I’ve been gathering a few people to watch Game of Thrones and Mad Men each week, and it’s interesting the way other people can change your perspective. When I was writing for California Literary Review, I think my editor enjoyed my pieces because I chronicled the reactions of the audience as lovingly as I wrote about the film. After last night’s episode, my friend Chelsea said with a considering expression, “That was kind of like a sitcom episode,” and she’s right. In “The Monolith,” problems are presented, problems are fixed, and we’re back to the status quo. It was a filler episode, which is common at this point in the season. But despite its easily solvable character dilemmas, it was a truly weird one. It is Mad Men, after all. It’s 1969 and everyone’s staring into the void, looking for answers. For some, the answers may lie in technology. Others search for a more organic sense of belonging, while still others just want a damn couch that isn’t full of farts. Basically, we’re all a bunch of monkeys gazing at a monolith.
In the opening scene of Sunday’s episode, we drop in on a scene in which Pete describes the various destinations of choice for an upcoming trip with Bonnie. She spots George Peyton, a ghost from Campbell’s past who worked with Trudy’s father Tom at Vicks. Remember the Vicks drama? If I recall correctly, Pete’s shameless philandering lost SCDP that account. (Don’t shit where you eat, Pete.) Pete explains to a curious Peyton that he and Trudy are getting a divorce, and that Bonnie is his real estate agent (she’s none too pleased with this informal introduction). Peyton reports that Tom Vogel, Pete’s father-in-law, had a heart attack. “Who knew he had a heart?” George chuckles. Further, Peyton’s now working for Burger Chef. You can practically see the lightbulb ding into existence over Pete’s head; the guy knows how to use his connections. Meanwhile, the two men circle around their respective lady friends, both wearing ridiculous(ly awesome) ’70s dresses with feathers and fringe.
When Don comes into the office for his first official day back, he’s looking every bit the old Don Draper. His eyes are alert, his old but neat suit impeccably pressed; his hat rests in his hands. He disembarks from the elevator to discover the office has been evacuated, and rapidly. A phone dangles eerily from a secretary’s desk; he hangs it back up. On the second floor, he discovers the entire office in an impromptu meeting to announce a construction project: they’re putting in a computer. Cutler intones smugly, “This agency has entered the future.”
Unfortunately, in order to enter the future, they have to take out the Creative department lounge. Peggy mentions under her breath that Lou has no idea what he’s doing, and Lou says pragmatically that he’ll use that computer more than the lounge. Ginsberg gets a moment to shine; he feels (quite rightly) displaced. “Harry Crane took a huge dump and we’re cleaning it up,” he cries. With a maniacal glint, he asks Don to help him move the massive orange couch into the office he shares with Stan because “the other one’s full of farts!” Ginsberg climbs onto a soapbox and bellows a battle cry: “They’re trying to erase us, but they can’t erase this couch!” It’s all so very dramatic and very Michael Ginsberg.
Once he gives up on moving the couch, Don enters his new office, which still feels haunted by the ghost of the hanged partner. Don accidentally drops a cigarette beneath the desk and pulls out a New York Mets pennant that Lane hung on his wall. He watches the partners enter the conference room for their weekly speaker phone debacle with California, then slams the door. Pete reports that he can pull down Burger Chef, and Ted suggests that they’ll want a woman – Peggy is the answer. Roger and Pete angle for putting Don back into the game. “He’s been in that office for three weeks now, and he hasn’t clubbed another ape yet,” Roger says (the first of many sly references to 2001: A Space Odyssey). Lou agrees: “Don’s a very valuable piece of talent; he should be put to work already.” They have, in one fell swoop, put Don and Peggy together on a project in which she will be his supervisor. This is a mess, and Lou knows it; he predicts Don’s going to implode. Cutler, smirking in that increasingly creepy way of his, purrs, “Well, that’s a distinct possibility.” Basically, they’re throwing him to the sharks.
Mona is, for some reason, in the SC&P office, and she’s brought along Ellery and Brooks. As it turns out, all the speculation over Margaret’s odd behavior was merited: she’s run away with multiple lovers to a “religious cult” in upstate New York. Brooks wants Mona to watch the kid while he coaxes his errant wife back to him. Mona, of course, thinks Brooks won’t be able to do the job, so Roger should. “Let the man be a man,” Roger says, dismissing Brooks. Mona complains about Roger’s part in Margaret’s icky decisions: “She has run away with, from what I can glean, more than one lover.” Roger has raised a “perverse child.” Well, I can’t entirely argue with that perspective. He’s never been the best father.
Harry Crane has never been so puffed up and excited. He introduces Lloyd from LeaseTech, who’s in charge of installing the new computer. “Don is a partner and a Creative Director,” he says. When Lloyd indicates he thought Lou was the Creative director, Harry fumbles. “We have three. I mean, there’s Ted, too.” In Lloyd, Don finds a kindred spirit, a man interested in examining the world from a different perspective. “It’s been my experience that these machines can be a metaphor for whatever’s on people’s minds,” Lloyd says. “This machine is intimidating because it contains infinite quantities of information, and that’s threatening, because human existence is finite. But isn’t it godlike that we’ve mastered the infinite?” The episode draws its title from 2001, in which apes worship a monolith. (It isn’t the first time the show has referenced Kubrick’s sci fi masterpiece, either. Don and Bobby saw it in the theater last season.) “But,” as Don asks, “what man laid on his back counting stars and thought about a number?” Well, Lloyd responds, “He probably thought about going to the moon.” It’s clear Lloyd feels reverential toward the computer; “it’s frightening to people, but it’s made by people.” Don is intrigued by Lloyd’s point of view, his open face, his talk of stars and the infinite. As a guy who feels he’s been screaming into the void for a year, Don maybe sees someone who’s conquered his own fear of the infinite.
Lou, who knows exactly what he’s doing to Peggy, gives her a fat raise of $100 per week, then tells her he’s assigning her to Burger Chef with Don. Peggy and Don have been pointedly avoiding one another all morning, but now they’ve got to make it work. When Meredith approaches Don with a meeting request, he falls back into the old dynamic, telling her to send Peggy in. No, Meredith answers, I’m to send you in. Peggy sits in the seat of power now, and it’s beginning to grate even before Don’s fully aware of it. She assigns Don 25 taglines by Monday. When Don asks what the strategy is, Peggy answers, “Lou likes to start with the tags and then sneak up on the strategy.” You’ll get used to it, Don.
Don wanders back into his office and tosses his typewriter at the window. On Monday, he plays Solitaire at his desk, and when Peggy calls the meeting, he says he’s not coming. His tantrum can only go on so long, though; he’s forgetting the rules. The sharks are closing in.
While Don tosses aside his typewriter and Lloyd worships his computer, Margaret Sterling searches for answers that have nothing to do with technology. Through Caroline, Mona sends Roger a message: “Hey genius, Brooks is in jail in Kingston.” The Sterling parents are at a loss; they have to retrieve Margaret themselves. In the car on the way to the commune, they talk about how badly they screwed up in raising her. “I hope she’s not a drug addict,” Mona says. But Mona knows from LIFE Magazine that they usually stay in the city. They’ve both noticed she’s gotten cruel and serene, strange and a little bit philosophical. Roger doesn’t seem nearly as alarmed as Mona does. No surprise, since he’s been dabbling in philosophy, in taking trips, himself.
The commune is exactly what you’d expect. Dressed in furs, with perfectly coiffed hair and establishment suits, the Sterlings look immensely out of place. When they ask for Margaret, the cult leader calls for a Marigold. Margaret/Marigold comes forward, her long hair draped beautifully over a leather fringe shawl, her face smudged with dirt, her long skirt muddy. Her eyes shine with some combination of religious ardor and pure happiness. Mona is unable to convince her to come back, and when Marigold makes a pretty severe jab at Mona’s unhappiness in her own world, Mona loses it. “These people are lost and on drugs and they have veneral diseases!” she cries. Well, Margaret says, at least “I don’t have to lock myself in the bathroom with a pint of gin every day.” Confronted by her own misery through the cruel lens of her daughter’s “happiness,” Mona decides to GTFO. She leaves Roger, who’s genuinely curious about this situation.
The hippies assure him, “There’s no hierarchy. We do things by consensus here.” This world is so different from Roger’s, and he’s almost comforted by it. Doesn’t it get cold up here? We light a campfire. And, says the cult leader, his eyes following Roger’s as they track a young, pretty behind in a long white dress, there are other ways to keep warm. Wink wink, nudge nudge. Later in the evening, Marigold and Roger bed down in the loft of the barn. They lie on their backs and count stars, as Don and Lloyd mentioned earlier. Roger, however, isn’t quite capable of thinking about the infinite. Maybe that’s for the computers to do. There’s a lot of talk this episode about putting a man on the moon. Although the commune doesn’t really even want a truck there (technology disrupts the vibes, man), Roger jokes they could make an allowance for a rocket. He’s dabbling, but he’s not quite there yet; he can see as far as putting a man on the moon, but no further. Sometime later, Marigold tiptoes out of her sleeping bag to meet the cult leader for a late-night tryst. This does not go unnoticed.
Back at SC&P, Don’s also dabbling in philosophy. When Lloyd asks him for a light because his lighter crapped out, Don says, “Perils of technology. It’s 1969 and you can’t make fire.” Lloyd asks Don whether advertising really works, and as with Pete, you can see the light bulb pop into existence over his head. Don pontificates about his true love, advertising, and when Lloyd leaves with Harry Crane, he says that it’s genuinely been a pleasure talking. But Don’s none too happy that Lloyd, his new friend, is palling around with Crane, who wouldn’t know the void if it looked him in the face. When Don approaches Sterling for permission to take on LeaseTech as potential new business, Sterling reprimands him. “You have a fundamental misunderstanding of what went wrong here.” “Why am I here?” Don asks, and isn’t that the question everybody’s asking right now? Sterling twists the knife a bit, noting that Don started the company, sure, “along with a dead man whose office you now inhabit.” Don, who is once again yelling into the void and hearing no answers, grabs a bottle of gin from Roger’s office and empties it into a cola can. This is expressly against the rules, and he knows it.
A few hours later, Don awakens on his office couch, drunkenly staring at the ceiling tiles and the Mets pennant left behind by Lane. Everyone’s gazing upwards this episode, hypnotized by a monolith. Rumsen arrives to pick up Don, who’s so drunk he can hardly walk. If Meredith weren’t an idiot, I don’t think he’d have gotten away with it. Rumsen leads him out of the office, more or less by the hand. On the way out, Don approaches Lloyd, who’s also staring up at the ceiling in the computer room, at his own monolith. Don leans into him aggressively, and Lloyd cringes away from his booze breath. “You talk like a friend but you’re not,” Don says, swaying. “You go by many names.” Pretty sure he just called Lloyd the Devil. It’s a shame, too, because that friendship could’ve been something interesting.
Peggy, trapped in her office as everyone leaves for the day, snaps at Joan, who snaps right back. Despite their occasionally rough rapport, the two women are becoming friendlier all the time. After Peggy tells her she was assigned to a project with Don, Joan proposes they drink to cowardice. “Mine or theirs?” Peggy asks, an eyebrow raised. Joan tells her about the stipulations of Don’s return, but doesn’t mention what they are.
Rumsen recognizes himself in Don; this, after all, is the same guy who got so wasted he pissed himself at the office a few years ago. He had a serious problem with booze, and his career will never recover. In the hungover morning, he brings Don coffee and has a come-to-Jesus with him. “Aren’t they giving you a second chance?” he says, knowing the answer. Dear Don, you don’t want to be me. “Are you just gonna kill yourself? Give them what they want?” he asks finally. He’s verbally smacking some sense into Don. It’s more than our antihero deserves, really, but it is what he needs. A life preserver.
At the commune, Roger can’t help noticing that there are pregnant women around, that there are small children. There’s virtually no way Margaret is protecting herself; she’s got a son at home, and it’s too much for him. His open-mindedness only extends so far. “He needs his mother. I’m sorry, but you don’t get to do this.” Roger tries to forcibly take her on his shoulders, his 20something daughter, and they fall in the mud, then slip-slide around clumsily. She turns her cold, truthful gaze on her father now. “How did you feel when you went away to work, Daddy? Calling your secretary from some hotel, asking her to buy me a birthday present?” With her eyes wide open, she got Mona, and now she’s got him, too. Roger trudges up the walk alone, leaving behind the hippies and their rusty old truck.
The next morning, Don enters the office once again. He gazes up at the elevator doors, which will slide gently open to let him into his temple, dinging softly. Outside in the lounge, the computer is finally coming together. Inside his office, Don sits at his typewriter and tells Peggy he’ll have her tags by lunch. His keys clack in time with the Hollies’ “On a Carousel.” We’re spinning round and round, where we’ll end up, nobody knows. But at least we’re still on track, kind of.