comes with stipulations. The extra money is for babysitting Don Draper, who is put on the account to pacify Pete and Roger. Lou thought Don was permanently sidelined, but the Machiavellian Cutler saddles Lou with his rival, perhaps setting in motion a showdown/Lou blow-up that will necessitate a return by Ted.

Peggy’s happiness at the extra money is nearly washed by the anxiety she immediately feels over managing her former mentor. Don responds to her attempts to manage him by acting like a spoiled child and ignoring an assignment to write 25 tags by the next business day. When Don asks for a strategy, which is his way of reminding her that she is going in the wrong order or business, she uses Lou’s method of “sneaking up on a strategy” as a way to humiliate Don. That she agrees with Don doesn’t matter in this instance. She has a score to settle.

Don’s response to Peggy’s leadership is to sulk off to his office and toss a typewriter against the wall before leaving early for the day. 25 tags for Burger Chef ain’t no Jaguar.

As the racket of the construction bangs away, just outside of Don’s office, he strikes up an acquaintance with Lloyd, owner of Lease Tech. This leads Lloyd to pop into Don’s office one day to inquire about possibly doing some advertising. Don has been reading Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint,” which is defined as “a disorder in which strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a pervers nature.” How like Don.

Mad MenDuring their conversation, Don learns he’s left IBM to go off on his own, both servicing and selling their machines. Don instinctively falls into pitch-mode and starts digging around by asking Lloyd what is unique about what Lease Tech does. It’s an echo of the comment Mathis made at the opening of the episode. Don is what’s unique about SC&P, just as Lloyd is what makes a commodity like Lease Tech (whose name is even generic) unique. Without these men, you lose the heart of each respective company. Just as Don warms Lloyd up and is ready to go in for the kill, Harry shows up to have lunch with Lloyd, thus pouring yet another bucket of cold water on Don.

Don hurries to Roger’s office, but finds him gone for the day. He pays a visit to Bert’s office and receives another humiliation.

Don’s creative juices are flowing, and, sensing an easy win, excitedly tells Bert what he’s just learned about Lease Tech. When Bert reminds Don of the stipulations of his agreement, forbidding Don from being alone with clients or improvising a sales pitch, Don graciously accepts the chiding and offers the plum up to anyone who’ll take it.

Bert promptly tears into Don, ripping him a new asshole. At first glance, this may seem a bit harsh, but when Don’s attitude towards Peggy is brought into the mix, Bert’s humbling of Don seems warranted.

Mad MenOf course, Don doesn’t see it that way and pushes back on Bert. Bert digs harder at Don. “You thought there was going to be a big creative crisis, and we’d pull you off the bench. But we’re doing just fine,” he says with a wicked smile. Don asks why he’s here, if this is the attitude of everyone. Bert throws the question back at him, emphasizing the “why.” “Because I started this agency,” Don says. This kind of reminder from Don would usually be enough for him to get his way, but Bert gets the final word on this argument by telling Don that he did indeed start this agency, “along with a dead man, whose office you now inhabit.”

Ouch.

It is a cruel statement of fact that stops Don dead in his tracks. Bert is a man who once groomed Don for great things, but now seems bent on seeing Don broken and humiliated. Remember that Don ruined an IPO that would have added to Bert’s riches immensely. He also brushed Bert aside, once the new agency was started, relegating Bert to an emeritus status and no office for a time. Don’s attitude shows that he still hasn’t totally accepted his role in the disciplinary measures that have been taken against him.

Bert’s words are interesting as well. He’s referring to Lane Pryce, of course, whose Mets pennant Don found earlier in the episode, jammed under a credenza. Bert reminds Don that Lane couldn’t hack it in this world, and seems to be predicting a similar fate for the former Golden Boy. The use of the word “inhabit” is an animal reference, further driving home Roger’s “ape” analogy/2001 symbology from earlier.

Don runs off, feeling sorry for himself, and steals a bottle of vodka from Roger’s office and locks himself in his office, where he can get drunk. Later, he calls Freddie Rumsen and asks him if the Mets are playing. The call plays like a plea for help, which Freddie is more than happy to answer. Freddie takes Don to the game, brings him safely home, and is there to serve him coffee in the morning that is as “strong and black as Jack Johnson.”

Freddie knew that when Don called, it was too late to talk sense to him, so he waited until the next morning. Freddie is a good friend to Don, and like good friends sometimes must, he gives him a dose of tough love. He asks Don what the hell he’s doing, pissing away a second chance. Don shrugs off the so-called second chance by telling him he’s merely writing 25 tags for Burger Chef.

Mad MenFreddie tries to steer Don back on the right path, but Don won’t cooperate. Finally, his frustration growing, Don tells Freddie he simply wants his job back. Freddie gives him the AA line – “How are you going to get it at the bottom of a bottle?” – but follows it up with a more personal plea, asking Don if he’s going to go the way of the dinosaur and give up and give them what they want. He challenges Don to go to his room, put on his uniform, fix bayonets and hit the parade. These old vets know what that means.

It’s a great moment, given the history of these two. Don and Roger helped Freddie preserve his honor when they had to let him go for too much drinking, and Freddie is generous is repaying the favor to his old colleague and friend. He finishes off his pep talk with a closer worthy of Don Draper – “Do the work, Don.”

That he does. He gets to work ahead of Peggy, loads up his typewriter and gets to work. Peggy, ready to make another passive-aggressive attempt at getting work from him is pleasantly surprised when Don tells her she’ll have her tags before lunch.

You talk like a friend, but you’re not.

There is a cleavage at SC&P, with Jim Cutler representing the evolution of the advertising business from a primal, gut-driven affair where dangerous men like Don Draper called the shots to a well-ordered new age, where technology rules and guys like Harry Crane are king. This evolution is also a metaphor for the sixties and how the white, male, Anglo power structure was rocked off its foundation.

Cutler has a knack for seeing spotting trends and capitalizing on them. He’s an unsentimental opportunist, with no emotional ties to the past. He wets his finger, holds it in the air and follows where the wind blows, hoping to beat the other guy to the punch.

While Matthew Weiner paints Cutler in a somewhat positive light, there is a dark shadow in Cutler’s wake where guys like Harry Crane, a negative kind of opportunist, seek refuge. It’s as though Cutler’s brand of opportunism is good ol’ Yankee ingenuity, while Harry Crane represents the conniving, mid-level bureaucrats who trail after the Jim Cutlers of the world – cynics, ready to pounce on and exploit any opportunity.

When Cutler got a complaint from a client about not having a computer, then pressed Harry on the matter and heard his story, he connected the dots and knew, without completely understanding, that SC&P had to have a computer of their own. At the beginning of the episode, as he and Harry announce the “groundbreaking” event before the whole staff, it’s at once a proud prescient moment for Cutler, as well as a smoothly executed consolidation of power. He’s the only one at the agency who can get everyone moving in the same direction.

That said, it’s no accident where the computer will live. Distrusting the wild and unpredictable ways of creative, the computer must have seemed like a dream to guys like Jim Cutler back in the 60’s. They could do the work of dozens of men, and they didn’t throw fits or come back from lunch drunk. And they made advertising seem less like the work of wizards and more like something safe and predictable.

As in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was released in 1968, the SC&P computer (an IBM 360) is like the first monolith, which helped the primitive ape-like humans learn how to manipulate their environment through the use of their minds and tools constructed by them.

The cleavage at SC&P goes like this. There’s Don and a few creatives vs. Cutler and everyone else. The creatives feel threatened by the new technology with good reason. The proponents of the computer like to talk about how it will somehow do “magical things,” as Roger said. Really, all the computer will do is make it easy to purchase attention for clients. Once engaged, someone still has to create an ad, but at that moment in history, creatives became old news. The computer was the sexy new girl that everyone wanted to get to know, even though they didn’t really understand everything it might one day do.

Don gets this, of course, but we learn that even he isn’t immune to the fear that this new machine has wrought on his staff. There is no shortcut to creativity. Computers can’t touch the heart of a human being, to the point of tears, with art. The creative work that moves people and captivates their full attention, as discounted as it may be, is the unique selling feature at SC&P…for now.

As Don sniffs out Lloyd for the first time, they have an interesting exchange. Lloyd has witnessed some sniping between Don and Harry, and in an attempt to show that he understands what’s going on, he tells Don that the computer tends to “be a metaphor for whatever is on peoples’ minds.” He goes on to tell Don that it is merely a machine made by people for people, to which Don adds that people are frightening, so why shouldn’t a computer that they unleash on their enemies. Lloyd shrugs off that argument saying that the reason people are afraid of computers is because of the infinite amount of information they contain.

Lloyd goes on to declare a godlike mastery of facts and figures. As proof, he declares that the machine can count more stars in a day than a man might in a lifetime. To this, Don draws a line in the sand, asking what man would lie on the ground, counting stars merely to think of a number, but Lloyd is good. He counters Don by saying that such a man was probably thinking about going to the moon, which was an obsession at the time.

Don might inspire consumers to want to conquer the moon…or at least drive a car that looks like it could do the job, but Lloyd’s machine will map out the way to the moon with mind-boggling efficiency.

Later, as Don and Freddie make their way out of the office to a Mets game, Don spies Lloyd working and confronts him. Don is very drunk, and walks up to Lloyd and tells him he talks like a friend, but he’s not. Lloyd is freaked out by an attack from a client who’d previously been friendly and helpful. When he tells Don he doesn’t understand what’s going on, Don tells Lloyd he knows his name. Lloyd nervously repeats his name for Don, but Don has none of it. “No,” Don says. “You go by many names, but I know who you are.” Freddie jumps in and pulls Don away, but not before Don takes one last swipe. “You don’t’ need a campaign,” he says. “You’ve got the best campaign since the beginning of time.”

Did Don call Lloyd the Devil? I think so. And in doing so, he merely echoed what the rest of his team has been thinking, especially Ginsberg. They have lost their favorite child status, having been broken up and tucked safely away in offices with doors and walls that insulate clients from their unpredictability.

The tragedy in this mad rush to embrace the computer is that no one outside of Pete and Roger seems to get the idea that brilliant creative is what got SC&P where it is and will somehow need to partner with technology to propel the agency into the future. All anyone can see is that, for the moment, everything is rosy with no end in sight.

It’s time to leave Shangri-La, baby

Finally, there’s Roger. All season long, he’s seemed more-and-more an outsider at the agency that bears his name. With the forward-thinking Jim Cutler calling the shots, Roger seems complacent, like a cow being led to the slaughter. Make no mistake, Mad Men will not be kind to Roger Sterling. He seems all-but-doomed to be a casualty of progress and the sixties.

He and his wayward daughter are monoliths for each other, in the literal sense of the term, with each serving as painful reminders of the failures of their family. Toss in Mona, and you have a hat-trick of tragic monoliths.

After the meeting where Roger feels like he’s helped Don, he gets a surprise visit from Mona, grandson Ellery and Brooks, Margaret’s sad-sack husband. Mona has drug Brooks to see Roger against his will. Margaret has abandoned the family for a hippie commune up the Hudson River in Kingston, not far from Woodstock. Hmmmm.

Mona wants Roger to go to the commune and bring her home, but Roger wants nothing to do with that, as usual. Brooks, who wants them not to meddle, is in agreement with Roger, and the matter is settled. He’ll go up and get his wife. Mona reluctantly goes along with the plan. What else can she do? Is a drunken socialite going to drive two hours north and hunt around in the woods for her errant daughter?

A couple of days later, Roger gets a message from Mona, informing him that Brooks is in jail in some small town, where he was arrested for getting in a fight. That means road trip for Roger and Mona.

The place where Margaret – or Marigold, as she’s now called – is holed up looks like something out of a “Life” magazine spread from the era. A bunch of dirty, ill-clad hippies move about the place, suspicious of Roger and Mona, who seem like the Drysdales in their city attire.

Roger plays his ace by throwing money at the problem, but his money is no good here. When Mona attempts to appeal to Margaret’s motherly instincts, Margaret throws Mona’s alcoholism in her face, which sends Mona back to New York. Alone.

Roger, always a good-time Charlie, joins in with the hippie gang, peeling potatoes and cracking wise with the resident alpha-male, who claims there are no alphas. Things appear to be going well, with father and daughter laughing and having a good time. That night, as they sleep under the stars, Margaret tells Roger she’s happy. Roger, who knows a thing or two about hippies, says he knows.

But during the night, Margaret sneaks off to be with her boyfriend of the moment, which causes Roger to look at this oasis differently come morning. He asks around for Margaret, and her friends lie about her whereabouts until she shows up with the boyfriend.

Roger informs Margaret that the charade is over, and it’s time to go back to reality, where her little boy awaits. When Margaret refuses to go, Roger picks her up and drags her off, with the hippies protesting but doing nothing.

Mad MenWhen Roger slips in the mud (a bit of Woodstock foreshadowing maybe?) and they end up covered in filth, they get to their feet and square off. He tells her he gets the attractiveness of running off to screw without consequences, but reminds her of her family. As he presses the point, Margaret lashes out at Roger, as she did to Mona, throwing his selfish disinterest back in his face, adding barbed details that must have hurt her as much remembering them as they did him as he heard their ringing indictment of his bad fathering. She pulls no punches, finally landing a knockout punch by telling Roger that she’s learned, just as he must surely have learned, that it’s rather easy to turn your back on your family. Much easier than you’d think.

Once beaten, there’s nothing for Roger to do but stumble off in search of the train back to the city. If this won’t chill him to the bone, nothing will. And I’m betting that, ultimately, it won’t.

Like Don, Roger has been given a harsh wake-up call. The sins of the past have been recounted, and like a friend says, it’s never to late to start doing the right thing. But it seems that Roger is so lost that he won’t be able to find the way back to the future. Instead, he seems destined to be left behind, a casualty of progress…and his own bad decisions.

I’ll have your tags by lunch.

As the episode draws to a close, Don arrives at work, fresh as a Daisy. Peggy gets in just after him, and as she pauses at her secretary’s desk, she pauses to observe the progress of the massive computers and their reel-to-reel tapes that are being wheeled into place. They serve as a reminder not only of what is to come but what has come before. Namely, Don.

As she screws up her courage and approaches his office, Don is literally rolling up his sleeves to get to work on the Burger Chef presentation. Before she can say anything, Don turns, undoes a cufflink and tells Peggy he’ll have her tags by lunch.

Peggy has the good sense to take Don at his word and merely says great before moving on. Watching these two work together will be something to behold as the first half of the final season of Mad Men winds down.

As the episode closes, the camera stays with Don as the Hollies’s “On A Carousel” begins. A flood of thoughts accompany the song, as we see Don just doing the work, as Freddie suggested. After all, this is still the same Don Draper who delivered the Carousel pitch for Kodak, as the song reminds us. So, we watch him work, filled with hopeful optimism. And because he may have finally been humbled, he is worthy of our cheering. It turns out, we need Don Draper to be back on top.