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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Review: Mad Men, "The Monolith"

Season 7, Episode 4
Grade: A
Verdict: The most visually striking episode of the season thus far is also the possibly the most important piece of the series' end game. It's a stunning piece of work that shows that Mad Men, even when it hammers you over the head with its message, can be thought provoking television.

"Open the pod-bay doors, Hal..."

It may be painfully obvious to open this look at the fourth episode of this season of Mad Men with its direct influence, but given the sledgehammering of the themes that occurred throughout Erin Levy's script, it's apropos. "The Monolith" is an absolute bludgeon of theme colliding with plot development to an almost eye-rolling extent. It's a credit then to the strength of the dialogue, and everything that occurs behind the metaphor, that the episode works as well as it does. It's unsubtle, but in a time of social upheaval and cultural wind-change, a harsh evolutionary instrument full of men who don't know how to climb out of their own primordial muck makes sense. As Don said, it's not symbolic, it's quite literal.

The title object in question of course refers to Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey and its behemoth black cylindrical space object. Echoes of Kubrick float throughout the entire episode, with references to both 2001 and his other "airport book" adaptation The Shining. Both films are reflections of the future and the past respectively and to many critics, diametric opposites of one another. So, it makes sense that the series would find a lot of material to mine in the two most assessed and re-assessed films of Kubrick's oeuvre. A full-force evolutionary wave is rising at SCP and it all relates back to a conversation that I didn't really touch on much last week.

Harry Crane finally gets his computer by way of Jim Cutler (the man who seems to always have something to offer everyone at the firm who is in need), and it clears the office out completely. When Don arrives, through the black elevator seen above (those titular pod bay doors), he walks through the deserted office hallway, looking akin to the infamous white room that Dave Bowman dies in. Of course, no one told Don about the computer's arrival and the impending construction, he's the odd man out and basically a partner in name (and money) only. He's still a creative director, but of course there are three now and he is the lowest man on that totem pole. He's been "living in his cave for three weeks" per Roger, and given nothing to do but sit in a dead man's office.

The office is in a bit of a chaotic condition as well, as Creative's joint work space will be the home of the new computer. Ginsberg is the first to act out in physical protest demanding that he and Stan move his beloved couch to their office space. In a way, the couch is a bit of a "Promethean object", the last vestige of the creative war force that Ginsberg feels is being stripped away from him through the advance of progress. Remember, fire was used as a tool to construct as well as a weapon in the days of early man. The potential loss of the couch (which is orange) after losing their zen creative space is too much for Ginsberg to bear and he lashes out, but not before enlisting Don to help move it. Don, of course, walks away in aggravation, "you're on your own" and tosses it aside, while noticing that the other partners are meeting with Lou in the board room without him.

Don is a caveman without a tribe. Sure, Ginsberg still likes him, but more as a tool of assistance (either creatively or physically) than as an actual friend or colleague. Otherwise, he's been shunned on all fronts other than the support he receives from Roger and occasionally Pete. The latter of which shows that the dividing lines at SCP are still apparent between the SCDP crew and the CGC side of things, though the determining factor in Jim's continued power at the firm over Roger is Bert Cooper. Bert, for whatever reason, sides with Jim's decision making and has perhaps the strongest distaste for Don's former antics of almost anyone. Its his push-back of Don that leads our hero into full-blown Jack Torrence territory, of course being compounded by his task of having to work as a part of Peggy's Burger Chef pitch team.

Yes, the title of the episode and the visuals are all 2001, but the utter despair and haunting ghost of Lane Pryce (figurative, for once) is where The Shining parallels come in. Don begins drinking and starts to self-destruct in the office. This is also where the character of Lloyd, the Lease-Tech supervisor comes into play. Lloyd, looking not unlike a pastor, has a couple of conversations with Don discussing the benefits of technology vs. man's own ingenuity. He's a sort of perfect Kubrickian character, not only representing the sort of visionary that will make millions and practically rule the world one day (ie the next evolution of business/humanity) but when Don has his final confrontation with him in the episode, he drunkenly accuses him of basically being the devil (another Shining moment) The man who cannot change (Don) faces down with the man who represents change in its purest form (Lloyd) and skoffs at it when all of his inhibitions are down. We shouldn't be surprised.

But Don's most important act in the episode is possibly its most subtle. He originally tosses aside a Mets pennant he finds in the old office of Lane's (also orange), he then places it on the wall instead, and then utilized it as a source of escape from his troubles. The idea of going to a Mets game with his pal Freddy Rumsen is his way of making a physical escape away from the office that troubles him so. He's already checked out mentally with alcohol, the physical is all he has left. It doesn't hurt that such a move is what also saves him from getting caught drunk in the office by Joan, or his assistant (of whom Roger is checking in with regularly). Don, after continually tossing aside the orange "bit of Prometheus", found that by embracing it, he discovered his escape hatch and potential salvation. It just took the stern words of Freddy Rumsen for it to all click together, "Do the work, Don"...and suddenly he's the "Star Child" again, returning to his infancy writing tags for another boss, also wearing a black suit to match the monolith that has hopefully provided the evolutionary step he needed.

Roger takes control of the sub-plot this week, and it's a much more successful venture than last week's struggling metaphorical piece. Roger and his ex-wife Mona have to deal with their wayward daughter Margaret, who as we learned at the premiere, had fallen in with some sort of religious crowd. It turns out she's a part of a hippie commune and has run away from her husband and son. Roger and Mona have to venture north to get her back, which eventually leaves Roger alone with Margaret (now called Marigold) and her new friends. In short, this part of the episode again reflects on Don but in a way that's much more personal. Roger's journey has always been a forerunner for Don's in many ways, he's one generation ahead of him, just like Cooper is ahead of Roger, and Pete is behind Don. Here we see what happens when a father has little regard for the way his daughter is raised, she ends up learning the wrong kinds of lessons and leaves her own child behind.

Neither Margaret or Roger have the high moral ground here, but had Roger been a more attentive parent, or been home more often, would Margaret in turn be a more attentive mother to her own child? It's funny to hear her spew a line of venom at Roger just a few episodes after expressing forgiveness for his lifestyle and the mistakes he's made, but much of that can be attributed to Roger attempting to pull her away from the new hedonistic life she's discovered, something he himself is guilty of even currently. The turning point didn't come for Roger when he was smoking joints with her friends, or when he's sleeping beside her in a barn. Instead it's the realization that he wasn't involved in some of the cherished childhood memories she has (reading a book about men going to the stars), and then witnessing her run off into the act of adultery. It's one thing to hear about it, it's another to see it happen right in front of your face. At that point, all the good time, "peace and love" stuff is enough for Roger and the next morning he attempts to drag her off like a cave-man and they have their confrontation. They're both in the dirt, and Roger realizes it's a monster of his own creation, as he steps off into the sunset and away from the commune like Cary Grant in North by Northwest. It's the city turning its back on the country, and another evolutionary step of a sort is taken.

Will Roger change? Probably not, as his family has hit the point of no return, but it's a romantic thought. Don on the other hand, still has a chance to make the most of his second one, we've already seen him begin to ease the rift between Sally and himself and perhaps his working environment is the next to see a radical shift in his favor. A point to remember in an episode filled to the brim with symbolism: The 1969 New York Mets were a team that was in the cellar the previous year, but almost as if by magic, they turned it around and won the World Series and were dubbed the "Miracle Mets", like a phoenix rising from the ashes. "Meet the Mets" indeed.

Thoughts to ponder:
- You'll note I made little mention of Peggy this episode, and that's by design, as I have no idea what to make of Peggy anymore. Yes, she wants to be the boss. Yes, she scowls alot. Yes, she had a nice little moral victory for herself when she was placed over Don in the Burger Chef team. But what else is there? The aimlessness here is making her a bit of a despised character and perhaps the writers are attempting to play that up, having her stand in the same pose as Lou, overlooking the city, at one point. Lou, the most disliked character in the series (again, by design), is rubbing off his influence on her. I just hope we get less "blank slate" Peggy in the coming episodes, and more of the richer character that we've come to know. I'm starting to wonder though...

- Bob Benson watch: 4 episodes in, just another reference from Pete. His shadow still looms large, but Matt Weiner is surely playing with us at this point. Stop dangling the carrot Matt!!

- Roger's grandson had a very Danny Torrence-like haircut, and was chasing around Roger's secretary like they were in a labyrinth. I see what they did there.

- The house the hippies all resided at is the same home that Don stayed in during "The Hobo Code". Feel free to make your own connections there.

- Anybody else notice that song over the credits? It's The Hollies "On a Carousel", another reference to the Season 1 finale. Mad Men is now making connections within its own universe as well.

- Wild prediction time: I think the catalyst for Don's rise back to the top will be Bert Cooper's death. You heard it here first.

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