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Most Mad Men episodes are symbolic, but few quite as blatantly as “The Monolith,” the fourth episode of this seventh season. The titular monolith (and the many, many allusions throughout the episode, catalogued well at Slate and Vulture) is from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968—a huge, shiny, black rectangular obelisk that confounds the apes who find it and hurtles evolution forward. In Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey novels and films, the monoliths exist throughout the solar system and influence history, inciting progress with technological development and space travel.
I haven’t read Clarke, but I understand that at some point in his stories, certain characters—the ones who created the monoliths in the first place—figure out how to project their consciousness onto computers, and eventually they transfer themselves into non-physical forms and become omniscient, immortal “Lords of the Galaxy.”
Way back in April 1968, about a year before the events of “The Monolith,” Roger Ebert reviewed Kubrick’s 2001 (read it here), exasperated with inattentive audiences’ attempts to decipher or unlock the film:
. . . Audiences don’t like simple answers, I guess; they want the monolith to “stand” for something. Well, it does. It stands for a monolith without an explanation. It’s the fact that man can’t explain it that makes it interesting. If Kubrick had explained it, perhaps by having some little green men from Mars lower it into place, would that have been more satisfactory? Does everything need an explanation? Some people think so. I wonder how they endure looking at the stars.
Someone in the Mad Men universe has been reading Clarke, or maybe Ebert (or maybe both: we spot Don reading Philip Roth this time). In the middle of the episode, Don is having a conversation with the man who’s supervising the installation of an IBM 360 into what used to be the creative lounge at SC&P, after arriving at the office to discover everyone crowded around where it will go. “These machines can be a metaphor for whatever’s on people’s minds,” the man tells him. “This machine is frightening to people, but they’re made by people . . . It’s more of a cosmic disturbance.”
Don’s looking dubious, but he continues. “This machine is intimidating because it contains infinite quantities of information, and that’s threatening. Because human existence is finite. But isn’t it godlike that we’ve mastered the infinite? The IBM 360 can count more stars in a day than we can count in a lifetime.”
“But what man laid on his back counting the stars and thought about the number?” asks Don.
“He probably thought about going to the moon,” the man replies.
In “The Monolith,” characters are arranged along some kind of spectrum of human evolution, from caveman to the highly advanced—on the way, perhaps, to becoming godlike. On one end, we’ve got Ginsberg grunting to haul away the couch from the creative lounge—”the other one is full of farts!”—and bellowing down the hallway, “They’re trying to erase us. BUT THEY CAN’T ERASE THIS COUCH!” We’ve got little Ellery, Roger’s grandson, chasing Caroline down the hallway, both screaming playfully—”someone’s hunting big game,” Roger tells her.
On the other end of the evolutionary spectrum, we’ve got Lou acting surprisingly evolved, by modern standards, telling Peggy that she ought to be paid as befits her senior status and then giving her an actual raise. And there’s the computer, of course.
Then we have the curious case of Margaret Hargrove nee Sterling, whom we last saw telling her father over a very civilized brunch that she forgave him for everything he’s done. Now she’s run away upstate to a commune (a very 1969 thing to do), leaving her husband and son behind. When her husband, and then later her parents, come to collect her, she seems calm and happy, though she manages to incense her mother (clothed, intriguingly, in fur), who’s sure Margaret’s headed to this commune because of a man.
You can sense that Roger isn’t convinced of this logic, potentially because he is all too familiar with the alternative lifestyle choices of the period (he seems to be running a sort of commune out of his apartment, actually), and when his ex-wife leaves he stays behind, ostensibly to try and talk Margaret into leaving. But he’s kind of loving it, in his sardonic Rogeresque manner. The whole experience seems like a happy hybrid of human evolutionary poles: living close to nature (“we follow the cycles of the earth”), sleeping in the hay, heating by campfire, but in an enlightened egalitarian society with no hierarchy and free love.
Roger and Margaret lay at night in the hay, talking, looking at the stars (counting them?), discussing space travel. (The moon landing will happen in July of this year.) It seems like they might be at peace, until Roger hears Margaret sneaking away with one of the men. No, he realizes: it’s still a primal urge that sent her there, and it’s a primal urge that must bring her home: “You’re a mother,” he tells her. “You don’t get to do this.”
That’s when it becomes clear that Margaret’s “forgiveness” of a few episodes ago hasn’t fully taken root. She spits at him: “How did you feel, when you went away to work, Daddy? Your conscience must have been eating you alive . . . It’s not that hard, Daddy. He’ll be fine.” Roger is sent away, muddy and empty-handed.
But the real question seems to be where Don falls on this evolutionary spectrum: “He’s spent three weeks alone in that cave, and he hasn’t clubbed another ape yet,” says Roger, but he also suggests they go out to celebrate their “technological advancement.” And while Don seems dubious about the computers, he’s not against them altogether, since he knows they’re a huge growth industry. He even tries to talk Bert Cooper to break in and advertise them. It seems like, to Don, the computers are just another way to bring in business, and he’s never really cared too much about what he’s selling as long as it’s good product.
But Peggy’s been put in charge of the Burger Chef pitch Pete brought in, and she’s been told that Don will be on her team—she quickly realizes that this is not going to be much fun, especially when she asks her former boss to come up with twenty-five tags by Monday. After throwing a typewriter into the window, he returns on Monday having done exactly nothing and, after getting slapped down by Cooper, proceeds to drink a whole lot of vodka (ew, Don, come on) and call Freddy Rumsen.
On his way out of the office, guided by Freddy, who knows exactly what’s going on here, a drunk Don shows his hand, spookily ascribing mystical “lord of the galaxy” status to the man: “You talk like a friend, but you’re not,” he says. “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.”
But it’s the vodka talking, and the vodka that knocks Don out on the couch at home. Freddy’s speech to Don when he wakes up hung over and miserable is the stuff of motivational Pinterest boards, and ought to be framed and hung in many an office: “Are you just gonna kill yourself? Give them what they want? Or go in your bedroom, get in your uniform, fix your bayonet and hit the parade? Do the work, Don.”
Who would have pegged Freddy—poor Freddy Rumsen—for the most civilized of them all?
There’s all this blatant symbolism in this episode, and yes, it seems kind of heavy-handed. Man vs. machine. Technology versus nature. Creativity and intuition getting pushed out in favor of big data. Et cetera. But all of those interpretations are still essentially archetypes to us, because they’re so familiar in our day (“no, it’s not symbolic,” Don tells Harry, “it’s quite literal”). And if we sit around pondering them too much, trying to unravel them and figure out what they mean, they start to lose a sense of mystery.
So I had to return to Roger Ebert’s thoughts on 2001. I’m not necessarily going to compare Kubrick’s work to Mad Men, but then I’m not necessarily going to avoid it. This is just what Ebert said:
Man is a curious animal. He is uneasy in the face of great experiences, and if he is forced to experience something profound, he starts immediately to cheapen it, to bring it down to his own level. Thus after a great man is assassinated, lesser men immediately manufacture, buy and sell plastic statues and souvenir billfolds and lucky coins with the great man’s image on them.
The same process is taking place with “2001.” Two out of three people who see it will assure you it is too long, or too difficult, or (worst of all) merely science fiction. In fact, it is a beautiful parable about the nature of man. Perhaps it is the nature of man not to wish to know too much about his own nature.
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