‘Mad Men’ Week 4: Computer World

Justina Mintz/AMC

“You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good-bye
Teach your children well
Their father’s hell did slowly go by
And feed them on your dreams
The one they pick’s the one you’ll know by”

—Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “Teach Your Children”

The titular monolith in “The Monolith” is the new computer, which arrived this week to displace the creatives’ lounge and disrupt the flow of energy in the office. Nothing like construction noise to get those brain juices flowing. Not that Don’s chi couldn’t use some serious work. “The Monolith” is a reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the genre-redefining science-fiction movie that blew minds a year before this episode takes place, in 1968. Don’s initial anger at the new computer and all it symbolizes about his new situation briefly melted into appreciation, before reverting to primal rejection. I’m not saying Don is going to smash the computer by the end of the season, but would anyone in the office be shocked if he did? Don throws things at other things when he’s overtaken by negative emotions, and then generally swan-dives headfirst into the nearest bottle of booze. Granted, Peggy may not have Don’s million-dollar arm, but she responds to stress differently. When she learns that Don will not be attending her meeting, and not because he has anything better to do, she just takes a few sharp breaths and gets back to the task at hand. The work is all. She doesn’t even clap back at Don, because she knows that’s probably what he wants. He thrives on other people’s high blood pressure, and Peggy is usually excellent at managing hers, other than a few recent obvious glitches. She might blow up, but she won’t go pop.

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The computer is greeted with equal parts excitement and apprehension, the way all new technology is welcomed, dating back to the invention of fire. Don shouldn’t worry that the computer is going to replace him — he’s already been replaced, remember? By an ampersand. The firm is now called SC&P, which Bert Cooper chose not to remind Don of when Don confronted him about being treated like a second-class employee. Bert dressed Don down, but his question hung in the air. Why is Don there exactly? Does he think everyone else at the agency is waiting for him to win back their hearts? They’ve been through this a few times now. Everybody knows that Don Draper’s thrilling highs come with corresponding miserable lows. He should feel lucky Bert didn’t bump him all the way down to secretary and make him get coffee for Dawn. Don spends his workday lounging in his office reading Portnoy’s Complaint the only way one can: with the door closed.

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Speaking of people who get treated like second-class employees and human beings, Peggy gets the Burger Chef account, but only as a power play against Don. The guys were going to give it to her initially, not because she is “an exquisite copywriter” — even though she is — but because fast food somehow prompted an image of women in the kitchen. I don’t know, I get the feeling Peggy is a takeout kinda gal. Lou Avery is a supervillain appealing to Peggy’s dark side. He tells her she has earned herself a raise for being so good at her job, which is exactly the kind of validation she needs to hear when she keeps being belittled, desexed, and ignored at the office. Like any supervillain worth his salt, Avery screws Peggy over immediately by putting her in charge of Don. Peggy avoids eye contact with Don until the last possible second in their initial meeting, even though Don keeps attempting to burn his eyeholes directly into her soul-skull yet again.

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Lou wants Peggy to babysit Don so he won’t have to do it himself. Usually when Peggy is in the presence of Don, she ends up feeling and acting smaller than she is. Don is free to reject her authoritah, which undermines the ego boost she would have normally gotten from landing a new account, and Peggy assumes Don is bulletproof and can’t get fired because he sure is acting that way, but Joan sets her straight. My heart leapt when she called Joan back into her office; I love it when they ally. Peggy often makes the mistake of closing herself off from Joan, but she desperately needs a female friend like Joan with whom to talk shit about the men in the office and discuss how cute Lloyd the computer guy is (rowr). Joan nails their male overlords with a succinct statement: “I don’t think they thought about it at all.” They didn’t think about how it would affect Peggy, because they never do. The replication of preexisting orders of power in every new sector is not necessarily malevolent, but it’s insidious. That it happens secretively and gradually and in ignorance of greater social trends is what makes it so dangerous.

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Harry Crane did not get fired, sadly, even though I would trade him for Paul Kinsey in a heartbeat. Crane was funny, but not on purpose, delivering a meta-joke about how the show about “a guy who’s trying to kill himself the whole show” got canceled immediately on a network. It’s in reference to Mad Men itself, but also to Mad Men’s forbear The Sopranos, which, as recently discussed by creator David Chase, no networks wanted to make because it was too dark. When we say “dark” we of course don’t mean violent — networks love violence. Networks didn’t want to make The Sopranos because it was too depressing and cynical, which also meant it resembled reality. This revolution in narrative television was akin to Easy Rider setting the tone for a decade of filmic downer endings.

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The end-credits song this week was the Hollies’ “On a Carousel,” evoking Don’s famous Season 1–ending Kodak “Carousel” campaign, the campaign people are thinking of when they call Don a bona fide genius. But other than the obvious lyrical significance, I’m a little baffled by the British Invasion musical cues this season. The Hollies were one of the last bands to ride that wave to American chart success. “On a Carousel” is from 1967, which was eons ago for original member Graham Nash, who by 1969 had left the band and crossed the pond for the hippie tropics of Laurel Canyon. During a jam-sesh hangout in July 1968 at Joni Mitchell’s house in the canyon, Nash harmonized with David Crosby and Stephen Stills for the first time. By 1969, Nash had been let out of his contract with Epic Records due to the machinations of up-and-coming power player David Geffen, and joined Crosby and Stills on Atlantic. By the summer of 1969 they had added a “Y” — Neil Young, an ex–Buffalo Springfield member like Stills. They became the most successful multinamed folk-rock supergroup since the organization currently known as SC&P.

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Pete Campbell has also left his old life for the ripe avocados of Southern California, but he is reminded of the cost when George Payton informs him that Trudy’s father had a heart attack, and we are reminded that Pete can never see his daughter Tammy. Don and Sally’s relationship is central to Mad Men, and while Sally didn’t appear this week “The Monolith,” the show continued to explore variations on the tireless theme of fathers and daughters — namely, how fathers react when confronted with the idea of their female progeny making all the same mistakes they do. Roger does not like the idea of his daughter Margaret rebelling against the perfect, stifling life he’s bought her. Margaret, who goes by “Marigold” now (as in Janice “Parvati” Soprano), has always been a spoiled brat. If she renounces money, she no longer has to depend on her parents for anything, because she has never depended on them for anything else.

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Roger, who has run out on his socially proper responsibilities in favor of the pursuit of personal pleasure countless times, is obviously a huge hypocrite. But it’s also agonizing to watch him helplessly realize, in a mud puddle, no less, that he set in motion a cycle out of a Greek tragedy. He missed his daughter’s childhood to follow his dick instead, and now his daughter is going to follow in his footsteps by abandoning parenting for her own journey of sexual self-discovery. His argument rings hollow because he doesn’t follow his own rules, and Margaret’s contempt for his obvious lying mirrors how a whole generation of uppity ’60s young people felt about their old-school parents. While Roger was too blunted on gin and redheads to have felt remorse for decades, Pete seems like he’ll suffer from missing out on seeing his daughter grow up.

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Margaret won’t have sex on a haystack next to her dad so I guess she hasn’t lost all sense of common social values (if this were Game of Thrones, though … ) Creeping off into the night for freaky business is the kind of thing Roger has done a trillion times without pausing to think about it at all. Roger actually sort of loved the commune once he gave it a chance, until  Sir Overalls came to snatch his daughter away in the middle of the night. Roger has been living in Orgy Town for a while now, and has almost certainly absorbed every lesson psychedelics might have for him except the most important one about being a selfless spiritual being. Roger and Mona pretend not to understand how their daughter could be miserable when they’ve given her everything, but the problem is obvious: They always gave her too much money and never enough love.

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Mona, who endured marriage to Roger, should have known Margaret’s marriage to a rich dude was not the worthy and satisfying objective the world had made it out to be. And Roger, having spent his life chasing every new high he ever met, might know intellectually that more sex and drugs isn’t the answer, but he also knows on a body level that it just feels good. At the commune, for the first time, it really seems to hit him that the pleasure that keeps eluding him might lie in refusing ephemerally fun experiences in favor of long-term rewards. What if he hadn’t cheated on Mona and alienated his family and missed out on Margaret’s childhood? In the muck, as he leaves his daughter to the hippies, seeing her for what could be the last time, it flashes across Roger’s eyes in one horrible heartbreaking look: He fucked up.

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Don was disrespectful to Peggy and irresponsible with his drinking, but he did display one new positive character trait: He’s a Mets fan! He’s just adopting Lane Pryce’s fandom, but it makes him feel close to someone he misses, which is as valid a reason to support a team as any. He finds a temporary bond with Lloyd the new IT guy, who spouts Rust Cohle–isms about the finite nature of life and infinite universe of technology. Lloyd is a neo-Don who looks like a hip square and also smokes, and at first, Don likes the younger version of himself. Lloyd has 19 new employees and is prepping a Silicon Valley prequel with Harry. Lloyd’s business model is interesting. Presumably, everyone would rather have a laptop charger that lasts a lifetime, but Apple mints a fortune off the planned obsolescence of all their products. Consumers feel as if they have no choice but to keep up with the newest technology even if the old products still work. Even the shiniest newest models become outdated on a preplotted arc. Original iMacs look like candy-painted classic cars now.

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A major source of suspense on Mad Men is finding out who is on the other end of a phone call. For a moment I considered that Don might have gone the full Jack Torrance, talking to the ghost of Lane Pryce on a phone that wasn’t even plugged in. Instead, we got a blessedly sober Freddy Rumsen, who took one listen to Don’s version of “Meet the Mets” and knew what was up. Although it was a dick move, Don drunkenly sticking his head into Peggy’s office just to go “BALLGAME” was one of the season’s most GIFable moments yet. Don could write 25 taglines in his sleep, but that’s the point; he’s been writing them in his sleep. He needs to learn to crawl again before he can walk, let alone run ahead of everyone else. If he’s half the genius he thinks he is, he should realize this humbling assignment is the perfect place for him to start. Keeping his problems private was a learned necessity for Dick Whitman, but it’s what keeps Don Draper running in circles when there is a possibility he could really move forward. In the dim light of his apartment (whose decor is already out of date even though it was considered stylish just a couple of years ago), Don Draper is given another chance. The door doesn’t always slam shut behind you. Sometimes a new one appears, and opens. What lies past the threshold? You’ll have to walk through it yourself.

Filed Under: Mad Men, TV, Recaps

Photo on 2014-01-10 at 12.58 #3

Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.

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