By John Andrew Fraser
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey hit theaters on April 2, 1968—about a year before this episode of Mad Men takes place. In that film, monkeys gathered around a mysterious black slab as they learned to use bones as tools. That same black slab reappears in one of the movie’s final scenes as an elderly Dr. David Bowman reaches out to touch it while he is on what appears to be his death bed. That monolith was infinite, just like the one Lloyd, the Lease Tech guy, describes to Don.
Like 2001, ‘The Monolith’ is full of little nuggets concerning man’s past, present, and what exists beyond. When Lloyd asks Don for a light he muses, “the perils of technology; man can’t make fire.” Ginsberg’s angry because SC&P’s new computer is presently pushing the agency’s creatives to the side. Meanwhile, Roger and his daughter gaze up at the moon, and she wonders if we’ll ever put a man up there.
While the episode’s title is obviously referring to the large, upright slab that is the agency’s new computer, it’s also a reference to the large and increasingly impersonal corporate structure that has taken over at SC&P this season—of which the computer is really just the latest symptom. Volatile creative geniuses, like Don Draper, have been replaced by adequate, yet boring, middle managers like Lou Avery—not only at SC&P but all over corporate America. After watching ‘The Monolith’ it’s hard not to think that everyone at the agency is really just a cog in the machine. After a certain amount of time, they’ll all end up in the dump right next to a pile of out-dated IBM models.
It didn’t take long for Don to break the rules at work. To be fair, Jim Cutler and the other partners seem like they’re trying their best to make him fail. Don is the kind of employee who doesn’t receive agency-wide memos, he’s basically left to play solitaire in his office by himself all day, and when he is finally given an account, he’s forced to work under his former-protege who currently hates him. When he goes to Bert Cooper with the idea to present to Lease Tech while their in the office installing the computer, Bert basically tells Don that he’s about as valuable to SC&P as Lane Pryce’s rotting corpse. That’s the last straw—Don’s pouring out the coke and downing the vodka.
Perhaps the one partner who could have actually helped Don through his rough couple days at work was out of the office dealing with his own problems for most of this episode. The apple sure doesn’t fall far from the tree in the Sterling family. While Mona was rightfully turned-off by her daughter’s commune lifestyle, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised (given the commune-like atmosphere in his own hotel room) that Roger decided to stick around and smoke some weed with Margaret and her cult friends. After awhile, I almost felt like Roger was just going to stay on the commune and leave the ad world behind (would anyone at SC&P, besides Don, really even miss him at this point?). But after he sees Margaret sneak off with some hippy in the middle of the night, his paternal instincts kick in, and he tells her that she needs to be at home with her son. But Margaret’s just like her dad. He was never there for her when she was a child, so why does she need to be there for her kids? Roger suggesting otherwise just makes him a hypocrite. Who’s to say that if Roger Sterling hadn’t been born thirty-years later that he wouldn’t be living on a commune in upstate New York too? Where do Roger and his mud-stained suit go from here?—maybe to beat up some rednecks in a bar?—I’m guessing that the answer isn’t going to be good.
Despite all his stupid decisions, on some subconscious level, maybe Don knew he wanted to save himself from officially getting fired from SC&P. He calls Freddy Rumsen—maybe the only guy capable of talking some sense into him. Freddy’s hit rock bottom. He’s the ultimate cautionary tale from advertising’s golden age and he can see that Don’s halfway down the same path. He delivers a harsh but necessary message to Don, “start from the bottom, because that’s really all you can do at this point,” and the episode ends with Don promising Peggy his twenty-five tag lines by lunchtime. I think that there’s something to the fact that Don promises the tags, rather than I actually delivering them.
As we’ve learned from Mad Men and its predecessor, The Sopranos, real change is often difficult and painful to achieve. Don Draper spent a lot of this episode back-sliding, but things seemed to end with him preparing to get back on the right track. But how long until someone finds that empty bottle of vodka in his office? How long until there are more empty liquor bottles in Don’s trash? How long until Lloyd tells someone about his strange encounter with boozy-Don? How long until Don’s replacement is no longer Lou Avery, but HAL 3000?