Mad Men season 7 episode 4 review: The Monolith

Review Frances Roberts 5 May 2014 - 20:55

The computer age reaches Sterling Cooper & Partners in the latest episode of Mad Men, which shows Don circling the grave...

This review contains spoilers.

7.4 The Monolith

Bye bye season two's photocopier, hello The Machine. The installation of SC&P’s cosmos-disturbing computer was the backdrop to this week’s Mad Men, an episode that took obsolescence and happiness as its subjects. Don’s looming obsolescence and Margaret’s fleeting happiness, to be precise.

After three weeks of doing nothing at work (who’d ever have thought one of Don Draper’s secretaries would have been able to say “He never leaves” the office) the humiliatingly short leash Don had been put on by the partners finally began to chafe. The agent of his irritation was being given the task of a junior copywriter, working not with but for former protégé Peggy. Cue a tantrum, a clandestine bender and a sobering lecture from recovering alcoholic Freddy Rumsen who advised Don to do the work or wind up like him. Said advice taken, the episode ended with a surprise act of acquiescence from Don, just as last week’s did. It’s no accident that The Hollies’ On A Carousel accompanied the final scene of Don sat at his typewriter and going back to the start.

While Don rode the career carousel, Margaret Hargrove (née Sterling), the source of whose beatific attitude in the season opener was the hippy commune she’d left her husband and young son to join, was ‘doing a Draper’. Margaret, or 'Marigold', had escaped her life in pursuit of happiness. Her beaming forgiveness and love were proved short-lived however, just a thin mantle of weed and free love covering up layers of seething parental resentment.

Dropping dry-witted Roger Sterling into a pit of dim-witted hippies promised to be a delicious combination, and his scenes upstate didn’t disappoint. Roger’s plot had more to offer than just entertainingly caustic one-liners though, it also had pathos. His and Margaret’s time at the farm was a reversal of Don and Sally’s father/daughter drive a fortnight ago. Where the former started with love and fellow-feeling (who understands the temptation of escaping life better than acid-dropping Roger?) but ended in anger, the latter began with lies and accusation but ended with a moment of diffident affection.

Margaret is the latest of Mad Men’s supporting women to look for reward outside of motherhood. Betty’s friend Francine, a bigot once horrified by the idea of their single mother neighbour having a job, has now found satisfaction in three days a week at the office. Pete’s real estate agent girlfriend Bonnie is brazen about the thrill of being a saleswoman, and now Park Avenue princess Margaret recognises that her young son can’t be happy if she isn’t. In its final season, Peggy, Joan and Megan certainly aren’t the only women on the show seeking fulfilment outside of their domestic roles. The trend, problematic for Mad Men’s traditionalists as it may be, is spreading.

More trouble for traditionalists came in the form of the episode’s titular IBM monolith, which arrived complete with its own philosophical IT guy/incarnation of the devil (delete according to how much vodka you've poured into your coke can). Like Melville’s White Whale, SC&P’s computer is a blank canvas for symbolism, able to absorb whatever meaning Mad Men’s characters and viewers can chuck at it. Let's chuck. First up is the obvious ‘times are a changin’ significance of The Machine, one that seems even more monumental from where we’re sitting in the screen-heavy twenty-first century. Then comes the computer's role as a symbol of obsolescence, or mortality. “Human existence is finite” Lloyd told Don in perhaps the least natural-sounding discussion ever of why new technology tended to put the heebie-jeebies up the workforce. As for the other readings, why not complete the sentence “Mad Men’s computer is a symbol of…” in fewer than fifteen words and you could win tickets to a Mets game.

Speaking of which, it’s no wonder mortality was on Don’s mind this week, housed as he was in Lane’s former office and place of death. Between the ashes-scattering widow on that plane, Sally’s funeral, Ted’s advice to Pete to “just cash the cheques, you’re gonna die” and the discovery of Lane’s Mets pennant, it’s hard not to feel moribund about our leading man. Don Draper may be attempting to delay his inevitable obsolescence, but he's circling the grave all the same.

Elsewhere, Peggy got a raise and a short-lived kick out of being her ex-boss’ boss, despite feeling as if she and Don had been set up to fail the experiment (she was only half right). Joan and Peggy are always a rewarding pairing to watch, so even if we only spent “exactly two minutes” in their company this week, it was a good two minutes.

Overall, The Monolith was a solid episode for the series. The computer disrupted everything nicely. Don balking at Peggy's status provided meaty conflict (the awkwardness of which was particularly well-played by Elisabeth Moss). The commune storyline reunited Roger and Mona - another rewarding pairing, however brief its appearance.

Most compelling of all though, was Margaret taking up Mad Men's perennial theme: the elusive nature of happiness. Even if 'Marigold' had found it, she wasn’t allowed to keep it, Roger explained. That's where this season of Mad Men sits so far, somewhere between the sixties mantras of All You Need Is Love and You Can't Always Get What You Want.

Read our review of the previous episode, Field Trip, here.

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