When it comes to narrative subtlety, Mad Men can be a bit of a crap shoot. On some nights, the show will be one of the most quiet, beautiful, effective pieces of television you have ever seen. It will show without telling; it will carefully calibrate its parallels and metaphors; it will be intensely artful, and yet utterly believable. As ridiculous as some of the “Golden Age of Television” hype can be — the CEO of AMC recently declared, “if Dickens were alive today, he’d probably be a showrunner”— on a good night, Mad Men earns all of that and more.
But that’s only some nights. On others, Mad Men will throw all that subtlety and restraint out the window, and just give you 40 straight minutes of wide-eyed 1960s denizens speculating about whether there will ever be a man on the moon, and/or whether the future of business might perhaps lie in computers.
Even for a show with a long track record of unsubtle symbolism and heavy-handed foreshadowing, last night’s episode of Mad Men featured some truly, gleefully over-the-top symbologizing. Remember how Lane literally died of his professional disgrace at Sterling Cooper? Don is now in Lane’s office. Ever thought that Don’s creative genius as expressed through Season One’s tear-jerking “Carousel” pitch for Kodak – “around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved” – provides a grim contrast to his current degradation? Well, here’s a song entitled “On a Carousel,” just to drive the point home.
The dread Computer Plot Line — which, last week, seemed like a throwaway, designed to give the terminally underutilized Harry Crane something to do around the office — has now entirely taken over the show. (More Symbolism: The episode is called “The Monolith,” after the mysterious device from 2001: A Space Odyssey that signaled the next evolution of humanity. Also, that movie starred a killer computer.) Does this Computer Plotline come packaged with many thoughts on this, our increasingly mechanized and computer-dependent age? Does it, perhaps, include some pontificating upon whether computers will edge out our precious and organic human creativity? Is a man who installs computers for a living literally compared to Satan? Oh, my friends: How could we expect anything less, on this, the subtlety-free version of Mad Men?
Even for a show with a long track record of unsubtle symbolism and heavy-handed foreshadowing, last night’s episode of Mad Men featured some truly, gleefully over-the-top symbologizing.
Case in point: The episode opens with Don Draper wandering into the seemingly abandoned SCP offices, an image so surreal I thought it was a dream sequence. But nope: Everyone’s upstairs, celebrating the arrival of The Computer! (And in the case of Harry and Jim Cutler, wearing some truly adorable little hard hats.) And, it turns out, in order to give The Computer its rightful place in the office, they’re ripping down the creative lounge. Do you get it? Do you see that SCP’s creative department is literally being demolished by the rise of The Computer? If not, the scenes of copywriters evacuating the creative lounge while saying things like “this [creative lounge] is what was unique about this place” and “they’re erasing us” might help you to get the point. Of course, these scenes also feature Ginsberg’s failed crusade to claim the creative-lounge couch as his own on the grounds that the one in his office is “full of farts,” so it’s not all bad.
Here’s what is nearly all bad, however: Don’s fascination with the computer installation fellow, Lloyd, his many conversations with Lloyd about the wonders computers may make possible in coming decades, and his subsequent brilliant idea that, hey, there might be a lot of money in advertising for computers, because these gadgets seem like they’re going to be a big deal one day. It’s hard to convey, through sheer description, how incredibly on-the-nose the Computer Plot Line Dialogue becomes, in these scenes. So let’s just run down a list of the biggest offenders:
“These machines can be a metaphor for whatever’s on people’s minds!” — Lloyd the Computer Man
“What man laid on his back counting stars and thought about a number?” – Don. See also: “He probably thought about GOING TO THE MOON.” — Lloyd the Computer Man’s Reply
“This [computer] industry is going to explode in a few years!” — Don
“It’s not symbolic!” — Harry Crane, wrong as usual.
And, finally, when trying to sell Burt Cooper on the profits that could one day be realized by producing advertising for computers:
“The Apple is right there.” — Don.
Okay, so I capitalized “Apple.” But the whole thing is supremely silly: It reads like someone accidentally filmed a first-draft script, because they didn’t notice the [INSERT SUBTEXT LATER] notes in the margins. And unfortunately for Don, Burt — the 900-year-old Republican elf who first founded Sterling Cooper in a hollow oak tree in an enchanted forest — is the least likely person at SCP to pick up on the futuristic big-business potential of computer branding. Burt is far more interested in SCP’s other big project: The continuing humiliation of Don Draper.
Which, as it happens, is continuing apace. Don already answers to Lou; in this episode, as SCP works to land the all-important Burger Chef account, Lou has decided to place Don in the position of working directly under Peggy, who calls him into her office and assigns him the task of writing her 25 tag lines.
There’s something genuinely sweet about the thrill Peggy seems to get from finally being able to give Don marching orders. Lots of viewers were shocked and turned-off by her telling Don that “no one missed him” in last week’s episode. I think that’s more than a bit sexist: While Peggy and Don once had a touching mentor-protégé relationship, Don has also been a toxic presence in Peggy’s life for years. He threw a wad of money into her face. He casually degraded and ignored her work. When she went and got another job, like an adult, he forced her to work with him again, by merging SCDP with that company, and when she started a relationship with Ted, he humiliated them both publicly. Peggy has been in a bad headspace this season, but her anger at Don isn’t conclusive evidence that she’s become a nasty person: She just doesn’t have any reason to like him. And Peggy can never be her own Don Draper as long as she has to answer to the first one.
But Peggy’s hopes of turning the tables are soon dashed on the rocks of Don’s eternal man-babyhood: Rather than sit down and do actual work for a girl (ick!), Don storms into his office, throws his typewriter at the window, and promptly proceeds to get plastered on stolen vodka. When Freddy Rumsen swoops in to extract Don’s sloppy ass from the office before he loses his job again, Don wanders over to Lloyd the Computer Guy and calls him the Devil. Making that “apple” line over-the-top in more ways than one.
Meanwhile, while everyone is busy looking at the fancy new machines, they fail to notice where the biggest sign of change is coming from. Because you know who else is shirking the conveniences of the modern world? Roger’s once-prim-and-privileged daughter Margaret, who has recently joined a creepy hippie sex commune. If you ever told me that the most enjoyable part of a Mad Men episode would be a Margaret plot line, I would have angrily spurned your false prophecy. And yet, it has come to pass: Margaret has abandoned her husband Brooks and their son Ellery in favor of a ramshackle, hippie-infested, electricity-free farm, where she’s re-named herself “Marigold” and learned to enjoy the simple pleasures of sex with filthy beardos and following the cycles of the Earth. And from that vantage point, she’s able to lay down some pretty appalling truths.
When Mona and Roger show up to drag Marigold back to civilization, she tells them that she’s “not willing to accept society’s definition of [her] anymore.” Mona pleads with her: Being a mother is hard, you stay at home all day, you wonder what you’re doing with your life, but “those are the definitions.” That’s what being a woman is, and it can’t be anything else — Mona even admits that Margaret “had one job, and that was finding a husband, and she mucked it up.”
Marigold is not hearing it: When Mona loses patience with her and tells her she “ought to be grateful,” Marigold says she’s “grateful I don’t have to lock myself in the bathroom with a pint of gin every day.” When even Roger — who’s not averse to pansexual hippie orgies and drug experimentation himself — insists on her old definitions, tells her that she doesn’t get to just toss out her old life and start a new one because “she’s a mother,” Margaret points out that there’s more than one way to be an irresponsible parent, and only one gender that tends to get guilt-tripped for it: “How did you feel when you went off to work every day? Calling your secretary from a hotel to get me a birthday present?”
Make no mistake: I do feel bad for Marigold’s son. And she is, on some level, being both selfish and self-destructive. (I do not like the look of those dude farmers.) But the woman formerly known as Margaret is, in some sense, an even bigger signpost of progress than that much-vaunted computer. Marigold, even in the midst of her electricity-free lifestyle, counts stars and dreams of going to the moon. Only a few men will ever walk on the moon, but plenty of women — more and more every year — are going to make Margaret’s choice, reject the old definitions and start creating new ones. They’re going into outer space, too, and it’s not technology propelling them: It’s good, old-fashioned anger. How’s that for symbolism?