The computer is here! Yes, this week Sterling Cooper & Partners took a bold step into the future and further alienated their creative people. Don Draper and Roger Sterling both hit what we can only hope are their low points and Ginsberg is surprisingly passionate on the subject of couches. We’re taking a look at “The Monolith”, which means we have to talk about baseball and Stanley Kubrick. So let’s get to it!
You know what baseball team started out the 1969 season with an lackluster 18-23 record through their first 40 games, then did a complete one eighty by going 82-39 the rest of the way en route to a mammoth .678 winning percentage. That might sound like a slam dunk runaway division winner, but even with all that, they still had to win 14 of their last 17 games to surge past the Cubs for the pennant and ultimately win the World Series, which of course they won in 5 games and earn their nickname, “The Amazin’ Mets”.
You know who else has had a very slow and quite unremarkable start to 1969? Don Draper. He’s had to endure long days at home, the possible breakup of his bicoastal marriage, and now, he’s back at the agency he founded, only he’s being treated like a pariah by most of his fellow partners and being humiliated into hiding in his office playing solitaire. When Pete gets a hot lead on possibly acquiring the Burger Chef account (fun fact: it’s a real restaurant chain where I once dumped an entire milkshake on my head when I was 2!), the partners agree to give the pitch to Peggy and have Don assigned to her team. So, Lou gives her a hundred dollar a week raise and her own nightmare come to life–managing her former boss and mentor, who is completely uncooperative. You have to love Peggy assigning he and Mathis 25 tags and when Don asks what the strategy is and is told that part comes later, Mathis telling him, “you’ll get used to it.” Um, have you met Don? He really won’t.
It doesn’t even surprise Peggy very much when he blows off two deadlines; the first on purpose and the second because he’s had a bottle of vodka for lunch. He was walking the straight and narrow on his drinking (not really helped by the offers of drinks from both Peggy–who doesn’t know the new rules–and Roger–who totally does!) until Bert Cooper set him off. You see, Don was momentarily jazzed and doing his best new business pitch to the guy installing the new SC&P computer. It was great to see Classic Draper; a creative director who could also be a valuable account executive. This is not an everyday thing in most agencies and it was good of the show to remind us that Don is just that good at what he does when he’s firing on all cylinders. But his fire is immediately doused by Cooper, who bites his head off for even speaking to the man as a prospective client or even thinking he had the right to do so. This is just one more reminder of how mean and narrow-minded the old man can be. It was fine for Don’s checkered past to be the dirty little secret that only he and a few others knew about. But if all of Madison Avenue is aware his creative genius grew up in a brothel, he’s completely tainted. It’s not all that unlike the fact that he’s fine with the agency having black secretaries, just so long as they’re not out front for everyone to see from the elevator.
So after finding himself at the bottom of a bottle, Don calls Freddie, the man who once pissed himself before an important client meeting because he was blackout drunk. Everything has come full circle…his former secretary and underling, along with a disgraced copywriter he had to fire for his transgressions, are now going to be his saviors. Freddie takes a visibly drunk Don home (and not to the Mets game as he wanted) and when he wakes up the next day, hungover, Freddie tells him that it’s not going to be an easy return to his old job. He’s going to have to do the work, period. So, a spit-shined and polished Don Draper heads into the office and sits down at the typewriter to do his assignment, promising Peggy she’ll have her tags by lunch. Her choice to remain silent and let Don sink or swim on his own rather than go complain to Lou or any of the partners paid off, showing she can manage someone who they thought was not manageable. Clearly, everyone was counting on Don crumbling under the weight of his losing record, and he nearly did. But now, just like those Miracle Mets, he’s picking himself up from the cellar and strapping in to do what he has to do to get back in the game, and be worthy of pennant hanging on his wall.
OK, first there are two things I’m just dying to get on paper. First off, the episode title is “The Monolith”, and the first thing Don sees when the elevator doors open are the black doors opposite, framed like the monolith in 2001. Director Scott Hornbacher? Take a bow. Second, Pete’s buddy George Payton has not appeared on the show previously. But if he looks familiar, it’s because that actor plays Dr. Eugene Porter on The Walking Dead! (I am also excited that Don was reading Portnoy’s Complaint, because I’m a big Philip Roth fan.)
Also, I was so proud of myself for picking up on the fact that Don literally has a red flag in his office, in addition to all the metaphorical ones. Then Myndi pointed out that it’s actually orange and I felt like a dope. Frankly, I think it’s really brave of me to even share my humiliation with all of you.
Of course, later on in the episode a big hunk of computer emerges from those elevator doors. That’s the real monolith – not only does the old-timey computer shape help suggest the mysterious object from the dawn of time, but what is it that the monolith did? It led humanity to the next stage of evolution. When the pre-humans touch it, they learn how to use weapons and tools and start killing prey. And now that I think about it, one tribe kills the leader of another to close out the opening of the movie. Early in this episode, Roger jokes that Don’s been holed up in his cave and “hasn’t clubbed another ape yet”. Pretty sure that I’m going to need to rewatch 2001: A Space Odyssey before the season finale.
Apes aside, later in the movie the monolith returns and transforms Dave Bowman, kicking off the next evolution for humanity yet again. With hindsight, we know that’s sort of what the computer did. It changed the world in the same way that those first tools or the giant space fetus did. I’m willing to bet that most of the characters on the show don’t have a clear idea of what their new computer can actually do (we hear a couple of references to magic), but they know it’s going to change everything. Realistically, what they have wouldn’t actually affect the day-to-day work of most of the employees. But it changes the environment just with its physical presence. Remember the copy machine in Season Two? Multiply that by a hundred.
I love Harry assuring Don that the computer taking the space of the creative lounge “isn’t meant to be symbolic” and Don’s perfect response that it’s technically literal. The new SC&P has de-emphasized creative to the extent that there actually isn’t room for them anymore. Sure, the Creative Lounge was not strictly necessary (as we’re reminded, they all have offices), but having that space available for them said a lot about the company’s priorities. The management is almost entirely made up of “account men” now. When Lou Avery is the loudest voice for the creative team, things have gone terribly wrong.
Ginsberg kind of steals this episode, alternating between fury and the desire for a new couch. I can’t even tell you how hard I laughed at “The other one’s full of farts!” It’s like Gene from Bob’s Burgers was writing his dialogue. We haven’t seen much of Ginsberg and Stan so far this season, but everything has been gold. (And Ginsberg especially appears to be prominent in the promo for next week.)
In a nice touch, the TV show we hear Harry and Lloyd talking about is The Turn-On, a Tim Conway sketch series cancelled after one episode. The premise of the series (or maybe just of that one episode) was that the show was written entirely about a computer. It was a massive flop, and it’s kind of hilarious that Harry not only watched it but seemed to like it. And thanks to the show’s own rules, we know that LeaseTech isn’t going to make it because we’ve never heard of them. If they had succeeded, they’d still be around in 2014. From a modern standpoint, their strategy is suicidal. IBM selling newer models to their users? That’s smart because computers keep getting better. They got better since I typed that last sentence. LeaseTech’s philosophy of “Ah, this one’ll be good enough for a while” may not have seemed so crazy in 1969 when they didn’t know what technology was going to do, but you can see exactly why they have to fail.
Myndi is handling Don this week, but I have to mention when he gets drunk and calls out Lloyd. That is a weird thing to do, Don. It’s always hard to work out drunk logic, but as a guy who used to live on a farm and is now one of three creative directors, on some level, he has to worry about being replaced by a machine. Heck, it doesn’t even literally have to be a machine – he’s just worried about getting phased out. He’s nominally a partner but he has to report to Lou Avery and Peggy gets to give him orders now. The computer isn’t actually the thing that he’s worried about, but it represents his fear. And that’s exactly what Lloyd told him – for a lot of people, the computer is whatever metaphor they need it to be.
Very interesting, too, that Don makes reference to Lloyd being known by many names and having the greatest campaign since the dawn of time. Those are things you say about the devil. Of course, the “dawn of time” also sort of applies to the 2001 monolith. That might actually be on movie buff Don’s mind – the movie would have come out about nine months ago as of this episode.
On the opposite end of the technology spectrum, we’ve got Roger Sterling. (Fun fact I just learned – Talia Balsam, who plays Mona, is John Slattery’s real-life wife. Before that, she was married to George Clooney.) Margaret’s odd scenes in the season premiere were clearly just her getting some closure before skipping town. It’s not the first time we’ve seen somebody seduced by the Wanderlust lifestyle. There was Don’s first mistress and those weird Europeans in California, Peggy’s bohemian friends, and now Roger’s hippy loveshack. None of these ever really pan out, but it means Roger probably understands where Margaret/Marigold is coming from.
Roger gets in some good digs, but he’s clearly less hostile to Marigold’s new friends than Mona is. It’s still a little surprising that he wants to spend the night, though. It seems like he’s trying not to be the out-of-touch authority figure, and I think there’s a part of him that sort of likes these people. It doesn’t last – it’s sort of like how it seems like an awesome idea to set up a profile on a dating website and then maybe an hour later you delete it because you suddenly think better of it. (Um. Or so I’ve heard. Move along.) I like the scene of them sleeping on the floor, looking up at the stars through the holes in the roof. Notably, the one nice memory that Margaret cites of Roger (reading Jules Verne to her) was probably actually Mona. Aw, Roger.
Roger knows he was a bad dad, and he’s trying to make amends but not necessarily with his daughter. There were his attempts to be a part of Kevin’s life, and now he’s Ellery’s fun grandpa. In fact, I think he’d be totally cool with Margaret’s experimental phase if it weren’t for that little boy. He was a crappy father, but he’s going to make sure that his grandson has a mom. And in the morning, he’s already decided that it’s time to leave before he learns that Margaret spent the night hooking up with Clay. It’s not that he got mad at her for letting sex intrude into this fantasy world – he just had to sleep on it to come to that decision. Or maybe this was the plan all along and he just wanted a day of being the dad that she wanted. Roger literally rolling around in the mud is such a sad image, and it’s even worse when he walks away from the commune, alone.
Roger, by the way, actually says that it’s time to “leave Shangri-La”. That’s the plot of Lost Horizon, the movie that Don watched in the season premiere. Who else is going to leave their seemingly ideal life behind before the season is over? Also, there’s something about Roger and Margaret looking up at the stars. Earlier in the episode, Lloyd said something to Don about how the computer could count as many stars in a day as a person could count in a lifetime. It’s a nice use of the imagery, even if the night under the stars results in muddy sadness.