Some episodes of ‘Mad Men,’ regardless of their levels of quality, significance or satisfaction, have a way at getting to the core of one of the most exasperating things about humanity. People – both in Mad Men and in real life – have this irritating tendency to say one thing while they mean another. They say they’re going to do one thing and then do another. They say they’ve changed, that they’re not going to do it again. You want to believe them, they might even believe themselves, but you can never really tell if true progress has been made. In reality, characters are never as transparent as their fictional counterparts. In Mad Men, however, the way that characters behave, change, and adapt is often much closer to reality than your typical piece of fiction – and that can be incredibly frustrating.
“The Monolith” prominently features characters behaving in ways that are contrary to what’s previously been said and done. In some instances, this is organic; in others, it’s totally intentional. And then, perhaps worst of all, sometimes it’s just arbitrary. But, as an invested viewer, just about all of them will get under your skin in one way or another. Let’s get right into it.
We begin with one Peter Campbell, happily out to dinner with his gorgeous new girlfriend and real estate agent (not necessarily in that order) Bonnie, when he runs into an old client. We don’t get a lot of Pete in this episode, but it’s this encounter that sets a large portion of its plot in motion. It is, however, long enough to provide a stark contrast to what’s happening in the office on the other side of the country. Pete has long been one of the most hardworking and adaptable members of SC&P (and it’s previous iterations), but until now, he’s been impossible to please. It’s fascinating that, while Pete has found an unlikely form of stability and satisfaction in California, the agency has become twice as tense without its most historically disgruntled employee. While the dinky Los Angeles office is rather steadily and serenely (especially for Pete!) picking up accounts, the New York headquarters is a chaotic scene of upheaval and discontent.
When Don walks into the office, it isn’t metaphorically or symbolically changing; it’s literally under construction. Much has been made of Matthew Weiner’s shift away from subtlety over the past couple of seasons. In truth, Mad Men has had its share of overt moments throughout its entire run, not just since season five. With that being said, it really does appear that Weiner is leaning that way in the show’s final season, just as it’s sister Golden Age series, Breaking Bad, did in its last stretch. Similar to how the lights were always off and the poison was literally inside the White household during its final season, there literally isn’t enough room for the creatives of SC&P anymore, and Don Draper lives in a dead man’s office. In the early seasons, there was room for ambiguity and open interpretation, but now it seems that, Weiner, like Vince Giligan before him, wants to be 100% sure his viewers are getting the point.
Anyway though, yes, the forward-thinking cries of the petulant Harry Crane have been heard: SC&P is finally embracing the wave of the future and getting a computer. The problem is that these computers aren’t exactly light, sleek MacBooks. In 1969, computers are giant, mysterious boxes of technology that take up a whole room. They’re potent solutions to problems the agency hardly grasps, but they’re also menacing reminders that anyone can be replaced; threats that the creatives of SC&P are on their way out. Their work has already been limited by a bland and unsentimental robot known as Lou Avery this season; now, it’s a just a matter of time until they’re phased out completely. To Peggy and the others, the writing is on the wall but, of course, the powers that be say otherwise. In fact, Lou, at the urging of cross-country Ted, awards Peggy a newly acquired and rather promising account (Burger Chef), and gives her a nice raise. But he’s not doing it because he gives a shit about “being a leader,” as he professes. A leader puts people around them in positions to succeed. He’s really doing it to stir up trouble between his disgraced nemesis (Don) and his resentful underling (Peggy).
Last week, we were treated to a brief scene between Don and Peggy that underscored how vile things have gotten between the former mentor and mentee. In “Field Trip,” the nastiness came solely from Peggy’s end. Here, there’s no love lost on either side, but the stronger reaction by far comes from Don. Initially, after Lou tells Peggy that Don will be working underneath her, she’s annoyed and hesitant. Just before she goes into Don’s office to tell him the discomforting news, she changes her mind and elects to demonstrate her power over him by making him come to her. When Don’s secretary informs him that Peggy wants to speak with him, he offhandedly says, “Send her in,” clearly not expecting to be rebuked. But when he arrives at her office and realizes that he’s at the bottom of the totem pole with a young – and certainly not as talented or accomplished – copywriter, a silent fury overtakes him. Jon Hamm’s face, so inscrutable at so many points of the series, becomes a mask of rage. Sure, Don seemed game when he agreed to the ghastly terms of his return to the agency, but the new reality is too much to take. Not only does he refuse to fall into his new role as he insinuated he would, but he falls back into depression and boredom-induced binge drinking, which is, of course, strictly, strictly forbidden.
Don said he’d follow the rules, that if he were going to be treated like a child then he’d be a good one. But he didn’t stay true to his word, and he wasn’t the only one to do so in “The Monolith”. The other subplot of the episode involved the world’s most hedonistic and neglectful parent, Roger Sterling’s adventures in hunting down his runaway daughter, Margaret. We last saw Margaret in this season’s premiere, in which she forgave her father for his myriad transgressions, and credited the happy place that she had found in her life for her change of heart. In “The Monolith,” we learn from Roger’s ex-wife, Mona, and Margaret’s oft-disrespected husband, Brooks, that that happy mental place has given way to a physical one in the form of a dirty commune. The development leads to the episode’s second unlikely pairing as Roger and Mona head off to find their clearly distraught daughter. What’s wrong with her, the worried parents wonder. They gave her everything she ever wanted when they were raising her. They taught her the importance of family, didn’t they? How could she leave her young son all alone? It takes Roger until the end of the episode to figure out the answers to these painful – and painfully obvious –questions.
When Roger and Mona find Margaret (or Marigold, as she prefers to be called now, apparently), it’s too much for her mother to take, so Parent of the Year Roger steps up and offers to take care of it. On the first night, Roger cuts loose a little bit. He’s experimented with drugs, pondered the various meanings of life and spent enough time with nature to understand the appeal of this particular kind of life. He’s also no stranger to sidestepping responsibility, so he finds it easy to empathize with his daughter. But only to a point, it turns out. Once she wanders off to mess around with another lost (or is this one found?) soul in overalls, he reverses course. He tells her the vacation is over; it’s time to get back to being a good parent. When she refuses, he attempts to physically remove her from the premises. But, as we already know, Roger lacks the credibility to be an effective authority figure. As the two struggle, they both fall in the mud, heavily implying the truth: they’re both at fault. Margaret, for recently leaving her son and risking how he’ll turn out; Roger, for not realizing that his neglect is what made her the way she is now. Despite Margaret’s so-called newfound happiness, she still hasn’t completely forgiven her oblivious father.
The most prominent ideas of “The Monolith” are the fear of the future, unlikely pairings in unfamiliar circumstances and, as always, the various contradictions and inconsistencies of our beloved characters. The Roger-Margaret subplot, particularly with the Roger-Mona alliance and in the way Roger and Margaret dance around the truth, manages to touch on these, but also gets at the heartbreaking nature of the father-daughter relationships of this show. In the show’s early seasons, we got an intimate look at how the inattentiveness of the Draper parents (especially Don, who was only around when it suited him) disturbed their daughter. More recently, in season six and in this season’s “A Day’s Work,” we’ve seen how Don’s selfish choices have affected Sally in adolescence. In sunny, carefree California, Pete is an even more absentee father than Don was. It’s chilling, but not necessarily unrealistic, to think that Roger and Margaret’s ugly tussle in the mud could be foreshadowing of the relationships Don and Pete will have with their daughters when they become adults.
While Margaret is on her little journey of self-discovery and Roger is getting a firsthand look at the consequences of his past actions, there’s work to be done at the agency – or, in Don’s case, work not to be done. As he blatantly avoids work and secretly gets plowed in his office, Don hits a new level of drunk. Let’s talk about this for a second. Over the years, we’ve seen Don at just about every point on the impairment spectrum. There’s smooth, casually drunk Don (a Don we haven’t seen in quite some time), sloppy, slogan-stealing drunk Don, depressive, lonely alcoholic drunk Don, angry, preacher-punching drunk Don, vulnerable, emotion-bearing, pitch-ruining drunk Don and a bunch of others in between. But we’ve never seen silly, freshmen-year-of-college, so-drunk-he’s-singing-“Meet the Mets”-drunk Don before. It’s amazing that Matthew Weiner and Jon Hamm are still giving us new Dons (drunk or otherwise) seven seasons and 80-plus episodes into the series. We’ve also never seen a Don Draper so off the rails that he had to be reprimanded by Freddie Rumsen. But after, Don, interested in the New York Mets after finding the late Lane Pryce’s old Mets pennant, demands that he take him to a ballgame, that’s exactly what happens. Freddie Rumsen was once the laughingstock of the agency, but he’s had a semi-resurgence since his humbling pants wetting incident, way back in season two. He’s sober now, working, and lives his relatively modest life with 10 times the purpose of the formerly unassailable Don Draper. Although it seemed sad and grim when Don was using Freddie to channel his work into the agency in the season premiere, refusing to try when given an opportunity – no matter how small – is much worse, and Freddie lets Don know it.
Freddie gets Don to see that he needs to deal with reality. It doesn’t matter what’s been said or done, that Don has already broken his promise, or that the agency was never being sincere in the first place. When he accepted the partners’ insulting terms, it seemed as if Don was taking his first step, but he was really just getting back on the map. When Don reports back to work and starts typing the 50 tags that Peggy asked for, after half a season at a standstill, he’s finally moving again.
The closing song this week is “On a Carousel” by The Hollies. Carousel, which was mentioned by Ken Cosgrove in “Field Trip,” evokes Don’s finest work moment, but the lyrics of the song speak to the situations of both Don and the other characters.
“Riding along on a carousel/ Trying to catch up to you/ Riding along on a carousel/ Will I catch up to you?”
Will Don catch back up with Peggy? Will he catch up with the idealized version of himself? Will any of our characters? Probably not – that’s not how carousels work – but better to be going in a circle than nowhere at all.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently writes about sports and culture for Yahoo Sports and Yahoo Voices, and previously covered the Carolina Panthers for Football.com during the 2013 season, as well as college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future.