Mad Men: A Monolith on a Carousel


Did you know that in the 1970s, the slogan for the real Burger Chef was “We’ll Always Treat You Right”?  Why, that might have been one of the 25 “tags” we see Don developing for Peggy  “Judas Iscariot ” Olsen at the end of “Monolith,” the most recent Mad Men episode.

“We’ll always treat you right,” is exactly the un-slogan for the way Sterling Price & Partners are treating Don.  In fact, it’s pretty clear they are trying to break his spirit and get him to violate the terms of his return engagement.  They don’t send him the memo to come in early for the announcement on the new computer.  They don’t even consult him, as a partner, on whether to get a computer in the first place (Roger’s declaration to Don that the decision had been made before his return is a lie, as we know from the previous episode).  They don’t give him any work so he’s been sitting in his office with the door closed reading Portnoy’s Complaint for three weeks.

Worse, when they do give him some work to do, it’s the most menial job possible – developing tag lines for a new business pitch to Burger Chef. Oh, and he’s reporting to Peggy Olsen.  Of course, when we (and Peggy and Joan) speak of the amorphous “they,” it’s not clear who “they” are.  It seems pretty apparent that Pete and Roger expect Don to run the account but Lou Avery, fearful for his job, pulls the old “divide and conquer” strategy and basically bribes Peggy with a $100 a week raise to take the account and crush him.

Peggy is so hungry for any kind of validation and still so pissed at Don for (she thinks) driving Ted Chaough to California that she falls for Lou’s bait.  Instead of doing the smart thing, which is to go to Don and join forces against Lou and his computer-loving allies, she decides to humiliate him, which she clearly enjoys, summoning him to her office with the hapless new guy Mathis and instructing them to come up with 25 “tags” each by Monday morning.  Don’s death stare at Peggy when she gives them this assignment is classic.

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Don doesn’t take this very well and goes into a sit-down strike. First he throws his typewriter at the window, but thankfully it bounces back and doesn’t land on some poor pedestrian on Avenue of the Americas.  Then on Monday morning he declines to go to Peggy’s meeting, telling Mathis he’s “too busy” playing solitaire. Ha ha.  Peggy’s too intimidated to confront Don, postponing the meeting until the end of the day. (It’s worth noting that under the Lou Avery system of creative development, the taglines come first, before the research is digested or a strategy is developed.  That’s how you come up with slogans like “Acutron is Accurate.”)

But what really pushes Don over the edge is not Peggy’s attitude but Bert Cooper’s.  When Don goes to Bert with an idea for a new client – the leasing company that’s installing the new computer – Bert slaps him on the wrist for violating the stipulation that he is not to meet alone with any new business prospects, even though this idea only developed from a casual conversation.

Bert goes on to taunt Don for coming back to SC&P after his leave of absence, asking if he expected to be welcomed with open arms.  Like many of the other partners, Bert, of course has a serious grievance with Don.  Last year he had tried to arrange an IPO of the old company that would have made them all rich (even Joan with her 5% share) but Don torpedoed that by killing the Jaguar deal.   When Don says he returned because he founded the company, Bert retorts, “With a dead man, whose office you now occupy.”

This is one of several references to death in this episode, as Matt Weiner continues to mess with the heads of fans who think the final episode of the series will feature Don jumping off the balcony.  In one of the final lines of the show Freddy Rumson asks “Are you just going to kill yourself and give them what they want?”  In a conversation outside Don’s office, Harry Crane describes a television program about “someone trying to kill himself himself the whole show.”  And of course there’s the poignancy of the Mets pennant that Don finds under the couch.  That pennant had been hanging on Lane’s wall when he committed suicide. Once a symbol of Lane’s unabashed love for all things American, it’s now a crumbled reminder of dashed hopes.

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Rejected by Bert, whom he must have once seen as a mentor, Don steals a bottle of vodka from Roger’s office and gets drunker than we’ve seen in a long time.  If any partner had walked in at that moment, Don would have been fired for violating the terms of his return, but thank God for that Mets pennant, because it inspires Don to call Freddy Rumsen and invite him to a Mets game.    It’s a lucky break for Don that Freddy is around because in a show where everyone is searching for some kind of turnaround and renewal, the recovering alcoholic Freddy is the one who has actually achieved it.  He gets Don out of the office and brings him home and then watches over him during the night.  When he wakes up hung over and feeling sorry for himself, Freddy gives him a “man up” pep talk, complete with instructions to put on his uniform, attach the bayonets and get into the parade.  “Do the work, Don,” he instructs.

This is a tough episode to watch, with Don falling to pieces yet again.   For all of his bravado, we’ve seen that he’s actually scared much of the time, using his looks, suit and talent as a mask.  But there are three hopeful signs in this episode that Don might eventually get his mojo back.

First is the Mets pennant itself.  In 1969 the “Amazin’” Mets achieved one of the great feel-good stories in sports history when they won the World Series after a decade of ineptitude and humiliation (see this photo essay from Life).   It’s hard to imagine that we’re not supposed to link Don’s fate to that wonderful 1969 team.

The second sign than Don may recover are the numerous references to the moon and space travel (Lloyd the computer guy notes that you use a computer to get to the moon and Margaret/Marigold wonders whether we will actually land on the moon).  Besides the Mets, the other feel-good story of 1969 was the moon landing in 1969 when Neil Armstrong took the first human steps on the moon as the whole world watched on TV.  Throughout the series Don has been compared to an astronaut and the 1969 moon landing was the apotheosis of the astronaut.

Finally, the last scene appears to suggest that Don has resolved to accept whatever humiliations his office enemies may inflict on him and take Freddy’s advice to “do the work.”  Looking again like a million bucks, he marches into his office and promises Peggy she’ll have her 25 tags by noon.  And then over the credit comes the song that Matt Weiner must have been waiting years to play: “On A Carousel,” by the Hollies (and yes, that’s Graham Nash on lead vocals).

This song harkens back to the greatest scene in Mad Men history, in Season One when Don’s presentation for the Kodak carousel was so powerful it caused Harry Crane to run from the room in tears.

The carousel has two meanings on this show.  It can represent mindlessness and futility, because what one does on a merry-go-round is go round and round and round without making any progress.  But in Mad Men legend, the carousel represents Don at the peak of his creative powers.  Last week Ken Cosgrove made a point of showing Don a photo of his son on a carousel in Central Park, saying it always reminded him on Don.  I’m going to interpret this final song as foreshadowing Don’s eventual recovery, if not his full recovery in office politics, then at least in personal recovery.

The moon landing, the Kodak carousel with its slide shows of happy middle class families, and even the clean cut Mets – all the symbols of Don’s resumed recovery – represent one side of the fight for the soul of America in this episode.  The other side is represented by Margaret’s muddy commune.

This episode is not titled “Monolith” for nothing.  The monolith in question is IBM and the IBM 360 computer that is being introduced into SC&P at the expense of the creative team (the “monolith” is also the name of the huge slab that appears periodically throughout that great 1968 movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the IBM 360 looks disturbingly like the monolith).  What we see in this episode is the yin and the yang of American culture in the 1960s (and in all of human history for that matter.)  One side is technology and empiricism – computers, moon landings, research, data, etc – the hard facts of life, and on the other side is creativity – the people who dream up the ads, intuition, self-reflection and the hippies at the commune.

Within SC&P, the technologists are winning.  They’ve ejected the creative team from their lounge (what Harry Crane dismissively calls their lunch room) where much of their group brainstorming takes place.  In its place is a new computer, which will not only to serve a functional purpose but announce to the world (since clients need to walk past it on their way to meetings) that the company is keeping up with the trends.   Worse, they installed a nonentity as creative director – a hack who only cares around shuffling paperwork.

The technological debate is also playing out in the hippie commune when Margaret/Marigold has found escape from her empty life (after all, she only had one job – to marry well – and she screwed that up.)  Out there in the wilds of Kingston, New York, they self-righteously eschew modern conveniences like electricity, cook their meals with firewood, tote the water from the creek, and find warmth at night by sleeping with each other.

In real history, the contrast between these two worlds played out most vividly in the summer of 1969, as technology landed a man on the moon almost simultaneously as the counterculture launched  “Woodstock,” a music festival in which hundreds of thousands of people managed to survive together on a farm for three days.

For all his astronaut good looks, Don reflexively recoils against the monolith.  When Lloyd the computer guy can’t get his lighter to work Don cracks, “The perils of technology. It’s 1969 and you can’t make fire.” And when Lloyd says that a computer can count more stars in a day than we can count in a lifetime, Don asks “what man laid on his back counting the stars and thought about a number?”

But Lloyd actually makes sense at first.  The computer is built for man by man.  People are afraid of computers, but it’s a tool.  It’s how you use it that counts.  He’s not the one who suggested displacing the creative team’s lounge for the computer space  – the partners did that for PR purposes.

But then Lloyd actually goes too far.  The computer, he says, can compile infinite amounts of information, which makes humans nervous because they are “finite. “  Isn’t it “Godlike,” he argues, “that we’ve mastered the infinite?”   One of the gravest sins is for man to consider himself Godlike and in that great movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” we saw the result of misusing our tools.   A space voyage goes awry when HAL, the computer that runs the space ship starts to develop an intelligence of its own.   I think in the end we are supposed to side with Don and put our faith in our creative abilities (as long as we don’t reject technology like the hippies).   Btw, here’s how the astronauts in “2001” react to the monolith when they discover it on the moon.

Other comments:

— The date of this episode is late April 1969, about three weeks after the previous episode.  We can also date the episode by Joe Frazier fight mentioned on the back of Don’s Daily News.  Joe Frazier defended his heavyweight title against Dave Zyglewicz on April 22, 1969.  If you want to see the entire fight, which lasted just one round, here it is:

— The reason the agency needs the computer is TO CRUNCH NIELSEN DATA.  In order to buy the right ads, including the right demographics, SC&P needs to enter ratings data from Nielsen’s ratings books (hence Harry’s need for a keypunch service). This is particularly true if they want to integrate national and local buys, which is what Harry falsely claimed they could do last episode.

— It’s funny how every partner thinks his or her own specialty is the key to the agency’s success.  When Pete gets a shot at the Burger Chef account, Roger says, “I’ve always said this business is about relationships,” because, let’s face it, he doesn’t do anything except schmooze people.  By contrast, Joan and Harry think that buying ad space is the most important job (hence the computer).  And of course Don and Peggy believe in the creative side of the business.

— Pete is still a heel but he does have a tiny little heart and seems genuinely touched when he learns that his father-in-law had a heart attack. And he seems somewhat hurt that he had to learn it from one of the old man’s former minions.

— This is probably the place to remind everyone that the actors playing Mona and Roger Sterling are married in real life, so their scenes together always do sparkle.  Unknown to me until last night when Twitter started to buzz about it is that Talia Balsam (“Mona”) was George Clooney’s first wife.  Huh?

— I’m not sure whose side we’re supposed to take in the Margaret Sterling saga.  Probably nobody’s.  She’s obviously always been a spoiled selfish brat and she undoubtedly had a tough childhood, what with a socialite alcoholic mother and a philandering father.  But I can’t be sympathetic to the idea that Roger “left” her by going to work every day, and I doubt that as a child he had his secretary buy her presents, given that he had a wife to do that.  Roger has a point too about the unfairness of leaving her child to live on a commune.  Her logic seems to be “my parents ruined my life so I’m going to ruin my son’s.”

— Don’s living in both the past and the future.  He has three advertising awards from the 1950s on his wall, but he seems genuinely interested in learning about IBM and the business of leasing IBM computers.  Please note that when he goes to see Bert about supporting Lloyd’s new leasing business with advertising, he says that the “apple is right there.”  IBM, as if we need a reminder, actually was a monolith until the 1990s when Apple came along.

— Ellery. What kind of name is that?  Sounds like the pen name for a writer of detective novels.  With a mother like Marigold, a father who ends up in the can fighting bikers and a name like that, he’s doomed.

Roger dismissively calls the commune “Shangri-La,” the second reference to that mythical Eden (the first when Don was watching the movie “Lost Horizon” in episode 1.) These attempts to get back to the Garden are doomed, I’m afraid.

— Harry Crane dismissively mentions a variety show that was purportedly written by a computer.  Thanks to the miracle of the Internet I can report that this is “Turn On,” a show that is most famous for having the shortest life in the history of TV.  Starring Tim Conway, “Turn On” was an ABC attempt to recreate NBC’s “Laugh-In” and apparently they did claim to use a computer in picking sketches.  Here’s a clip and I have to say, it does look terrible, but I don’t think you can blame the computer.

Oh believe me, there’s ALWAYS a hierarchy.

  1. I’m so happy you review these things…. not really sure I saw Margarete’s decent to Marigold coming. Still not convinced why Don would go back to the firm… Still, love your review of this episode.

  2. There were hints that Margaret might be in some kind of cult-like thing from the way she was going around forgiving everyone, but being in a cult is different from being in a commune. Not sure where the forgiveness philosophy comes in. She didn’t look like a real hippie to me. She was too well-scrubbed with those perfect eyebrows and everything that felt a little false.

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