Review: ‘Mad Men’ – ‘The Monolith’

Senior Television Writer
05.05.14 297 Comments

AMC

A review of tonight's “Mad Men” coming up just as soon as the other couch is full of farts…

“Oh, believe me: there's always a hierarchy.” -Roger

“Mad Men” was so busy dealing with the politics and tragedy of 1968 that season 6 didn't have a lot of time for the pop culture of that year. Perhaps as a make-up, we get “The Monolith,” an episode whose name evokes the mysterious black object at the center of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and whose plot involves a fear of man being replaced by computers, much as the HAL-9000 in that film sought to kill off the human astronauts (and also had more personality than either of them). And Lloyd, the computer engineer responsible for installing SC&P's new technological marvel, even tells Don, “It's been my experience these machines can be a metaphor for whatever's on people's minds.”

“Mad Men” is often a show that, even at its best, doesn't care about being subtle in its symbolism and metaphors, but “The Monolith” was laying it on pretty thick with the computer, Don being haunted by Lane Pryce's old New York Mets pennant, the firm getting a technological upgrade at the same time Roger's daughter has moved into a farm with no electricity, and the closing song, The Hollies' “On a Carousel,” playing as Don Draper – a man who will be forever associated with the word “carousel” in the minds of “Mad Men” viewers – finally getting back to work for real.

And yet, when “The Monolith” stops getting cute and follows Freddie Rumsen's advice to simply do the work – or show the work – it's actually pretty terrific, and a nice interweaving of stories about former partners awkwardly joining forces once again.

We open with Pete on a date with Bonnie in LA, and though they are mainly there to set up what's to come in New York, it's notable that the new business Pete stumbles into that night comes from a man who used to work for Pete's father-in-law. Pete's marriage is dead, as is the one between the agency and Vick, but George likes the idea of getting to work with Pete again, and without the tension that came with Pete and Tom having to mix business and family.

From there, we bounce back and forth between Don and Peggy being forced to work together – or, worse for all involved, being forced to have Don report to Peggy – on the Burger Chef pitch, and Roger and Mona driving upstate together to retrieve Margaret from the hippie commune where she has chosen to reside. Mona and Roger's interactions are, as always, thick with history and regret and recrimination, as well as the sense that they could very well still be happier with each other than with their current partners(*). Don and Peggy have never been romantically involved, let alone married, and yet in many ways they know each other just as well as ex-spouses do, and their interactions have the same kind of tangled backstory behind them. 

(*) Though that may be, as usual, the real-life marital chemistry between John Slattery and Talia Balsam seeping into their performances. 

Following up on last week's presentation of The Draper Rules, we get a quick reminder of just how irrelevant Don is at the agency when he realizes that no one told him about the ceremony for the arrival of the computer. While he's busy helping Ginsberg move the big couch out of the creative lounge, Lou's meeting with the other partners, and stirring up trouble in the way he responds to the discussion of Burger Chef. Pete wants Don on the account, but because it's never explicitly stated that Don has to be in charge of the account, Lou uses it as wiggle room to pit Peggy (who, earlier in the episode was bad-mouthing Lou while he was in earshot) against Don, while also doing it in a way that could turn Peggy into an ally.

Both Elisabeth Moss and Jon Hamm are wonderful at playing both confusion and indignation, and this role reversal provides plenty of opportunity for both. Peggy walks out of Lou's office looking like she was just deposited out of a hurricane, but then she begins to enjoy the possibilities of ordering Don around. And the murderous deadpan stare Don gives her after being assigned to write 25 Burger Chef tags was a work of art.

For a few brief moments, it seems that Don's very human connection with Lloyd may provide an opportunity to do more than entry-level work – or, at least, to get an attaboy from Roger or Bert, even as Ginsberg or Peggy writes the actual LeaseTech pitch – but instead Bert slaps him down with a blunt assessment of Don's role at the company: He's not here to save anybody, but is only here because he doesn't have the dignity to leave. And that sends Don scurrying into Roger's office (as Caroline hilariously wonders what Don could have possibly left in there, and when) for a bottle of vodka, tossing aside both the rules he agreed to with the other partners and the promises he's made to himself about being better.

We've seen Don drink to excess at the office before, of course. He spent half of season 4 in the bag, and he needed a shot of courage before he went into the Hershey meeting. But something different happens this time: Don, in his drunken stupor and lacking any other friends (or lady friends) to call, reaches out to Freddie Rumsen to take in a game featuring Lane Pryce's favorite baseball team, and Freddie – who has starred in this particular movie before – is able to get Don safely out of the building and onto his couch at home to sleep it off and receive a lecture in the morning. As with Don and Peggy, it's a swap of roles – not that Don ever made a real effort to curb Freddie's drinking, but simply that he was in position to look on Freddie with pity – but it goes over better. Don's not interested in becoming a friend of Bill W., but he does take heed of Freddie's advice to actually work on the account and see what happens. And because I can't imagine the series – or even this half-season – ending with Don Draper being a wildly overcompensated copywriter, I imagine there there will be a moment where the agency has the kind of creative crisis Bert laughed off earlier, and Don will be in a much better position to help now that he's doing more than playing solitaire and living in fear of his own obsolescence.

Freddie speaks to Don from painful experience, and Roger tries to do the same for Margaret, who apparently was on the forgiveness kick in the season premiere because she was planning to drop out of life in Manhattan to become Marigold up on the farm. We've seen the kind of hedonistic set-up Roger has going in his apartment, and for a time after Mona drives away (just as resistant as Don to hearing complaints about her drinking), it appears that he understands what it is Margaret sees in this place and this lifestyle, and that he approves in a way that Mona can't, or that he couldn't have himself a few years earlier. But then morning comes and Roger's paternal instinct – the same one that compelled him to become part of Kevin's life, even a little – takes hold and leads him to try to physically drag her back to her son in the city. He's trying to speak as an authority on bad parenting just as Freddie is on being the office lush, but the difference is that Margaret has never seen Roger get any better. He's still the man who was never around when she was a child, and she won't let him tote her around like one now that she's an adult. It's an ugly scene (they literally get dragged through the muck), and one without an easy solution.

The night before, Roger and Margaret lie in the barn and speculate about man walking on the moon. By the spring of 1969, this was less a question of “will” than of “when,” since the Apollo 8 lunar orbit mission on Christmas of '68 pretty much removed all suspense from the race to the moon. At this point, based on the number of episodes in the half-season and the show's chronological structure, the only way we don't end our 2014 episodes with Don watching Neil Armstrong take one giant leap for mankind is if Matt Weiner is so sure we'll be expecting it that he skips over the event. But we sure seem to be heading for the moon landing in a few weeks, and the Miracle Mets improbably winning the World Series sometime in the final run of episodes.

1968 was a very hard year, and perhaps it's not a coincidence that the '68 season of “Mad Men” ended with Don's life all shot to hell. 1969 has plenty of darkness of its own (even if Megan isn't actually going to get killed by Charles Manson), but Apollo 11, the Mets, Woodstock and other events also gave it a hopefulness the year before lacked. We've had notes of hope this year for Don and others, and hints that perhaps people can change their behavior, even if it's brutally difficult to do so. If Don's going to end the series as something other than a perfectly useful IBM computer that's been thrown aside in favor of a shinier new model, this seems the year for him to begin improving himself. If man can walk on the moon in the same year that Cleon Jones can be awarded first base because his cleats left a shoe polish mark on the baseball when it hit him, then maybe there's a chance for Don Draper yet.

Right now, though, he has to keep his head down and do what Peggy, Lou and everyone else says, as much as it's going to kill him to do so.

Some other thoughts:

* Basic “Mad Men” math: Peggy + Joan = win. Always. Joan's the only one who will come out and explain to Peggy exactly what's going on, and how Peggy is entirely collateral damage in this war between the other partners and Don.

* Lloyd was played by Robert Baker, who doesn't much resemble Harry Hamlin, but who was carrying himself very much like Jim Cutler in the scene where a drunk Don wanders into the computer room to object to his existence.

* For a moment, the news that Trudy's father had a heart attack made me wonder if we might be seeing Alison Brie later in the episode. But then I remembered that she gets credited up-front like the show's other more prominent recurring players (like Hamlin, Balsam and Joel Murray this week), and she wasn't there. And, indeed, Pete vanishes from the episode once he sets things in motion for all the Don/Peggy drama. But I can't imagine the show ends without at least one more Trudy appearance.

* We're at least into April, since the Mets are playing, and at one point we see Don looking at a newspaper headline about Joe Frazier, who fought Dave Zyglewicz on April 22 of 1969. (UPDATE: Though it could very well have been about Walt Frazier, whose Knicks played their last playoff game that spring on April 18.) Harry and Lloyd are also talking about the humiliating failure of a show with Tim Conway, which I assume was referring to “Turn-On,” one of the great disasters in TV history, which Conway (who hosted the premiere) has said, only half-kidding, was canceled before its first episode had finished airing. Important to note: part of the premise of “Turn-On” was that it was a sketch comedy show run by a computer.

* Driving scenes have never been a place where “Mad Men” shines technically, but it feels like the show has taken a step backwards with them of late.

* While killing time in his office, Don reads Philip Roth's “Portnoy's Complaint,” the sexually explicit book that became a sensation in 1969. I would very much like to hear Ginsberg's reaction to Don's literary choice at some point.

* Burger Chef was a real chain, and for a while was second only to McDonald's in number of franchises, but it went under in the '80s, and most of the restaurants converted to Hardee's.

* The show is tackling Don's strange position in the company head-on, but at what point does Teddy get in trouble for avoiding work and hiding in California? Lou Avery wouldn't even have this job if Ted hadn't needed to run away from Peggy, and the Burger Chef mess wouldn't exist if Ted had flown back to handle the account as Jim wanted him to.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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