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.)

Fetters: Okay, point taken. Yes, Lou’s using Peggy. And yes, he is the actual worst. But, like I’ve said before, what I admire most about this show is its use of unsuspecting culprits; so often on this series, small, unwitting actions set off chains of events that are farther-reaching than their perpetrators realize. Maybe Lou here will turn out to be the linchpin: He puts Peggy in charge of Don as an easy solution to a problem, probably unaware of their history, and likely kicks off something much, much bigger—for Peggy and for Don—than he realizes.

Heller: I’m all for anything that puts Lou on the street, so I hope that’s where Mad Men is headed. You’re definitely right about the role reversal, after all. If that does happen, though, I wonder how thrilled I’ll be for Peggy. She’s always been an ambitious worker. It’s the other stuff—the personal stuff—that leaves her weeping on the floor of her apartment.

Fetters: In other news, we finally got an answer to my lingering question from last week: Why did Don stay with SC&P? When Freddie Rumsen asks, Don tells him it’s because “I started this agency.”

Frankly, I’m still unsure what that has to do with anything. After all, Don has walked out on or willfully impaled other things he’s started. His marriage to Megan, for example. The relationship with SC&P, though, is the one he at least putatively wants to save.

But on a scale of one to watching from between your fingers, how horrified did you feel watching Don have the world’s worst first day back at work?

Heller: It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. In last week’s episode, Don agreed to a strict set of ground rules with the partners: no drinking in the office, no one-on-one meetings with clients, no improvisation during pitches. It seemed like a hasty decision at the time—I argued that he was chasing the past—and now, it looks downright disastrous.

Sure, Freddie Rumsen’s pep talk convinced Don to “do the work” that Peggy assigned him, but how long will his resolve last? When will he sneak off to Roger’s office to steal another bottle of liquor? Don is an alcoholic who has shown, time and time again, he’s unable to control his impulses. At the end of the episode, an intriguing glimmer of a smile crept across his face. That smile won’t save his life. It can’t even save his career. It’s yet another reminder that change is an incredible, difficult thing.

Fetters: It’s becoming clear that at this point, characters like Don and Roger—and their first wives—are the most averse to change and perhaps suffering the most as a result. Last week we saw Betty’s old-fashioned ways hinder her from finding fulfillment; this week, we saw Roger and Mona (maybe my nominee for the show’s most woefully under-used character) try to talk some old-world sense into their daughter, only to be put in their place by Margaret, who makes some wise points about how what’s always made sense to Roger and Mona actually doesn’t make much sense at all.

The final scene between Roger and Margaret (who now calls herself, hilariously, “Marigold”) was difficult to watch, especially after that nice moment in the barn the night before. Roger heads back to the city muddy and defeated and without Margaret, but the look on Margaret’s face when he doesn’t stay and hash it out with her was the real heartbreak of the scene. It looked like she didn’t want the conversation to be over yet. And I hope it’s not: I think it'd be a really nice touch on the show's part if Roger, like Don, found some redemption through his relationship with his daughter.