Friday, May 9, 2014

Mad Men Episode 7-4: The Monolith

We first see Pete and Bonnie dining al fresco at a lovely restaurant. Pete talks at length about his work but Bonnie is preoccupied with a man across the way who she thinks is looking at her. When she tells Pete not to turn around, Pete immediately turns around and discovers the man is an old acquaintance of his named George. George used to work for Vicks, the company where Trudy’s father worked, but now says he works for Burger Chef. Pete learns from George and that his own father-in-law, Tom, had a heart attack, which was news to Pete. “Who knew he had a heart?” quips George. George then says his company is putting McCann in review and suggests they might work together again, with Tom out of the way.

After George leaves, Bonnie gushes at how skillfully Pete handled the conversation with George. Still wrapped up in himself and busy playing the expert, Pete is unreceptive, as if he doesn’t care how Bonnie feels about him at that moment. Pete says that kind of conversation happens frequently, but it doesn’t mean anything – as if he thinks Bonnie is na├»ve or foolish for her admiration.

Later in the episode, Pete and Ted have a conference call from their California office with the Sterling Cooper New York executives and they tell them about the possible Burger Chef business opportunity. Jim Cutler agrees that it’s a good opportunity and says Ted needs to return to New York to handle it. Ted says definitively that he’s not returning to New York, and he suggests that Peggy should head the account. Next, Roger suggests that Don should do it, to which Lou counters, “I thought we had an understanding about Don. He’s going to implode.” Jim tells Lou that while that’s a possibility, it’s also possible that Don will produce good work. Meanwhile, over in LA, Pete complains under his breath, “Let’s see them give that to Bob Benson!”

 As the head of Creative, Lou decides to put Peggy in charge of the Burger Chef account, and tells her that first, they have to win the business. Lou also flatters Peggy by giving her a $100 per week raise, which at first increases her confidence. As Peggy walks out of Lou’s office, he says, “You’re in charge, sweetheart” – a comment that rings with arrogance towards her as a woman.

 Peggy chooses Don for her team plus a young copy writer named Mathis. Don is miffed at being asked to report to Peggy and bring her 25 tags by Monday morning. On receiving the assignment, Don goes straight to his office and throws his IBM Selectric typewriter at the window, breaking the glass, then grabs his coat and hat and leaves the office for the day. On Monday morning, Don doesn’t even show up in Peggy’s office for the follow-up meeting. Upset but feeling powerless to control Don, Peggy assigns Mathis a double workload. When he complains, she retorts coldly, “But now you have the research.”  Later, Joan passes Peggy’s office and congratulates her on receiving a raise. Peggy responds sarcastically, apologizes, and then talks with Joan privately about her insight: “They didn’t want to give me Burger Chef – they wanted to give me Don,” she says with disgust. Joan says it’s just cowardice, and Peggy asks, “Mine or theirs?” Joan is actually referring to the male executives who are too cowardly to confront Don about breaking the rules they had imposed on him, and are using Peggy to control him instead. Peggy says she thinks the executives dropped the account in her lap so either she or Don would fail, but Joan says she doesn’t think anyone put that much thought into it.  

 The story of Roger and daughter Margaret’s relationship expands in this episode to the rest of his family, including ex-wife Mona, son-in-law Brooks Hargrove, and young grandson, Ellery. A crisis occurred 10 days prior, Roger is told, when Margaret ran off to a commune upstate, deserting her husband and son. Brooks plans to drive up to the commune and bring Margaret back, and he has brought Ellery to Grandma Mona to care for the child while he’s away. Mona says Margaret is “off her rocker” and “a perverse child who only thinks of herself” but that she’s worried about her. Mona asserts that Roger, being Margaret’s father, should be the one to go, and a discussion ensues to select a course of action. In the end, Brooks goes, but after trying, he fails to persuade Margaret to leave and afterwards gets into a fight at a bar, is arrested, and lands in jail. When Mona comically relates this information to Roger through Roger’s secretary, Caroline, Roger and Mona decide to drive up to the commune together and try to bring Margaret home.

 During their long drive, Mona and Roger discuss the situation and their worries. Roger tries to reassure Mona that things will be all right. Then he recollects the last time he saw Margaret (when Margaret said she forgave him) and he describes his perceptions of Margaret then as “so cruel and so serene…and a little bit philosophical.” Mona comments that her perception had been that Margaret was finally happy.

 When they arrive at the commune – an old farmhouse – they see some young people dressed like 19th century farmers with a hippie twist. On asking for Margaret Sterling Hargrove, they learn she’s now called “Marigold.” Marigold greets her parents with strangely serene and welcoming hugs, but Mona confronts her with: “I don’t know what happened between you and Brooks, but your son needs you.” Marigold replies: “Ellery can’t be happy if I’m not happy” and “I’m tired of accepting society’s definition of me.” When Mona speaks understandingly about how hard it can be to be a young mother, Marigold responds that at least she doesn’t have to lock herself in the bathroom at night with a pint of gin. Keenly offended, Mona stomps off to leave, and Roger gives her the car keys, saying he’ll get “Cletus” to drive him to the train.

 That night, Roger listens to Marigold, allows her to show him around, and acts agreeably. They crawl into sleeping bags next to each other in the hay loft, and staring upward, Marigold says she’d like to go to the moon. Roger says that, like every other little boy, he once did too, a la Jules Verne. Marigold says she’s really happy, Roger says he knows it, and Roger kisses her forehead goodnight. They drift off to sleep, at least until a young man approaches Marigold for sex and they slip away together, trying in vain not to awaken Roger.

 The following morning, Roger sits outside with the group and listens to their philosophizing. The commune members claim they have no hierarchy there and everything is decided by consensus, but Roger says there’s always a hierarchy. Eventually Roger’s mood flips and he announces, “It’s time to leave Shangri La, baby” and accuses, “How could you leave him? He’s your baby.” Marigold declares that it’s easy, just as easy as it must have been for Roger to desert her as a child in favor of his long hours at work throughout her entire childhood. Echoing Roger consoling Mona in an earlier scene, Marigold says, “He’ll be fine.” Roger attempts to bully Marigold into leaving with him, they wrestle and fall into the mud, and he ultimately gives up.

 Finally, Don’s story involves his new role at SC&P, his friend Freddy Rumson, and the story of the new computer being installed in the old Creative lounge at the office. As Don arrives at the office early in the episode, he finds the desks and offices deserted and hears everyone upstairs. He climbs to the top of the stairs and sees the ending of a company-wide meeting where everyone is being told of the installation of their computer and how the construction will affect them. Mike and Peggy both grumble, Jim announces excitedly that their agency is entering the future, and Lou tells Peggy that the computer will do a lot more than Creative will do to help the company. Stan says the computer is “The Mona Lisa,“ while panicking Mike gets Don to help him bring one of the orange couches from the Creative lounge to his small office. When Mike says, “They’re trying to erase us, but they can’t erase this couch!” Don realizes Mike is off base and stops helping him. Roger, seeing Don, suggests that the two of them can celebrate later on, “off campus,” indicating that they can drink together. Next, Don goes to his office – Lane’s old office – and discovers a Mets pennant under the desk that he sentimentally tacks to his office wall.

 Don later walks over to the construction area where the computer is being installed and strikes up a conversation with Lloyd Hawley, the man in charge of leasing the computer to SC&Partners. Noting the friction in the office, Lloyd says that everywhere he goes for installations, people have many reactions to the computer, but each reaction involves whatever ideas and concerns are on people’s minds, “Like a cosmic disturbance.” Lloyd says some are frightened by facing the prospect of a machine with infinite information whereas humans are finite. Don sees the computer as winning or losing over humans. Then Don wonders why people would be concerned when staring at the stars with calculating how many stars are up there, a mere number, and asserts that when they look up at the sky, people are more interested in going to the moon.

 Later we see Don reclining on the couch in his office, reading a book that looks like Portnoy’s Complaint, a best seller at the time known for its excessively crude, sexually explicit language. Lloyd the computer man knocks on his door and asks Don for a light for his cigarette. On hearing that Don has nothing to do, Lloyd proceeds to ask for some advertising tips for his business, which has grown but has lots of new competitors. He explains that his small company leases IBM computers but also competes with IBM, since IBM’s modus operandi is to replace computers every two years, thus creating enormous, unnecessary waste. He also says IBM makes a great computer but doesn’t trust its own products so is continually upgrading. Harry Crane soon comes to the door to pick up Lloyd and take him out to lunch. Don spots Caroline and asks when Roger will return from lunch, but she says he’s gone for the day.

 Next, Don heads up to Bert’s office to tell him what he’s learned about Lloyd’s company, Lease Tech. Bert, however, rebuffs Don’s message and says Don misunderstands his new role in the company. In fact, he emphasizes, the company has been doing just fine without him. Don asks, “Why am I even here?” Bert retorts, “Why are you here?” Don says, “I started this agency,” to which Bert replies, “Along with a dead man whose office you now inhabit.”

 Don storms out and heads to Roger’s office to steal a bottle of vodka under his suit jacket. In his office, he drinks by pouring the vodka, straight, into an empty soda pop can, and lies down to drink and take a nap. While still drunk, he phones Freddy and arranges to go to a Mets game that day. When Freddy arrives and sees Don’s condition, he escorts Don out of his office to bring him home. However, Don stops to talk to Lloyd one more time, this time speaking somewhat obscurely about his disdain for the computer. He belligerently scolds Lloyd, “You talk like a friend but you’re not…I know your name. You go by many names. You don’t need a campaign – you’ve got the best campaign since the dawn of time.”  Presumably, Don is referring to the computer as trying to take control of the company a la HAL 9000, there to dominate and devalue humans, where the “best campaign since the dawn of time” is the idea of superior technology in every age that can help people advance and surpass others. Freddy ushers Don out and gets him home to Don’s apartment, where Don passes out on his living room couch and Freddy looks on with gentle disgust. Later on, Don wakes up and Freddy brings him a cup of coffee, “as black and strong as Jack Johnson.”

At this point, Freddy delivers an intervention: “What the hell are you doing? Aren’t they giving you a chance?” Don explains his tag-writing assignment by Peggy, as if that’s ridiculous. Then Freddy continues, “Would you rather be in my situation, bouncing from office to office?” When Don tells Freddy he doesn’t want to hear what he has to say right now, Freddy says: “This is the best time for you to hear it….Go to your bedroom, get in your uniform, fix your bayonet, and hit the parade. Do the work, Don.”

At the end of the show, we see Don dressed up and going to work. He goes to his office, sits at the typewriter and begins typing, and tells Peggy he’ll have her 25 tags by noon. Peggy shows interest in his new attitude.

 The final song is by the Hollys, with the incipit: “Riding along on a carousel; will I catch up to you?” – a clear reference to Don going full circle to once again do the creative grunt work that he did in the past.

 

A major theme of this episode is in the title: The Monolith. This term is a reference to the American-British science fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which premiered in America in 1968. The monolith of that film was a large, polished slab that appeared as if out of nowhere, first on Earth in some prehistoric time, and 4,000 years later on the Moon, as if placed by some more evolved beings or perhaps through a mystical event. Later on, spacemen discover another monolith orbiting Jupiter, and at the end of the film a monolith appears at the foot of the bed of one of the spacemen who, now an old man, touches it and is transformed into a living fetus that floats in outer space. In each case, touching the monolith seemed to jump-start people’s evolution. Also featured in that film was HAL 9000, the highly evolved, self-aware, and emotional computer on the spaceship that tried to take control of the flight in disobedience of the on-flight astronauts. Ultimately HAL was unplugged because of it.

This film captured the imaginations of millions in America, and in this episode, the ideas of both HAL 9000 and the monolith reverberate in the minds of many SC&P employees. Getting a computer fills the more optimistic employees with excitement that it will, like the monolith, jump-start the “evolution” of their business through technological advancement. However, others experience a fear that they may be “erased” or displaced by the logical machine and thus become obsolete, the way HAL tried to eliminate the astronauts.

These reactions speak to the Zeitgeist of late 1960s America, where new inventions and the space age caused a reaction among people who wanted to go backward out of fear, while also move forward with great excitement toward a better tomorrow through the wonders of science and technology and “evolution.” For example:

·         Margaret/Marigold retreats to an imagined past communal lifestyle as part of the “hippie” movement that rejected modern inventions and comforts, and yet she feels their group is more evolved because they no longer have a hierarchy and women seem to have an equal voice in decision making.

·         Don crawls back to his old habits of drinking and entertaining himself with sexual ideas (although only through a book in this episode), and yet by the end of the episode he looks forward to doing the work put before him and making a comeback to create a better future for himself, his family, and the company.

 

Another major theme of this episode is the power transfer from men to women that was difficult for many men in the 1960s and 70s to adjust to.

·         Both Brooks and Roger (and Mona) attempt to command Margaret (Marigold) to do as they say and come back home, but their efforts fail. While Mona is offended by Margaret, the men experience the added sting of feeling controlled by a young woman – someone they would consider automatically beneath themselves in the natural hierarchy of life. The truth may be that Marigold is being manipulated and used by a man or men at the commune instead, as Roger suggests, but there’s at least the fact that, in 1969, a woman stands up to the power of a man and wins the standoff. The men of the commune, by contrast, have less resistance to according women an equal vote, which shows that the gender power transfer happens more easily in younger generations.

·         Peggy is placed in charge of Don, and he resents and resists being controlled by her. As Peggy observes, she too is being used by Lou, but nevertheless, she gets more power in the workplace than before.

·         Although Don wallows in self-pity during much of the episode, Freddy’s intervention works and Don changes his attitude to a determination to “take his medicine” by accepting his subordination to a woman, Peggy, and finding a way to use his situation to grow and ultimately succeed.  

·         Pete stands in contrast to this theme, as he attempts to hold all the power during his dinner with Bonnie – the beautiful, vibrant woman that he demeans without even knowing it. His self-impressed behavior shows how difficult it is for Pete to acknowledge Bonnie’s real power in the relationship and in the world, which we’ve seen in past episodes.

 
A third theme is the universal fascination with the idea of going to the moon. This was one of the most romantic notions of the 1960s, and seems to represent our collective human desire to reach our highest aspirations, to explore the universe, and possibly to see what spiritual beings or extraterrestrials might be up there. Don talks to Lloyd about the natural desire to go to the moon. Later, Margaret/Marigold and Roger talk about the same desire at night as they gaze skyward. And somehow, getting a computer installed at the office makes the whole company feel like spacemen heading out into the future.

Want more? See my Mad Men essays on BlogCritics.org.

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