Mad Men, Season 7: Episode 4 – “The Monolith”
Written by Erin Levy
Directed by Scott Hornbacher
Airs Sunday nights at 10 on AMC
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“The Monolith” is one of many Mad Men episodes that shows how certain characters react to change. Rather than limit those ideas to the new IBM computer being installed at the offices, the episode focuses more on how Don Draper and Roger Sterling deal with changes in status quo. They’d be very content to live their lives as they always have, but both characters have made certain decisions in their respective pasts that have come back to bite them in their asses. It’s strange and wonderful to see a Mad Men episode do this in such a classic way in its seventh season, since the Don-Roger parallel episodes were mostly the things of the show’s early days. And while it’s great to get that here, I wonder if the script didn’t have enough room to fit in more of Pete Campbell, because those early episodes also did a fine job of showing how Roger’s kind was being displaced by Don’s and how Don’s kind was being displaced by Pete’s. Regardless, “The Monolith” gives Don and Roger similar but different journeys that force them to confront the worst of themselves.
Roger’s trip to recover his daughter, Margaret, is one of those adventures that is so out of place that it works by putting a character into an original situation for the series. With only ten episodes of Mad Men left, it’s worth paying attention to why Matthew Weiner is forcing Roger to deal with issues of fatherhood. Similar to last week’s Betty storyline, Roger actually goes out of his way to be the cool dad when he and Mona visit Margaret’s commune. He does just about everything that Margaret could expect of him, peeling potatoes and sleeping under a patchy roof as the two of them look up at the stars. Earlier in the episode, Lloyd talks to Don about how the computer could count all the stars in a ridiculously short amount of time, to which Don says people lying down and looking up at the stars probably aren’t thinking about counting them. They’re looking at the moon instead. This rings true as Roger and Margaret are side-by-side, positioned almost identically in Scott Hornbacher’s top-down shot. I’m not really sure what the differences are between the person who counts stars and the person who images going to the moon, but one seems like a task that’s there to fill up time (much like how Don is wasting time in his office in several scenes). The other is a process of creativity and almost childlike inquiry. In the world of the advertising agencies, there really isn’t enough time to be looking up at the night sky, but that capability and awareness, I would say, are what make people like Don and Roger so good at their jobs. Perspective and the ability to experience perspective in new ways are key to success. Roger hopes that immersing himself in Margaret’s perspective will bring them closer, and that does seem to happen. However, he also expects Margaret to see his own perspective and to agree with how he believes it’s what’s best for her.
What makes Roger blow up is how he sees his own lack of responsibility in his daughter. If being literally dragged through the mud isn’t enough, Margaret throws it in Roger’s face how he was never there for her growing up, passing off birthday present duties to his secretary and making excuses not to see her or her mother. Roger must know this as he’s appealing to Margaret’s duties as a mother (just as Mona does, also unsuccessfully), but it’s the only ammunition he has. Parents don’t want their children to make the same mistakes they did, but the fact that some of those children experienced the the effects of those mistakes removes that responsibility in their eyes. Margaret isn’t right to abandon her son in this way. But Roger also isn’t right to think that he can just force her to do what needs to be done. He escaped from his own responsibilities by taking a trip to the bottom of a bottle of booze. Margaret’s escape is at least done from some kind of perspective that she thinks she can justify.
We’ve had only a brief mention of Roger and Joan’s relationship and family that aren’t a relationship and family. Yet, I can’t imagine this not being the thing Weiner wants to come back to as this final season progresses. Using Margaret as a precedent–a failed attempt at parenting–is certainly one way of pushing Roger to step up and do what he thinks is right. How Joan reacts to that (she seems very content to do things on her own) is another thing altogether, but I only see redemption at the end of the line for Roger. He, too, has done the hippie commune kind of thing and has made it out on the other end. Has he truly learned things for those experiences? It’s looking like Mad Men is trying to suggest that, since these first few episodes have shown him fighting for both his family and friends. That’s the kind of Roger this season could use.
Don’s path in “The Monolith” is much more arduous–or, at least, it’s more difficult to watch. No doubt, plenty of people out there are probably rolling their eyes when they see him take a bottle of vodka from Roger’s office, but who can blame him? When Peggy drops the news on him that he’s been assigned to her team for the Burger Chef pitch, he holds his composure for as long as he can before heading back to his office and chucking his typewriter against the window. This might be more of an immature reaction if the episode hadn’t also shown how complicit Peggy is in humiliating Don. It’s not enough that she can exert a stance of superiority over him, placing him alongside one of the junior creative guys and asking for 25 tags. She makes sure that he comes into her office after pausing in front of his door, clearly thinking about ways to get back at him for something that really doesn’t even matter anymore. That’s not to say Don is right to have such a violent reaction. And that’s certainly not to say he ought to be getting wasted in the middle of the day when Bert shuts down his attempt to bring in some new business. It’s that it’s both understandable and worthy of sympathy, to some degree. Anyone pompous enough to take the high road and wag a finger, believing they wouldn’t be tempted to do the same thing after the various things Don’s gone through is just kind of silly.
The whole scenario is set up from the very beginning, when we see Don in the familiar building elevator only to have him make a return to the office that is once again abnormal. The only thing there to greet him is a swinging phone. And during the other entrance Don makes, the Monday after being assigned the Burger Chef job, the computer guys are still tearing up the center of the room, forcing Don to look at the change going on face-to-face. How Don reacts to that change while drunk is one of the more interesting aspects of “The Monolith” to me. When he confronts Lloyd, he tells him “you go by many names. I know who you are,” suggesting that the man is some representation of Satan himself. “You don’t need a campaign. You’ve had the best campaign since the dawn of time.” It’s yet another time in Mad Men when “dawn” is used as a double entendre, this time Don using his familiarity with his own demons and externalizing them onto the real-life things or people that are torturing or taunting him. Thank goodness for Freddy, though. He is the unlikely hero in Don’s story for this episode, taking care of him at first and then berating him for not accepting and playing the cards he has been dealt. Freddy’s is also a sad case, and you could easily draw a parallel there to how he, like Roger, is trying to prevent another person from going through the same things he has. But whereas Margaret doesn’t have the experience yet to see the sense in what Roger is telling her, Don knows that Freddy is right. And, hopefully to no one’s surprise, Don steps up. “I’ll have your tags by lunch.” It’s a line that doesn’t have as much poignancy or resonance as “happy Valentine’s Day. I love you” from a couple episodes back. But, again, this is classic Mad Men, showing how a turn of phrase communicates so many things all at once and how that is what we should be thinking about as the curtains close. When someone is completely dismantled, putting them back together isn’t an overnight process. Don knows that, and that’s why he shuts the door, has a seat and does the job he’s supposed to do.
– Sean Colletti
– Bonnie’s reaction to how Pete conducts business is entirely complimentary. But Pete says “those conversations happen all the time. It doesn’t mean anything.” I’m not sure where Pete is at right now, other than he’s doing his damnedest to one-up Bob Benson any chance he can get. This, though, has such a tinge of sadness to it. Pete’s very good at what he does. So, maybe this is just a case of the perpetually dissatisfied artist who can’t take positive feedback without being self-denigrating.
– Speaking of people who are good at their job, Jim Cutler not only follows through on the forward-thinking decision of bringing the computer in, but he also puts Lou in his place when Lou complains about Don. He’s a great writer, at the very least, so what’s the worst that could happen? That kind of objective perspective really colors Jim in a good light.
– Roger to Bert: “You might want to wear shoes.”
– Ginsberg is upset, because he doesn’t want the couch that’s full of farts. “They’re trying to erase us…but they can’t erase this couch!” If every episode of Mad Men had just one moment of Ginsberg outrage like this, they would all be better for it.
– When deciding who is going to be assigned the Burger Chef gig, Ted avoids Jim’s suggestion that he gets called back to the New York offices. Instead, it’ll be Peggy, who can provide the perspective of a female or, as Pete says, “whatever Peggy counts as.”
– “Human existence is finite,” while computers can contain infinite information. Mad Men is anything but subtle most of the time, and it’s clear the writing staff wants us to be thinking about these ideas of technology’s overwhelming power and its ability to displace human utility. I sometimes wish we could follow Mad Men into the age of the internet just to see what things Weiner could do with communication and connectedness. This IBM stuff will do just fine, though.
– Two characters, Lou and Peggy, stand in front of their office windows in this episode, much like some of the shots we’ve seen of Don in the past (I remember last season’s premiere, in particular, which drew attention to that image when Don returned from Hawaii). Peggy has always been her own version of Don Draper. But Lou? Man, that guy sucks so much that I actually laughed at the visual comparison.
– Mona’s message Roger: “Hey, genius. Brooks is in jail in Kingston.” Apparently, he’s in jail for fighting rednecks. Roger also clocks Brooks pouring Roger’s alcohol in his office. What a guy.
– To pass the time, Don plays Solitaire and reads Philip Roth. I would be lying if I said that I have not spent a few of my nights doing the exact same things.
– Bert reminds Don that he created the agency “along with a dead man whose office you now inhabit.” What a nice way of putting that, Bert. There appears to be something akin to immediate regret after Bert delivers that line, but I don’t even know if Bert is capable of experiencing those kinds of feelings.
– “But you’ve got a truck.” “Yeah..that’s been up for debate, man.”
– And if we never get to see Drunk Don singing about the Mets again, I’ll be thoroughly disappointed.