Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 7.4
"What's Next?" Part 2
Guest Writer: Dana Polan

Monday, May 5, 2014

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[The fourth in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 7 of AMC's Mad Men, posted in collaboration with the publication of MAD MENMAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press, March 2013) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]

"What's Next?"

Written by: Dana Polan (New York University)

Part 2

Please, dear reader, make sure to peruse Part 1 of this blog before you read this part. There, in Part 1, I talked generally about what we seem to think we know about any episode of a continuing TV serial before it airs, and I made some very tentative suggestions (the stronger word is "predictions") about what I imagined might happen in tonight's episode of Mad Men. I now, having actually seen the episode, want to go back to those predictions and then talk about other aspects of this installment of Mad Men.


In the very first lines of the episode, Pete Campbell out in Los Angeles--out, that is, in an entirely different world of narrative possibilities than the ones that Mad Men, whose title referenced, among other things, New York's Madison Avenue, had initially initiated--was telling his girlfriend Bonnie that there were essentially three choices. He was referring to the places they could go to for their vacation but, coming at the very beginning of the episode, his lines could also meta-narratively be a comment on narrative possibility and narrative logic itself: when an(y) episode of a show like this begins, there are any number of directions it could go in, and most of them are not predictable for the viewer even though most of them will in retrospect make sense for that viewer once he or she has gotten through them.

So, vanity aside (I'm generally not good at futurology), I think I'm batting pretty well in my guesses for this episode (and the baseball metaphor perhaps works pretty well itself for an episode that's about going to -- but never arriving at -- a Mets game but, even more importantly, is an episode that has an explicit discussion of metaphor and meaningful symbolism: TV shows like this can have depths of significance but it's particularly noteworthy when they directly tell us that):

1. I mentioned the dangling phone that we saw last week in the "Next on Mad Men" and suggested it might mean a lot but more likely would mean very little at all. In the episode as it aired, Don arrived at the office and found chaos reigning, including that phone off the hook, but the phone was then hung up and explanations for the chaos were proffered: that particular future which we might call the computer revolution was being installed. We might want to ask how that phone got off its base but really, ultimately it didn't matter.

It wasn't really a prediction but I did suggest that death wasn't something that tended to happen to the central figures of this series. No deaths occurred in this episode indeed but I do take it as significant that Pete Campbell learned that his wife's dad had had a heart attack: as I had noted, it's more likely in Mad Men that potentially fatal things happen to lesser characters and not to the Pete Campbells and such-like that serve as its narrative foci.

2. Dawn, the black secretary, had one line of dialogue (advising the white staff at the office as to how to deal with the disruptions of office space from the entry of a computer into it). That's it for Dawn. As I anticipated, blackness had gotten its token treatment a few episodes back and now we're back to the world of white people dealing with their white collar issues.

3. Wow, I really got this one right: I predicted that the all important question of Megan and Don might drop out, and it really, really did. (I also wondered if Betty might not disappear, and I'll claim brownie points for that guess too.)

Last week's episode put Don and Megan's marriage on the rocks but in today's episode, it was as if that marriage--and its breakdown--had no existence. Instead we got an emphasis on the slogging everydayness of repetitive work (for instance, how many tags, whatever they are, does Don and his co-workers have to come up with to satisfy the assignment?) and we also got:

4. Roger going upstate to Kingston, NY to try to rescue daughter Margaret (now Marigold) from a commune. This, admittedly, doesn't really count as confirmation of my prediction that very specific events of the time might insinuate themselves into the show. I had suggested that real history was overdue for an appearance on the show and wondered, among other examples, if 1969's Woodstock might not be ready to take a bow. We really didn't get that sort of historical imposition in any direct, concerted sense but I think Margaret's story comes pretty close. For what it's worth, Kingston is in fact not far from Woodstock (or from the Bethel farm of Max Yasgur that the rock festival actually took place at) and there's a way in which the entire subplot of Roger and his daughter is about a broader history insinuating its force into the lives of characters who are generally more defined by what goes on at the office...

5. And in that respect, the office is really where it's all at in this episode. We certainly think of the Roger-Margaret story as little else than a subplot and but for it and a few minor moments, everything else transpires at the workplace. This is that slog I referred to: I don't claim any special clairvoyance here since it's this slogging that is centrally what the show is about. Yes, there is a world outside the office in which there are (among other events) old people who die, unwanted pregnancies, real people who get assassinated, weird grandmas who weird you out, suburban alienation, renters who want their landlords to provide basic services, hitchhikers you can't trust, class trips that just go bad (see last week's episode), and on and on and on. But “The Monolith” (7.4) keeps coming back to the office and it's there that the really consequential things might be happening. On the one hand, Don does decide to tow the line and be the subservient drone. I don't want to push it too far but it might be worth connecting what is perhaps the most famous moment in the history of Mad Men--Don scoring a big win at the office by showing off the Kodak carousel--to the Hollies' "Carousel" song that plays over Don's acquiescence in the present episode: in the earlier case, Don had used repetitiveness and pastness (the Kodak carousel's cyclical spectacle of nostalgia) to move his career forward; now, like the rider on a carousel animal who in the Hollies song can't catch up to the figure ahead of him, Don seems to have little future and is just going round and round. (At one point, after one of the many slights he suffers in the episode, we see Don leave the office in what we think is a huff of storming off the job only to seem him check back into the job in the very next moment; for this episode, he's stuck there).

Just as Matt Weiner's previous show was pointedly titled The Sopranos in the plural, and not "Tony" or "The Tony Soprano Show" or some-such, this show is Mad Men in the plural--and not "Don Draper" or some-such. Both shows have a protagonist but within the fictional world and for the shows as televisual events, there is directly the question of how in control that protagonist really is. In the current episode of Mad Men, Don directly is treated as a menial and it might almost seem as if the series is not merely commenting on that but engaging in a transition from Don to other figures. Is it noteworthy, for instance, that one very common visual motif of Mad Men--namely, figures shot from the back, and thereby pitched into veritable silhouette, as they look blankly out from the office into the world beyond their window blinds--is in the current episode not accorded to Don (as it commonly was in past episodes) but to other characters such as Peggy and Lou (and when Lou is seen standing in this way at the window, it's commented upon as if the show wants us to think about this resonant visual motif)? Is Don really the center of this world any more?

The title of "The Monolith," seems a reference to 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey (already referenced in Deanna Kreisel’s perceptive post from last week). There are fears about computers, references to psychedelic transport, a mention even of "The Dawn of Man." But there is no transcendence in this episode of Mad Men, just a brute wallowing in the mud for Roger, and a brute recognition of the fixities of identity for Don. Dave Bowman in 2001 shut down the Hal 9000 computer and then moved through various stages of being into new levels of existence. Don Draper in Mad Men watches impassively and even passively as a computer is fixed into place in his work world, and all he can do there is, as the Hollies intone, go "Round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round."

One wonders if that's his predictable future. And perhaps the future of this television series.

8 comments

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8 comments:

Lauren said...

Thanks Dana for these really interesting comments!

I am intrigued at the way that computers have come to the fore of the show: first in the subtle form of structured absence (as Deanna argued) and now in the hyper-literal form of a computer taking over the space of the creative lounge.

I can't help but wonder if there isn't some element of purposeful anachronism here. Were computers really that threatening to the "creatives" in ad agencies in 1969? Though *Space Odyssey* and *Star Trek* testify to the contemporaneity of computer/human tensions, it seems more like a wink to the present-day viewer. On the one hand, the show reminds us how much more we millennials have come to rely on these ever faster and tinier machines; but on the other there is always that sense of *Mad Men* as an ultra-writerly show the very existence of which proves that computers, no matter how ubiquitous, will never supplant the human faculties that the "creative lounge" stands for in this episode.

Peggy Oh! said...

I think that the computer feels to me like a bait and switch.

While the computer physically removes the creatives off screen, and takes over their wirk space seeming to make human work product obsolete, the fact is that creative work product has been increasingly devalued in this company. The workers have been devalued in favor of a by the numbers kind of business model.

It doesn't matter what our product is, or its quality as long as we can keep churning out money, like so many infinite numbers from a computer.

This is the business model the reigns supreme, and has taken over our world much more so than the advent of the computer age.

We still need workers, but the jobs are shifted overseas, like our creatives off to some unknown space, off screen.

Even a partner is unsafe in this scheme. His subordinate given a significant raise to not only control his human needs that could interfere with the constant flow of "adequate" but also turn her back on the thing she values most: creative, high quality work. She's already acceded to the paint by the numbers, formulaic process imposed by the new agency order. "Lou likes to do the tags first and sneak up on the strategy."

No, the monolith is not the computer, it's the corporation. And as someone smarter than me pointed out: the 600 pound monolith has taken over, but not in the work room, but the conference room.

deannakreisel said...

That's a very interesting question: to what extent our (okay, my) reading of the computer is anachronistically slanted toward the menacing and dystopian "HAL" version. I definitely think that this week's episode complicates that reading, and also reminds me that (of course) 2001 is a fantasy about the defeat of the computer-threat. As Dana puts it, "Dave Bowman in 2001 shut down the Hal 9000 computer and then moved through various stages of being into new levels of existence." Definitely more winking, I think, as the writers demand that we keep re-staging the question of whether or not Don is moving toward some kind of transcendence.

Lauren said...

Welcome to Kritik Peggy Oh! and thanks for great comments. That's a very interesting insight on labor at the agency.

Deanna, I still like your reading just as is!

Robin said...

And how about those Mets? 1969 was the year of the Miracle Mets who went from 7 years of mediocroty and almost obscurity to win the World Series in an unexpected upset. Are we being set up to expect/hope that Don will somehow follow that same trajectory?

And I like Peggy Oh!'s observation that the Monolith may be the corporation (as well as the computer.) Lou absolutely sets my teeth on edge! I've worked for jerks like him! It makes me both sad and angry that Peggy has knuckled under to his insulting and misogynist "leadership." But what's a woman to do in 1969? (In Marigold's case, she seems determined to repeat the failure of her own parents, under the guise of dropping out. So sad.)

I'd love to see a come from behind win for Don et al, but somehow, that doesn't seem where this is heading, nor would it realistically reflect the working world, imho.

Calvin Johnson said...

This episode has provided some insight into the meaning of the opening credits, specifically why (presumably) Don ends up sitting in the couch. This is a metaphor for rebirth, a theme to which Don is quite familiar: the death of Dick Whitman and the rebirth of Don Draper; Don's baptism in the Pacific Ocean witnessed by Anna; Don's divorce from Betty and marriage to Megan; and now Don's dismissal by the partners and rebirth at the agency. This entire season seems to be about Don's reckoning and acceptance of himself. He no longer runs away from his problems but rather confronts them head-on. The irony is that he is now in Lane's office. Lane the one that Don "fired" and advised to start over again; that he (Don) had done it many times and it would be ok. But Lane was not Don - he could not handle the death/rebirth cycle and died for real. That leaves the question, can Don make it through this most difficult rebirth, the reckoning? Stay tuned...

Jez B. said...

Great discussion and both pieces were good. Like the idea about the Mets.

brb said...

Thanks for the thoughtful and creative post, and to kritik for the wonderful series of analyses!

I thought the shots from behind of Peggy and Lou staring out the window in Don's office were jarringly funny. These shots, rather than transitioning Don out of the limelight, seem to stress how necessary Don is to the firm. They are both doing inadequate performances of Don, and grasp how poorly they are going.

Peggy seems fully aware that she is doing an impersonation of Don, and a rather anxious one at that (Elizabeth Moss always plays that mood to comic perfection). Lou is the unaware, buffoon, a parodic, deeply inadequate Don. His unmitigated cruelty and philistinism still manage to contrast sharply with Don's creative skill and shreds of decency (despite Don's unreliability and deep distress at working under Peggy).

These impersonations highlight the role of creative daimon Don seems to play in their psyches. and this can't be replaced with computers, at least these primitive ones (did the computers actually do anything besides take up space?).

I also can't help but notice this is another in a line of deeply unflattering portrayals of the counter-culture. I like that the show resists the superficial celebration of the counterculture by much media about "the 60s." But I wonder if there were many mothers leaving newborns to live on communes, nor do I think we are really shown the character's motivation for this. Although I always love the comedy of Roger playing happy mad man-hippy interlocutor.

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