Mad Men S7 Episode 4: “The Monolith” and All It Symbolizes

2014-05-07 10.23.13

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FROM SINATRA TO ABBEY ROAD

Now that we’re in the home stretch of the series, it appears more and more that Mad Men is designed to serve as a metaphor for the entire sweep of the Sixties, with Season 1 originating as it did in the year of 1960 and this one winding down in 1969.

 

The early seasons reminded us that culturally, the first half of the 1960s (1960-64) were still the Fifties (if we take the ‘60s to begin sometime after Kennedy was shot and the Beatles debuted on Ed Sullivan).

 

What lured us into Mad Men in the first place was the seductiveness of the bygone aesthetics of the Frank Sinatra/Marilyn Monroe era as seen through the show’s protagonists, and the dream of being one of those all-powerful Mad Men like Don or Roger (or a member of their postcard families) in an era when no one worried about social problems, political correctness, or the environment. Of course, Mad Men showed us the dirt as well, but we were still mostly captivated by these people who seemed so above it all and untouchable.

 

Then came the “Revolver” years of Mad Men, the mid-1960s, when the smell of reefer was wafting through the cracks in the doors at Sterling, Cooper. The Counterculture was definitely making inroads, but the innocence was still there and the narrative that Don and Roger grew up with was still intact. Even the junkies that Betty encountered in Manhattan during her brief walk on the wild side were raffishly appealing with model thinness and photogenic cheekbones.

 

But now, in Season 7, we are firmly in the Woodstock phase (or more appropriately Altamont). These are the ‘60s in all their hirsute, post-apocalyptic heaviness.

 

In the Sinatra phase of Mad Men, the story of plain, working-class, Catholic, unwed mother Peggy overcoming sexism and classism to break into the executive ranks would have been enough of a story arc. (While we all like and respect Joan, she primarily used her sexuality to first attain alpha-female status in the office and then ultimately become a partner; hers is the pre-Womens’ Lib storyline of how a girl uses her charms and wiles to succeed in a man’s world.)

 

Typical for the Sinatra generation, Don and Roger were war veterans. Their combat experience made them each heroes and gave them license to take copious liberties and assume a natural mantle of authority. Combat in those days conferred alpha maleness more than mere social status did. Just see Pete Campbell for contrast.

 

In the “Revolver” era, new blood comes into the office. Unlike Don and Roger, the younger guys like Rizzo and Ginsberg weren’t hardened in any battle trenches. They are softer and more sensitive. The new wunderkinds are ethnics, and the firm also saw its first black employees as well.

 

In this era, Don lost his picture-perfect family, but he gained a swinging new penthouse life, while Roger found that psychedelic drugs actually enhanced his Rogerness.

 

But now we’re in the Abbey Road phase of the ‘60s, the swan song of both the decade itself and the four lads from Liverpool who embodied its specialness. In 1969 the Fab Four can no longer stand each other’s company and are about to break up. The whimsy of smoking grass and writing the songs on “Revolver” is gone. The drug trip is a lot heavier now. The two geniuses of the Beatles don’t even talk to each other anymore. One experiments with primal screaming and feedback loops and openly mocks the other for putting out paisley colored fluff (“I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello. Hello! Hello!”)

 

The Lennon/McCartney of Mad Men, Don and Roger, seem to be at the end of their ropes, too. In the words of Richard Nixon from an earlier episode, “We find ourselves rich in goods, but ragged in spirit.” Don, who used to be so head-turningly cool, now comes across as anachronistic. Both he and Betty (whose season debuted on last week’s episode) remain cigarette and alcohol squares while everyone else is evolving with the times. And Don can’t even hold his liquor anymore. His alcoholism has gone from being James Bond-style debonair to wetbrain.

 

Thank God he has Freddy Rumsen as his ersatz sponsor. And what a strange turn of events that is. Freddy, who was drummed out in alcoholic shame just as Don’s star was ascending is now the one who has to counsel Don on how to climb back up from banishment into a bottom rung role of subservience.

 

But Don’s battle with the bottle and his resentment of co-workers is just a sample of the battles awaiting him. This episode is more metaphor intensive and darkly foreshadowing than most, and based on my reading of the tea leaves, Don appears to have some Herculean battles ahead. But first, let’s talk about Roger’s week.

 

ROGER MEETS HIS MATCH (AKA: NO WOODSTOCK FOR YOU, OLD MAN)

Marigold and Roger

Marigold and Roger, with the dutchie being passed from the left hand side.

In their last encounter, Roger had joined his daughter Margaret for brunch and recriminations. Struggling to control her anger, she fixed him with a solemn expression meant to convey the lifetime of hurt that his bad fathering had caused her, and intoned through clenched teeth, “I forgive you.”

 

Roger, not deigning to care, retorted flippantly, “I forgive you, too!”

 

Well, this week Roger’s bad parenting has come a cropper. Margaret’s demeanor was so frosty and bitter in the previous encounter that when she talked about her amazing new religion, we didn’t get a good feeling about it.

 

But when Roger and his ex-wife Mona go upstate to retrieve their daughter from the commune she ran away to, we see Margaret in her new identity as “Marigold,” and she is radiant and relaxed, the consummate flowerchild. She seems genuinely happy there with her brethren and sistren, sleeping in hay under the stars without electricity.

 

By the way, the location of this house is given as Kingston, NY, which is a 20-minute drive from Woodstock. So it may feature again once the show enters August 1969, when the historic music festival took place.

 

And Roger digs it, too–at first. He takes a knowing toke off the doobie before father and daughter recline in identical positions staring up at the country sky with looks of total contentment on their faces. They fall asleep under the stars side by side like that, too. Father and daughter seem to be on the same page at last, and on her turf to boot, which represents a total coup against the world she was raised in by Mona and Roger.

 

In fact, this place jibes rather well with Roger’s recent enlightenment. We can almost see him joining the hippies at the free love farmhouse and becoming their Timothy Leary figure. Until of course one of them comes out to wake up Margaret and bring her inside for some adult recreation.

 

Initially, this scene stretches my credulity. After finally achieving the sort of closure she always wanted with her father, and on her terms no less, Margaret really couldn’t tell the hippie, “no, not tonight, I’m having a moment with my father here.” Instead, when he calls her in for sex she just nods and says, “sure, man.”

 

At first I didn’t buy it, but then I chewed on the meaning for a while. Roger is Margaret’s father, which means either she takes after him in being a total hedonist who will always choose having a good time over doing the right thing, or maybe Roger, being the consummate salesman, might fully embrace the moment with Margaret while they’re stoned under the stars, letting her get comfortable and tell her story as he amiably listened, but come morning he fully intended to close the deal and drag her off regardless of whether she went with the hippie boy or not.

 

The slap in the face of Margaret callously walking away from her father to go join an orgy is exactly what Roger’s indifferent fatherhood has brought upon himself. That is the meaning of this scene.

 

In any event, what happened the following morning totally surprised me. When Roger and fur-clad Mona put on their game faces and went upstate to collect their daughter, I thought they’d surely prevail, especially that morning when Roger affixed her with his patented smile and said “pack your things and take a last look around, you’re coming home now.”

 

That World War II dad act had always worked for Roger before. He had never not gotten his way on Mad Men, whether it was opportunistically canning someone at Sterling Cooper or announcing to the women in his life that he had traded one of them in for a younger upgrade.

 

But not this time, Roger fought Marigold and Roger lost. He was left there in the mud, licking his wounds. What I liked about this scene was that it was an all out battle of the generations. When a direct order didn’t work, Roger invoked the holy grail of our nuclear age: “I’m your father, you’re my daughter, and I’m rescuing you.” When that didn’t work he invoked the holier grail: “You’re a mother. You can’t just abandon your baby. You’re not allowed to do that!”

 

By Roger’s rules maybe you’re not allowed to do that, but that ‘s exactly what Roger did with Margaret. HE was an absent, uncaring, abandoning father himself.

Rejected Roger, with the mud of Woodstock upon him

Rejected Roger, with the mud of Woodstock upon him

In the old math that was acceptable because Roger was the provider. He may not have been there physically or emotionally for his chlldren, but he took care of them financially. As he saw it, that was his primary duty as a father, just as his daughter’s primary duty as a mother is to be with her child.

 

But Margaret flat out says no. “I’m happy here,” is her reasoning. This is the Me Generation up close and personal. Roger the World War II dad is left licking his wounds in the mud, trampled along with his values by the very fruit of his loins. He provided for her and now she’s flat out repudiating everything he stands for. That’s the Sixties generational conflict in a nutshell, and it’s the first time I can ever remember seeing Roger genuinely hurt. What hurts more is that he understands he mostly has himself to blame.

 

Roger, the man in the three-piece suit walks away in defeat. Maybe you can’t hang with the cool cats after all, old man. There on the fringes of Woodstock, in their suits and furs, the World War Two generation is stuck in the mud, repudiated by their hippie children.

Walking away in defeat

Walking away in defeat

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2014-05-07 09.51.21

WORKING CLASS HERO

Since last season when he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory during his Hershey’s pitch, Don has been in hero mode. Something has clicked in him and he’s no longer capable of lying or cheating. Right in the middle of landing the Hershey’s account he took a look at the faces around the table and announced that he was a fraud and so was the whole advertising business. He paid for that honesty by being stripped of his status. Now he’s given up philandering and his marriage with Megan as well, but he got his daughter back. When Sally told him “I love you,” I imagine that might very well be the first time anyone has ever said that to Don Draper or Dick Whitman.

 

Don no longer seems interested in being his old cool self. Instead he’s turning into a Lonely Guy who prefers the company of other lonely guys. He hangs out with Freddy Rumsen now. He commiserates with the spirit of Lane Pryce now.

 

I sensed that Don would end up conjuring up Lane Pryce someway when they assigned him to Lane’s former office in the last episode. This is why I’m willing to overlook the convenient way Don quickly finds Lane’s old Mets pennant which had somehow wound up under the window air conditioning unit after Lane’s suicide and remained there untouched all these months.

 

At first it looks like Don is flinging the pennant aside for the trash pile rather than preserving it for posterity. But later we see that Don has hung the pennant on the wall. He then leans back in coffin position and stares up at the place from which Lane hung himself, and we wonder how much Don blames himself for that.

 

The cold-heartedness of the old Don was partially responsible for Lane’s suicide, as it was for the death of the biological brother who had sought him out.

2014-05-07 09.48.46

The Mets pennant.

But the spirit of Lane Pryce now inhabits Don, turning him into a Mets fan. After he steals a bottle of vodka from Roger’s office and gets hammered, he calls Freddy Rumsen to go out to the Mets game. They never get to the game because Don passes out. But like the Mets, his season doesn’t end there.

 

This episode takes place in April, the start of baseball season. In major league baseball, 1969 was the year of the miracle Amazin’ Mets. Since their founding in 1962, the Mets had been the worst team in baseball, but somehow in the last part of 1969, they turned it all around, emerging from nowhere to become the World Champions.

 

There has always been a sharp delineation between Mets fans and Yankee fans. To be a Mets fan is to align yourself with the perennial underdog and know that your baseball season is going to be more about lowering your expectations and learning to celebrate the little victories.

 

The Yankees are the team with the glamour and the glory and the gallery of World Champion pennants displayed atop the ballpark. To be the Yankees is to be the best. It’s a tradition of winning that goes back to Ruth and Gehrig and continued right up through the Mad Men era with Mantle and Maris.

 

Even today there are Yankees fans and there are Mets fans, and the distinction is sharp. When you ask a Mets fan why they choose to align themselves with a team of perennial also-rans when the greatest franchise in baseball history is right next door, they’ll say, “I couldn’t tell you exactly, the Mets just feel right for me.”

 

Some people identify with the Mets and some people identify with the Yankees. It’s as true today as it was at any other time. The old Don Draper, the winning Don Draper, would have almost certainly been a Yankees man. But the new Don Draper, the one who stops in the middle of a winning Hershey’s pitch because he can no longer live a lie, is a Mets fan.

 

DON VS MACHINE

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 Don is becoming a Local Hero, but he also seems to be girding his loins for a much greater battle. The name of this episode is “The Monolith,” and it doesn’t seem too hard to guess where that reference comes from. Nods to the Kubrick film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which was released in 1968, are all over this episode.

 

As Don’s elevator opens in the first scene, the elevator doors across the lobby are revealed to look just like the mysterious monolith in “2001” that first turned the dumb apes into cunning apes and then shared the room with the film’s dying protagonist.

 

Roger later refers to Don having been holed up in his office for three weeks, but not having killed any apes yet. That could be “2001” or it could be “Planet of the Apes,” which was released the following the month.

 

Roger’s overall-clad grandson Ellery looks just like Danny in The Shining. Though that’s not from 2001, it is definitely Kubrick, and it’s definitely got an ominous undertone.

 

“2001: A Space Odyssey” begins with the monolith but it quickly turns to Dave vs. Hal, the supercomputer running the flight to Jupiter manned by Dave and the other astronauts. Spoiler Alert: Through trickery and guile Hal ends up working to kill off the astronauts by blaming his acts of sabotage on “human error.”

 

“2001” is a masterpiece of science fiction, exploring one of the genre’s over-arching themes–Man vs. Machine, shorthand for mankind creating devices of artificial intelligence that eventually end up turning on their creators.

 

In the late 1960s, people were beginning to talk of computers in these terms, and HAL was the prototype. The interesting thing is, then as now, computers weren’t just on spaceships, but entering the corporate workplace. It’s no accident that the acronym “HAL” is arrived at by subtracting one letter in the alphabet from “IBM.”

 

Coincidentally, at the start of this week’s episode, “The Monolith,” it’s 1969 and Sterling, Cooper, Etc. are getting an IBM mainframe computer of their own installed in the offices. As Mad Man Cutler announces, “This agency has entered the future.”

 

The metaphors pour out one after the other.

 

Don walks in on an office that has been eerily and hastily abandoned. There’s even a phone dangling off the hook. (How a spaceship would look after the evil computer disappeared all the humans?).

 

There turns out to be a perfectly logical reason everyone is gone–they’re all attending the mandatory groundbreaking ceremony for the computer installation. Overseeing the installation is a man named Lloyd Hawley. “Hawley” sounds just enough like HAL to leave you guessing, and Danny Lloyd was the actor who played Danny Torrance, the “Redrum” boy in The Shining. In a show like Mad Men, that can hardly be an accident.

Lloyd Hawley

Lloyd Hawley

Hawley tries to light a cigarette but can’t get the lighter to work, to which Don the primitive man replies tauntingly, “you’re unable to make fire,” adding, “such are the perils of technology.”

 

Hawley responds to Don with HAL’s very retort to his own crew of suspicious people that he’s about to eliminate: “Human error.”

 

With Hawley it isn’t just the name, it’s also the tone of voice. What made HAL scary on 2001 was not the things he did, but the voice he used. He had a flat monotone that suggested both a helpful machine and a cunning ruthlessness combined with an ability to think several steps ahead of any human mind.

 

In the final faceoff, Don, who is by this time is quite drunk and heading out with Freddy to catch the Mets game, sees Hawley and peels away from Rumsen to confront him. “You talk like a friend but you’re not,” Don tells Hawley, accusing him of using HAL’s modus operandi, or the devil’s, or both.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” Hawley responds. (HAL’s most revealingly villainous line was “I’m sorry, Dave.”)

“I know your name,” Don retorts. (Yeah, it’s HAL)

“Sure, because I already told you my name; It’s Lloyd,” Hawley says.

But Don is unrelenting. “You go by many names! I know who you are.”

At this moment Hawley’s demeanor changes and he shows anger, but no fear, as if his mask has been ripped away to reveal his pure malevolence.

Luckily, Freddy Rumsen diffuses the situation before it gets worse.

Don and Freddy leaving the office

Freddy steers Don out of the office

Even when Don lost it with the Hershey execs, he did so coolly and calmly. This episode started with Ginsberg acting crazy about the machine taking over and ended with Don acting crazy about the machine taking over. If you’re not acting crazy, it seems, you’re not paying attention.

 

In the earlier scene, the creatives were being literally replaced by the computer, which was being installed in their workroom. None of them seemed happy about it, but only Ginsberg stepped up, pathetically trying to argue for saving the couch by imbuing it with human characteristics and imploring that it’s “full of farts.” To me, Ginsberg’s rant is reminiscent of the “crazy man” in Invasion of the Body Snatchers futilely trying to warn people that they are being invaded and will soon all be taken over by alien life forms, but everyone goes right past, ignoring him. In the end, of course, that “mad man” was right, they were taking over.

 

Lloyd Hawley kind of looks like Don Draper, too, or at least like his Stepford replacement. Same starched white shirt, rich dark hair, and youthful appearance of quiet competence, confidence, and ambition. But he’s got the same cold look in his eye as HAL the 2001 computer. He introduces the IBM mainframe in some of the same words used to sell HAL to the skeptical astronauts in 2001.

 

“This computer can count more stars in a day than we can count in a lifetime,” Hawley tells Don. We have to chuckle at the quaintness of that language. Today computing power is measured in seconds, not days, and the phones in our pockets are more powerful computers than the ones that put man on the moon, let alone the one going into Sterling, Cooper.

 

That brings us to perhaps the ultimate metaphor of this episode.

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DON VS MEDIOCRITY

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In the same way that the show MASH used the Korean War to talk about Vietnam, Mad Men uses the dawn of mainframe computers in the workplace to talk about our own 21st Century battle with smart technology and leveraged integrity.

 

Lloyd Hawley’s company is called Lease Tech, which has a very modern generic ring to it. Hawley both works for IBM and competes with them, he explains to Don. Hawley manages to conjure up both the billionaire youth of the “greed is good” 1980s, as well as today’s independently wealthy IT elite who find their niche by first working for the big corporations and then stealing their client list, becoming highly paid consultants, or developing an app.

 

This episode didn’t start well for Don.

 

Last week’s show had “Don’s back” written all over it in a big way. He accepted the terms for reemployment at Sterling Cooper with a confident and knowing smile, as the triumphant Hendrix song “If 6 Was 9” backed him up. But this week we see Don didn’t come back with a plan at all. He just sits at his desk and waits.

 

When they do finally give Don an assignment, he is not at all impressed with the way his team is expected to work under Lou Avery’s philosophy. “Lou likes to start with the tags, and sneak up on the philosophy,” Peggy explains to him.

 

Lou is a hack, and naturally, Don is repulsed. We’ve already seen in earlier episodes that Peggy herself is not impressed with Lou’s middle-management approach to writing ad copy, but Lou bought Peggy’s loyalty with a hundred dollar a week raise earlier in this episode.

 

Don rages against the new boss by hurling his typewriter at the window and getting smashed on a bottle of vodka he takes from Roger’s office.

Don steals Roger's vodka

Don steals Roger’s vodka

Mediocrity is the new game in town, doing just enough to keep the easy bucks rolling in, with little concern for overall quality. That was the entire plot of the season’s first episode with Peggy and Lou, where he told her literally he didn’t want to see her even better idea since the first one was adequate. Lou seems to be a stand in for the new kind of corporate culture affecting America, where the impetus is no longer innovation and making new products, but managing systems to increase shareholder revenue. It’s a culture where GM stops acting like a car company and starts acting like a finance company, or where financial institutions figure out ways to create new wealth on paper and pocket the commissions by trading this paper wealth back and forth.

 

As for this computer, it seems like the main reason they’re installing it is simply to impress clients by appearing to be cutting edge, not because any of them has any idea what this computer will actually do for Sterling Cooper other than somehow ‘centralize’ all their information.

 

Knowing Mad Men, the computer could end up being a steaming pile of crap, like the intercoms in the early seasons of the show were, and like the conference call ‘contraption’ in recent episodes. Although I didn’t fail to miss the fact that on thsi episode, the bicoastal conference calls now go off without a hitch.

 

One of Mad Men’s longstanding subplots is that nobody can ever really stop to enjoy themselves because they’re all terrified of being replaced. What makes Don, Roger, and Burt so exalted is that they seem confident in themselves and secure in their positions. That’s what gives them their power. But for everyone else on the show, it’s all about the implied threat of replacement. And now, along comes Hawley’s machine that makes their little human-sized rivalries seem so petty, because the Monolith is going to replace them all.

Don hits bottom

Don hits bottom

Roger and Don, these two warriors, these two lions in winter, each find themselves in new battles now, facing formidable obstacles. Meanwhile, fairweather Pete has moved out to California, where he’s reinvented himself in the sun, and hooked up with a Barbie Doll of pure blonde ambition. Pete is given the news that his ex-wife’s father has had a serious heart attack. He’s momentarily stunned by the realization that he’s so far out of his old life that he wasn’t even aware of this serious occurrence.

 

But he quickly rebounds and turns it into yet another networking and sales pitch. Watching Pete turn this tragedy into a business opportunity totally turns his new girlfriend on, she lets him know.

 

Compared to Pete, Don and Roger are almost Shakespearean. They live large, do battle, triumph like giants, and also fall like giants. Pete, who is the embodiment of opportunistic mediocrity, seems poised to be the big winner of this new day, quietly pocketing new accounts and enjoying the guilt-free benefits of Los Angeles.

 

Lane was the guy who had the decency to give Pete a proper punch in the nose way back when, and Lane’s firm sense of right and wrong is why he decided the only right thing for him to do was end his own life. Meanwhile, weaselly Pete thrives among the low-hanging fruit of California.

 

ON A CAROUSEL

 

In an episode teeming with metaphor and symbolism, it doesn’t take a genius to understand that with his theme song playing in the background, Lane’s Mets pennant on the wall behind him, and his fingers intently typing up tags on his typewriter, Don Draper is having another Carousel moment.

 

Like those Amazin’ Mets, Don Draper’s going to turn things around year, and he’s going to do it for Lane and all the other decent people. As others in the office grow complacent and corrupted, Don will take on Hawley’s machine. Either he will destroy it or it will destroy him.

 

At the start of this episode, Don took off his coat and lent his shoulder to Ginsberg in the futile attempt to help rescue the couch, and I think he’s just getting started. His bit of ill-timed candor with the Hersheys people cost him his office, his title, and his place in the hierarchy. But Don came back to take off his coat and get sweaty with the creatives again, perhaps to redeem Sterling Cooper, and maybe even all of working America, from the onset of the machine.

Don is back.

Don is back.

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