'Mad Men' recap: Man vs. Machine in 'The Monolith'
Grab a cigar and pour yourself an Old Fashioned. Each week, Times TV mavens Michelle Stark -- a young go-getter in the Peggy Olson mold -- and Sean Daly -- the Roger Sterling-esque, smiling-through-the-chaos smartaleck -- will vigorously debate Sunday night's episode of Mad Men.
"THEY ALL BECOME OBSOLETE EVENTUALLY."
Sean: Let's get deep this week, Michelle. I'm feeling rather philosophical after Sunday's ep, in which Mad Men's two alpha wolves -- Don Draper and my personal life coach, Roger Sterling -- fought the surging waves of change, one a hi-tech threat, the other, well, a bunch of stoned hippies. For all of the show's time-appropriate touches (we're on the cusp of the '70s, but '69 has a few tricks left), let me ask you this: Are ANY OF US, no matter when we live, properly suited to do battle with cultural shifts? Is Don so different than, say, the newspaper industry circa 2014? Sooner or later, whether we're cave men or pop music critics, we just weren't made for these times. Sooner or later, it's our turn to feel like we're losing the fight.
Don, miserable at work and about to play a lethal drinking game (DD's floppy "drunk hair" always reminds me of the Little Rascals), becomes friends with the devil: chirpy computer dude Lloyd, perhaps even Don of the Future, since they kind of look alike. Fretting Peggy, who has the Burger Chef account and has been given Don as an underling, is just an annoyance to Mr. Draper. It's that bleeping, blooping computer taking over the office that truly worries him. "Who's winning? Who's replacing more humans?" At first, Don and Future Don have a smoke, a laugh, a chat. Then Peggy makes him feel even smaller, he chugs vodka -- and, with 100-proof breath, he confronts Future Don, essentially accusing him of being Beezelbub or, even worse, Death Itself.
Michelle: Sean, I liked this episode, and I liked your in-depth reading of the hour's subtext that all of us, at some point, will be blindsided by a giant metaphorical computer being installed in our office. Absolutely. But I think "The Monolith" was a little too cute. Mad Men has one of these episodes every once in a while, ones that seem to scream their meaning at you: Roger's daughter has daddy issues! Computers represent change! This could be a result of this truncated final season, and the fact that there are only three (THREE!) episodes left before we break for another year. But there was little subtlely here. I had doubts as soon as Future Don started talking about computers as a metaphor and a cosmic disturbance. Um, sure. (I should point out all the references to men walking on the moon in this episode; a great reminder of what a different time these people live in. We're just a few months away from the moon landing in Mad Men world.)
That said, when this episode wasn't jamming those themes down our throats, all of the workplace stuff really, well, worked. I loved how it evoked the mundane feeling of working in an office, and having to deal with all that entails: getting used to new equipment, navigating hierarchies, tolerating people you can't stand (looking at you, Harry). Side note: For all of Bert Cooper's insistence that the firm has been JUST FINE, THANK YOU without Don, it seems like SC&P is in shambles. Three creative directors! What a mess. And what are we to make of Ted refusing to come back from California? I thougt he'd figure in more prominently this season. Same with Pete, who I was glad to see open the episode after being a no-show last week, but they need to rejoin the New York ranks. And immediately.
Bonus points for all the comedic beats Don/Jon Hamm gets in this ep, from the terrifying 10-minute stare he gives Peggy in their initial meeting to his very obvious drunkenness.
MVP OF THE NIGHT
Sean: Some of the loveliest moments so far this half-season have been between fathers and daughters. First, Don and Sally at the restaurant. And last night, Roger and Margaret -- er, Marigold -- sleeping under the stars in the commune's hay barn. The banter between Roger (shout-out to the great John Slattery) and ex-wife Mona (the sublime Talia Balsam) on the drive up to Hippieville was classic; I love when these two spar 'n' flirt. But underneath the wisecracks and million-dollar clothes are two worried, loving parents losing a fight to the shifting times. Their daughter has abandoned society and a four-year-old son for a peacenik life; they want her back in the city. The ensuing standoff was both hilarious and terrifying; you knew it wasn't going to end well. And for all Roger's debonair facade and brilliant one-liners -- he'd be telling knock-knocks with his head in a guillotine -- he knew it wasn't going to end well, either. I thought the final tussle in the mud was cliche, lazy; they didn't need that to sell a fascinating, disturbing and, ultimately, heartbreaking story line.
Michelle: The show is constantly exploring the idea of family, and how one generation affects the next (Don's an orphan, Betty-Sally's dynamic, etc.), and it's generally fascinating - and a whole lot more subtle than last night's Margaret-Roger stuff. I agree, Roger/Mona are terrific, as always, and I really liked Roger's presence at the farm. Put Slattery anywhere and he'd be great. But I thought the whole thing was way too heavy-handed for this show (especially compared to the Don/Sally stuff you mentioned, Sean). Plus, the entire Internet guessed Margaret had joined some sort of cult back when she appeared to "forgive" her dad in episode 1, so it wasn't all that surprising.
Fun fact: Did you know Balsam and Slattery are married in real life? Explains why their scenes always crackle with chemistry. Also: Balsam is the only woman to have been married to George Clooney. Maybe she's my MVP?
Nah, gotta go with Peggy. The poor girl smiles for the first time all season when Lou gives her a raise and some responsibility, not realizing it's just a game the dirty rat is playing to exert some power over the Don-has-to-be-on-Burger Chef situtation. Then Peggy has to go and deal with Don, her former boss and mentor. It's an impossible situation. But, ultimately, it's the most interesting thing she's gotten to do all season, and something that could send her back on the path to reclaiming some of her old glory. On the way to this, perhaps?
Sean: I don't know the kicker song at ep's end, but it sure mentioned the word "carousel" a lot. Was that a nod to Don's kingly days, his ruling times, the epic Kodak speech? Should we call it a comeback, Michelle?!
Michelle: Yep, the show knows exactly what it's doing every time it uses the word "carousel" in Don's presence (remember last week, when Ken told him the carousel in Central Park reminded him of Don?).
QUOTES OF THE NIGHT
Sean: I have to go with an all-Roger version this week...
"We're getting a computer. It's going to do lots of magical things, like make Harry Crane seem important."
"Everybody, I understand the dry-cleaning's done, but can you bring it back in an hour? There's 50 bucks in it for you."
"I'll get Cletus to drive me to the train."
Michelle: I loved the one about Harry Crane, too.
Also have to point out this exchange, which shows just how brutally honest Don has become.
"How was your weekend?" - Meredith
"Lonely. How was yours?" - Don