Monday, May 5, 2014

In Which I Review Mad Men (7x4)

"[Don] spent three weeks alone in that cave and he hasn't clubbed another ape yet."--Roger

Prepare yourselves. This weeks episode of Mad Men, "The Monolith," is heavily influenced by a piece of cinematic culture. Not that Mad Men doesn't often take cues from popular culture, but this week was decidedly more on-the-nose writing and allusions than in the past. If you didn't realize that this episode was one giant homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, then hang your head in shame. The title alone should give it away. The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, now considered a classic, came out in 1968; that's the year before the current setting of Mad Men. For example, not to give it all away in the intro, but the opening shot was of Don getting off the elevator. Across the hallway, the camera focused for a significant amount of time a jet black elevator. Significance? In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the monolith is a black oblong 3-D shape. What else is black and oblong? The giant computer being rolled into SC&P in the end shot. It's a fairly straight forward symbol. The monolith is the computer is the elevator is the monolith. The monolith serves as an invasive transition for the first primitive culture of herbivores that have trouble defending themselves to killing machines before transitioning all the way to space age explorers who run afoul of technology. Overall theme of the episode? Invasion, and those being invaded.    

I want to start with Roger, actually. Don is a much bigger story. Like Don, he is both an invader and invaded this episode. First, he is invaded by the problems of his wife and son-in-law. Roger is a pretty horrible ex-husband and father. If he can pass the buck, he will. Roger is the definition of a privileged white male. His father started a business; he's of old money; he gets to wine and dine accounts instead of actually doing a days work, and when he feels like it, he can throw his name and weight around to remind everyone that he's the President of SC&P. So when Mona shows up with the distressing (and yet somehow hysterical) news that Margaret has run away to live on a commune with a bunch of hippies, Roger's first response is to make Margaret's husband take care of it. "Let him be a man," Roger says. All of this comes back to bite him in the end when Margaret (excuse me, Marigold) will lay Roger's sins out for all to see. It's not about Brooks's being a man; it's about the fact that Roger can never be interested in his daughter enough to care. He doesn't want to do the work (keep this in mind for later), and so he looses. Roger has always been Don's future if Don doesn't change his ways (and doesn't die). They are doppelgangers and always have been. In the first few seasons of Mad Men, Mona and Roger served as a foreshadowing of what Betty and Don would be like in the future: cynical, out of love, and bitter. When Roger divorces Mona and marries Jane, his secretary, Don reads him the riot act. A few seasons later? Don and Betty divorce and Don marries his secretary, Meghan. They both have tempestuous relationships with their only daughters; if Don doesn't do the work, he will end up like Roger or worse.

When it turns out that Margaret's husband is totally inept, it's up to Roger and Mona to travel upstate to fetch their wayward daughter. Can we just talk about Mona and her fabulousness for a second? Here they are, on their way up to a hippie commune, and she's decked out like she's going to lunch at the Ritz. Perfectly quaffed hair, furs, and about 5 pounds of makeup (which she insists on retouching before meeting the dirty and pregnant hippies) on her face. Mona is convinced that not only has Margaret run away, but that her daughter now has a string of lovers and that all of them are on drugs. Now, to be fair to Mona, all of this turns out to be true. When we last left Margaret, she was having a very uncomfortable brunch with her father where she espoused the ideas of counterculture (while wearing designer clothing and eating at a fancy hotel restaurant). I didn't actually expect Margaret to go full on hippie, but I must say that I enjoy hippie Margaret infinitely more than spoiled, unappreciative, petulant Margaret. This wasn't an uncommon occurrence in the 1960s. Upper class white woman had more time on their hands, so they often sought out these new experiences like counterculture. Some dabbled, some did charity work, and some packed their bags, hopped in a van, and went to be one with Mother Earth. The sort of ennui that encapsulates Margaret's life is summed up in how her mother Mona presents the idea of motherhood: there are definitions and it's exhausting but those are the rules and you must abide. Well, Margaret doesn't pray to that anymore. Margaret and Mona have always been doppelgangers (there are a lot of those in this show); most of the time they are almost identically dressed and styled, so as to make them one person. Margaret is in danger of becoming Mona, pint of gin in a locked bathroom and all.

This entrance from Margaret was hilarious. This is a woman who dressed to the nines every time we saw her; who was her mother's perfect doll, in shape and appearance. And here she is: dirty, in cheap homespun clothing, with dirty hair. But look at her smile. It's genuine. Roger and Mona are now the invaders, coming into this little slice of counterculture, with their money and rules and establishments. They are trying to force the old on the new. But the new, well it marches on. Mona tries to talk to her daughter but Margaret (ok, I have to call her Marigold now) refuses to listen. She's happy, despite missing her son. "He can't be happy if I'm not happy." Marigold has enough experience with that; her parents were not shinning examples of a happy marriage. Mona ends up storming off, unable to deal with the commune, but Roger stays. Roger is more open than Mona, or so he thinks. Roger is the guy who dropped LSD in order to achieve enlightenment and since then has been living the counterculture lifestyle the only way he knows how, while still living in the lap of luxury. So, Roger stays behind and experiences Marigold's life. They peel potatoes, smoke weed, and talk about the dangers of electricity. Father and daughter end the night in the barn, watching the stars. I think Roger can see how happy Marigold is, and I think on some level he's happy for her. To him, this is no more dangerous that what he has been doing. There is some drugs, but there is freedom. It's only when Marigold slips out in the middle of the night for sex with a random hippie man that Roger gets protective and conservative.

Roger and Marigold literally end up rolling in the mud. Covered in dirt, Marigold shows just how much like her father she is. She may have left her four year old son, but Roger left her too. He walked out on the family long before he ever got divorced from Mona. He never took an interest in Margaret; his secretaries bought her birthday gifts, he never approved of her husband, he barely tolerated being in the same room with her and her mother. So, of course she ran. It's a learned experience. But the difference is that Roger is miserable. What does Roger have at the end of the day? No wife, no daughter, he's not respected at work despite being the President. And now he's covered in mud. But Margaret/Marigold? She got out. She gets to be happy, even if it means breaking with everything in her life. If Roger and Don are alike, are Margaret and Sally? Maybe but maybe not. Sally is much younger but that may not be a good thing. She's going to be entering her young adult years right at the heart of the counterculture movement. However, Sally knows her father's history and how alcohol and rule breaking has ruined what he once had. Sally may escape this unscathed.

Ok, Don's turn. It has been three weeks since Don returned to work at SC&P and he hasn't done anything. He was shunted to Lane's office, expected to sit there like a good boy, and not bother anyone. And Don has been behaving, thankfully. But something always happens to cause Don to slip. We knew it had to happen, right? The story picks up from last week in which Harry Crane wants a computer for the office and Jim Cutler agrees. There was a lot of dream like quality surrealism to this episode, beginning with a totally empty office and the phone that is hanging off it's hook, banging into the desk. It's supposed to create an atmosphere of dread and is evocative of the episode in which Kennedy died. You expect something to be horribly wrong, a death even. But it's nothing that major; SC&P is getting a giant computer to better serve their clients. Well, I suppose it is a death. The death of creativity, a theme that will be beaten into you this week.

The problem is that the computer is seen as a threat. The creative team is kicked out of their creative lounge to make way for the giant monolith. There is another theme going on here which is the death of creativity and the installation of machines to do what humans were doing. People like Jim Cutler who don't appreciate creative personalities think the computer is great but Peggy takes one look at it and knows that this is one more thing that she has to compete against. And in normal situations, this would be a time for Don and Peggy to come together and be their bitter creative selves, but Peggy and Don are avoiding each other like the plague. In charge of the installation is Lloyd (surprisingly not named Hal) and this first scene between him and Don is maybe the one issue I have with the episode over all. It's not that Don doesn't have philosophical thoughts, but I find it hard to believe that these two strangers are going to stand here and have this conversation which nicely lays out the theme of the episode is such blatant terms. "The machine is a metaphor...a cosmic disturbance because it contains infinite quantities of information and that's threatening because human existence is finite. But isn't it god like that we've mastered the infinite," Lloyd says. Machines are bad except in their ability to make humans better, got that? If not, go rent 2001: Space Odyssey. This conversation is quite extreme for two people who just met, but I suppose I can overlook it because Weiner and Co are trying to make a point about technology and humans. It's no secret that Matthew Weiner uses Mad Men as a template for explaining the creative process both in the ad room and the writers room, so of course he finds technology threatening, but he also recognizes its usefulness. I mean, I get it. This computer is the monolith that is going to change our peaceful herbivores into killers. Look what it did to Ginzberg, though granted he is already unhinged. But it does things to Don who is already suffering creatively because he isn't being allowed to be creative.

So when the company has the opportunity to pitch to a franchise and Peggy is put in charge and then Don is put on her team, it does not go well.  His little protegee giving him orders? Nope. That's not what Don Draper came back for. There are a lot of themes for the episode, but one of the themes that is transcending beyond this episode is that "everyone hates Don." Not that they aren't justified in it; Don has done spectacularly bad things. But their hatred is also a little bizarre. Call him what you want, but you cannot deny that he is a brilliant copywriter. Don's creative genius should trump the personal drama of the office. No one pitches or writes copy like Don. The hatred for Don becomes even more clear when Don finds new business--good business mind you, a veritable gold mine--takes it to Bert and Bert rejects him with both hands, which makes no sense. Bert is the Randian of the group. He's not going to reject good business out of sheer hatred for his creative director. "We've been doing just fine," Bert says. But that's not true. SC&P is doing adequate. Lou is adequate; the creative is adequate. But there is no heart nor spunk. The creative is invisible as suave talk from wining and dining businessmen take over. So, rejected from Bert, Don gives up and gives in.

Ah, drunk Don. It has been awhile. Don drinks his vodka, lays on his couch in Lane's office (who floated around this episode like a phantom, by the way) and felt sorry for himself. Eventually he turned to the only person who doesn't hate him and hasn't given up on him, but also knows exactly what he is going through: Freddie. Good ol' Freddie, former alcoholic Freddie. Freddie tries to get Don out of the office but not before we have one more very weird conversation with Lloyd and Don. Did this make any sense? Don suddenly sees that Lloyd is the Devil? "I know your name. You go by many names, I know who you are." I mean, what's next? "Get thee behind me Satan!" It's a heavy handed way of reminding us that technology is bad while creative people are good. I half expected Don to tell Lloyd to open the doors and to have Lloyd manage to somehow flash a red dot and say, "I'm afraid I can't do that Don." Don't worry so much, Weiner. No one is going to take your job or your lunch room. You'll be fine when the show is over.

While the proceeding scene is awkward and strange the one following is wonderful and kind of beautiful. Freddie is there for Don; he knows all about Don, but he stayed by his side and is there with a cup of coffee and advice first thing in the morning. And mind you, this is the same Don who shoved Freddie into a cab and wished him well when Freddie became an embarrassment to the company. What should Don do? Should he leave? Stay? Drink himself to death? Freddie gives him one of the best pieces of advice I've heard on the show. "You going to kill yourself? Give them what they want? Or go into your bedroom, get in uniform, fix your bayonet, and hit the parade? Do the work, Don." You feel under-appreciated? Well frankly, pal, you deserve it. You did a bad thing and now you need to get back into the company's good graces. Then just do the work. Work your way back up to the place where you should be. Give Peggy her 25 tags. Play the game, do the work, and you'll see. You'll be back. Do you have time to change your life?
I've been a big believer that Don Draper can try, but he'll never change enough to move into 1970. I still stand by that, but this episode makes me rethink the central thesis of Mad Men: people don't get over their crap. And just maybe, Don Draper can come out of this to the other side. Look at what happens next; Don gets dressed, grabs his briefcase, goes into work, and writes tags for the woman he made a copywriter. He's going to do the work. And what should Don pass one final time before he gets into the office? The new monolith--the computer. Rolling into the office like the impending '70s, the monolith cometh. But Don spares it one look before moving on. Do the work, Don.

Miscellaneous Notes on The Monolith

--Lots of talk about the moon this week. Not surprising, we're getting close to the moon landing (July 1969). It's another invasion and it fits with the overall 2001: Space Odyssey reference.

--"It's not symbolic." "No, it's quite literal." 

--"These people are lost And on drugs. And have venereal diseases."

--Lane's NY Mets pendant. It was everywhere, even after Don tossed it in the garbage. It materialized back in his office and even the ceiling where Lane hung himself.

--Nice ending song this week: the Carousel, which will ALWAYS harken back to Don's brilliant pitch at the end of season one.

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