If the Characters on 'Mad Men' Are Going to Turn a Corner, It's Time to Get Real
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 [email protected]
“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.
Even 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.