Matthew Weiner owes the estate of Stanley Kubrick a few royalties.
“The Monolith,” an episode about technological anxiety that draws both its name and its central metaphor from the enigmatic 1968 sci-fi classic (which was, in turn, based on a short story by Arthur C. Clarke). All that’s missing is “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” on the soundtrack, and a few dozen ape-like hominids. Scratch that -- “Mad Men” actually has plenty of those.
The episode begins as Don arrives at the office. As we find out later, he’s been back at the agency now for three weeks but has been given little to do. There’s still a palpable discomfort every time he gets off that elevator. This time, he finds the halls of SC&P strangely abandoned: The lights are on, and a phone is left dangling off the hook, as if some precipitous calamity has sent everyone fleeing from their desks -- which, in a way, it has. He roams the empty halls, which have always looked a little like a Kubrick space station and eventually finds everyone noisily gathered to commemorate the installation of Harry Crane’s longed-for computer -- the monolith that's just landed among the troop of nervously screeching chimpanzees.
“Mad Men” has always used the physical space at the agency to convey the shifting social and business customs of the era. In the days of Sterling Cooper, the men had their own private offices where they did what they wanted, while the women sat in a pool where they were more easily surveilled -- and in some cases, ogled. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce represented a more democratic, if also more claustrophobic, space, one where the men at the top couldn’t get away with quite as much thanks to a slew of windows and connected offices.
So now a computer/monolith has come along that will eliminate the creative lounge and will sit, rather awkwardly, at the very center of the agency, in what may be the most blunt metaphor in the history of the series -- or at least since Don’s Season 5 toothache. It’s so obvious, in fact, that the characters themselves can’t help remarking on it.
“I’m sorry you lost your lunch room. It’s not symbolic,” an exceedingly glib Harry tells Don, who fires back, “No, it’s quite literal.” It’s actually both, at once a metaphor for Don’s feelings of professional obsolescence and at the same time a literal representation of the shift in American advertising from the personality-driven Creative Revolution of the '60s toward the more research-oriented, empirical approach of the '70s.
The key speech in “The Monolith” arrives courtesy of Leasetech employee and long-lost Osmond brother Lloyd, who tells Don, “These machines can be a metaphor for whatever’s on people’s minds.... This machine is intimidating because it contains infinite quantities of information, and that’s threatening because human existence is finite. But isn’t it godlike that we’ve mastered the infinite? The IBM 360 can count more stars in a day than we can in a lifetime.”
Don is not convinced: “But what man laid on his back counting on stars and thought about a number?”
“They probably thought about going to the moon,” Lloyd replies.
It’s hardly a throwaway line. This episode takes place sometime in the spring of 1969, a few months before the first Apollo 11 moon landing, so it would make perfect sense, even if an enormous computer hadn’t thrown the entire agency into chaos, that the seemingly boundless possibilities of science would be at the forefront of everyone’s mind.
It’s not that the computer will necessarily replace Don (who, we’re reminded, is one of three creative directors at the agency and is, therefore, especially redundant), but it does herald a new way of doing business, one driven by research rather than feelings, moods and impressions -- Don’s stock in trade. Of course, the idea that technology holds the key to getting more people to buy stuff still has yet to be proved. Even in an era when Siri makes HAL 9000 look quaint, advertising remains an imprecise medium driven by guesswork and hunches as much as Big Data. What’s so ironic is that some of the most memorable, creative advertising of the past 40 or so years has been for computers. (Perhaps you’ve seen this, this or this?)
Though the computer symbolizes so many of his own professional fears, Don also sees the possibility in it. He urges Bert Cooper to pitch to Leasetech, an advertising “virgin,” because “that whole industry is exploding ... the apple is right there.” (Interesting choice of metaphor, Don.)
He also happens to be right, but Bert is so hellbent on shaming Don that he refuses to do seize the opportunity in front of him. This, plus the indignity of coming up with taglines for Peggy, sends Don into a crisis so acute he steals booze from Roger’s office and promptly gets wasted (you know things are bad when Don is drinking vodka). Freddy saves the day by taking Don “to a Mets game” -- a.k.a. taking him home to sober up. He also dishes out some sound advice, telling Don to suck it up, stay away from the bottle and do the work. Freddy’s transformation from schlemiel to sober hero has been one of the most unexpected on “Mad Men,” and Don’s trust in him is moving; let’s just hope he keeps listening.
“The Monolith” is not the first time the arrival of a cumbersome new gizmo has triggered fears of obsolescence among the humanoids of “Mad Men.” In Season 2’s “For Those Who Think Young,” the Sterling Cooper secretaries were all jittery over the new copy machine, which was parked in Peggy’s office. For Peggy, who had been recently promoted to copywriter, the machine’s placement was a clear indication of her status at the agency. She was no longer a secretary, but she was still very, very low in the pecking order, more an oddity than someone to be feared or respected. Now, more than seven fictional years later, and things are not all that different for Peggy: Yes, she’s climbed the ladder to copy chief, but she’s still considered a kind of intersex curiosity.
As Pete puts it on the Burger Chef conference call, “The client’s going to love having a woman’s point of view, or whatever Peggy counts as.” As a woman-or-whatever, Peggy is better suited to pitching to moms who don’t feel like cooking for a night -- or so the thinking goes. Sure, Peggy is well-acquainted with takeout, but the idea that she’s plugged into the mind of Sally Homemaker is borderline laughable. At least in the minds of her male colleagues, Peggy’s other asset is her unique ability to humiliate Don. As his former protegee and occasional confidante, she’s able to get under his skin like no one else, which is exactly why Lou asks her to oversee the Burger Chef campaign and gives her a $100 weekly raise for bossing Don around. Peggy is painfully aware she’s being rewarded not for her abilities but for her willingness to play along with Lou’s scheme. “That’s what the money is for,” indeed.
The episode’s other main storyline also deals with technophobia. Roger and Mona head upstate to rescue their daughter, who’s abandoned her husband and son to live upstate with some kind of back-to-nature hippie cult. When we last saw Margaret in the season premiere, she was spouting lots of self-help-y jargon, suggesting she’d been doing some soul-searching. Now “Marigold” has decided to give up modern conveniences such as electricity, running water and hairbrushes in favor of wearing filthy fishermen sweaters and sleeping on piles of hay.
“We follow the cycles of the Earth,” says one of the group’s members, explaining their lifestyle. When Roger points out the hypocrisy of using a pickup truck but forgoing washing machines, one of Margaret’s squirrely friends mumbles something to the effect of, “Well, we’ve talked about that.” It’s the series’ latest skeptical portrayal of 1960s counterculture, following Paul Kinsey’s Hare Krishna conversion, Peggy’s faux radical boyfriend Abe and whoever those creepy people were in Palm Springs. If there’s one eternal truth on “Mad Men,” other than everyone cheating all the time, it’s that this show loves hippie-punching. I’m not sure what would be more surprising: a happy, faithful marriage or the depiction of a content, harmless flower child portrayed as something other than an object of ridicule.
As we know, Roger has dabbled in the counterculture himself, so he’s more open to Margaret’s situation than Mona, who looks and acts the part of wealthy city woman in her fur coat and immaculate coiffe. Having fired off some insults about venereal diseases, she flees back to the safety of Manhattan, but Roger opts to stick around and try to use his charm to coax Margaret back. He gamely peels potatoes, he smokes pot, he even curls up in a soiled-looking sleeping bag next to his daughter and waxes philosophically about traveling to the moon -- the second time the subject comes up in the episode, in case you’re keeping track. Margaret wonders whether it will ever happen, and Roger assures her it will. “Every little boy wants to be an astronaut,” he says -- even before there was a word for space explorers, there was Jules Verne. The subtext of the conversation? Technological advancement is inevitable, with the urge to explore seemingly encoded in human DNA, and no amount of living off the land will change that. (Paging Neil deGrasse Tyson!)
Still, Roger seems to believe his daughter when she insists that she’s found true happiness upstate -- that is until she slinks off in the middle of the night with a fellow commune member. He may be an unrepentant libertine, but Roger just can’t seem to accept his own daughter is dabbling in the free-love lifestyle, and come morning he’s ready to dole out some tough love.
Even though everyone her age is running away, Margaret has an obligation to her son, Roger argues. But based on her own lonely childhood experience, she isn’t so convinced Ellery will be damaged by her abandonment. “It’s not that hard, Daddy. He’ll be fine.” Margaret’s predicament is framed as that of a young woman who got married and became a mother before she knew herself -- who failed at her only job of finding a good husband, as Mona so kindly puts it, and is now trying to liberate herself from a repressive version of domesticity. The irony is that if the extramarital love continues and she winds up barefoot, pregnant and lugging baskets of laundry to the creek like her blond friend, “Marigold” is likely going to feel more trapped than ever and will long for the days when a washing machine seemed like the enemy.
--I’m really missing Ted this season.
--I love how the show is using Meredith for comic relief, in the grand tradition of Lois and Miss Blankenship. As her hair gets bigger, her brain seems to get smaller and smaller. This week she scolds Don for eating a candy bar: “Please don’t eat that. You’re so trim.”
--Don and Roger’s relationship has been through many phases over the years, but now it’s evolved into a truly touching bromance. Roger regularly checks in on Don to make sure he’s coming in on time, while Don goes to Roger’s office first with his idea about Leasetech, knowing he has an ally.
--Also evolving nicely is the relationship between Joan and Peggy. These two used to let the small differences between them outweigh their many similarities, but now there’s an almost automatic understanding and sense of mutual support. A few years ago, Joan never would have congratulated Peggy for getting a raise -- at least not sincerely -- or listened so sympathetically to Peggy’s woes; nor would Peggy have backpedaled so quickly after making a snide remark. The moments of womanly commiseration between these two are not as rare as they used to be, and for that I’m grateful.
--Small but funny detail: When Don goes to see Bert, he’s about to tuck into an enormous baked potato complete with chives and sour cream. No wonder he’s so cranky about being interrupted.
--I'm curious how everyone read the final scene with Don and Lloyd. Was the drink just making Don paranoid?