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Mad Men: The Anvil, er, Monolith

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Woody Allen famously said that 90 percent of life is showing up. Which also means that the key is getting through the door. But the real key is what you are able to do once through the door and showing up.

In "The Monolith" -- and imagery royalties here might be due to Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick for this episode set about a year after the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey -- Don Draper has gotten back through the door of the ad agency he founded. And he is showing up. But he's been largely ignored for two weeks.

Then something happens.


"Jack Bauer is a traitor and a psychopath." Oops, sorry, wrong dialogue. "Open the pod bay doors, HAL."

Actually, two things happen.

First, out in LA, Pete Campbell, now one of the happiest characters on this show -- take that, suicide watchers! -- out and about with his cool new girlfriend, happens upon a great new potential Sterling Cooper client. Naturally, he thinks Don would be great working with Burger Chef (which was a real burger chain back in the day). The agency has an inside track on this new business. If the creative side is straightened out.

Next, Sterling Cooper gets a computer after Harry Crane has whined enough about the other agencies that have one. Since this is 1969, it's huge, an IBM System/360 mainframe. Where will it go? Why, the lounge where the creative team gathers, of course. (What will Harry, of all people, actually do with a computer? Why, ape that he is, look at it, of course. And jabber about it to the other apes.)

This is what we call a "metaphor," class. The creatives are being displaced -- and dispersed? -- by a huge new machine.

Now, does Sterling Cooper actually need a mainframe computer. Well, that is an interesting question.

Back in the '70s, in the only computer science course I ever took, I did some things I cannot recall involving punch cards and a mainframe computer. The only thing I remember actually being able to do with the monstrous thing -- which for all its size was far less powerful than the little Mac I'm working on now -- was play a game called "Battleship."

Since Sterling Cooper isn't a government agency running the census or sending out checks, I don't know what they need this brontosaurus for, though I suppose they can keep track of ad placements and agency billings with it.

Its real purpose, of course, is as a talisman of the future. "Behold, we have a computer."

One of the characters, I believe the insightful Stan, says as much, calling it their "Mona Lisa," an enigmatic object that is fascinating to all.

Tellingly, Don didn't know the agency was getting a computer because nobody told him.

Actually, I'm not sure I buy that. They may not know what to do with him as a worker there. But he is a partner in the firm, which means he is one of its owners. The computer is a major capital purchase by the agency he essentially founded.

But that's the way the story unfolds.

Rather more believable is that Lou Avery isn't assigning him any work. Lou is a total hack. And the agency is obviously increasingly suffused with mediocrity, not that that necessarily means it's failing, just that it is clearly lackluster and lacking spark. Welcome to the rest of the pack, not to mention much if not most of the business world. The last thing Lou wants is to give Don an opportunity to show what real advertising looks like.

But with Pete, a partner, out in LA along with the mopey senior partner Ted Chaogh, it's left to Roger Sterling to insist that Don be put on the account for what can be some very important new business.

Avery, who is decidedly not a partner, has no choice but to assign Don.

But he sees a way to kill two birds with one stone, to coin a phrase. So, since he wasn't ordered to put only Don on the account, he puts Peggy Olson, whom he dislikes and whom he knows dislikes him, in charge, with Don and the most junior of copywriters reporting to her.

Peggy, who is not coming off at all well in Season 7, takes the opportunity to behave unpleasantly toward Don. And Don, whose humility needs a dose of Zen as he pursues his comeback strategy, does not react well, trying to throw his typewriter out the window and proceeding to get drunk in the office. One of the things that can, by agreement, lead to his dismissal and loss of partnership rights.

Fortunately, Don, now ensconced in the late Lane Pryce's office but notably lacking any suicidal impulse, has retrieved Lane's New York Mets pennant -- attention, anvil metaphor alert -- and affixed it to his office wall. The Mets are off to a terrible start to the baseball season but, as the insistent New York drumbeat in our collective cultural history reminds, are already intriguing even before they launch their famous drive to the 1969 World Series title.

He calls Freddie Rumsen, whose severe alcoholism nearly destroyed his career, to go to a ball game. Fortunately, Freddie is able to get Don out of the office before his drunken state is noticed. And he is able to talk some sense into Don.

You can't just show up and expect acclaim, he reminds him. "Do the work."

And Don resolves to do just that, agreeing to deliver the 25 potential slogans Peggy wants.

(Yes, this is how creative works under Lou Avery. They no longer bother to figure out the strategic concept of an ad campaign. They just come up with taglines and then work backwards. Or, as it happens, ass backwards. Clearly, Sterling Coo's current creative director isn't unnerving anyone with his brilliance and talent.)

Before this, Don had gotten to know the computer service guy, a character who exists mainly to deliver parables and portents, and who has a good idea for a business of his own. A business which Sterling Coo could advertise. With Roger Sterling off trying to coax his married mother of a daughter back from an upstate commune, Don takes that idea to Bert Cooper, who shoots him down and makes it clear that he doesn't want Don around, insisting that he doesn't need to save the agency because the agency is doing just fine.

Which it clearly is not.

While I understand why Bert would be used as a device to discourage Don, along with Peggy, it seems to me that there is a continuity problem here. Over the past few years, Bert Cooper has increasingly been old and old out of it, a dodderer. Yet now, dealing with the most talented executive he's ever had, he is incisively acerbic.

Oh, well.

We do get to see Roger Sterling down in the mud, literally, with his daughter as he unsuccessfully tries to carry her away from the cultish commune she's joined in upstate New York. After ex-wife Mona -- played by John Slattery's real life wife, Talia Balsam, whose previous marital status was that of the first and so far only Mrs. George Clooney, not that the preternaturally witty Slattery has had a tough act to follow or anything -- comes along for the visit only to be turned away by her daughter's sneering reminder of her escapes into gin, Roger sticks around for an overnight visit.

Some father-daughter bonding ensues, over pot-smoking and talk of landing on the Moon (which will happen in less than three months) and the freedom of the hippie culture, which Roger has become more than a little familiar with through his drug and sexual sojourns.

But Margaret is one of the most spoiled and entitled characters on this show, which is saying a lot. You may recall that she was horrified by the events of November 22, 1963. Because they ruined her wedding.

After Marigold, er, Margaret sneaks off for an assignation, Roger puts his foot down and insists that it is time for her to come back to reality and take care of her little son. Whereupon she equates her father going to work every day, which merely afforded her a very enviable Manhattan lifestyle, with her disappearing entirely from her son's life.

Perhaps this is her way of being in touch with the infinite.

Nah. That's more the territory of Lloyd, the computer guy. Is the big mainframe computer there to "erase" the creative individual at Sterling Coo, as it takes over the space of the erstwhile creative lounge? Is Don threatened by what may be more than a hint of his obsolescence?

Lloyd prattles on portentously about the advent of the computer, evangelizing about its "god-like" qualities.

"This machine is intimidating because it contains infinite pieces of information and that's threatening because human existence is finite," Lloyd tells Don. "But isn't it god-like that we've mastered the infinite?"

Er, right.

In reality, this cosmic disturbance, as Lloyd would have it, "a metaphor for whatever's on people's minds," is for the most part a big hunk of junk sitting there pointlessly running up the agency's Con Ed power bill.

It is, as the episode's title suggests, a "monolith," a powerfully mysterious object, something to rile up the local apes until some day somebody figures out how to use it. Or more likely, is inspired to create something else of use.

But Don, like most of the unnerved creatives, gets riled up, in a scene that seems more Stephen King than Mad Men. As he drunkenly leaves the office, he tells Lloyd that he knows who he really is, that he goes by many names. "You don't need a campaign. You've got the best campaign since the dawn of time."

That's right, Don. He's "the walkin' dude," the ageless stranger, the dark man, a manifestation of Scratch.

Or he's a guy selling mojo to folks who don't design rockets. Scamming the scammers by promising to assuage their anxiety about an increasingly chaotic future with a machine that represents the future.

In any event, Don is not only finally back at work, he is finally working back at work.

Progress that is progress.

Just three episodes to go this year ... Destination: Moon!

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