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'Mad Men' Review: Man Vs. Machine In 'The Monolith'

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Don't read on unless you've seen "The Monolith," the fourth episode of "Mad Men's" final season.

"Are you just going to kill yourself? Give them what they want?" -- Freddy Rumsen

Ladies and gentlemen, it's hobo time!

What does a person do when confronted with an image of themselves they don't like? What does a grown adult do when things get difficult and confusing? Why, you just leave, of course! Effort, compromise, hard work and just showing up -- who has time for such trivialities? Not Don Draper. Not our good friend Marigold.

Presented with the prospect that the Don Draper of the past is now irrelevant and that he must now compete while occupying a subservient position, Don did what he does best -- he rebelled. He resorted to all his old tricks, one after another. During his meeting in Peggy's office, he gave her such a glare of acerbic fury that I thought her clothing might spontaneously combust. Next, he ostentatiously didn't do his homework, making a point of playing Solitaire instead of attending Peggy's meeting a few feet away.

The end run was always popular with Don as well -- what if he could pull in a new piece of business and be hailed once again as the conquering hero? Nope, Bert Cooper wasn't buying it. Don was reminded that he was sitting in the office of a dead man and that just about everyone in a position of authority at the firm expected -- no, hoped -- that Don's time with them would expire as well. Don protested, Don fired off pleas and insults, but nothing worked. Cooper was Not Having It. How dare he?

How dare Peggy try to boss Don around? How dare Cooper regard him as an outmoded piece of garbage -- something to be cleared out of the creative bullpen and replaced with a gleaming, monstrous machine? How dare Roger be absent and unavailable for an old-time "Why Don't These Fools Appreciate Us" commiseration party? Well, Don would show all of them!

Yes, they'd be sorry, wouldn't they, after Don got stinking drunk in his office and had to be dragged out (not before insulting his erstwhile new friend Lloyd). Don was so caught up in his drunken, self-serving tantrum and his desire to hobo out of his responsibilities that one basic fact didn't even register: The only person in Manhattan willing to meet him for a mid-afternoon date was not a sexy lady but, well, Freddy Rumsen.

Thank God for Freddy Rumsen. Once he got Don home and sobered up, Freddy drove home the point of the episode: At some point, all of us have to get over ourselves. Even Don Draper has to get over himself. Don was angry that the old version of himself -- the slick, more-or-less reliable version that used to kick ass back in the day -- had been forgotten. Rather than re-earn his place at the table after an egregious series of errors, he wanted to kick the table apart and use it for kindling. That's mature!

One mystery has been solved, anyway. We now know that when Don said "OK" to the partners' demands, he didn't really have a plan, aside from riding in on the nonexistent reputation he'd spent the past few years shredding. Don made the mistake of thinking that he had some credit in reserve with these folks, when in fact, his account has been overdrawn for some time. It's humiliating to get smacked in the face by the truth, and we all know how well Don deals with humiliation and shame. An empty bottle is usually just the start of that spiral.

As for Roger's daughter Margaret, her crisis arose from the past as well. She blew up her life and that of her family, because her parents weren't there for her in consistent and helpful ways when she was young. Her father let her down by being absent and her mother was too lax, and her idea of learning from the past was to repeat those mistakes with her own child. That would sure show Ellery! All things considered, Margaret's sojourn at the farm was just a different version of Don's foot-stomping hissy fit. Both she and Don wanted their lives to be different, but rather than buckling down and changing things the hard way -- keeping other people's needs in mind all the while -- they both preferred just to up and leave and/or make scenes. Margaret at least made a show of outer placidity, but her deep well of anger roiled just below the surface.

For all we know, Margaret stayed down on the farm (which fits this season's less-than-encouraging pattern of female characters making very selfish, short-sighted and even out-of-character decisions, as Sam Adams has pointed out). But this is the season of Don learning from his mistakes, sort of. He's learning, to the extent that he can.

The season's opening image had Freddy giving Don's pitch about the preciousness of time, and, in a manner of speaking, Freddy gave that pitch once more to Don in "The Monolith." Don was encouraged to forget the past, when he was the monolith that everyone worshiped -- the thing that made his agency distinctive. As Don was reminded several times in this hour, he is not regarded as a singular genius anymore, and even if he were, genius may no longer be required. He does have qualities that set him apart, but regardless of those talents, he has to compete now. He can't phone it in, he can't have tantrums and he can't be unreliable. If he had any doubt about where the future is heading, he had to ponder the fact that the machine parked 20 feet from his desk isn't ever going to sleep or consume a bottle of vodka in the middle of a workday.

What luck that Don's secretary, Meredith, is as dumb as a box of rocks and never realized how drunk Don was. What luck that Peggy didn't know that imbibing on the job was a huge no-no for Don. She didn't even pick up on the fact that he was wasted, given how consumed she was by her own problems.

The elaborate Cold War dance between Don and Peggy was by far the high point of the episode -- you're damn right there's a hierarchy, and the one that used to be etched in stone at the agency has been turned on its head. Don reporting to Peggy? Taking orders from her while sitting next to a guy who is half Don's age? It was delicious to see how much Peggy recoiled from giving Don orders and how much she relished the experience as well. Revenge is a dish best served cold and with a side of Scotch, eh, Pegs?

Don and Peggy are cut from the same cloth: Neither of them wanted to give in, yet neither of them could afford an all-out war, so their interactions often consisted of skirmishes involving meetings, messages, secretaries, absences and Deeply Significant Glares. Creator Matthew Weiner knows we want to see Don and Peggy side by side in the creative trenches again, but he's going to make us wait for it. Oh, how tantalizing that wait can be.

Regarding the power struggle, I'm not sure Peggy "won," as such, but, thanks to Freddy's advice, Don kind of gave in. It's a miracle that all his tantrums and drunken antics didn't get him fired, but it's always taken Don a long time to realize just how privileged and lucky he is. Don can tuck in his shirt, take a shower and stride into the office looking like an unassailable monolith, even if he feels afraid and hungover and tired. He can, if he chooses, fake it until he makes it. Freddy doesn't have that kind of luck or looks, and he knows just how valuable it is to get one more chance. And here's the kicker: Rather than act petulant and angry about Don's second chance, rather than respond out of instinctive vindictiveness like so many other characters on this show, Freddy responds like a generous, decent human being. Rather than leaving Don to twist in the wind, he preps Don to get back into the game (sure, this benefits Freddy's freelancer income, but Freddy's actions benefit Don much more).

Miracle of miracles, Freddy's advice actually sinks in -- some of it, anyway. Life's about showing up every day and trying your hardest even when you don't feel like it, and one of these days, Don may just learn that lesson.

Late in the episode, Peggy gets some advice from Joan (and who doesn't love it when those two share some bonding time? It's never not awesome). The thing is, Joan doesn't have a great grasp on the power plays going on throughout the firm. She may know Cutler's out to isolate Roger -- she's not blind, after all -- but Lou Avery is playing a very deep game, and I don't think Joan sees that. Lou has thought this through and he absolutely wants either Don or Peggy to fail -- though his ideal situation would probably involve both of them flaming out. Lou knows their history, he knows that Don has an ego and will hate working for his former protege, and Lou only gave Peggy that raise in order to distract her from his real purpose -- to get her out of his way once and for all.

Make no mistake, Lou means business. Lou got a telltale back-of-the-head shot in this episode, in a scene in which he wore a suit, not his grandpa-chopping-firewood sweater. If you ask me, this Burger Chef gambit is Lou's last stand. He wants to force Don and Peggy go to war, and then he is hoping to sweep in and consolidate his own position once the smoke clears.

It's not a bad gambit, but, let's face it, Don and Peggy are dynamite team, even when they're not getting along. The irony is, he may have done them both a huge favor, given that they often produce their best work when there's a spark of conflict between them. I know I'm not the only one hoping Don and Peggy nail the Burger Chef pitch and leave the partners wondering why they have three creative chiefs, and whether Lou needs to be one of them.

All in all, the office plot ticked along nicely, thrumming with the tension that came from wondering if Don would self-destruct just a few weeks into his refurbished career. We've seen Don go down in flames before, and there was every chance it might happen again. And Roger and Margaret's storyline was thematically linked in ways that felt (dare I say it?) organic. So many characters were obsessed with how things used to be, but the past is deeply irrelevant now. All that matters is what people do in the present, and anyone who doesn't recognize that will be left behind.

Roger's a fossil too, one who has no time for self-examination or true growth, despite his fondness for pot, debauchery and half-dressed hippies. Margaret left her Junior League life behind on the assumption that being close to nature (and close to a shaggy, bearded dude) would bring her to a place of mature self-awareness; but like Roger's acid trips, her country refuge was just an escape from the workaday grind of living. Margaret and Roger remain mirror images of one another, right down to the way they crooked an elbow while staring at the stars. They are both -- to paraphrase Mona -- perverse children who think only of themselves (a description that also fits Don pretty well).

What makes Roger unique, irreplaceable by another man or even a machine? Hard to say, but his hypocrisy and cavalier attitude toward everyone else have made him all but irrelevant in his personal and professional lives. For all his adventurousness, Roger's always been too cowardly to live up to his biggest responsibilities, and it's too late for him to change now.

What makes Peggy unique? Well, she's sharp, smart and works hard, but I don't for a minute think that the partners would stop Lou from shoving her out and replacing her with a more compliant and less creative copy chief. Peggy isn't a coward -- she's very brave, in fact -- but she's unfortunately dependent on the goodwill of others for her upward trajectory, and she's running very short of helpful mentors at the moment.

What makes Don unique? What does he bring to the party? Will any of those skills -- if he's still got them -- remain relevant? We'll have to wait until next week to see if he's still got the goods. Maybe he'll never catch up to Peggy on the carousel.

Hail of bullets:

  • Speaking of carousels, the final song of the episode was a nice callback to Don's legendary Season 1 Carousel pitch. Remember back when Don was The Man? Those were the days!
  • I am a little disappointed that Roger's Stolichnaya bottle doesn't sing every time someone takes the cap off.
  • Somebody write a term paper on the religious imagery as it relates to the new computer at SC&P: the computer as the tree of knowledge (Don even referred to Lloyd as "the apple" dangling from that tree), the danger presented by its infinite knowledge, the way Don (a.k.a. the God-fearing Dick Whitman) called Lloyd the devil in all but name, the worship of monoliths in ancient cultures, etc.
  • Adding to the sense of tension and dislocation in "The Monolith" -- the constant noise and hammering of the construction crew. It doesn't take a genius to find ominous meanings in the replacement of the sloppy creative lounge with a black-and-white behemoth that will spit out numbers all day. "It's not symbolic." "No, it's quite literal." Indeed.
  • Last time Don came to the office, he floated through it like a ghost. This time, it was as if he was guesting in an episode of "The Walking Dead" -- when he arrived, the office was desolate, to the point that a phone was left dangling in a creepy, horror-movie way. As if there weren't enough reminders of death and mortality, Don found poor Lane's Mets banner. Lane's absence was all over this episode, up to and including Freddy's warning to Don about committing career (or actual) suicide.
  • Pete can't help but hate that Bonnie sees them as career equals and feels empowered to comment on his job performance (even in a positive way). Remember how undermining he could be to Peggy? ("I don't like you like this.")
  • "They're trying to erase us!" Michael is not wrong about SC&P, in the form of Harry, Cutler and Lou, trying to minimize and freeze out the creatives. Why not take profitable, reliable mediocrity over mercurial, unreliable brilliance? Don has a long way to go before he can convince anyone that he and a truly powerful creative team present the better option. So again I wonder, maybe he and Peggy go out and establish their own agency eventually?
  • "Margaret's run away." "To where, Bergdorf's?" Never change, Roger.
  • Speaking of quality Death Glares, the one Don gave Harry when Harry referred to the agency's three creative directors was brief but delightful.
  • I definitely think Lou heard Peggy's gibe about him, and he's absolutely plotting her downfall.
  • Don's face when Peggy was giving him orders about the Burger Chef tag lines. DON'S FACE! Such burning rage. Terrific acting by Jon Hamm.
  • "I saw that they have got a great product, but they don't trust it." A little bit of meta-commentary on Artists vs. Suits, or perhaps Showrunner vs. Network? Perhaps.

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