The Devil and Don Draper: Decoding “The Monolith” in “Mad Men”, Season Seven, Episode Four
I’ll say one thing about the partners of SCP—they’re pretty creative when it comes to human resources strategy. Their handling of Don Draper is a case in point. Their approach to dealing with their brilliant albeit troubled founding partner goes something like this: you bring him back to the fold and put a bunch of restrictions on his behavior to keep him in line. Then you park him in an office and forget he’s even there, treating him with not-so-benign neglect and passive indifference, evidently in the hopes that he just gets frustrated and goes away.
Finally, you are forced to bring him into a new and challenging piece of business, and you pay his former protégé (and secretary) an extra hundred bucks a week to handle him as her new not-so-willing employee, and you give her no direction whatsoever as to how to make this exceptionally uncomfortable situation work.
Given this scenario, it should have been no surprise that Don reacts to all of this in a way that is sadly true to form—he goes on a bender, proving in the process that things really do go better with Coke, especially when the Coke is replaced by the better part of a bottle of Roger Sterling’s purloined vodka.
It is left to the newly steadfast friend Freddie Rumsen to remind Don of who he is and where his duty lies. He tells him “do the work”, and that simple word- work- has a talismanic power for Don Draper. He takes that counsel to heart, and the next day, while erstwhile friend and ally Peggy Olson strategizes as to how to handle her recalcitrant employee, Don assures her very simply and quickly that he is on board and will get the job done. And, that’s where we’re left at the end of the episode- Don having put paper in his typewriter and beginning to effortlessly bang out new “tags” for the Burger Chef campaign. Oh, and also looking soulfully out the window, ostensibly trying to figure out how his life has come to this impasse and what in the world he can do to extricate himself from it.
The larger question is where it leaves the series, as by the time that last scene appears, we’re feeling like Don- looking out the window and wondering what comes next. There are only three episodes left in this flight of Mad Men, and what’s happening is anyone’s guess. While the show has always been much more plot driven than character driven, there are times when it seems like the themes of the show keep recurring and the characters, while demonstrating growth, often seem to be standing in place. We think Don is facing up to his issues and problems and trying to be a better person, and then he falls off the wagon because his feelings are hurt. We think Roger is trying to be a better, more attentive father while bonding with his clearly troubled and searching (and extremely annoying) daughter, then he leaves her with her new commune friends after an impromptu mud fight, essentially giving up on his halting but sincere attempt to be the father that the wayward Margaret (now “Marigold”) never had when she was growing up. We hope that Peggy is learning a bit more about herself as a person after having so many spectacularly failed relationships, but the optimism on that score is about nil.
And while there was a glimmer of hope that the condescending gasbag known as Lou Avery was showing some humanity to Peggy while giving her a raise, it turns out that it was more of a payoff for her to keep Don away from him and immersed in the fast food account than any real regard for his stressed out and increasingly petulant copy chief.
So, where’s Mad Men going? Well, maybe it’s going to the devil, a theme introduced by Don after downing Roger’s vodka bottle. This is courtesy of a very strange little scene between Don and Lloyd, the very earnest young computer-leasing guy, who heretofore looked to Don like a potential ad client. In Don’s boozy state evidently takes on the aspect of the “Man Downstairs” himself, come to SCP with his demon computer in an effort to take men’s souls. At least where the conversation seemed to be going before Freddie pulls Don away from the startled leasing guy and out of the office, ostensibly to a Mets game, in this season of 1969, when the Mets would win the World Series and break Cubs fans’ hearts (and, when many suffering Cubs fans would feel permission to believe that the devil was clearly a factor in the Mets’ amazing stretch run).
Perhaps Lloyd is the devil because this clean-cut young ex-IBMer, still wearing Big Blue’s signature uniform of a white short-sleeved shirt and a string tie, has expropriated the creative department’s lounging area, in favor of Harry Crane’s new computer. (We all know the devil never appears to mortals as a red fire breathing guy with a pitchfork—more often than not, he’s a mild mannered young man who entices you to part with your soul, in this case, in return for bringing your media department into the modern age via a contraption to which the episode, entitled “The Monolith,” may owe its name). Perhaps the “soul” of the creative department is being sucked out of the office in favor of a soulless machine. Whatever the motivation for Don to go into his devil riff, it’s pretty much of a turn-off to Lloyd, which is too bad, because unlike the Hershey’s pitch at the end of last year that was Don’s undoing, Don had earlier made a pretty great case for how advertising could help Lloyd’s business.
If the question the direction Matt Weiner is taking Mad Men is an open issue, I’d say the question of where he’s taking Peggy’s character is a puzzle as well. Peggy continues to wallow in her personal unhappiness and her cynicism about her new boss, although the additional hundred large a week does at least give her a momentary boost. The astonishing lack of sensitivity that she displays in dealing with Don, coupled with her inability to articulate a strategy for the Burger Chef campaign, does remind the viewer that for all her strengths, she’s still a relative novice as a manager, and her touch is far from deft. Making Don come into her office, rather than at least showing her former boss and mentor the courtesy of visiting his, struck me as a particularly immature and vindictive thing to do. Perhaps a better run organization might have provided Peggy with a bit of management skills training before sending her out into the wild without a compass to try to supervise Don Draper.
One Mad Men character who is settling into his environment in great style is Pete Campbell, once the quintessential denizen of Manhattan and now totally enthralled with the West Coast and fantastic LA, as the Doors would call it. And, Pete’s LA woman is pretty taken with him, especially when he’s talking business with a once and future client (the guy from Burger Chef, who the beautiful Bonnie Whiteside thinks is checking her out, when actually he’s staring at Pete). As mentioned in a previous post, Bonnie is at her most sensual when she is either talking business or watching business conducted, and it’s interesting that Pete seems to have got that figured out by the time the scene shifts to New York. If I’m right, the Pete-Bonnie coupling is not going to be long for this world or series, unless, perhaps, the devil intercedes. If we next see Lloyd in Los Angeles, we’ll know that something’s up.
Harlan R. Teller