Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "The Monolith" (season 7, episode 4)

Mad Men - "The Monolith" (season 7, episode 4)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode until the series finale. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on May 4, 2014/written by Erin Levy; directed by Scott Hornbacher): The primitive and the technologically advanced both feature prominently in "The Monolith". Roger chases his daughter to a hippie retreat that has shorn itself of all (well, most) electronic advances in order to follow the rhythms of the sun, while the SC&P break room is torn apart to make room for a large computer much like the ones currently propelling man to the moon. Roger's adventure will be less successful than Neil Armstrong's although initially Margaret - sorry, "Marigold" - welcomes his openminded approach to her new home on the commune. Roger and Mona materialize at this upstate farmhouse dressed in a three piece suit and fur coat, but only Mona will play her assigned role as uptight square. Roger sticks around when Mona leaves, proceeding to smoke grass, peel potatoes, and ogle the locals in their billowy burlap dresses. At night he and Margaret sleep under the stars, but when she sneaks off with a lover, he decides he's had enough. Roger literally tries to drag her away in the morning and when she fights back, he ends up soaked in mud: a besuited parody of the Woodstock audience later that summer. Then Margaret tells her father the horrific truth: she isn't rejecting his legacy, she's living up to it - fleeing her responsibilities as a parent by getting back to nature rather than doing so by living the hypocritical high life in the city. Dripping muck on his long walk back to the highway as she watches him go, Roger has never looked more defeated nor more like the author of his own defeat.

Back in the Manhattan office, Don is undergoing his own humiliations. A new campaign is taking shape out west as Pete woos fast food upstart Burger Chef; his contact is George Payton (Josh McDermitt), a former Vick's rep (who casually informs an alarmed Pete that Pete's father-in-law/nemesis has had a heart attack). Seeking to twist the knife by finally offering work under demeaning conditions, Lou places Don on Peggy's team for this trial run. Tasked with typing up twenty-five taglines, Don would rather toss his typewriter into the window, mock his new boss by playing solitaire and reading Portnoy's Complaint on the couch, get stinking drunk while chugging straight out of a fifth of vodka, and then - inspired by Lane's old Mets pennant - demand that Freddie take him to Shea Stadium. Freddie takes him home instead, and gives him the talk when he wakes up hungover in the morning. "Fix your bayonet, and hit the parade," the recovering alcoholic orders the repeat offender. Don dutifully goes back to work, just as the new computer is rolled in behind him - an ominous sign, or a close call showing that he's come to his senses in the nick of time? Over the week, Don has been chatting with Lloyd Hawley (Robert Baker), the machine's owner, even pushing Bert to woo him as a client. Bert sets the former hot shot straight: "You thought there was going to be a big creative crisis. In fact, we've been doing just fine." Has Don become obsolete?

My Response: I've been wondering when 2001: A Space Odyssey would get a nod; the '68 episodes traded so heavily on references to Planet of the Apes and Rosemary's Baby that there wasn't much room for another film from that year. Almost immediately, the episode's title is embodied by the black form of the elevator doors glimpsed from the opposite bank (this image also evokes The Shining, as does Roger's grandson racing around the office, while the toy gun-wielding boy's shaggy hair also suggests a pint-size droog from A Clockwork Orange). "The Monolith" certainly has Kubrick and Clarke on its mind, from Roger and Margaret staring into a starfield to the concept of a threatening HAL-esque supercomputer, which is also monolithic itself, to several "Dawn of Man"-sequence themed quips. (Don teases Lloyd about his inability to "make fire" with that all-purpose Mad Men symbol, a cigarette lighter, and later tells him he's had the best campaign since the dawn of time - "dawn" also, of course, being a play on his own name, already doubled by his former secretary.) And while the arc of 2001 traces the progressive evolution of mankind, from moment to moment that movie often depicts its characters - whether primeval apes or bureaucratized astronauts - as overwhelmed by larger forces, able to strike upon small epiphanies while figuring out how to survive, but dependent upon the wrath or beneficence of alien intelligence (even when that alien intelligence is initially abstracted and evolved from their own).

This theme is articulated most explicitly in Don's conversations with the former IBM man, although I'll admit I'm not yet sure what he's getting at in the last one (aside from vague intimations that Lloyd is the devil). But the theme also present in the everyday functions of SC&P, a vessel that has grown hostile towards Don and is passively trying to repel him. For much of the episode he makes it too easy. I said of the end of my "Field Trip" review that we aren't yet sure why Don's made the right decision to return even if it feels correct, and "The Monolith" shows that he's not really sure of this himself. A creative director forced to take orders from his own employee, Don has become a mirror of early-season Peggy (their reversal of fortune is a brilliant conceit). She was once the character who struggled and stumbled in her subordinate role, learning how to assert herself in one episode and then slipping back into awkward confusion in the next. Now Don is experiencing that same push and pull, advancing and retreating in a zigzag rather than a straight line, but in his case it's humility rather than assertion he needs to learn.

Next (active on January 3, 8am): "The Runaways"Previous: "Field Trip"

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