Mad Men Review: "The Monolith"

(Episode 7.04)

TV Reviews Mad Men
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<i>Mad Men</i> Review: "The Monolith"

There’s been some grumbling—among fans and even a few critics—that this season of Mad Men is boring. But that argument’s only valid if all you know of the show is its salaciousness. If the only reason you tune in every week is to see characters boozing, smoking, getting into explosive arguments and sleeping with people they shouldn’t be sleeping with, then sure, this season’s not going to impress you yet. Personal growth isn’t exactly flashy. But if you’re here for the character development, for the story—not just of Don Draper, but of everyone else within his orbit—that has become more and more compelling over the course of six-plus seasons, you’ve likely been floored a few times this year already. It’s tempting to write off a sexless Don Draper as dull, but if you do the work and stick with the series, reading it as closely as Matt Weiner and the writers intend it to be read, there’s no way you can possibly be doing anything but holding your breath and bracing for that fire we’ve been promised.

Because although it’s just a slow burn right now, it’s there, whether you notice it or not. And Weiner and company want to make sure we do. This week’s episode was easily the most heavy-handed in the metaphor department, but for some reason—perhaps because the show got a little meta and had a character (who later turned out to be a bit of a metaphor himself) call out said symbolism—none of it felt trite, even though it’s a lesson that goes all the way back to side one, track one of the Bible. It was a computer that served as the catalyst for all the talk of technology versus humanity, stargazing versus terrestrial life, but the only kind of Apple that really mattered this week was of the forbidden fruit variety.

An exasperated Don points it out to us, throwing up his hands and telling Bert Cooper that “the apple is right there!” when Cooper refuses to allow him to pursue Lease Tech, the computer installation company the friendly, seemingly harmless Lloyd works for. Don, as we might’ve guessed, hasn’t been dealing with the terms of his rehiring very well, and when Peggy gets a raise from Lou Avery and orders to put Don on her Burger Chef team, he throws a little tantrum, tossing his typewriter at a window, playing solitaire instead of attending the meeting Peggy called and drinking hidden booze out of a pop can while being haunted by Lane’s old Mets pennant. Eventually he decides to play hooky and drunkenly gives Freddy Rumsen a call, insisting the two go to the Mets game. He also bumps into Lloyd, the computer tech, and now that he’s got a good buzz on, he’s convinced that Lloyd’s actually the devil, that serpent in the garden whispering to us about how great that apple probably tastes. “You talk like a friend, but you’re not,” he says. “You go by many names, but I know who you are.” Later Don blacks out, and in the morning a stern Freddy tells him he should quit drinking. Tough Love Freddy tells Don to stop whining about Peggy and his demotion and just “do the work” to get himself together and earn his old position back.

It’s a concept alluded to earlier in the episode by Lloyd/Satan, when he tries to explain the paranoia that often gets projected onto new technology by people and reminds Don that computers were built by people, people who worked hard to build a machine that would push society forward. Don remarks that the men who built the IBM 360 probably didn’t do much stargazing, and Lloyd responds with a snappy one-liner about how they’ll be the ones to take us to the moon.

That’s the thing, though. You can reach for the stars (and the moon), but you’ve got to be prepared to do the work to get there. The computer’s not some miracle machine dropped into our laps like manna; it’s the result of years of human toiling. You want the moon, you’ve gotta do the work. Don’s not the only one struggling to wrap his mind around this concept this week. Roger’s forced to take a look at himself when his daughter Margaret runs away and joins a hippie commune, abandoning her son and her husband. He and Mona go to retrieve her, and Mona leaves after Margaret makes a particularly cruel remark about not having to lock herself in the bathroom with a bottle of gin—leaving Roger alone with his daughter and a bunch of hippies. At first he plays along, helping prepare the home-grown vegetables for dinner and trying to wrap his mind around their electricity-free set-up (although, as he points out, they have a truck). After all, this is a guy who has taken a pretty strong liking to dropping acid and having hotel-room orgies with young hippies these past few years. He gets it—kind of.

After spending the evening enjoying their whole back-to-nature routine, Roger and Margaret gaze up at the stars and the moon, bonding over the night sky’s beauty, with Roger remarking that “every little boy wants to be an astronaut.” But then Margaret sneaks off in the middle of the night, probably to take part in some orgy her dad wasn’t invited to, and the next morning they’re thrust back to earth. An angry Roger insists that Margaret come home and be a mother to her son, and when she refuses, he tries to physically remove her, telling her “It’s time to leave Shangri-La.” The “paradise lost” metaphor becomes painfully clear when they wind up literally rolling around in the mud. Roger tries to tell his daughter that her son needs her, but she throws that back in his face by bringing up what an awful father he was to her. He leaves empty-handed, but at least it seems like he’s learned that to be a good parent you do have to do the work. Maybe he’ll cancel the rest of his hippie sex parties and try the whole parenting thing again with his son Kevin?

Roger and Don seem to have both learned a few lessons this week, namely that the paradise they’ve been dreaming of for years—the moon they’ve been reaching for—isn’t attainable when you eat that apple and expect everything to still be handed to you. In fact, it doesn’t really exist at all. You’ve gotta do the work to get what you want, and sometimes that means toiling in the mud or doing unpleasant things to achieve that end-goal and get as close to Shangri-La as you can. By the episode’s end, Don seems to have taken Freddy’s words to heart, even passing on his usual morning danish, getting straight to the task at hand and promising Peggy he’ll have her 25 tags by noon. It’s another huge personal breakthrough for him, and if you find that boring, you’re just not doing the work.

Stray Observations:
—The end-credits music choices continue to be completely on-point. This week it was The Hollies’ “On a Carousel” (“Ridin’ along on a carousel, will I catch up to you?”) that perfectly captured Don’s journey. There’s the nod to his former greatness (that famous Kodak Carousel pitch) and the implication that he’d been riding that success for too long, and then there’s the idea that Don—the man so obsessed with forward motion, with never looking back—has actually just been spinning around in a circle, not actually getting anywhere. Will he actually ever catch up to Peggy, or has that ship sailed?
—There’s been a lot of speculation about how the show will handle the Manson murders, and the Sharon Tate/Megan theories have been floating around, but what if Margaret goes off and joins the Manson family?
—More scenes of Joan and Peggy drinking together, please.
—I love that Lane’s New York Mets pennant—that misguided symbol of Americana he put up in his office as a way to assimilate—is how he lives on. Especially because he chose the wrong team. He was trying to fit in with the Yankees.
—For those keeping track at home, we’ve got another fire reference, when Lloyd asks for a light: “It’s 1969, and you’re unable to make fire.”
— “She only had one job, and that was to find a husband. And she mucked it up.”
—There should be an office-wide ban on talking about suicide outside Lane’s old office. C’mon Harry, you’re really gonna say “guy’s trying to kill himself all show” while standing outside that place?
— “Let’s see them give that to Bob Benson.” Or, you know, let’s just see Bob Benson. Seriously.
—That also goes for Trudy. I’d love to see what she’s been up to, especially since we learned this week that her father had a heart attack.