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If the Characters on 'Mad Men' Are Going to Turn a Corner, It's Time to Get Real

By Sarah Carlson | TV Reviews | May 6, 2014 | Comments ()


Don_Desk_MM7.4.png

Welcome to the beginning of the end, Mad Men fans! Come back every Tuesday for a breakdown of the latest episode comprising the first half of this seminal show’s seventh and final season. Want more Mad Men discussion? Be sure to subscribe to the Not Great, Pod! podcast featuring me and Messrs. Corey Atad and Kevin Ketchum. Feel free to give us a rating, like us or follow us, and please shoot us an email with your questions, comments and crackpot theories at notgreatpod@gmail.com.

“It’s time to leave Shangri-La, baby.”

Roger Sterling’s pleas to daughter Marigold (née Margaret) to leave the hippie commune she’s hiding out at upstate — and she’s hiding all right, more so than living — go unheeded in “The Monolith,” the fourth episode of Mad Men’s final season, and not without reason. But his choice of reference is a nice callback to the first episode of the season and the idea that so many of these characters are longing to escape to a utopia — a Garden of Eden, perhaps — as a way to solve their problems. Of course, that daydream is pointless; no such place exists. Roger realizes that, perhaps now more so than ever as he watches his daughter abandon her life and her son for an existence she only thinks is easier. The lesson is hard-learned by Don back in the city, but it is learned, and smartly the show presents these turnarounds in a fashion unlike what we’ve come to know of Mad Men. “The Monolith” is quite straightforward in its storytelling, opting for directness over metaphors (for the most part) in its approach, and it has to be. We’re approaching the final stretch, with three episodes left this year. If these characters are truly ready to turn a corner, then it’s time to address what’s on the other side without flourish. It’s time to get real.

Stan_Peggy_Ginsberg_MM7.4.pngEven the installation of a computer in the offices — obliterating the creative suite and reminding the employees that no one or thing is irreplaceable — wasn’t coded. Lloyd Hawley (Robert Baker), the representative of the company LeaseTech installing the computer, says as much to Don: “These machines can be a metaphor for whatever is on people’s minds.” The “cosmically disturbing” machine has literally invaded their lives, as Don says to Harry. He’s already feeling obsolete thanks to his partner’s continued lack of trust in his ability to stay on the wagon. The first real work that comes his way is an assignment from Peggy — come up with 25 tag lines for a pitch to a fast-food chain Pete is honing in on, Burger Chef. Ted wanted Peggy on the account; Roger suggested Don. Lou, playing Yes Man in front of the partners, instead gives the lead to Peggy but instructs her that Don must be on her team, a move that demonstrates his continued insecurity about Don’s return and the calculations he’s making to hope Don fails. Peggy’s cat-that-ate-the-canary grin at the power switch fades once she realizes Don isn’t willing to play along. (The multitude of emotions that cross his face as he’s given his lowly instructions are a thing of wonder — amusement, incredulity, resignation — and show why Jon Hamm is so damn good at this.) Peggy can’t expect for Don to just do as she commands and for things to go her way, not after everything they’ve been through, and it’s sad to see her lack of empathy for a man she understands better than most.

Don’s frustration with not only the stipulations he’s been given to continue working at SC&P but also with the lack of work and creative outlets is understandable. He’s still very good at what he does, and his jumping at the idea of creating a campaign for LeaseTech demonstrates his drive and ability to see opportunities for a good pitch all around him. Yet he’s quickly shut down, and it’s not the pitch Bert is crassly rejecting. It’s Don.

Bert: “You have a fundamental misunderstanding of what went wrong here.”
Don: “So that’s it? You want me to be a janitor? Whistle while I work?”
Bert: “You thought there was going to be a big creative crisis if we pulled you off the bench. When in fact, we’ve been doing just fine.”
Don: “So why am I even here? I could have gone anywhere.”
Bert: “Why are you here?
Don: “Because I started this agency.”
Bert: “Along with a dead man whose office you now inhabit.”

Lane Pryce isn’t far from Don’s mind throughout “The Monolith,” first as he finds his deceased partner’s New York Mets pennant crammed underneath a piece of furniture. He throws it away, but soon we seen he’s hung it up on the office wall — near the spot where Lane hanged himself two years before. Lane gave up. He couldn’t face disgrace in front of his colleagues and family, and without a requested and unrealistic reprieve from Don, he decided to stop trying. That’s his story, but it doesn’t have to be Don’s, and it’s here where the episode writer Erin Levy feels the need not to bang viewers over the head with the message, but to bang that message over Don’s head. His swiping liquor from Roger’s office and going on a bender isn’t surprising, but thankfully his saving grace arrives in the unlikely form of Freddie Rumsen (Joel Murray). He’s practically the Clarence to Don’s George Bailey, keeping him alive and forcing him to look at his actions. “What the hell are you doing?,” he asks Don. “Aren’t they giving you a second chance?” Who cares if the partners weren’t serious about it — he should be. Freddie speaks to him like a sponsor, which isn’t surprising given how much Don’s alcoholism has played a role in the series, and thinking in those terms — the steps they follow, the mantras they repeat to themselves — there’s a beauty in the frankness of Fred’s words that the world won’t magically change for Don. It’s time to cut the fluff. “I mean, are you just gonna kill yourself?,” he asks Don. “Give them what you want? Or go in your bedroom, get in uniform, fix your bayonet and hit the parade? Do the work, Don.”

Roger can’t expect to have a fatherly influence in his Margaret’s life after being absent for so much of it. Mona can’t say a few them’s-the-breaks lines about life and expect the daughter she isn’t trying to understand (“I’d think she was brainwashed, but there’s nothing to wash.”) to change course. Likewise, Margaret can’t abandon her child, run away to the country, and assume living without electricities or hygiene will make her worries and abandonment issues disappear. All of the Sterlings are broken, as our most our main characters here. All of them need to at least try to change, even if it feels like they’re going in circles. (Cue the closing credits music, “On A Carousel” by The Hollies.) Do the work. Live.


Sarah Carlson is Television Editor for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.




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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Boothy K

    I looooooooooved the look on Don's face when Peggy was giving him instruction. Made me laugh so hard.....by the end of the episode, I was all, is Don becoming likeable???? I've disliked the character for so long and now he's really growing on me. His humility is doing wonders for me. I would love for him to finesse some crazy takeover and steal all the clients or......maybe, just maybe, he can walk away and finally be happy?

    Roger should have pointed out to Marigold that she's not doing her kid any favours by perpetuating the cycle of abandonment if that's really the problem.

    Also : As much of a bitch Joan is turning out to be, she looked fabulous in emerald green last night.

    And: Peggy looks ugly all the time! Her outfits are terrible and they are making her into a grimy, bitter old maid....and Elizabeth Moss is so pretty!

  • I don't understand where all this hatred for Don is coming from. Yes, he crashed and badly, but it's hardly the first time one of them's fucked up like that. Remember Roger yelling at the Japanese? Roger puking in front of some other execs? There's been plenty of fucking up at that place and it's not like Hershey's was THAT huge of a deal for the firm. Are they all just projecting like the bitter assholes they all are? I know Don is a huge bastard, but the attitudes going around are ridiculous and seem a little baseless to me. Joan giving him the stinkeye? Where the hell does Peggy get off after all they've been through? And Bert? BERT? Who knew all about Don and didn't give a damn when he found out ages ago? What's going on??

    It's just bugging the hell out of me. I guess they just want us to see Don fall to his lowest, but so much hatred just doesn't make sense to me. Specially given how much everyone seems to dislike Lou. I don't like it. It makes no sense coming from those characters. Is it just me?

  • Gistine

    Right? And I especially don't get Joan's problem. She sure has been a hateful, backstabbing, rat-bitch to Don, and he has done so much her. What did he ever do to her? I can't stand her anymore!

  • Sarah Weissman

    People seem to forget that while nobody MADE Joan sleep with the man to get the account, Don just *dropped* him without putting up with nearly as much BS after she was willing to prostitute herself. Rational on her end? Probably not, but totally understandable.

  • Gistine

    I forgot about him dropping the account.

  • letsspoon

    Totally agree. I think people are acting super out of character in regards to Don, especially showcased in that scene with BERT. Even if they didn't want him to do the new business pitch, why in the fuck would he berate him for simply mentioning it and then saying someone else should do it? It was a good idea and he was being a team player. Very odd.

  • Bert Cooper refusing ANY business? That's just bullshit. What the hell is he so bitter about?

  • $103670121

    I enjoyed Bert's truth bomb on Don, but I think he regretted saying it. Bert knows more about Don than anyone (except Pete, Betty, and maybe Megan and Sally) and wish he'd just lay things out for Don and everyone.

    But Bert's always been about the money first, personal relationships second.

  • ZombieMrsSmith

    I found this episode nicely harks back to those early days of the first season and "On a Carousel" was the perfect choice for the closing credits. Think how much things have circled back this season...

    Don now works for Peggy and she assigns him busy work the same way he used to do to her.

    Peggy has taken her place as a stealth creative again, coming up with the really good work and egging on her team to do better, but because she's not CD she can't get anything in front of the clients, or, entered into awards shows.

    Freddy is giving Don advice on how to sober up and keep his job.

    Roger is *concerned* that Margaret is abandoning her child and family.

    This was the first episode this season when I felt Wiener and his writers have really pointed us toward the "end." Everything really is a cycle. Things change, yet stay the same.

    Also, it frightens me how much Don seems to cling to the past. Every time he gets off the elevator at work I can't believe how dated his clothes look. He seems confused by the looseness of the office—people coming to work "late" more women and minorities in positions of power—and the old boys, with their daytime drinking, vests, fedoras and cardigans just closet themselves in their offices and keep doing things the way they always have. I just can't see how Don will possibly make the leap, in his home life, his work life and his internal life, which I think is how Matthew Wiener has always imagined Don ending up. Think about Don's Kodak Carousel speech: "Nostalgia takes us to a place where we ache to go again."

    <iframe width="420" height="315" src="//www.youtube.com/embed/suRDUFps..." frameborder="0" allowfullscreen=""></iframe>

  • BWeaves

    Yes, I also noticed how things were coming back around, only with the opposite people on top this time.

    Don looks really dated now. As much as I cringe when I see what Harry is wearing, he really is the one who is up to date on what is happening.

  • $103670121

    Pete's more dated than Don (having fully embraced the 60's attire but in a retiree sort of way), and frankly Don still looks good.

    I don't want Don to start taking fashion tips from Harry or Roger.

  • BWeaves

    Well, I don't want that, either. But back in the day, and I remember that day, if you weren't dressed "right" you were judged as out of touch. Other than Don's slightly longer collars, he's still in the early 60's suits. Ties and lapels and pant legs were already wide by 1969, and colors very wild.

    http://v024o.popscreen.com/akd...

    Yeah, I can't see Don in these suits, either.

  • mairimba

    I don't like Peggy this season. She hates Don for something that is her own fault. She thinks he broke Ted, but Ted was already broken. He just needed to get into an affair with her to realize it and that's why he went away to Cali. Not because of Don.

  • Melissa D

    Originally, Don was the one who was going to California, a place which, if you recall, he told Stan was really demotion rather than a promotion. When Don and Ted switched who was going to California, only those two knew the real reason why. My thoughts are that Peggy and Cutter's anger at Don over Ted are based on the misconceptions as to why Ted left (and who 'made' him go).

  • Laszlo

    That's such bullshit. So Don was an outright dick to Ted and tried to sabotage him all the time, but he's totally innocent, but Ted making a conscious decision to be in an affair with Peggy while fully knowing the consequences is all her fault? What the fuck?

  • Sarah Weissman

    Yeah, it couldn't have anything to do with Don's crappy behavior in the earlier season...and Don and Pete get away scot free, at least in her eyes.

  • mairimba

    When Ted tried to explain to Peggy that he couldn't do that (have an affair) she didn't want to accept it. She got (and is) mad over a married man not wanting to sleep with her. She didn't care that he was married. Just like she didn't care that Pete was engaged. They are assholes for cheating, but she was aware of the position she was in. The other woman. She has no right to be mad at Ted or Don for not getting what she wanted in that situation. Maybe Don has no right to try and avoid what they were having (cause he is King of the cheats), but all he was trying to do was to avoid that they (Ted and Peggy) got into any trouble.

  • Salasalu

    Exactly.

  • BWeaves

    1. I can't believe they're putting the computer smack dab in the middle of the office. I realize that they probably want to show it off with glass walls, but its going to need serious air conditioning and a raised floor, and halon fire extinguishers built in, and special locks on the doors, etc. etc. Ah, takes me back to my first job.

    2. The look on Roger's face when Marigold told him her kid would be just fine was heartbreaking. Strangely enough, years ago, I thought it would be Sally that would run off to a commune by the end. Margaret makes more sense to me now. Sally, I think, is too smart to do that.

    3. Roger and Mona belong together. The actors have such chemistry together (because they are really married) even when they are pretending to hate each other. Also, I love the Mona wore a fur coat to a commune.

    4. The look on Don's face when when Peggy gave him his assignment was great. The flood of emotions I saw go across his face blew me away.

    5. The look on Peggy's face when she wasn't sure if she was being reprimanded, or given a raise, or just being rewarded for having to deal with Don.

    6. Basically, this whole episode was about faces for me. People having to deal with the hand they've just been given when it wasn't the hand they thought they were playing.

  • Salasalu

    1. They did have a raised floor, remember when Don drunkenly stepped up to Lloyd?

  • BWeaves

    Yes, I know. It's just weird to have a raised floor (and all the other requirements) in the middle of an office. It's usually off to the side for easier installing and monitoring, and air conditioning, etc. etc.

  • It's all part of Cutler's plan to divide and conquer the firm.

  • Salasalu

    Ah. But remember, Don is no longer the prettiest girl in the room...the computer is ;)

  • Wednesday

    I think you're wrong that Peggy didn't have any empathy for Don. She was trying to be as graceful as possible about it, knowing what a blow it would be to his ego to work for his former protege, and knowing how much Lou wanted HER to fail as well.

    Peggy does have it in her to be a bitch when necessary. She chose not to go there with him.

  • Modiano

    I think Peggy had empathy, but I wouldn't go so far as to say she was trying to be as graceful as possible about it. I sensed she was enjoying the power dynamic a little too much (she is still PISSED at Don for all the wrong reasons after all). If Peggy were genuinely trying to do an end run around Lou or make sure she and Don had a good working relationship...go talk to him so he's not ambushed after three weeks of feeling useless.

    After the horrible comment she made to him in the prior episode, she needs to build that bridge a little too. True, she chose not to be a total bitch about it. Still, she could have talked to him as an equal beforehand, privately, if she was really trying to protect his ego.

  • mswas

    "3 episodes left this year" I thought this was the last season altogether.

  • It was a 14 episode order that AMC is splitting into two 7 episode "seasons" shown this spring and next.

  • mswas

    Well that's good, because I thought they had LOT to wrap up in only 3 episodes.

  • Jifaner

    I hope Peggy's character gets a little more sympathetic soon. I used to love her character but damn if she isn't awful this season (and the end of last). Don may have fucked up, but without him there would have never been an agency- at least not one so successful. Previously I waited to see if Don would ever learn to set aside his demons and truly live his life. Now I want to see him flip the bird to all the awful "friends and partners" who would prefer he would just go away.

  • I hate that I feel like she's just bitter over Ted, which makes me angry at the writers for making her character into a bitter woman who couldn't get a boyfriend. Peggy's better than that.

  • mairimba

    I kept yelling at the tv "Fuck 'em!" I want him to just sell his part (which they can't afford) and go work for some other company. The only reason why they let him come back was so he doesn't steal their clients and make some other agency more successful. He might have screwed up the Hershey's pitch, but they know he's an asset to the company, regardless of what Bonsai Cooper says.

  • Peggy just can't catch a break this year. Not only does she get stuck being Don's babysitter but when she finally has the tools and courage to drop the hammer on him, Don decides to toe the line.

  • Sarah Weissman

    Yea, it's not her fault she worked over him. I didn't think she was that terrible this ep - Don SCREWED UP and needed to eat crow before he rises again.

  • erma652

    my Aunty Julia got silver Volkswagen Beetle
    Convertible by working parttime off of a home computer... Look At This C­a­s­h­D­u­t­i­e­s­.­ℂ­o­m

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