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Review: 'Mad Men' Turns to Stanley Kubrick's '2001' to Get Pat Messages Across in Episode 4, 'The Monolith'

Photo of Ben Travers By Ben Travers | Indiewire May 5, 2014 at 10:48AM

Computers are taking over the firm's creative space while Don's creativity is squashed in a surprisingly uneventful episode of "Mad Men."
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Justina Mintz/AMC Jay R. Ferguson, Elisabeth Moss, and Ben Feldman on "Mad Men."

"When will Don fall off the wagon?" (or is it on the wagon?) was the big question on everyone's mind last week, after what --  for Matthew Weiner's "Mad Men" -- was quite the cliffhanger. Well, we got our answer Sunday night when Don, frustrated with his unofficial demotion and creative limitations at work, walked into Roger's office, stole a bottle of booze, and slunk into his office where he got hammered  alone. While one would think this scenario would create its own sense of suspense -- after all, if he's caught, he's fired -- writer Erin Levy, director Scott Hornbacher, and the all-knowing Weiner provided no indication that Don would or even could be caught and punished, eliminating suspense in favor of their favorite method of communication: metaphor. Unlike successful past efforts to convey more with inaction than action (see most of season six), "The Monolith" came across as a fruitless exercise in predictable character development with little for viewers to dwell on once "On a Carousel" by the Hollies started playing during the closing credits.

Reviewing the details of the fourth episode in "Mad Men's" halved final season makes it seem like just another week at the office, which it was, but somehow less so. Pete drafts a new account for the company and supports Don's involvement in it. Roger's relationship with his daughter comes to a head. Peggy is given a raise and a taste of power, though both only lead to more frustration. While these are minor steps forward for each character's continued development, none seem pertinent enough for one of last hours we'll spend with Matthew Weiner's brainchild. We're well aware of Pete's proclivity for his long time rival and new found friend. Same goes for Roger and his estranged offspring. Peggy's troubles have also been well documented over the course of the last three weeks, and a fourth example of her hardship seems redundant, even if this episode arguably provided the most for her to do in season seven.

Michael Yarish/AMC Jon Hamm in "Mad Men"

The only portion worth dwelling on (and not for the typical "Ooo, what could it all mean?" rationale) was the arrival of a PC in the office. Harry Crane's push for a computer was finally realized, but construction for the primitive machine overwhelmed the two-floor office space, stymying creative development as the loud clunks, clangs, and whirs seeped into the private offices and physically overtook the creative lounge. Machines being put to work in what Don sees as a place for creative, even artistic endeavors should have served as an interesting affront to the stubborn ad man. It still could, but we were given a dose of 21st century meta material as Lloyd, the computer installation expert and small business owner, straight up said the machines were a metaphor in his first conversation with Don (what could be more meta for "Mad Men" than mentioning metaphors?). 

What followed was a slow decay into predictable, uninteresting fluff. Yes, we can all recognize why the computer would be an upsetting change for Don's ever-changing world. Yes, we all took note of the metaphor regarding computers destroying creativity by literally overtaking the space designated to create (how could we not? Lloyd told us). Yes, we picked up on some, many, or all the references to "2001: A Space Odyssey." We get that Don needs to become a cog in the machine to survive right now, but is at risk of losing his soul if he abandons his artistic tendencies. Unlike most of what came before on "Mad Men," most of this episode wasn't made to be an enjoyable effort to decode -- it was laid out as directly, if not more so, as any episode yet to air.

But did it have to feel so lifeless? Did the deployment of such an obvious symbolic gesture and meta mentioning of it serve as a guise to support the cold, conventional story line surrounding them? Were we watching Don go from point A (denial) to B (anger) to C (acceptance) without consequence because we've already become slaves to our technology: the TV telling us the story we watch so companies can pitch ads our way just like the characters in the fictional TV show? Is this argument giving the episode too much credit? Yes, absolutely. Even if you took a Roger Sterling-level of LSD, stripped down to your birthday suit, and had a long talk with your equally inebriated divorce-seeking soon-to-be ex-wife, it would be hard to find a deeper level of meaning in "The Monolith," a nod to "2001: A Space Odyssey," the Stanley Kubrick film which was released the year before this episode is set. Even the title's relation to the strange, black, door-like object meant to indicate a significant alteration to the receiver's way of life ("its origin and purpose still a total mystery," as Dr. Floyd would say) is fairly obvious to anyone with a fond remembrance of the sci-fi allegory (or access to Google). It's all out on the surface, despite highlighting the area where you usually find depth.

There's not much to make up for it either. While the allusions to "2001" are a plenty, including Roger's dropping an "ape" bomb and the opening shot of a black door confronting Don, but the aforementioned plots fizzle -- even Roger's, whose persistence with his daughter was admirable, if unearned by the poor parent. The best that can be said for the disappointingly pat episode is it seems to have been wrapped in a bow, developing and satisfying each story line that dragged it down (or, in Peggy's case, continuing a problem from past episodes). We're right back where we started, with Don accepting his role in the company (isn't that what he did during the dramatic close of last week's episode?). The only new question we have to ponder is just how much Don's fate is intertwined with Dr. Dave Bowman's. 

Criticwire Grade: C


This article is related to: Mad Men, Mad Men, AMC, AMC TV, Television Review, Television





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