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The Best of This Week’s Mad Men Recaps: ‘The Monolith’

The latest episode of Mad Men was heavy on the symbolism. For Vulture's Matt Zoller Seitz, Stanley Kubrick's influence was particularly pervasive; although, as he writes, "The episode's desolate, desperate feeling is more The Shining than 2001, and not just because of Roger's grandson's vaguely Danny-like haircut or the fact that its main character is an alcoholic writer struggling to dry out while living in a 'haunted' office previously inhabited by a man who killed himself and having deep conversations with a guy named Lloyd." This week, the critics parsed the subtle and not-so-subtle meanings of the episode's many visual metaphors, from Portnoy's Complaint to Lane's Mets Pennant, and of course, the new computer. Your recap of the recaps:

Philip Roth’s 1969 novel, “Portnoy’s Complaint,” is the sex-and-mother-obsessed, psychographic dirty joke of a book that Don seemed destined to read. (Appropriately, it’s framed between Don’s spread open legs, perched above his crotch.) Roth’s novel is delivered in the form of a confession to a therapist, and there are hints of psychological drama strung through this episode, from Roger and Marigold to Pete’s reminder of his ex-father-in-law and, by extension, the child he left behind in Connecticut. Perhaps inspired by Portnoy’s catastrophe of a personality, Don drinks his way through booze-filled cans of Coke — risking everything like a true alcoholic, giving into the irrational id that Roth celebrated. Sweaty faced, Don is saved by Freddy Rumsen, after nearly touching rock bottom — and their scenes together are the episode’s most compelling and visceral, perhaps because they are the only ones not weighed down by heavy metaphors made literal. New York Times 

But to be fair, this episode did a really good job of showing that SC&P is so dysfunctional at the moment because everyone involved has a different agenda and no one really communicates with each other anymore. Even at moments of connection, like the much welcome one between Joan and Peggy, information is withheld. Peggy asks if Don is breaking the rules set out for him – which he is – but Joan doesn’t really follow up on it. As Lou said to Peggy when he gave her a rather hefty raise, nothing’s worth anything around those offices unless it’s written down (Don’s contract and shares being the only thing keeping him there, for instance). It’s no coincidence that all those bi-coastal telephonic partners’ meetings (including the one this episode) are practically monuments to the concept of miscommunication. The company is fractured and all its principals want different things from it. Not to mention most of them seem to be desperately unhappy people. The grudges, counter agendas and secrets are piling up so high that SC&P is either a slowly decomposing garbage heap or a bomb ready to go off at any second. Tom and Lorenzo

At the start of this season, I was waiting in ticklish delight for what happened this week: Peggy, the boss of Don. But, of course, when it finally arrived it was so sour. Seth, I agree that Peggy didn’t handle the situation particularly well, but what was she supposed to do? Her self-satisfaction at resolving a predicament that had actually been resolved by Freddie Rumsen reminded me of her misunderstanding with the flowers: Peggy thinks she can read a room, but she’s always missing intel. And you know who she learned that sort of hubris from? Don, who would rather report to Lou than Peggy, even though Peggy is 10,000 times the adman Lou will ever be. The whole circumstance stinks for Peggy: Either she’ll corral Don and report to Lou, or she’ll showcase Don and report to Don. She should smirk while she can. Slate

It wasn’t until after we filed last week’s review that a crucial component of “Field Trip” clicked into place for me: Sterling Cooper & Partners put Don in Lane’s office—quite literally, the office of a dead man. Mad Men is not always a subtle show—the significance of Don’s new office is lost on no one, including Don himself, who this week finds Lane’s old New York Mets pennant under the radiator. But it made me laugh to hear the show comment on its own un-subtlety this week, with the following exchange: “It’s not symbolic.” “No, it’s quite literal.” Unsubtle too is SC&P’s choice of office for Don, which builds up in glances and asides to Bert Cooper’s pronouncement to Don, as the latter is standing in stocking feet in the former’s office: You and the dead man are in the same boat. Both founders of this company, and both useless to the rest of us.  A.V. Club 

Watching Don humbled, having to take the role of the obedient underling, should feel redemptive. Why not? The man is a dinosaur who’s behaved badly for long enough. But the beauty of the show’s maneuvering this season is that, even though we don’t necessarily love Don, and even though we’ve been taught to encounter the ’60s as a time of important, progressive cultural shifts, Weiner allows us to view these sweeping changes through Don’s fearful eyes. Yes, we feel for Peggy and want her to succeed. Of course we care about Joan and Dawn and even Pete and Ginsberg and Stan. But it’s also hard not to long for the simplicity of the early ’60s, the smooth suits and shrimp cocktails and clear hierarchies. Salon 

After fixing him a cup of coffee "as black and strong as Jack Johnson," Freddie lowers the boom on his erstwhile puppetmaster: Quit drinking, he tells him, and "do the work." (Freddie's first metaphor — "Fix your bayonet and hit the parade" — would probably mean less to man who faked his own death in order to escape the Korean War.) So Don ends up back at his desk, the sound of his clacking keys mingling with the Hollies "On a Carousel," which takes us back to a time when Don was a spinner of dreams, and not a slave in the content mines. Rolling Stone

No one embodies the “je ne sais quoi” creative finesse of SC&P more than Don, whose own brave new world involves a slew of rules designed to keep him in line following his wobbly return. Don never embraced a data-centric approach to his ad copy, instead opting for an organic, emotionally-driven creative process that showcased his natural talent for the work — in other words, the opposite of the computer being buzzed, hammered and screwed into the office nearby. Don readily displays his suspicion towards such advanced technology, remarking that computers “replace people.” Mashable

The creative lounge was the trophy room of the house that Don built. But it's Mad Men's post-noon hour, and Don is assumed garbage. He's late to ComputerCon because he doesn't get partner memos. In actuality, he isn't really a partner at all. He is summoned not to discuss new business, or opine on a partner call about fast-food marketing strategy, or do anything at all. He patters around tacking up mementos of the last dead guy in his office, Lane, leaving only to do things like move furniture. And as he is oafing with the grunts in his shirt sleeves, awkwardly couch-wending through the young guys like a dad at a concert, we see it's the very beginning of a new, inauspiciously menial era. GQ 

"Mad Men" is often a show that, even at its best, doesn't care about being subtle in its symbolism and metaphors, but "The Monolith" was laying it on pretty thick with the computer, Don being haunted by Lane Pryce's old New York Mets pennant, the firm getting a technological upgrade at the same time Roger's daughter has moved into a farm with no electricity, and the closing song, The Hollies' "On a Carousel," playing as Don Draper — a man who will be forever associated with the word "carousel" in the minds of "Mad Men" viewers — finally getting back to work for real. HitFix

The computer is greeted with equal parts excitement and apprehension, the way all new technology is welcomed, dating back to the invention of fire. Don shouldn’t worry that the computer is going to replace him — he’s already been replaced, remember? By an ampersand. The firm is now called SC&P, which Bert Cooper chose not to remind Don of when Don confronted him about being treated like a second-class employee. Bert dressed Don down, but his question hung in the air. Why is Don there exactly? Does he think everyone else at the agency is waiting for him to win back their hearts? They’ve been through this a few times now. Everybody knows that Don Draper’s thrilling highs come with corresponding miserable lows. He should feel lucky Bert didn’t bump him all the way down to secretary and make him get coffee for Dawn. Grantland

But did it have to feel so lifeless? Did the deployment of such an obvious symbolic gesture and meta mentioning of it serve as a guise to support the cold, conventional story line surrounding them? Were we watching Don go from point A (denial) to B (anger) to C (acceptance) without consequence because we've already become slaves to our technology: the TV telling us the story we watch so companies can pitch ads our way just like the characters in the fictional TV show? Is this argument giving the episode too much credit? Yes, absolutely. IndieWire

Don Draper never seemed like the naive type — but this episode seemed to indicate that he had few suspicions about his new arrangement with SC&P. Last week, he had to swallow his pride and agree to several stipulations that clearly were intended to offend him. When he accepted them with a simple "Okay," I just assumed he had already shifted into zero-sum strategy mode. But clearly, he's yet to grasp the magnitude of his isolation. Entertainment Weekly 

By way of a Burger Chef account, Don must report to Peggy, effectively putting her in charge. She is given a $100-a-week raise (a roughly $32,000-a-year increase in today’s market), but since it’s Lou who tells her about the promotion, she’s escorted into the role with one demeaning line from the TV world’s worst boss:  “You’re in charge, sweetheart.” What a beautiful combination of condescension and faux-empowerment. We all hate you, Lou Avery. Washington Post

Yes, Lou’s using Peggy. And yes, he is the actual worst. But, like I’ve said before, what I admire most about this show is its use of unsuspecting culprits; so often on this series, small, unwitting actions set off chains of events that are farther-reaching than their perpetrators realize. Maybe Lou here will turn out to be the linchpin: He puts Peggy in charge of Don as an easy solution to a problem, probably unaware of their history, and likely kicks off something much, much bigger—for Peggy and for Don—than he realizes. The Atlantic

It isn’t just Don who is lost in this episode. Peggy, Joan, Roger, Margaret, and others can’t seem to find their way. SC&P is filled with people who don’t know each other, and who can’t connect. This is the feeling of the nation at that time. 1968 was a year of battles for social justice, equality and civil rights; but by 1969 America itself seemed to have lost its way. At the end of the episode, Don sit at his typewriter. Is this a new beginning, or more of the same? Wall Street Journal

But I guess I don't totally agree that this was a back-to-basics episode, but more of a reality-induced evolution for at least Don and Roger. Don rebelled against authority and Roger tried to get his daughter back to her dutiful Manhattan life until Freddy Rumsen and Margaret pointed out the obvious: Don doesn't want to be an unemployed, pants-wetting loser like Freddy, and Roger was a shitty father and isn't in a position to be Dustin Hoffman-in-Kramer-vs.-Kramer-ing his kid. Also, people who have orgies shouldn't be throwing stones in barns, or whatever. Esquire

“We follow the cycles of the Earth,” says one of the group’s members, explaining their lifestyle. When Roger points out the hypocrisy of using a pickup truck but forgoing washing machines, one of Margaret’s squirrely friends mumbles something to the effect of, “Well, we’ve talked about that.” It’s the series’ latest skeptical portrayal of 1960s counterculture, following Paul Kinsey’s Hare Krishna conversion, Peggy’s faux radical boyfriend Abe and whoever those creepy people were in Palm Springs. If there’s one eternal truth on “Mad Men,” other than everyone cheating all the time, it’s that this show loves hippie-punching. I’m not sure what would be more surprising: a happy, faithful marriage or the depiction of a content, harmless flower child portrayed as something other than an object of ridicule. L.A. Times

Roger was an inattentive father who doesn’t know to express his feelings about his parenting regrets, and Margaret has some lingering daddy issues — it’s that simple. This wouldn’t be the first time a disappointing dad on Mad Men had a wake-up call when confronted with what he did to his kids, so maybe Roger will begin earnestly repairing all his damaged relationships. So far, though, this scene just seemed like an excuse to let John Slattery roll around in the mud. Time

Photo: AMC