Monday, May 5, 2014

"Mad Men" Review: "The Monolith" (Season 7 Episode 4) - "They're trying to erase us! But they can't erase this couch!"

The seventh and final season of Mad Men continues with its fourth episode, “The Monolith,” and just as always, I have an in-depth review and analysis of the hour for your reading pleasure. To do the episode justice, this review contains spoilers – as always, do not read unless you have seen the episode.

Spoilers for “The Monolith” after the jump...

“I’m sorry you lost your lunch room. It’s symbolic.”
“No, it’s quite literal.”

While it would be easy to just chalk up Sterling Cooper & Partners’ freshly installed computer – the ‘monolith’ of the title, a bit of word association that also conjures images of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (released roughly a year earlier in the show’s timeline), which nicely dovetails with the many reminders of America’s impending moon landing – as an obvious metaphor for the characters’ anxiety of being replaced or becoming obsolete, I actually think tonight’s episode was going for something a little more nuanced. Between the line quoted above and the technician’s insistence that “these machines can be a metaphor for whatever’s on people’s minds,” the episode calls direct attention to the obviousness of the metaphor, a wise choice given that the introduction of computer technology probably had to be a plot point on Mad Men before the end, and was always destined to serve a clear allegorical purpose. But “The Monolith” is about more than just obsolescence or substitution; it is also about the displacement of responsibility, about generational cause and effect, about the frustration of feeling used, about the discomforting nature of change – all of which are the products of fear.

“This machine is frightening to people, but it’s made by people,” says the technician. “People aren’t frightening?” Don asks. “It’s not that,” the technician replies. “It’s more of a cosmic disturbance. This machine is intimidating because it contains cosmic quantities of information, and that’s threatening, because human existence is finite.”

The Monolith is not the computer – the Monolith is the future, the sum total of all human history, constantly snowballing and moving forward, an ever expanding and changing force to which we shall always feel dwarfed, and which shall always, therefore, be the object of our fear. The episode isn’t about the computer as the symbol of obsolescence – it’s about that and many other byproducts of fear, with the actual object of terror being the same for everyone.

And so we have another episode in which many characters are making power plays, starting with Cutler continuing to force a dominant hand at the agency by moving full steam ahead on Harry’s desire to install a computer, thus ousting creative from their workspace. The significance of the move is, indeed, impossible to miss, and is the show’s biggest step yet towards actualizing the inevitability that modern media will eclipse traditional creative work in advertising (the great irony of Harry Crane is that he is an enormous douche who, from the moment he made himself head of the firm’s TV department, was destined to become the agency’s dominant figure). And while our knowledge of the future tells us that this is the beginning of the end for traditional ad writers and artists – we know the future that instills fear in the entire creative team (“They’re trying to erase us! But they can’t erase this couch!”) – Cutler’s prescience here is only tangential to his actual goal, an afterthought to the move’s effectiveness as a power play. The future he is attempting to maneuver towards isn’t one built around technological penetration, but one in which the office is firmly and undeniably his.

As with all power plays, this one stems from anxiety over a powerless future, and with so many voices rattling around in the agency’s upper management, Cutler’s desire to consolidate power makes perfect sense. We get another conference call sequence here, for instance, in which a circle of partners bouncing potential responsibility around like a football, each with their own anxiety-based agenda – Cutler tries to recall Ted from LA to work on the Burger Chef campaign so he will have another ally in the office, Ted kicks the job off to Peggy so he can continue staying as far away from her as possible, and Roger tries kicking it to Don so the friend he spoke up for might have a chance to prove himself – gives Cutler an opportunity to make Don implode (and further consolidate his own influence in the process). The door is thus opened for Lou’s power play against Peggy – “They didn’t want to give me Burger Chef. They wanted to give me Don,” she explains to Joan – which only forces Peggy and Don into power plays of their own (Peggy making Don meet her in her office, Don refusing to do any work). Everybody is maneuvering on some level, and each person’s anxiety stems from a fear of future powerlessness or indignity. Lou knows Don is a threat to his job, Peggy is fully aware of how completely she is being used by everyone else, and Don neither likes answering to Peggy (an impulse in which there are volumes worth of anxiety to dissect) nor being shoved to the bottom rung of the power chain.

Once again, Don’s arc falls at the center of the episode, and I wondered, for a good chunk of the hour, if Don’s immediate, drunken implosion – breaking virtually every rule he so recently agreed to – had come a little too quickly, given what a clear and motivated upward trajectory he had been on so far this season. But the suddenness of Don’s reversal ultimately becomes the central theme of the story, for if “The Monolith” is all about characters encountering and acting upon fear, returning to the office – especially under such restrictive constraints – would, of course, set Don off. He has been trying to ‘change’ all season long, but the hard work hasn’t really kicked in yet. Being honest with Sally and Megan, two people he should have come clean to long ago, or enduring a day of embarrassment and an insulting new contract may represent progress for Don Draper, but in the grand scheme of things, they are only stepping stones if he is to be redeemed. For the most part, Don has only thought about change up to this point. Going back to work and functioning healthily around other people is another matter entirely, a day to day struggle that cannot be conquered with ideas alone – it requires actively living the ideal, moving towards the future rather than stagnating in the present, and the moment Don is presented with the opportunity to do so, he crumples.

“Why are you even here?” asks Cooper after Don steps out of bounds. “Because I started this agency,” Don replies with righteous indignation. “Along with a dead man, whose office you now inhabit.” Bert’s retort says it all, pinpointing not only Don’s fear of obsolescence – which he muses on ceaselessly in staring at Lane Price’s abandoned Mets flag – but Don’s larger anxiety of being unable to successfully live in this environment. Lane was a man who got crushed by his surroundings, a kinder and better man than Don Draper but one who similarly fell apart when functioning at the agency became too hard, and Don knows a similar fate – obscurity, if not outright death – could befall him if he doesn’t clean up his act.

Rather than expend the effort to continue changing, however, Don returns to drinking, and it falls to Freddie – a colleague who went through all this years ago – to ask the hard questions Don is unable to face. “Do the work, Don,” Freddie concludes. It’s another quote that says everything of import – if Don wants to change, he has to put in the effort. There is no other path. The effort that comes with making the change is Don Draper’s monolith, is the ultimate object of his fear and anxiety, and the significance of the episode’s ending is that, after falling apart in the face of that fear earlier on, Don bucks up and starts doing the work upon returning to the office. There are many, many more issues he will have to work out if his arc of change is to be fulfilled – starting with his frustration at working under Peggy, somebody he thoroughly wronged (not the other way around) – but for yet another time this season, Don manages to take a step forward. “I’ll get you your tags by lunch” may be the smallest baby-step of them all so far on a literal level, but what it represents is, like the other breakthroughs this year, massive. Don has confronted his monolith, and for this one moment, he manages to push past it.

Meanwhile, Roger gets his biggest showcase yet this season, in a subplot that could so easily feel under-baked or unintentionally awkward – as many encounters with counterculture tend to feel on Mad Men – but instead offers an interesting, provocative elaboration of the episode’s central themes. For those embroiled in generational conflict, as Roger and daughter Margaret are with one another, the gap itself, between future and past, can act as the monolith. Roger simply does not understand what’s going on in Margaret’s head, which leads him to kick his parental responsibility off to her husband, and when that plan backfires, he has no choice but to confront her in person – at which point he sees, in a rare moment of clarity, that Margaret is pushing back against him and his lifestyle in the same way he resisted confronting hers. The cause-and-effect relationship between the conservative parenting style of Roger’s generation and the subsequent liberal pushback of Margaret and the counterculture generation is hardly a revolutionary explanation of the origin of hippies – this reaction against mass cultural repression is what the 1960s were about for many young people – but I felt the point was elegantly made here, as it is observing Margaret’s happiness in contrast to ex-wife Mona’s stringent close-mindedness that leads to Roger to realize what is going on.

And for one night, at least, he gives Margaret exactly what she needs, accepting her for who she is and being happy for her happiness, something that would have rendered this entire scenario moot had he done it at any other point in Margaret’s life. But Roger’s brief foray into effective parenting doesn’t last long, as he wakes up the next morning symbolically dressed in his business attire, insisting Margaret come home and resume her maternal duties. It’s an argument that sounds at least partially justifiable on Roger’s part (fully justifiable, perhaps, were it not for the borderline physical assault) until Margaret throws it back in his face, going through the laundry list of Roger’s parental failings until we understand that both father and daughter have abandoned their children. It is less ‘cause-and-effect’ than a direct 1:1 correlation – Roger pursued his happiness at the expense of being their for Margaret, and Margaret pursues hers at the expense of her son. Each thinks they are running from or pushing back against the other generation, but in reality, they are a reflection of one another. The context has changed, but the actions haven’t. In our fear of being like our parents, or repeating the mistakes of prior generations, we find ourselves stuck in the same rut as our ancestors – becoming, in essence, our own internal monoliths, projected onto others. Mad Men has had some difficulty in the past nailing down exactly what it wants to say about generational conflict, but this is a fascinating, gracefully delivered idea.

“The Monolith” is full of them, in truth. It is a very good episode of Mad Men, thoughtful and nuanced and compelling on many levels, but I still cannot shake my own doubts about how the show is functioning – and how it will continue to function – in this constrained, seven-episode half-season. Once again, Don is at the absolute center of things, and while Roger had an expanded role this week, virtually every other main character – Peggy, Joan, Pete, etc. – exists only on the fringes, and I’m wondering if there will be time for any of them to come back to the center before the show signs off for the year (never mind that supporting characters like Ken, Ted, or the entire creative department are more or less non-entities). I have been enjoying Don’s arc greatly, but it feels like the seven-episode structure has forced Matt Weiner and company to consolidate the storytelling around him more directly than they usually do, and the narrative feels slightly less rich as a result, the world less vibrant and populated. Maybe when both halves of Season 7 have aired, and we can buy the box set and watch all 14 in a row, nothing will feel amiss, but the show feels constrained by the reductive scheduling so far, and I worry seven episodes simply aren’t enough to do a year of Mad Men storytelling justice. Hopefully I will be proven wrong. Hopefully things will be left off three weeks from now in a place that feels interesting and cumulative for the entire cast, not just Don, and next year’s episodes will flesh things out even more. Hopefully, this is nothing more than projection on my part. But where a small yet compelling episode like “The Monolith” would have only felt satisfying in a regular, 13-hour run, it feels a tad too insubstantial as one out of seven – and if there is one thing I never want to have to accuse Mad Men of being, it is insubstantial. This show is too good for the scheduling AMC has given it.

Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.

Mad Men reviews post every Sunday night, an hour or two after the episode airs. Come back next week for my thoughts on the season’s third episode, “Field Trip.”

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