Thursday, May 8, 2014

Mad Men Season 7, Episode 4: The Monolith (Recap)

 You can no more make someone tell the truth than you can force someone to love you.
- Philip Roth, "Portnoy's Complaint"

Like Alexander Portnoy, Don Draper's "sense of himself, his past, and his ridiculous destiny is so fixed." He's nothing if he's not Don Draper -- dashing, successful adman extraordinaire.  Don doesn't know how to be anything else. If he isn't barking at his secretary to get him coffee or making sure the underlings at the office cower in his presence, who is he?  So with his new role as lowly copywriter, Don is lost.  And he handles this loss by checking out, mentally at first, then physically.

Nothing has changed for Peggy since her first few months at Sterling Cooper.  Back then, she was used by a superior to get back at someone they considered a thorn in their side.  In Season One's final episode, Don promoted Peggy and assigned her to her first client to stick it to Pete.  Now, some nine years later, she's being used by Lou to stick it to Don.  Somewhere else, Mary Wells has started her own successful firm and women are burning their bras, but here at SC&P Peggy is still being manipulated by the men around her as a pawn in their giant chess games.

And Roger.  He's been skating by all his life, first thanks to the wealthy upbringing, then to his indulgent mother, to his forgiving (to a point) wives, to the random girls who stroke his ego and other parts, convincing Roger that whatever he is doing is a-okay.  But finally his daughter turns the mirror on him and asks him to take a look at what his selfishness, hedonism, and sense of entitlement has meant for the people in his life.  For her.  Margaret claims (somewhat unreasonably) that abandoning her son to find inner peace is certainly no worse than what Roger did for decades.  Whether they are similar in weight, Margaret's point has been made.  

At the office, it's a brand new world.  Years ago when the first copier came into the office it was hailed as a move towards the future that everyone could embrace and benefit from.  But the behemoth computer that displaced the creative team's brainstorming space is looked upon with awe by some (Harry and Jim) and hatred and fear by those it seems poised to replace (see above).  It's not a metaphor, Harry says.  And he is right.  As Don notes, the computer literally is aimed at making creative obsolete.

But Don has bigger problems than the computer.  The deal he made to come back to SC&P in practice is much worse than it was in theory, and Don can't operate under these conditions. He's used to being the one with the aura of genius, the one who could dismiss an underling with a withering gaze, the one who instilled awe and fear.  It kept him above and apart from everyone else at the office.  He didn't have to learn spouse's names or where you grew up.  He wasn't the everyman, he was Batman. Superman.  Unreasonably, Don thought he'd step right back into that position.  That there would be no further repercussions for his past actions.  This unrealistic, magical thinking that everything can go back to how it was, as if Don never did any if the things that got him exiled in the first place, it's a sign that Don still doesn't understand just how many bridges he burned.  But he is being held accountable, and he is not the only one.

Perhaps Don had been cushioned from this reality by Roger.  But Roger wasn't there to fix things, he had his own problems to deal with.  Marigold.  His daughter has run off to join a commune, an anti-everything group of young people who just want to get high and have sex.  In other words, she's living out his last few years.  Roger is confronted by what an absentee father he's been and how providing money is not all that a child needs from their parent. Like Don, Roger is seeing the consequences of his actions.  While Margaret has no right to abandon her son, Roger isn't exactly the paragon of parenthood who can convince her to go back. His collapse into the mud may have been one of the least subtle moments this show has ever had and it's too bad they went so heavy handed here.  Watching a clean, pristine Roger leaving the filthy shack would have been a more compelling contrast - he looks pure and upstanding yet that's just a façade

The main plot point of Episode 7.04 was ostensibly about the transition and move forward for the firm as they embrace computers as a significant part of their business. The monolith of the episode's title could refer to the imposing IBM 360 that is both an eyesore and a source of great sadness to those who value the old ways and it can be a salute to Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey which was a touchstone for many obvious references throughout the show.  Usually, the show tips its hat more obliquely but this episode was so heavy-handed that there's no point in noting all the obvious symbolism and allusions to the movie.

Slightly less on the nose was the discussion that Don had with Lloyd about his company:
Lloyd: I saw that they have got a great product, but they don't trust it.  I've worked with these machines.  I know how resilient they are.  I don't want to find them in a junkyard in two years.
That's what's going on with SC&P.  They have a great product - Don - but they don't trust him any more.  Is Don resilient or will he be in on the streets shortly?

If it were up to Bert - if he hadn't gotten Don to sign that contract way back when - Don would be rotting in a junkyard right now. Yes, he's back at the firm, but Bert makes sure that he understands what that does - and doesn't - mean:
Bert:You have a fundamental misunderstanding of what went wrong here.
Don: So, that's it? You want me to be a janitor? Whistle while I work?
Bert: You thought there was going to be a big creative crisis and we'd pull you off the bench, but in fact, we've been doing just fine.
Don: So, why am I even here? I could've gone anywhere.
Bert: Why are you here?
Don: Because I started this agency!
Bert: Along with a dead man-- whose office you now inhabit.
Yeah, Bert's invoking of the late Layne Price was the lowest of low blows and the strongest sign yet that Don was only brought back because it was cheaper than buying him out.  While I'm not entirely sure that Bert's heartless dismissiveness is in character - if Don can come back and make them money, what else matters to Bert - it serves as a sign that Don is much further down and has much farther to climb to get back to where he once was.

Will Don bounce back?  Thanks to his decision to call Freddy, he was saved from imploding and was given one get out of jail free card.  There was another not too subtle hint about a possible outcome for Don.  The Mets banner that he conveniently, if inexplicably, found folded under the couch in Lane's old office, is a reminder that as bleak as their start was, back in 1969 they had a miracle year where the chumps became champs.  I can't see him embracing AA like Freddy, but he's going to have to stop turning to drink - being "in the bag" as Freddy referred to it - whenever things don't go his way if he wants that miracle to happen to him.  Him finding the miracle Mets banner on what could have been his last day at SC&P, maybe it means a turnaround is coming.

Another too-cute, not at all nuanced, moment was the final song, The Hollies' "On a Carousel" which of course harkens back to Don's shining moment as a copywriter.  We can hope that Don is on his way to being that guy again, but let's also hope that the writers of Mad Men bring back a lighter touch next week.


Season 7 has been chock-full of callbacks to Season 1, but this episode had a scene that was straight out of the first episode of Season 2 when the new copier is brought into the office.
Joan: I could take out the lockers and use that wall.
Hildy: The break room? Don't take away the break room.
Joan: I'm not taking away anything.  Believe me, this machine is a gift to you girls.
Pete discusses with his real esta-girlfriend Bonnie going to Yosemite.  This was a more subtle approach to the episode's title than the black door and the many 2001 references as Yosemite is home to not one but two monoliths - Half Dome and El Capitan. Speaking of Pete, how disassociated is he from his family by living out on the West Coast.  Sure, he and Trudy may be separated on the way to divorced, but for him not to know that her father, their daughter's grandfather, had a heart attack was surprising.

Interesting conversation between Jim and Lou:
Lou: I thought we had an understanding about Don.
Jim: There's nothing to be afraid of.  He's an exquisite copywriter, if nothing else.
Lou: He's gonna implode.
Jim: That's a distinct possibility, isn't it? On the other hand, you might get some good work.
Lou is threatened by Don and well he should be considering he came in to replace Don.  If Don is back, what is Lou doing there.  But it looks like he was assured that Don would not replace him and that he'd be kept at bay - their "understanding" about Don.  Jim dismisses Don as a copywriter (albeit an exquisite one) and that gives Jim the opening to assign him to the client as Pete and Roger instructed but not at all in the capacity they intended.  Very sly of Lou.

Aside from the many references to Stanley Kubrick's 1968 Sci Fi masterpiece, there are also many nods to Kubrick's 1980 film adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining.  Lloyd, the bartender who tempts the alcoholic writer, here played by the LeaseTech exec Lloyd tempting Don with the prospect of a new client and a whole new industry.  We have Ellery and his Dutch boy haircut running down the halls a la Danny Torrance.  The movie's theme of isolation and loneliness are two themes that have plagued Don's life since he was the whore child growing up on a farm surrounded by two people who wished he'd never been born.  But unlike Jack Torrance, we don't expect Don to take a murderous path as he faces his demons and we're still hoping this is a story about redemption and acceptance.  Of course, all bets are off if next week Don's 25 tags each start out "all work and no play."

So is Don obsolete?  Has the modern world passed him by as he's spent much of his time at the bottom of a bottle (or a fake out can)?  He went through all that effort to create the perfect package and the perfect pitch and no one is buying it any more.  In the larger picture, is creativity being pushed aside for the newness of the computer age?  Is information -- rather than ideas -- king?

You want more symbolism?  Don helps Ginsberg with the couch, but he is holding his side too high, he has to bring it down.  And Ginsberg - his former underling - is the one barking out orders, where to go, how to hold it.

Peggy should have been more suspicious that mere minutes after she's caught by Lou making a snarky comment about him --  he doesn't believe in creative because he doesn't know how to do it -- he gives her a raise and puts her in charge of a new client.  It wasn't until Joan cued her in at the end that she realized that none of this was about her and it was all about Don.

The scenes between Don and Lloyd were too cartoonish to take seriously.  Lloyd, who looks like a cross between Don and Caesar of Planet of the Apes, comes off like a snake oil salesman whose tonic will cure all ills.  Don's drunken verbal attack, likening him to Satan himself, was out of character for Don and over the top even for someone who'd imbibed that conspicuously. 

How great is Roger's secretary?  From playing with Ellery to her perfect reading of Mona's message, she is the sunshine on a cloudy day.

"Turn On" - the TV show referenced in this episode - is considered one of the biggest flops in TV history.  The filmed sketch comedy show, without a laugh track but with the quick cut aways that are now the post-MTV generation norm, was based on the premise that it was produced by a computer.  It was cancelled after one episode (some stations stopped airing it after the first commercial break) for being both too blue and too unfunny.

Don had watched "Lost Horizon" when he was back in LA with Megan and in this episode there was a reference to Shangri-La the utopian earth-bound paradise from the movie. Since the start of Season 6, with Don reading Dante's Inferno, the focus has been on Don's travels through hell and whether they'll lead him to ultimately to paradise.  His current position in his marriage and at work cerainly seem like the middle ground - purgatory - and we're set up to see if Don rises or falls from here.

Bert's shooting down Don's idea was a flashback to a scene in Season 2, Episode 2. Back then, Duck Phillips shoots down Don's plan to stick with Mohawk Airlines and discusses jettisoning them for a shot at American Airlines.  Duck tells Don that he knows what Don's fantasy was, i.e., that the president of American Airlines would see Don's work, fall in love, and have to hire him.  But that's not how it is going to play out.  Duck has the connection, he's made the first overture, and he'll be the one to land the airline. And we all know just how well that went!


Peggy: He [Lou] doesn't believe in creative because he doesn't know how to do it.

Roger: We're getting a computer.  It's going to do lots of magical things, like make Harry Crane seem important.

Ginsberg: Harry Crane took a huge dump, and we got flushed down the toilet.

Ginsberg: Let me put this in terms the art department can understand-- they're trying to erase us! But they can't erase this couch!

Pete: Well, I'm glad all agree the client is going to love having a woman's point of view-- or whatever Peggy counts as...

Roger:  He's spent three weeks alone in that cave, and he hasn't clubbed another ape yet.

Mona: I only know one other person who would do something like that.
Roger: How is this my fault? 
Mona: Because she is a perverse child who only thinks of herself.

Don: Who's winning? Who's replacing more humans?

Harry: It's not symbolic.
Don: No, it's quite literal.

Lloyd: It's been my experience these machines can be a metaphor for whatever's on people's minds.

Joan: Well, Peggy, I don't know if this makes you feel better, but I don't think they thought about it at all.

Freddy: Do the work, Don.

Suicide watch:

Harry: Tim Conway plays a guy who's trying to kill himself the whole show.
Don: Probably to get out of his contract.

Freddy: I mean, are you just going to kill yourself?

No comments:

Post a Comment