Mad Men Recap: A Cosmic Disturbance

Photo: AMC
Mad Men
Mad Men
Episode Title
The Monolith
Editor’s Rating

Mad Men is never as obsessed with pop-culture shout-outs as its detractors think, and I can't imagine that Erin Levy wrote "Monolith" just to keep Stanley Kubrick fans up all night looking for homages. Like all the historical references and literary and mythological symbols, the references to then-contemporary film, TV, literature, and music tend to be a sideshow to the main action, which is pretty straightforward: psychologically well-rounded characters moving through life. 

Still, though: Kubrick was everywhere. As the episode's title suggests, 2001 was the touchstone, even though the timeline is off (the film was released to theaters in in January 1968, over a year before the events of "Monolith"). The episode kicks into high gear in its second scene, with Don arriving at the office, stepping past a black monolith, and finding SCP's first floor as deserted as the white room where the film's sole surviving astronaut Dave Bowman goes to die. Short lenses accentuate the set's already bold lines, making fluorescent ceiling panels seem to stretch toward infinity like the white floor plates in Bowman's final resting place. Turns out the office is gathered on the second floor, where Jim Cutler and Harry Crane are announcing the installation of the new computer that Harry's been agitating for (and that he described to a client last week). "It's gonna do lots of magical things, like make Harry Crane seem important," Don tells Roger.

Shades of the HAL 9000. "Monolith" talks about the uneasy relationship between humans and machines, which is also a theme in the Kubrick-written, posthumously released Steven Spielberg film A.I., which ended with a flash-forward to a future in which biomechanical super-beings picked through the rubble of human civilization. A longish conversation between Don Draper and the Lease Tech guy Lloyd is a mother lode of man-and-machine philosophizing that ultimately leads to Don proposing him as a new client and getting slapped down by Bert. Don thinks computers are the future, and clearly Lloyd agrees; in fact he talks about the machines as if they're people, and brags that his company is dedicated toward sustaining them rather than letting them die out in a regular cycle of planned obsolescence.  "I believe in these machines," Lloyd tells Don. "I don't want to find them in a junkyard in two years." 

The episode also includes talk of "the perils of technology," "a cosmic disturbance," rockets, a moon landing, astronauts, the finite nature of human existence, the expansion of human consciousness through both scientific research and drugs (Roger invites Don out for drinks by asking if he wants to "celebrate our technological advancement"), and, in that lovely scene at the commune between Roger and his daughter, the poetic and and mathematical appreciation of the stars. Kubrick's post–Dr. Strangelove work often concerned itself with conditioning, evolution, and the threat of specieswide extinction, all of which are important in this hour of the show. The opening chapter of 2001 — the prehistoric curtain-raiser that's ended with a bone-to-spaceship transition — is titled "The Dawn of Man," and "Monolith" contains many sideways references to that prelude, including Roger's vote of confidence in Don as potential copywriter for Peggy: "He spent three weeks alone in that cave and he hasn't clubbed another ape yet." The assignment of Don to Peggy's team, which puts a young woman in charge of her once-powerful male mentor, feels like a sign of workplace evolution, even though it happens for tactical reasons and is made possible by a man, the Machiavellian bureaucrat Lou Avery. 

In the end, though, 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. (“You talk like a friend but you’re not," drunk Don tells Lloyd. "You go by many names. I know who you are.”) The overhead shot of a trashed Don looking up at the Mets pennant is framed in a way that suggests a man in a coffin, and a phrase Don uses in a subsequent phone call has more than one meaning: "in the bag." This is truly a life-and-death struggle for Don, as suggested by the Neve Campbell character's bizarrely dreamlike conversation with him on the plane in the season premiere. He could die of thirst before he turns 50. Appallingly few people are actually on his side. 

Don's predicament in this episode is proof that even paranoids have real enemies. Remember, he's still a partner and can't be fired, only bought out at great expense. At many different points in "Monolith" it seems as though co-workers are trying to drive him to quit or even kill himself; Bert even makes the assignment of Don to Lane Pryce's old office sound like a chilly tactical maneuver.

"Why are you here?" Bert asks Don, turning subtext into text as only Bert can. 
"I started this business," Don replies.
"Along with the dead man whose office you now inhabit," Bert says. 

When Don falls off the wagon, he reaches out to Freddie Rumsen, who rides to the rescue. Freddie has done this for Don before, obviously, and for others as well. (A friend suggested a spin-off series in which Freddie travels around the world solving other people's problems, titled Rum Fu.) It's not sunshine and lollipops, though. Don's de facto sponsor, an ad man himself, validates Don's worries. "Are you just gonna kill yourself, give them what they want?" he asks. Don's reply can be seen in the episode's final shot: a slow dolly-in to closeup of the hungover prodigal genius typing up the 25 tag lines that his boss Peggy requested, while the Hollies provide a callback to Don's most famous and oft-quoted pitch, for Kodak's Carousel slide projector

If nostalgia is, as Don once defined it, the ache from an old wound, he's got to be in a lot of pain at this moment: As Freddie put it, without sugarcoating, he's being forced to work his way up from the bottom, like some kid, or like a janitor. But he's getting through it. He's doing the work. Will the counterintuitively optimistic undertone of these last couple of episodes continue through the end of the season, for Don at least? I wonder. Maybe the most symbolically important thing in "Monolith" isn't any Kubrick reference, but the Mets pennant that Don digs out from beneath a heater and pins to his wall. The 1969 Mets, then an eight-year-old expansion team, were bums who surprised everyone by ending the season as kings. Maybe Don is capable of acting on a passage he wrote in season four's "The Summer Man," which was also about his struggles to overcome alcoholism: "When a man walks into a room, he brings his whole life with him. He has a million reasons for being anywhere, just ask him. If you listen, he'll tell you how he got there. How he forgot where he was going, and that he woke up. If you listen, he'll tell you about the time he thought he was an angel or dreamt of being perfect. And then he'll smile with wisdom, content that he realized the world isn't perfect. We're flawed, because we want so much more. We're ruined, because we get these things, and wish for what we had."

Odds & ends

* I like the early L.A. scene where Pete makes strategic hay of the news that his father-in-law had a heart attack. He's an instinctively opportunistic bastard, but not a monster. He knows he should feel ashamed of himself for converting bad news into a business opportunity — though the next time we see him, his shame seems to have vanished.

* Roger's journey this season parallels Don in a number of intriguing ways. He's as big an alkie as Don, but he seems to have done a much better job of shielding himself from the consequences. When he and his ex-wife Mona go out to the commune to "rescue" their daughter Margaret, a.k.a. "Marigold," it's merely the latest moment wherein Roger encounters a group that's living an "alternative lifestyle." You saw his living conditions back in New York, basically one big tangle of drug-addled bodies. It's unsurprising that he'd be in no hurry to leave the farm. Like the L.A. swingers' compound where Don hung out in season two's "Hall of the Mountain King," the place offers a respite from the pressures of so-called civilized life, though series creator Matthew Weiner and Co. send up the hippies just as knowingly as they once did the beatniks. The place is explicitly compared to Shangri-La from the Utopian novel Lost Horizon — a reference that also occurred in the season premiere—  but as is so often the case on Mad Men, harsh reality and social conditioning destroy the blissful vibe. Roger's fine with the pot and even the faux-back-to-nature posturing, but when Margaret/Marigold sneaks off in the middle of the night for a spin on the carousel, his inner patriarch reasserts himself and he slings her over his shoulder like a caveman, tries to forcibly load her into a truck, and lands both of them in a mud puddle. 

* "These people are lost and on drugs and they have venereal diseases!" 

* I love the shot of Roger in his North by Northwest–style suit (here blue, not Cary Grant–gray) walking away from the commune. It's genuinely iconic, maybe more so than any of the Kubrick-inspired shots in this episode. It's 20th century American history distilled to one image: the city turning back on the country. 

* I also love the writing of the Peggy scenes in this episode, and the way Elisabeth Moss plays them: the hesitant expressions during Lou's "leadership position" monologue; the dazed good cheer as she realizes she's been given a raise and new authority; the grin as she sips from her coffee mug after giving her old mentor a drudge job; and finally the dawning realization that she's been set up to serve others' agendas. 

* Mona's griping to Roger in the car subtly contrasts with Peggy's problematically empowered scenes in this episode: "She had one job, it was to find a husband, and she mucked that up." Margaret isn't just acting out against her unfaithful, alcoholic, often-absent dad. She's is at least partly rebelling against 1960s American society's wish to define her solely as a wife and mother. That's what Roger's rebelling against, too, though the fact that he's a man means he has more latitude and can better resist being shamed and shut out.