Last week's episode of Mad Men ended with Don Draper accepting a severely limiting set of conditions to return to work at Sterling Cooper and Partners. But as surprising as it was to see Don humble himself, this week's "The Monolith" picks up the real change: can Don really accept the indignities of his demoted position as he attempts to rebuild his life?
"The Monolith" of the episode's title is a reference to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which came out one year before this episode is set. And like the movie, the episode is largely concerned with mankind's relationship to machinery in the technological era. (Of course, the travails of a Manhattan agency can't match the "all of human history" stakes of 2001 — but hey, maybe Mad Men will end with Don Draper turning into a giant space fetus.)
Mad Men's monolith is the brainchild of Harry Crane and Jim Cutler: an IBM computer, large enough to occupy an entire room on the office's main floor. Unfortunately, that room happens to be the lounge that previously belonged to Sterling Cooper's creative team, who take it as an alarming message about the firm's priorities. When Duck Phillips attempted to mount a similar, technology-heavy transition in Mad Men's second season, Don was able to derail his plans; here, he doesn't even know about the computer until he stumbles into a strangely empty office.
When Don meets Lloyd Hawley, the head of the company installing the computer, he sees him as another prospective client. It's the classic Don Draper approach, and it's probably what most viewers were expecting: Don landing a major account, proving his worth, and resuming his place at the seat of power. But no one else is interested in playing along with Don's old game — and as the chips stack against him, he starts to read something almost satanically sinister into the man who has brought a computer into their midst. "You talk like a friend but you're not," says Don. "I know your name. No, you go by many names. I know who you are. You don't need a campaign. You've got the best campaign since the dawn of time."
Of course, computers, for all their blatant foreshadowing, aren't Don's biggest problem right now; instead, he's stuck with the problems of the here and now. The partners are uniformly irritated that Don didn't exit gracefully when he had the chance, and it's going to be an uphill battle for him to gain back even a modicum of the freedom he once had. When Pete gets a crack at the $3 million Burger Chef account, he insists that Don should be on the team. But Lou Avery twists his meaning by putting Peggy in charge and assigning Don to work under her, reversing the complicated mentor/mentee relationship that has driven the two characters for much of Mad Men's run.
When Peggy assigns Don to come up with 25 tags — an assignment that's clearly beneath the talents of a Clio-winning founding partner — Don responds the way he always responds to slights: drinking and running away. Don complains to Bert Cooper, who turned on Don long ago. Instead of intervening in Don's favor, Cooper invokes the ghost of Lane Pryce, whose former office now belongs to Don (and whose loss haunts the episode, from his discarded Mets pennant to the closed door on which he hanged himself). "Why are you here?" asks Cooper, sending Don scuttling away for a bottle of vodka — a petty violation of the rules he was assigned to follow.
Unfortunately, Roger Sterling — Don's closest ally, if not a particularly good influence — isn't in the office to back him up. Instead, he's heading upstate to track down his daughter Margaret, who has joined the ranks of a hippie cult living in a dilapidated farmhouse. Location aside, the setup looks remarkably similar to the free-love lifestyle currently practiced by Roger, with a range of illegal drugs and a general atmosphere of polyamory. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, he is less enamored with this kind of life when he sees his daughter leading it.)
At its core, "The Monolith" is about consequences. Don Draper is a man whose blend of looks, charms, and talent has routinely allowed him to escape punishment for his actions — but in the end, all actions have consequences. Just as Margaret's absence will have a significant impact on her infant son, Roger's lack of interest in Margaret at a young age helped push her into the arms of these strangers who seem to love her. Roger even missed a chance to save her at the start of the season; during a breakfast together, he noticed that she was acting strangely but decided to ignore it. In the end, Margaret refuses to leave the cult, because she knows all too well that a child can survive a life without a parent — even if it might doom her son Ellery to the same kind of self-satisfied, irresponsible life she's choosing to lead.
Roger's attempt to rescue Margaret ends up going poorly, but Don fares better with his own white knight: Freddy Rumsen, who picks him up, drives him home, and makes him a cup of black coffee while suggesting that he never needs another drink. "Are you just going to kill yourself? Give them what they want?" he asks. "Or go in your bedroom, get in uniform, fix your bayonet, and hit the parade? Do the work, Don."
"The Monolith" ends as Don sits down to work on the Burger Chef account, to the tune of The Hollies' "On a Carousel" — a particularly resonant song choice for longtime Mad Men fans, who routinely hold up Don's "Carousel" pitch to Kodak as one of the series' finest moments. Is Don capable of doing that kind of brilliant, heartfelt work again? His latest assignment was intended to be an insult — but it also gives him 25 chances to prove himself.
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