Mad Men Season Seven Episode Recap: "The Monolith"
This week's episode of Mad Men, "The Monolith," was all about power.
"You're in charge, sweetheart."
Much of this week’s plot hinged on authority: Who has it, who used to have it, and what those without it choose to do about it. The authority figures on Mad Men are shifting and being challenged, which, of course, was happening everywhere in the late 1960s—one of Mad Men’s strengths is its ability to reflect its time and place, but this episode screamed "THE TIMES THEY ARE A- CHANGING!" louder than most.) The title, "Monolith," referred to that massive computer that will soon fill the former SC&P creative lounge, a tangible symbol of change like those of the same name found in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But the word also describes the people in power at SC&P: looming, imposing figures from a different time and place that make everyone else uncomfortable.
The episode takes shape when Pete has a chance encounter with a former colleague who bears not only a potential new account, Burger Chef, but also the news that Pete's father-in-law has had a heart attack. Ever the professional, Pete swallows whatever he might be feeling in the service of business. (See also: When Pete pretended he didn’t care that his dad died, when Pete pretended he didn’t care that his dad died AGAIN, and when Pete pretended he didn’t care that his mom died.) Back in New York, Lou decides to put Peggy in charge of the Burger Chef pitch, with Don reporting to her. I wanted to like Lou in that moment—especially because the raise he gave our girl Pegs is worth $33,121.02 in modern-day money!—but he was clearly manipulating the situation to keep whatever creepy, cardiganed authority he’s got in the office. Lou wants Peggy to control Don so that he doesn’t have to—if she succeeds, he gets the credit; if she fails, he has someone to blame; and either way, he never has to deal with Don. A looming, imposing figure from a different time and place who makes him uncomfortable.
Peggy's not so lucky, unfortunately, and managing Don turns out to be just as awful as you’d think. When she demands entry-level work from her former boss and mentor, he hides his anger just long enough to go to his office and throw a typewriter at the window. (Technology: It’s a metaphor!) Then he bogarts a bottle of booze from Roger’s office and gets wasted on the couch. With Don reporting to Peggy and drunk-dialing Freddie Rumsen, this week’s episode had more role reversals than Freaky Friday.
Don wants the respect and authority he feels he’s owed, but when he reminds Bert Cooper that he founded the company, Bert burns Don with the reply, “Yes, along with a dead man whose office you now inhabit.” Then Don goes back to his dead partner’s office and hangs up some of Lane’s old decorations while a necktie that looks like a noose sways in the background. Is Don doomed to swap roles with Lane too? The message seems to be: Yes, if he isn’t careful.
Roger’s dealing with shifting roles too, as he and Mona drive to the country to forcibly remove their daughter, Margaret—who now goes by Marigold—from a hippie commune. Roger and Mona could not be more overdressed for the occasion (didn’t they realize they’d be the only ones at the compound in fur and bespoke suits?), which served to underscore how little Margaret/Marigold identified with them or cared about their opinion that she put on a bra and head back to the city. After a bitter fight about the loneliness of motherhood, Mona gives up trying to talk sense into her daughter, but Roger is game to spend the night peeling potatoes and smoking weed with the hippies, expecting that he'll be able to succeed where his ex-wife has failed and charm his little girl into returning to Manhattan with him. Marigold refuses, of course, and when Roger tells her she isn’t “allowed to do this”
because of her son, she reminds him that having a kid never stopped him from doing whatever he wanted. (Fair enough, but am I a square for thinking she should ditch that beardy Paul Dano lookalike she’s shacking up with and go back to her kid? That commune creeped me out a little.) Roger is used to winning people over to his way of thinking, and Margaret/Marigold is used to letting him charm her into acquiescing—notice how she still calls him “Daddy,” even at the height of their conflict, which ends with both of them lying in the mud.
• The “Monolith” wasn’t the only Stanley Kubrick reference this week. This Slate piece points out several more nods to 2001, as well as some from The Shining. Peggy: If you see Don with an axe, make a run for it.
• I’ve always loved the chemistry between Roger and Mona, but somehow I never knew John Slattery and Talia Balsam were married in real life! No wonder I’m still rooting for a Sterling reunion.
• “Monolith” closed with Don back at work while “Carousel” by The Hollies played in the background, a song whose lyrics evoke the circular nature of life as well Don’s most celebrated pitch. Is an emotional presentation on the nostalgia of fast-food burgers in our future?
The Ballad of Don and Peggy
"Business is about relationships" notes Joan during the partners' meeting that occurs early in "The Monolith," pondering along with Jim and Bert whether to give Don a shot at heading the pitch for Burger Chef. And that bit of wisdom is certainly true, but one thing that Mad Men has expertly essayed over the past six seasons is that the reverse is just as true—and, perhaps, more interesting. And, split season be damned, I'm sensing that a key theme as the show winds down is the question of what we gain—and lose—when relationships become business.
The opening scene, with Pete and Bonnie at dinner in L.A., gives us a taste. From the past few episodes, it's clear that one facet of Bonnie's allure is how powerful she believes Pete to be, and she doesn't fail him here: After he converts a chance encounter into a big piece of potential business for SC&P, she purrs about how much she loves to watch him work. As we learned of Bonnie in "A Day's Work," she's got big ambitions of her own, and she brightens when Pete turns his awkward habit of introducing her as his "real estate agent"—"It's good for business!" protests Pete—into a sales pitch to his former colleague: "She's my girlfriend. She's your real-estate agent."
Then there's Roger and Mona, whose divorce has yielded some frostily witty bons mots in past seasons, but who are now in the business of saving their only child from a commune where, as Mona later points out, "These people are lost and on drugs and have venereal diseases. That's not for you." Their drive upstate—not only to rescue Margaret, but to fix the botched rescue mission attempted by her husband, Brooks—finds them relating to each other easily, and certainly less bitchily than they have in ages, confident that their shared goal is only a matter of a shower and some bail money away. But once they reach the commune (and here's where I beg the Mad Men folks for a cult-specific spinoff episode called Margaret Marigold May Marlene), both Roger and Mona realize the limits of thinking of relationships as a transactional enterprise. Whatever their respective ways of reaching out—Mona with exasperated, bourgeois straight talk, Roger with his I-can-dig-it acceptance of marijuana smoking and sleeping in a barn—both of them still expect Marigold to follow their lead, and the money. The fact that she doesn't sends Roger, as with their blissed-out breakfast of a few episodes back, reeling. In the end, he doesn't seem to know who he is when he can't conduct relationships as business.
But the real relationship-business struggle in "The Monolith" brings together the duo who have, since Mad Men began, been its dueling forces of light and dark. Few have rooted for Don and Peggy to "get together" in the tradition of past TV couples like David and Maddie on Moonlighting or Mulder and Scully on The X-Files. What people (and by "people" I definitely mean me) have wanted from Don and Peggy is a relationship that is about business, that is based on respect and understanding and creative badassery. But the two have had only the briefest interactions since Don's return to SC&P, and this episode starkly points out that, for all intents and purposes, Don is Peggy's monolith. He's the towering, inscrutable figure that she's been trying to figure out since her life in advertising began, and though he knows her biggest secret, he's still mostly a black hole.
It's unclear whether Lou Avery knew the history between Don and Peggy when he assigned her to put Don on the Burger Chef pitch. (An uncharitable reading of the assignment is that Lou wanted to make sure than Don knew his place, and having him work for—gasp!—a woman would be a real kick in the nuts) But given that Lou seems completely uninterested in anything but preserving his do-nothing job, I'm going to guess that he was written to have no idea just how seismic a Peggy-Don matchup could be. Indeed, Don having to regard Peggy as a superior is shaking the halls of SC&P almost as loudly as installing that monster computer. I'll admit I cheered when Pegs made the baller move of telling Meredith to send Don to her office, rather than coming to his as he assumed she would. But the sniveling, passive-aggressive shit-fit that followed, in which Don acted like a petty jerk, refused to come to the pitch meeting, and broke about half the promises he made to the partners when they agreed to take him back made me hate more than I ever have before. And not just for disrespecting Peggy, but also for disrespecting his own scrappy, underdog creation myth. (Mostly for disrespecting Peggy, though.)
• There's been a real dearth of Ginzo thus far this season, but his obsession with replacing the couch in his office with the one from the dismantled creative lounge—"It's full of farts!"—was a light moment in "The Monolith," proving that even an episode heavy with the specter of death and existential dread can be improved with a fart reference.
• Don finding and hanging Lane's old Mets pennant was a theme that probably deserves its own personal recap. Lane, recall, fell in love with the Mets shortly after coming to America, despite the fact that the team was about as much of an underdog as it could be. 1969, meanwhile, was the season of the "Miracle Mets," when the team came from way, way behind to win the World Series. Is it flying a white flag of defeat to hang a dead man's dream-team pennant in the same exact place that the dead man hung it? Or is it an omen that, like the Mets, Don will turn everything around for an out-of-the-blue victory?
• I'm glad Mad Men finally gave us some more counterculture content, but the commune was really just a tease—I'm still waiting for Pete to start doing EST.
Why ARE you here?
Communes, heart attacks, and the moon, oh my! Change was in the air during "The Monolith," primarily focused around SC&P's newly acquired computer. Not only are our advertising heroes mourning the loss of possibly the coolest break room in town, they now have to stare into the future of workplace advancement—and be reminded of both their career and personal obsolescence—every time they walk to their desks. ("They're trying to erase us!”) Speaking of mortality, the resurgence of Lane's Mets pennant reminds us of both his continued cautionary tale-like presence in the office, as well as his tragic desire to assimilate. Amidst these changes, we find characters attempting to carve out roles and find a place in these rapidly adapting times.
First, we have our girl Pegs, who at the top of the episode is convinced that Lou is calling her over to his office to fire her. However, in a move that HAS to serve his passive aggressive power games, no one's favorite cardigan wearer surprises Peggy with not only a raise but with the position as lead on the Burger Chef pitch. While Peggy has been disappointing us as of late, this episode served to remind us of what she's up against (and of how far she's come). She is still in uncharted waters as a female supervisor (of Don, no less!) and is attempting to believably fill the role. Not only does she have to deal with some epic Draper petulance, but no one sees her as the rock star that she is (think back to the beginning of the episode with Pete's disbelief in her abilities to carry the account, or even utilize any feminine charm). Peggy has long ago surpassed society's expectations for her, so she simply cannot attempt to fit in. As per usual, she's seen as not being woman enough, because of her job and her cut throat tendencies. But she's also never going to be seen as fully capable at work solely because she's a woman. It’s no wonder we root so strongly for her!
Another person being held back by societal roles is Marigold. In a satisfying twist, Margaret's bizarre lunchtime behavior from several episodes back is explained by her involvement with a hippie commune. It's as if all of Roger's recent hotel shenanigans were prepping him for this countercultural moment! Marigold clearly articulates that it was the limitations of wife and motherhood that drove her to force a change, cruelly telling mom Mona that, unlike her, she wants a reason for living. While it seemed as if Roger was sympathizing with his daughter’s dilemma, he later attempts to drag her back home by claiming she’s abandoning her child, leading Margaret to bring this double standard rather painfully in focus. She points out how her father was absent for most of her life and never seemed to suffer from guilt. Whereas Roger could escape his home whenever he wanted, and without any societal shame, Marigold was stuck until she decided to take matters into her own hands and run away.
Peggy is bravely moving towards her future role, and Margaret Sterling Hargrove is defiantly rejecting her previous one by rejecting her parents' attempt to rescue her. But Don? Don is scrambling for the past. While hanging Lane's Mets pennant may have initially looked like he was adopting that Pryce enthusiasm for the American dream (and the Mets’ miraculous turnaround from ridicule to championship), Don's energy for trying seems to have quickly run out. For a man who has reinvented himself so many times, DD is completely uninterested in carving out a new path. It’s merely his ego holding him back, as we all know how capable he is of making sudden changes in his life (when he wants them). He resents the power shift and his inability to pick up where he left off, not to mention how quickly everyone is to point out that the firm was surviving just fine without him. Despite having the opportunities and connections to make the most of, Don instead acts out and purposefully avoids Freddy’s advice to “do the work.” Unlike our Mad Women, he rejects an opportunity for change and rather wishes that everything would stay the same forever and ever and always. By the episode's end, it would appear as if Don has recognized that if he wants to be seen as resilient, he needs to act like it (a move made even more necessary by the fact that he's quickly losing allies). But without fully welcoming change, has he run through all the identities he can take on?
Lest we think everything is all sunshine and power struggles at SC&P...
• Lane's pennant also reminds us that he DIED! And Don is seemingly walking in his footsteps, with his life spiraling out of control much like the “dead man whose office [he] now occupies.” Will he come out of this in one piece, or write a check he can’t cash?
• Apparently SC&P’s potential new account also has a dark air over it. Burger Chef Murders, anyone?!?!
• I'm not going to stop asking: Where's Bob Benson? I would chalk up his absence to the real world and The Crazy Ones’s filming schedule, but I'm starting to worry that he's become the most recent casualty of Chevy's fast-and-loose business style.
Cultural References: Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon, Portnoy's Complaint, Jack Johnson, Joe Frazier, and the short-lived, computer-inspired sketch-comedy show Turn-On.
Inappropriate Office Behavior: Do the work, Don. DO THE WORK.
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