'Mad Men': How Symbolic Can an Episode Be?

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How much symbolism is too much symbolism? Mad Men's fourth episode of the season decides to test this theory. 

The big event at the heart of the "The Monolith" is Sterling Cooper & Partners' acquisition of a computer to appease Harry Crane. The computer is being installed in the creative lounge. Get it? Machine replacing man. The times they are a'changing. Ginsberg takes it especially hard, trying to save the lounge's couch: "“They are trying to erase us, but they can’t erase this couch!"

"I'm sorry you lost your lunch room," Harry says to Don. "It's not symbolic." Don snaps back: "No, it's quite literal." So literal that the computer came with a tech evangelist, Lloyd Hawley, dressed like a Mormon missionary, extolling the "god-like" virtues of the computer to Don. “This machine is intimidating because it contains infinite pieces of information and that’s threatening because human existence is finite," Lloyd tells Don. “But isn’t it god-like that we’ve mastered the infinite?”

Meanwhile, Don is back at the firm, occupying Lane Pryce's old office, quite literally taking the place of a dead man. He finds Lane's Mets pennant and puts it up on the wall. After Sterling Cooper (thanks to Pete Campbell) gets the opportunity to perhaps win the Burger Chef account, Lou puts Peggy in charge, giving her a raise, sure, but also forcing her to control Don. Don stews beautifully in Peggy's office as she orders taglines from him, then takes the chance to go off the deep end. He steals vodka from Roger and gets wasted in his office. He falls asleep on the couch—in the same position where he and others placed Lane's body after cutting it down, just in case we didn't get it—and stares up at that pennant. He calls up Freddie Rumsen with a desire to go to a Mets game. Mind you, this is 1969, the year of the Miracle Mets. (Will Don's recovery be the show's miracle?) Freddie swoops in and rescues him, but not before he takes the opportunity to confront Lloyd, now the actual devil. “You don’t need a campaign," Don says. "You’ve got the best campaign since the dawn of time.” 

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I half expected the episode's closing song to be "Sympathy for the Devil," released in 1968, but Weiner and company didn't go that far. They did, however, pick a song that is perhaps even more relevant to Don's journey. Don is convinced by Freddie to go back to work. “I mean are you just going to kill yourself? Give them what they want?” Freddie asks, again invoking Lane. So Don suits up and starts to write. The Hollies' "On a Carousel" plays. Hard not to think of Don's famous Kodak pitch: "It’s not called a wheel, it’s called a carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Round and a round, and back home again. To a place where we know we are loved." Don's going back to the beginning. 

But was this episode just too heavy-handed?  "I know all eps of  have symbolism, but Jesus this had SYMBOLISM, no?" critic Ryan McGee tweeted. There were so many things to parse: The computer, the Miracle Mets, Lane, the carousel. On top of that that the whole episode is a Kubrick homage ("The Monolith") with shades of 2001: A Space Odyssey. For more on that, I'd point you to Matt Zoller Seitz at Vulture and Forrest Wickman at Slate. (Hawley = HAL?)

This is an episode that practically begs to be analyzed (and likely over-analyzed). It represents the best and worst of Mad Men, a show which has always been able to stand above the rest with its literary tendencies, but can sometimes feel like it is beating the viewer over the head with its symbols. Picking out the allusions and references an episode like "The Monolith" can become more of a game than a useful way to process the story at hand. What did this episode say that we don't already know? Don is a dinosaur—or, rather, the ape at the beginning of 2001—and by the end of the episode he's returning to his infancy, writing copy for the woman whose career he helped jumpstart. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.