Prior to 1935, if you wanted to drink something, you had your choice of bottle or cup. But post-1935, consumers had a third option: the canned beverage. Carbonated drinks like beer and soda were poured into tin cans, sealed to preserve freshness, and shipped to stores across the country, providing relief for consumers sick of the bottle industry’s monopoly on drinks you buy from a store.
Except that most people were fine with the bottle monopoly, because early canned drinks tasted a lot like tin – an unpleasant side-effect of, you know, being stored for so long in tin cans. There was also much confusion in how to open a can of, say, Coca-Cola. Some models required bottle openers, while others had screw-on lids. Confusion ran rampant among the masses, and for a few decades canned drinks were not the popular item they are today.
Then, in 1959, a man named Ermal Fraze invented the pop top, a handy metal tab yanked from the top of a can, leaving a convenient mouth-sized opening. Canned imbibement finally took the world by force, blanketing the world with discarded shards of razor-sharp aluminum, but also providing a level of thirst-quenching not possible from a bottle. And Coke, which had existed in cans since 1955, began revamping the look of the Coke can every couple of years, to keep this new trend feeling fresh.
It’s the 1966 redesign that becomes a vessel for vodka (and trouble) in last night’s Mad Men, entitled “The Monolith.” That can, and the hidden liquor inside, nearly topple Don Draper’s already precarious position at SC&P. And all because Don rode into his old job expecting to be greeted as a liberator. In reality, things rarely go so smoothly.
Let’s start with the events leading up to that Coke can.
For three weeks, Don’s been slaving away in the junior position he took in last week’s “Field Trip” (in one of Roger Sterling’s many barbs, he’s an ape that’s gone too long without a violent clubbing). And after a brief Pete Campbell prologue, “The Monolith” finds Don entering an office that has absolutely no stake in him.
Also, it’s an office that’s briefly become a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The elevator doors open and Don is confronted with something tall, black and rectangular, a cute visual nod to the same 2001: A Space Odyssey reference that our title comes from (see also: Roger quipping about ape-clubbing).
The office is deserted, and it seems Don is the only member of SC&P to have not been Raptured away this morning, but really they’re all upstairs, being converted by another monolith: a jumbo 1969 computer. Yes, the firm has entered the future, and the future means erecting a giant machine right in the middle of SC&P’s second floor. And amidst all this computer construction confusion, Don is nothing more than a tool used for the benefit of others, be it helping Ginsberg move a couch (Ginsberg has apparently gone insane and requires a couch-switching), or being set off like a WMD to torpedo Peggy’s new Burger Chef account.
Being played by so many people has Don upset. Typewriter smashingly upset, no less. And he assumes that because he is Don Draper, Ad Man Extraordinaire, he can win over a new client, get his foot in the door in an industry on the cusp of a massive boom, save the company and be restored to his former glory.
But at SC&P, Don Draper barely registers as a piece of furniture. So long, Lease Tech. Hello, Coke can.
We all knew this was coming. When Don uttered that fateful “okay” last week, it had to come with some secret caveat; some ulterior motive hidden behind Don’s supplicating features. Now, we know what that motive was: if Don could swoop in with some grand, genius plan, he could start being the firm’s hero and stop being its pariah.
And the ironic thing is, he’s totally in the right. An ad campaign for Lease Tech would be a genius move, something years ahead of the curve that would net every single person at SC&P a wheelbarrow full of neatly pressed bills. But Don’s previous bad behavior, plus the current wave of hatred that all the non-Roger partners have for him, poison every word that comes from Don’s mouth. So even though he’s still got that Don Draper magic, and can still make a seriously convincing argument to Lloyd from Lease Tech, he’s powerless to stop Harry Crane from brown-nosing Lloyd out of the room.
Later, there’s a befuddling moment when Don, now thoroughly intoxicated, picks up the phone. He’s talking so casually to whomever’s on the other end, in the way you or I might talk to a friend. But Don Draper has no friends. For half a second I thought Neve Campbell might be on the other end, but no, it’s just Freddy Rumsen. Rumsen, who actually hung out in Don’s apartment on a regular basis (unlike Dawn, who was always rushing out the door), and Rumsen who, along with Don, occupies the untouchable caste of the advertising world. And in a life where absolutely no one is interested in hearing what Don has to say, or even acknowledge his existence, where he’s shepherded into the same office where a man hung himself (still referred to as “Lane’s office,” at least by Ginsberg) and where his wife doesn’t speak to him much anymore, another pariah is the only one who actually gives a damn about Don Draper.
Freddy’s advice gets through, and Don muscles through his humiliation, because as one The Hound said, an hour before (and on a completely different network), “Hate’s as good a thing as any to keep a person going.” And while Don might not hate the partners that are currently making his life miserable, he sure as hell won’t let them win. So he types on, pausing just once to look wistfully out a window before returning to his work, as The Hollies’ “On a Carousel” reminds us all of Don’s greatest advertising accomplishment. Also one of Jon Hamm’s, but that’s not quite as relevant.
One wonders how this will affect the Don Draper/Freddy Rumsen semi-friendship. I’ve got a secret hope that Don will tell SC&P to shove it and start another newer and more underdoggish underdog ad agency with him and Freddy at the helm, although somehow I doubt that will happen.
Don Draper isn’t the only person being ignored by this office. Peggy’s shunning might not be as intentional as Don’s (except where Lou Avery is concerned), but she’s feeling just as rejected, just as alone, and with a career that’s just as at risk. Don is being set off like a grenade on purpose, but Peggy’s the one the partners are shoving onto that particular grenade. And in the words of Joan, “I don’t think they thought about it at all.”
But a Don who’s actually typing out his twenty-five tags, and who might actually become a model employee, might give Peggy a little agency in the office. Because right now she has absolutely none. Which brings up two points.
One, that hate is, again, a really great motivator, and Peggy has absolutely every reason in the world to hate Lou Avery. Even more so if she figures out that he was the one trying to sink her career by tying her and Don to Burger Chef.
Two, that Peggy had so much promise at the end of last season (remember her sitting at Don’s old desk?), and so far season seven has given us little besides Cold, Bitter and Unappreciated Peggy Olsen. Maybe re-teaming with her old mentor might give her character a little of the “oomph” she’s been missing lately. I’m hoping that the next three episodes have Peggy doing something (anything) positive, and not her squealing on Don for his Coke-fueled booze binge (as was hinted at by Joan).
On the other side of the world (or the other side of New York, anyway) is Roger. Like Don, Roger’s headed off into unknown territory with the intent of rescuing someone who absolutely does not want to be rescued. Both men have lost touch with something of their own creation, be that “something” a daughter or an ad agency. And in both cases, they’re willing to mill about for a while and acclimate themselves before unveiling the grand, sweeping gesture that will miraculously save the day. Roger peels potatoes, sleeps under the stars and is very much in his element, despite looking at all times like an episode of Green Acres.
And either because he had passed his one-day limit for time spent in a farm commune, or because he saw his daughter whisked away to a late-night hippie love-fest the night before, Roger decides it’s time Margaret mothered up and returned to her son. And here’s another Don : SC&P :: Roger : Margaret confluence – in both cases, bridges have been burned so badly that the rescue mission is a lost cause from the start. Roger and Mona were very bad parents, given the list of grievances handed out by their daughter, like being drunk around her, or not being around her at all. And Margaret, in a fit of righteous fury, has decided she will fight fire with fire, and get back at her absentee parents by becoming an absentee parent herself.
Roger has an advantage here. Unlike Don, he can physically pick up his problems stuff them into the back of a truck. But it does him no good. And besides, I doubt Margaret’s fellow flower children would drive her back willingly after seeing her get manhandled by “The Man,” of all people.
Given this, her eerily calm “I forgive you” speech to Roger in the premiere, and the amount of crazy eyes actress Elizabeth Rice gives off throughout “The Monolith,” it appears something is very, very wrong with Margaret. Just what that “something” is, remains to be seen. And it may stay that way, given that we’ve only got three hours of Mad Men left this year, and those three hours might have other priorities. But whether we see more of Margaret, or this is the end of Rice’s sojourn on Mad Men, this trip to the country has to mean something for Roger. Maybe he wants to be a better dad to his illegitimate son with Joan. Maybe he calls it quits on his current girlfriend and the hit parade of people currently entering their bedroom. Maybe he and Don start their own commune. I’m guessing we’ll find out in the next three weeks.
Overall, “The Monolith” is an unbelievably strong hour of Mad Men. No huge movements of plot or dramatic twists, but something just as exciting: a sense of urgency. By setting up clear hero/villain relationships, between Peggy and Lou, and Don and the partners, “The Monolith” has a sense of “characters fighting against insurmountable odds,” to it. Which, as a general rule, is more exciting than “characters trying to secure a Heinz Beans deal.” Plus, with John Slattery at the forefront, it’s probably the funniest Mad Men we’ve gotten all season, which has to be worth something.
A-pluses all around.