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'Mad Men' Recap: Man vs. Machine

Computers come to Sterling Cooper & Partners — and our hero is already feeling obsolete

Jay R. Ferguson as Stan Rizzo, Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson and Ben Feldman as Michael Ginsberg on 'Mad Men.'
Justina Mintz/AMC
May 5, 2014 1:10 AM ET

Far be it for recappers to ignore the equivalent of a neon sign planted in the middle of a Mad Men episode reading: "Start here." So let's begin with Don Draper's conversation with Lloyd Hawley, whose company, LeaseTech, has come to outfit SC&P with their first computer. Times being what they are, that computer is a lot closer to ENIAC than a MacBook Pro, and given the agency's recent penchant for favoring mechanical competence over the artistic temperament, it's no surprise the necessary space is made by demolishing the creative lounge. "It's not symbolic," assures Harry Crane, the in-house evangelist for technological advancement. "No," Don shoots back. "It's quite literal."

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Quite literal, indeed. As Lloyd explains to Don, "It's been my experience these machines can be a metaphor for whatever's on people's minds." You don't say. Please do go on. "This machine is intimidating because it contains infinite quantities of information, and that's threatening, because human existence is finite. But isn't it godlike that we've mastered the infinite?" Um, yes?

This epsiode — "The Monolith" — takes its title from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, although the closest the movie gets to a cameo is the elevator doors that loom over Don as he steps off the elevator to work. Unlike Kubrick's apes, Don isn't especially awed by the new machines, which he slips past as they're being trundled into the office. But he is curious, or combative, enough to swap ideas with the simian-looking Lloyd, who brags, "The IBM 360 can count more stars in a day than we can in a lifetime."

"But what man laid on his back counting stars and thought about a number?" Don counters.

The response: "He probably thought about going to the moon." The machine, as Lloyd explains, may be "frightening to people, but it's made by people." And it's more valuable than his old bosses at IBM understood. "They have got a great product, but they don't trust it. I've worked with these machines. I know how resilient they are. I don't want to find them in a junkyard in two years."

Don himself is in danger of going the way of the electric typewriter on which he's assigned to bang out 25 taglines for SC&P's latest prospective client, Burger Chef, a fast-food concern being served the creative equivalent of fast food. Don't worry about the angle, says his new boss: We'll figure that out later.

Don's new boss, by the way, is Peggy Olson, whom Lou Avery has conspired to place above him in an effort to undermine one or both. Lou certainly treats Peggy better, offering her a raise and his first measure of respect, although it may just be that he's found someone he hates more; he may resent Peggy's presence in a professional arena he clearly believes should be open only to men, but he's not threatened by her in the way he is by Don. (He probably should be, since she's several orders of magnitude better at her job than he is at his, but that's another story.) Peggy is giddy at the prospect of getting to boss him around, but she overplays her hand, having Don's secretary call him into her office directly next door and assigning him to scutwork as if that's the best thing for either of them. This is Burger Chef, Peggy: You better bring your A game.

Speaking of games, and of symbolism with a capital S several stories high, Don moves into his new office and promptly drops a cigarette under the filing cabinet, at which point you know he's going to retrieve some token of the late Lane Pryce's residency. The winning object is Lane's Mets pennant, which considering the year the Amazin's are about to have wouldn't be such a bad flag for Don to fly. But getting tanked before the game, so much so as to earn a morning-after lesson from Freddie Rumsen?

After fixing him a cup of coffee "as black and strong as Jack Johnson," Freddie lowers the boom on his erstwhile puppetmaster: Quit drinking, he tells him, and "do the work." (Freddie's first metaphor — "Fix your bayonet and hit the parade" — would probably mean less to man who faked his own death in order to escape the Korean War.) So Don ends up back at his desk, the sound of his clacking keys mingling with the Hollies "On a Carousel," which takes us back to a time when Don was a spinner of dreams, and not a slave in the content mines.

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Roger Sterling's daughter, Margaret, has been searching for more organic answers to life's big questions. As prefigured in the season-opening "Time Zones," where her unasked-for forgiveness was delivered with the conviction of a prewritten script, she's joined a cult, and Roger and his somewhat less-estranged ex-wife, Mona, have to travel to the godforsaken wilds of upstate New York to fetch her. During a pre-trip confrontation in Roger's office, he and Mona are framed on opposite sides of a psychedelic Peter Max-style print, and there does seem to be a cosmic void between them. The second they see Margaret — sorry, Marigold — wrapped in what looks like an animal pelt on the porch of a run-down farmhouse, Mona makes up her mind: "These people are lost and on drugs and have venereal disease."

But Roger, who's been making nice with the love generation for some time, isn't so sure: He sticks around, staring up at the uncountable stars and the moon on which men will walk before the summer is over, with the woman who was once his little girl, and it seems as if for once, they might be in the same headspace at the same time. But she sneaks out of her sleeping bag to get it on with the cult leader, and some combination of paternal protectiveness and simple jealousy kicks in. He tries to carry her off, caveman-style, but slips in the mud. When he tries to call her on being selfish and abandoning her child, she reminds him he did the same.

When Don first arrives at SC&P, the office is eerily silent. Typewriters lie unused, desk chairs empty, handsets swinging from their telephone cords. It's as if they've all been raptured, leaving Don as the last man on earth. (Surely, there would have been time to hang up the phone before heading to the big all-office meeting, and phones don't stop ringing just because there's no one to answer them.) It's as if Don's experiencing a vision of the workplace of the future, one where humanity hasn't been replaced so much as zeroed out. Don wants to hear Lloyd's life story, but Harry just wants to talk punch cards, the more efficient engineering of his own doom. Don's ready, for the first time in a while, to "do the work": him sitting down at his typewriter felt a little like Paul Newman picking up a pool cue at the end of The Color of Money. But does it matter, and does anyone care? The answer is written in the stars.

Previously: If 6 Was 9

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