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It’s no secret that Mad Men has gotten its share of criticism for its often heavy-handed symbolism and insistent metaphors. Remember Don’s toothache in the season five finale, the season six opening with Don reading “The Divine Comedy”, or even last week’s “Eat your candy”? There really isn’t much subtlety to be had when watching the show. However, it is the series’ bountiful imagery and involved narrative that has made Mad Men so much fun to discuss. Critics and viewers alike love to dissect and analyze each episode and draw their own conclusions on the many seemingly cryptic symbols that riddle every hour. Despite the obviousness of their presence in any given episode, oftentimes, distinct individuals interpret the metaphors quite differently. And out of that comes a wide array of fantastic theories or analyses from the prediction that Megan would die in California (probably not gonna happen) to the idea that Margaret Sterling could be involved with a cult/hippies (they actually went there!).
So when an episode entitled “The Monolith” comes around containing major allusions to Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, easily one of the most discussed, analyzed, scrutinized, and written about films of the 1960’s (maybe of all time)… Come on. It is almost as if the writers are playing with us because there couldn’t be any more clunky metaphorical anvils dropping all over the place in this hour. A shiny, new computer invades the office, an ominous piece of modernization threatening those that work there. Is this “monolith” a harbinger of a new age of enlightenment and success, or a menacing instrument come to destroy its surroundings. Is Jim Cutler’s plan to undermine the creative department going to bring down SC&P? Will it go all HAL and slowly take over the offices?
The arrival of the computer serves as the background for the action in the episode and its presence looms over the narrative, never letting us forget its greater meaning. “I’m sorry you lost your lunchroom it’s not symbolic,” says Harry, who is responded by a very curt Don, “No it’s quite literal.” Lloyd Holly, the man supervising the installation of the computer, shares a couple of conversations with Don that are way too on the nose in which one could see the hand of the writers much too easily. Yes, their conversations work on two different levels, we get it. They are not just talking about machines and IBM or whatever. It is, at times, eye-rollingly annoying, however there is a bit of a tongue in cheek quality to it all. The writers have to be aware of the show’s reputation as a source of much scrutiny and discourse. And this seems like an unabashed decision on their part, to instill this over the top kind of symbolism and/or meaning to almost everything in the episode. I like to think that they are pushing the limit on purpose, because, why not? Once you get used to it, and/or embrace the heavy handedness, it becomes kind of fun and amusingly absurd. Also, regardless of the overly suggestive writing, “The Monolith” is a very entertaining episode of Mad Men and there is plenty there to satisfy viewers.
It is an incredibly funny hour with moments of levity and humor coming from many characters. Ginsberg is on form in the episode’s opening scenes, as the most outspoken voice of dissent against the agency’s new toy. From his obvious outrage, “They’re trying to erase us,” to his hilarious desire move the creative lounge’s couch into his office, “The other one’s full of farts!” Caroline also makes a fantastic impression in the hour, she has always been quite handy for the occasional off-hand joke or quip, but she owns her scenes this episode. “Hey genius! Brooks is in jail in Kingston.” Perfection. And one should never underestimate the power of drunken Don, despite the troubling implications this may have on his future, drunken Don is awfully amusing. His call to Freddy is hilarious, it is quite jarring to see Don behave in such a silly way, cracking lame jokes and being drunkenly giddy. Despite the superficial humor and amusement, the unusual behavior is undoubtedly disconcerting and unsettling.
It is Don’s story that takes center stage in the episode and deservedly so. Last week’s installment left us anticipating how it would be for him when he returns to the office and it is enlightening to see how disregarded he is, by most everyone. It is frustrating, not only for Don, but for us as well. However, the fact that the first real task he is given is for an account in which he has to answer to Peggy is kind of sublime. This kind of conflict is what we were looking forward to for Don’s inevitable return. The performances from Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss are just flawless. From Peggy’s confounded, slightly giddy, slightly horrified reaction to Lou’s ‘encouragement’ (really, Moss is able to convey a wide array of emotions in just a few seconds) to Don’s hilariously frustrated red-faced stare as Peggy gives him orders. So good. Plus, the consistent presence of Freddy Rumsen on the show can only be a good thing, for us and, as we see in the episode, for Don. Leave it to Freddy to finally talk some sense into Don and give him the tough love pep talk he needed to make his comeback, and it works. It will be interesting to see Don’s more determined and ambitious outlook. Will it make any impact on the partners? Will his work for Burger Chef reel the client in? Can he and Peggy make up already?
A common criticism of the series is that nothing happens, or that the stories are always more of the same, Don keeps going through the same struggles and doesn’t change, etc. But “The Monolith” definitely puts him in unchartered territory. This is all new for him and us; I don’t think we have ever seen him be so impotent and powerless. This isn’t the same rock bottom he hit in season four, at least then he was going through a bit of a professional high and had his work to stabilize him. This is the closest Don has come to losing everything, even the security of his assumed persona that comes with his work, without which he is just Dick Whitman. I, for one, can’t wait to see what will happen next.
What did you think of “The Monolith”?