A review of tonight's "Mad Men" coming up just as soon as the other couch is full of farts...
"Oh, believe me: there's always a hierarchy." -Roger
"Mad Men" was so busy dealing with the politics and tragedy of 1968 that season 6 didn't have a lot of time for the pop culture of that year. Perhaps as a make-up, we get "The Monolith," an episode whose name evokes the mysterious black object at the center of "2001: A Space Odyssey," and whose plot involves a fear of man being replaced by computers, much as the HAL-9000 in that film sought to kill off the human astronauts (and also had more personality than either of them). And Lloyd, the computer engineer responsible for installing SC&P's new technological marvel, even tells Don, "It's been my experience these machines can be a metaphor for whatever's on people's minds."
"Mad Men" is often a show that, even at its best, doesn't care about being subtle in its symbolism and metaphors, but "The Monolith" was laying it on pretty thick with the computer, Don being haunted by Lane Pryce's old New York Mets pennant, the firm getting a technological upgrade at the same time Roger's daughter has moved into a farm with no electricity, and the closing song, The Hollies' "On a Carousel," playing as Don Draper — a man who will be forever associated with the word "carousel" in the minds of "Mad Men" viewers — finally getting back to work for real.
And yet, when "The Monolith" stops getting cute and follows Freddie Rumsen's advice to simply do the work — or show the work — it's actually pretty terrific, and a nice interweaving of stories about former partners awkwardly joining forces once again.
We open with Pete on a date with Bonnie in LA, and though they are mainly there to set up what's to come in New York, it's notable that the new business Pete stumbles into that night comes from a man who used to work for Pete's father-in-law. Pete's marriage is dead, as is the one between the agency and Vick, but George likes the idea of getting to work with Pete again, and without the tension that came with Pete and Tom having to mix business and family.
From there, we bounce back and forth between Don and Peggy being forced to work together — or, worse for all involved, being forced to have Don report to Peggy — on the Burger Chef pitch, and Roger and Mona driving upstate together to retrieve Margaret from the hippie commune where she has chosen to reside. Mona and Roger's interactions are, as always, thick with history and regret and recrimination, as well as the sense that they could very well still be happier with each other than with their current partners(*). Don and Peggy have never been romantically involved, let alone married, and yet in many ways they know each other just as well as ex-spouses do, and their interactions have the same kind of tangled backstory behind them.
(*) Though that may be, as usual, the real-life marital chemistry between John Slattery and Talia Balsam seeping into their performances.
Following up on last week's presentation of The Draper Rules, we get a quick reminder of just how irrelevant Don is at the agency when he realizes that no one told him about the ceremony for the arrival of the computer. While he's busy helping Ginsberg move the big couch out of the creative lounge, Lou's meeting with the other partners, and stirring up trouble in the way he responds to the discussion of Burger Chef. Pete wants Don on the account, but because it's never explicitly stated that Don has to be in charge of the account, Lou uses it as wiggle room to pit Peggy (who, earlier in the episode was bad-mouthing Lou while he was in earshot) against Don, while also doing it in a way that could turn Peggy into an ally.
Both Elisabeth Moss and Jon Hamm are wonderful at playing both confusion and indignation, and this role reversal provides plenty of opportunity for both. Peggy walks out of Lou's office looking like she was just deposited out of a hurricane, but then she begins to enjoy the possibilities of ordering Don around. And the murderous deadpan stare Don gives her after being assigned to write 25 Burger Chef tags was a work of art.
For a few brief moments, it seems that Don's very human connection with Lloyd may provide an opportunity to do more than entry-level work — or, at least, to get an attaboy from Roger or Bert, even as Ginsberg or Peggy writes the actual LeaseTech pitch — but instead Bert slaps him down with a blunt assessment of Don's role at the company: He's not here to save anybody, but is only here because he doesn't have the dignity to leave. And that sends Don scurrying into Roger's office (as Caroline hilariously wonders what Don could have possibly left in there, and when) for a bottle of vodka, tossing aside both the rules he agreed to with the other partners and the promises he's made to himself about being better.
We've seen Don drink to excess at the office before, of course. He spent half of season 4 in the bag, and he needed a shot of courage before he went into the Hershey meeting. But something different happens this time: Don, in his drunken stupor and lacking any other friends (or lady friends) to call, reaches out to Freddie Rumsen to take in a game featuring Lane Pryce's favorite baseball team, and Freddie — who has starred in this particular movie before — is able to get Don safely out of the building and onto his couch at home to sleep it off and receive a lecture in the morning. As with Don and Peggy, it's a swap of roles — not that Don ever made a real effort to curb Freddie's drinking, but simply that he was in position to look on Freddie with pity — but it goes over better. Don's not interested in becoming a friend of Bill W., but he does take heed of Freddie's advice to actually work on the account and see what happens. And because I can't imagine the series — or even this half-season — ending with Don Draper being a wildly overcompensated copywriter, I imagine there there will be a moment where the agency has the kind of creative crisis Bert laughed off earlier, and Don will be in a much better position to help now that he's doing more than playing solitaire and living in fear of his own obsolescence.