Mad Men Enters the Future—and Maybe the Peggy Olson Era

Dissecting "The Monolith," the fourth episode of the seventh season

Ashley Fetters and Chris Heller discuss the latest episode of Mad Men.

Heller: This week’s episode of Mad Men was all about intrusions. Don Draper is finally back in the office, behind a dead man’s desk, clenching onto what remains of his old life. His arrival isn’t the only change at Sterling Cooper & Partners, though. When he walks in on Monday, Don sees a whole lot of empty desks, vacated quickly enough that a secretary left a phone hanging from the end of its cord. (With everyone missing, I briefly wondered if there is a god forgiving enough to rapture the likes of Lou. I doubt it.) 

The entire office, of course, is gathered upstairs, where Roger announces, “We’re getting a computer. It’s gonna do lots of magical things like make Harry Crane seem important.”

Ashley, what’d you think about these new and old disruptions? I liked how clearly the episode suggests that Don is incompatible with his changing industry, but I groaned at every scene with Lloyd and the metaphor-that-wasn’t. (Even the episode’s title was an overt reference to it.) Here’s Don, questioning the merits of counting stars! There’s Lloyd, building something that literally displaced the creative center of the agency! At times, Mad Men seems to distract itself with Important Things. And these are Very, Very Important Things.

Fetters: I agree that this episode wanted to introduce Important Things—and did so by deploying some similarly capital-letter Symbolism. But while I, too, felt bashed over the head by some of the episode’s Metaphorical Objects and Double-Entendre Asides, there was also some symbolism that I didn’t hate. For example, Cutler announces that, with the arrival of the computer, "This agency has entered the future"—but later in the episode, it seems like the future that's arrived has less to do with IBM and more to do with Peggy Olson.

This episode sent some tantalizingly strong signals to people (like, admittedly, me) who believe this series has been headed all along toward a role reversal between Peggy and Don. Lou putting Don under Peggy’s supervision for Burger Chef was no minor workplace reshuffle; to me, it had a seismic, “Yup: Peggy is becoming Don’s boss” weight to it.

And at the end of the episode, Peggy stands in the doorway expectantly while Don sits in the foreground, obediently pecking at a typewriter. Yes, the symbolism here is as unmissable as the hulking new computer at SC&P, but it’s more welcome: Here at the halfway point of this mini-season, it at feels like maybe the moment of table-turning has arrived. (Also, how jarring was it to watch Don type something? This is the first time I can remember Don ever using a typewriter—for that matter, any machine besides a lighter—in the office.)

Additionally: When Peggy and Joan chat about Peggy’s dilemma with Don, Joan closes the door, perches on Peggy’s desk, and pours two drinks while they talk office politics. Chris, did that remind you of old-school Mad Men scenes between Roger and Don?

By the way, I’m thrilled to see things improve for Peggy this week, too. It’s been tougher than usual to cheer for Peggy this season: She has certainly been hit with some bad luck, but she has also reacted with a bad attitude (most notably when she was unnecessarily cruel to her secretary, Shirley, on Valentine’s Day). So it’s nice to watch her get some encouragement, underhanded as it may have been, from Lou, and to see that her dutiful handling of the Don situation worked out in her favor. In this episode, she asserts herself and her authority, she manages others justly but kindly, and things start working out for her. It's the very welcome return of “Lean In” Peggy.

Heller: Is there really that much to celebrate? Sure, Peggy got a hefty raise and avoided a hellish confrontation with Don. She demonstrated management savvy and might even land that huge Burger Chef account. But, what has she really gained? Lou is using her to freeze out Don. She’s caught in the middle of that fight—and now, she’s effectively indebted to a person she hates. (Have I mentioned that Lou is the worst? Lou is the worst.)

Presented by

Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

Chris Heller is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic. He has also written for NPR, Washington City Paper, and Metro Weekly.

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