Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Mad Men Season 7: The Monolith

Do you value your human relationships?

I’m going to skip the obvious references and themes from this week’s episode of Mad Men. The title for the show’s most recent hour was “The Monolith,” which is a direct allusion to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and there have been plenty of TV writers and recappers—all of whom are far better at writing about television than I am—who have covered the significance technology and progress had within Sunday’s episode.

Instead, I want to focus on a quote from Roger Sterling: “Like I’ve always said, this business is about relationships.”

Roger utters this quote during the partners’ conference call with Pete and Ted in California. Pete has brought in the Burger Chef account thanks to his relationship with one of his ex-father-in-laws underlings at Vicks Chemical. Pete has ruined his relationship with his wife and his family, but because his father-in-law’s former employee dislikes Pete’s father-in-law as much as Pete does, he’s able to set up new business for SC & P.

But Roger’s quote is nothing new for the show. In fact, it’s not even new for Roger. He said something similar in the Season Three finale, “Shut the Door, Have a Seat.” If you recall, throughout Season Three, Roger and Don were at odds with each other. When Don finally approached Roger to break away and start a new firm, Roger said the following: “You’re not good at relationships because you don’t value them.”

The importance Roger has consistently put on relationships is fascinating. Here is a man who has been divorced twice, kept countless mistresses and has had a child out of wedlock with one of his co-workers. He treats the relationships with the men and women in his life very lightly, yet seems to hold the value of human relationships sacred—at least in his own mind.

And as we saw on Sunday, perhaps there is an element of truth to Roger believing that he does actually value the relationships in his life. When he and Mona go to retrieve their daughter Margaret from the hippie commune (shout out to David Wain’s Wanderlust!) in Upstate New York, Roger elects to stay behind after Mona and Margaret exchange heated insults. Roger has dropped acid, smoked pot and is now living in some kind of free love arrangement within the confines of his hotel room homestead. He wants to reserve his judgments and attempt to understand the life his daughter now thinks she wants.

Upon watching the section of “The Monolith” that focuses solely on Roger and Margaret, I was struck by John Slattery’s amazing performance. In each scene with Roger and his daughter, you get to see the many different shades of Sterling. First there is his warm and paternal, “Hey, Marigold, you want to show me around the place.” The tone Slattery uses sounds exactly like a father visiting his daughter’s shitty first apartment in Bushwick—there is a mixture of apprehension and pride. Then, Roger flexes his intelligence and flashes his “hipness” on the front porch while he peels potatoes and smokes weed. Then there is the touching moment when he and Margaret go to sleep on a bed of hay underneath the stars.

Finally, the next morning, after Roger has overheard his daughter sneak away to have sex with one of her lovers, he becomes the petulant child disguised as traditional businessman/father. He and Margaret exchange insults and wind up in the mud. And in the end, we see how much Roger as truly ruined his relationship with his daughter. Their bond is nearly irreparable. The most heartbreaking thing about it all is that Margaret Sterling is punishing her father by abandoning and hurting her own son.

Margaret is Roger’s only child. Sally is Don’s oldest child. Both of those relationships are traditionally held in a special regard. Both men value their daughters beyond perhaps any other interpersonal relationship they each have. However, both Roger and Don are childish and stubborn in their own different and unique ways and have had to face the consequences of what their actions have done to their relationships with the daughters they love.

Meanwhile, Don and Peggy’s relationship has nearly been burnt to the ground. Don’s smoldering stares at Peggy while she is forced to give him a copywriting assignment because Lou and the other partners are passive aggressively trying to force Don out of the office, were brutal. Peggy doesn’t want to look at Don more than she has to. She doesn’t want to talk or work with him more than is necessary, but she has to.

Peggy has to work with Don because, as Joan explains to her, the partners aren’t thinking about her at all. Peggy and Joan have always had a tenuous relationship. They come to each other’s aide just as much as they take pleasure in telling the other off. Their scenes together have accumulated a pressure that is a fantastic mixture of female camaraderie, winking fan service, and true dramatic tension. Joan can tell Peggy the blunt truth about her situation because part of her takes pleasure in knowing something Peggy doesn’t, but also because she knows that she would want Peggy to do the same thing for her.

Don doesn’t want to do the work for Peggy because he thinks he is above it. But Don is all alone. His secretary asks him how his weekend was and he responds, with trademark Draper curtness and cool, “Lonely.” He founded the firm and he is frustrated that he is still paying his penance for his misdeeds. But when Don throws a tantrum about his importance in the company’s foundation, Bert Cooper tells him that, yes, he did found the company, “Along with a dead man, whose office you now inhabit.”

Don sees Lane’s ghost in the form of the Mets pennant. He hangs it up on the wall perhaps as a reminder of Lane and the lonely bond they both shared on New Year’s Eve nearly four years ago. Don is on a doomed path just like Lane. So when Bert puts him in his place, Don decides to do what he does best: throw a brooding tantrum and get roaring drunk. He looks like a fool while making stupid jokes to Freddy Rumsen on the phone. He sounds like a paranoid lunatic when confronting Lloyd the computer man. Then he sounds pathetic while slurring about missing the first pitch at the Mets game when Freddy drops him off at the end of the day.

The next morning, Don and Freddy discuss his situation and Freddy gives Don the best advice anybody can give anybody else, “Just do the work.” Freddy and Don have had a relationship for more than a decade—from before the show’s narrative began. Don had empathy for Freddy when he was down on his luck, so now Freddy is extending a courtesy of his own.

Computers become obsolete after six months. As soon as you get a new laptop, iPhone, iPod, iPad (I don’t even know anymore!) it’s time to get a new one. People become obsolete as well. We strive and do our best to remain relevant, but our own time passes, whether professionally or just simply as a human being with a finite time on this earth. What’s important are the relationships that we make and try to maintain as time passes and our energy and overall purpose wanes.

And that’s work too. It’s not just about Don going in to the office, swallowing his pride and doing the tags for Peggy, doing the work. It’s the work we all have to put in to be better friends, lovers, husbands and wives. We’re all going to be replaced by a new model, but the people we value and encounter along the way are what help us survive longer.

They make the inevitable journey towards “obsolete” pass with laughter, fervor, excitement and pain. All the things that keep us human.

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