In lieu of reviews for television shows, which I’ve been opposed to writing, we’ve come up with what are essentially recaps, DW dubbed “rereads.” These are meant to be brief post-episode explorations that focus on one or a few images in an effort to reread the themes, character, and plot. Spoilers incoming, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed.
THE DAWN OF MAN
The black slab, standing sleek and smooth and tall like the headstone of a modernist giant frightened the tribe. The man-like hominids were on edge from the attack a rival group had made previously that day. One named Moon-Watcher, after a time, decided it was a new rock that was not yet understood. He tested the phenomenon with a quick pat and dash back in fear. The others followed suit, coagulating around the rectangular mystery until the world lost its sight. Sleep.
Barring the obvious self-indulgence, this is a loose retelling of the opening for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film is a major talking point for Mad Men’s season 7 episode 4, appropriately titled “the monolith” (a symbol of change within the movie).
Besides the obvious parallel of the ape-men and how the men in the show behave, the monolith motif pushes us to consider technology, evolution, and (myth of) progress within the world of Mad Men. The show, much like good sci-fi, is about people.Throughout Mad Men’s 7 seasons we’ve been privy to a seesawing in character disposition, progression and regression and back again.
Mad Men in this oscillation of its characters’ sensibilities, particularly Don Draper, challenges a Hollywood and western cultural maxim, one rooted in the Judeo-Christian belief in redemption: Progress.
Can we as people really make lasting changes? Or are we doomed to an incessant swaying like the waves of Don’s whiskey, moving in and out of the bottle with each regressive swig?
Earth, New York, 1964
Morning. Moon-Watcher dug through the calcium remains of a tapir, rummaging through skull and bones for what scarce vegetation the desert afforded him. The sleek stone, a vision, flashed in his mind, the change. His head swiveled like a crow’s twitch, gears grinding before making a mechanical move for a femur. He crushed the bone with bone, the first weapon.
About 4 minutes into the episode, one of our Moon-Watchers, Don Draper comes off the elevator for his first official day back at the office. As the doors open, we get Don looking up to the elevator numbers with an arrested stare. Cut to: the doors sliding apart and the POV below.
The first instance and nod to Kubrick’s monolith stands before us and more importantly is in Don’s direct line of sight. That he runs into this symbol coming off the elevator is just a bonus. The symbolism is clear. This episode is heavily concerned with character and temporal changes.
Kubrick’s monolith represents some unknowable catalyst that changes man forever, an appropriate, if not heavy handed metaphor. What do we find when we return from Don’s POV to the office? The sparse and desolate offices with a one point perspective not out of place in a Kubrick manned film.
Don eventually makes his way up stairs to find that a new epoch is dawning, that the installation of a computer has made him and all of advertising creative suddenly less relevant. The focus expands beyond Don and we see that virtually every single character has undergone some dramatic personal transformation.
Peggy has assumed the role of the early Don Draper, going as far as drinking the Canadian Club that Don nursed for the last 7 seasons. Joan has grown into her position of power and is unwilling to allow anything to take that away from her. Roger seems ever closer to reaching a permanent enlightenment. Harry no longer is allowing himself to be ostracized and forgotten, opting to play the dirty politics necessary to propel himself into an indispensable position.
I could go on, but the point is that each of these characters have seemingly metamorphosed into people far removed from their season 1-3 identities. The question is, then, raised whether or not these characters are simply core identities intensified or new and improved people. An accelerated way to test this inquiry is to place a “monolith” into the space and see what kind of trajectory is created.
Next day. The rival group approaches the tribe once again. Moon-Watcher stands, femur in hand, rocking on the balls of his feet. He slinks towards one of the antagonists and swings the femur against its skull, the first murder. The rivals scurry off. Moon-Watcher throws the femur in victory. It spins into the sky, revolving into the future, a spaceship matching its position. Man’s first and last great technologies connected.
Lloyd, our second Moon-Watcher and lead computer guy pictured above, becomes the humanistic representation of the monolith, challenging Don’s return and presumed progression. Don reacts to this, Peggy’s power trip, and his demotion in the way that’s most natural to him: Drinking. He does clean his act up by the end, but this episode stands as a microcosm of what we’ve seen in Don’s character since 2007.
Don is an ouroboros of cheating, drinking, smoking, and redemption. We’ve witnessed him treat people like shit, stop drinking for a time, cheat on his wife, help others, cheat on his other wife, and hit the bottle over and over again. We’ve rooted for him and hated him. In this sense, the show has always been about the complexity of human psychology and a skepticism towards the notion that people can undergo lasting change.
Dramatic structure and its movement functions off of many monoliths, obstacles, and how a character responds to such hurdles. By the time we reach the climax, the highest moment of tension, and the most difficult challenge our hero will face, there are really only two possible outcomes: success or failure. Mad Men is pushing Don to this edge, leaving us wondering whether or not he will find the existential peace he desires.
The IBM computer symbolizes this forced turn with the very literal opposition to Don Draper’s relevancy.
We’ve seen that he is nothing without the advertising industry. While on paid leave, cockroaches infested his penthouse, he dressed up to keep up appearances, cut out ads from Megan’s magazines, and fought the truth that he was no longer an ad man. Don’s sense of self and being is so thoroughly tied to his occupation that he doesn’t exist without the work. The momentum that technology and media has been gaining in this final season suggests that when Don Draper becomes obsolete, the show and its story withers away with him into irrelevancy.
During his fall off the wagon, Don has the following esoteric and inebriated interaction with Lloyd:
Don: You talk like a friend but you’re not.
Lloyd: I’m sorry. I don’t understand.
Don: I know your name.
Lloyd: It’s Loyd. I told you.
Don: No, you go by many names. I know who you are. . .
Don: You don’t need a campaign. You had the best campaign since the dawn of time.
This can be read a number of ways, but I will opt to continue the theme of this piece and sum up the “name” as evolution, change simply as movement not necessarily progress. Yet in an isolated system, a culture perhaps like the one in the show, eventually reaches an equilibrium, a state of immobility.
We see this equilibrium from Don at the end of the episode. He puts down the bottle once again, allows himself to be humbled, and does what is asked of him. We’ve seen this before. Will this peace last? Almost certainly not.
Throughout 2001‘s diegetic history, the monolith makes several appearances, at once signifying a great change and stagnation. When contemporary man runs into the monolith on a moon of Jupiter, they approach the object almost exactly like the ape-men of the antediluvian age. It’s confusing and frightening, yet they can’t fight its gravity, its inertia. What we get is a Man that in effect hasn’t changed all that much since the time the first femur bone was weaponized against their own kind.
Kubrick shows us a true change [in humanity], denoted by the “starchild,” as only achieved through a persistent and extended evolutionary campaign. Leading us to wonder if Matthew Weiner is constructing a similar process of earned change for his characters.
Remember that in order for the starchild to be born, for a true and permanent transformation to transpire, the protagonist (or the closest person to it) had to die, a dramatic and severe thrust forward. It may be too early to decide whether to take this literally or metaphorically, but the subtext is there. One can be certain that in order for Don to transform it’s going to take more than a 1960’s computer.