‘Mad Men’ recap: “The Monolith”

I realized today that my TV watching is very strange – the same day I write a Mad Men post, I also did a The Big Bang Theory recap. The two shows couldn’t be more different, though I have to admit that I find myself seeing the sitcom going much further with its characters than Mad Men does. This season feels like wheels spinning in the mud – lots of action, but little movement forward. While this season has been nothing but consistent, it also feels a bit, eh…

This week’s episode “The Monolith” is about two men being humbled by important women in their lives: Roger and Margaret, and Don and Peggy. It’s also about powerful men who must admit that they may not call all of the shots anymore and they need to be okay with that for them to grow.

With Don it’s being Peggy’s underling – at least for the Burger Chef account. A couple posts ago, I wrote that Don’s main weapon against the mutinous partners and Lou is Peggy – if he and his former protégé could join forces, the two may be able to replicate the magical work they produced before Don’s life turned inside out and Peggy became a drudge. But in this episode, it appears that Lou has also figured out that he can use Peggy – to humiliate Don as well as to marginalize her even further. Lou and Peggy have one of the most toxic work relationships in TV history, and making Peggy the leader in the Burger Chef account was a perfect way to see both Don and Peggy crash and burn.

But bossing around Don isn’t the only thing Peggy’s angsty about – Sterling Cooper and Partners is putting in a computer. And the 1969 computer takes up the creative lounge – symbolic of how computers will be replacing people in the future (the folks at SCP are still okay for now, though). With shades of Desk Set, no one in creative is too pleased about the computer monstrosity – it’s creepy looking and for the late 1960s it looks like a mysterious machine from the future. Ginsberg is whining that the machine will erase creative, and though he’s being a drama queen, it’s not unreasonable for the people in creative to look askance at the machine.

And the computer is just another in a long list of changes for Don. The office has been changing so much it’s been dizzying, and Don’s been squeezed by his former partners. Last week he accepted an invitation to rejoin SCP, but with humiliating restrictions, one of which he breaks in this week’s episode, when he gets smashed after learning that he’ll be working under Peggy for the Burger Chef account. It’s an excruciating scene for many reasons – mainly because it’s terrible to see just how bad the two have fallen out – In “The Suitcase” Peggy and Don share some deep moments, during which Peggy proves that she’s the one person Don was able to trust. But as seen in this week’s episode, all of that love is gone, and in its place is resentment. Don resents Peggy for her meteoric rise, her self-satisfied smug attitude, and her cool-as-ice welcome; Peggy, on the hand, remembers all of Don’s slights, including literally throwing money in her face when she asked for recognition.

So when the two have to work together, Don feels all turned inside out – it’s sad really, but what’s so frustrating is just how hard-headed Don is: he can’t seem to understand that he put himself in his current situation: it was his drinking, his hubris – it was all him. It takes a genial, but tough-loving Freddie who kicks Don in the ass (a kick he desperately needs).

But Peggy’s quite a card in this episode. She’s carrying a big ole bag of BS that she can’t seem to lose. And even though her career finally hit a much-deserved peak with a $100/week raise and a fat account, she’s so sour, she can’t be happy with her luck. She’s no dummy, and understands that Lou is just using her to either watch her burn, or take Don down – or he’s hoping both will crash. Except maybe Peggy’s paranoid, because when Joan pops her head in and the two chat, Joan suggests that none of Lou’s machinations were all that Machiavellian to begin with, and instead just another act in a long line of goofy stabs in the dark of a middling ad agency.

Roger, on the other hand, is facing the fact that he was a shit father. But he’s not alone – his ex-wife, the always welcomed Mona, realizes that she was a shit mother. Together they raised an appallingly selfish daughter, Margaret, who joined a cult and rechristened herself Marigold. Nice. Except she dumps her husband and her little boy. Of course Roger and Mona are concerned, but Roger thinks that he can approach this problem like he does a difficult client: he tries to charm and finesse Margaret, and when that doesn’t work, he pouts because he doesn’t get his own way and literally tries to carry her off – they both land in the mud, and Roger is finally humbled, understanding that he did this – he created the Margaret/Marigold that is standing in front of him – the Margaret who would selfishly leave her son to join some goofy cult in the middle of nowhere.

I can’t say I wholly enjoyed “The Monolith” – the scenes between Peggy and Don were cringe-worthy. Don’s initial petulance and pouty behavior is beneath him, and Peggy’s impotent frustration also doesn’t become her: we’ve seen both perform much better under much worse conditions, so it’s a shame to see such talented individuals revert to kids. And the writers have got to stop making Peggy such a sourpuss because she’s starting to grate – I’m grieving for what used to be one of the greatest characters on television – the inventive, ambitious and plucky Peggy has descended into the mopey, bitter, morose creature who practically seethes. As I wrote in the last post, the best thing for the character would be dismissal.

When the show ends, Don is sober, suitably chastised by Freddie (interesting role reversal). When Peggy checks in on him, Don promises her his homework by lunch. He’s no longer the man-child who so futilely threw a typewriter at his office window. I know better than to think that Don has learned his lesson, but at least for the time being, he knows when to choose his battles.


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