The Orange Couch does Mad Men: S7E4, “The Monolith”
It’s easy to make knowing jokes about how much of a tribute to Stanley Kubrick this episode was, but I’ve never been one to think that the ease of catching a reference somehow diminishes its emotional impact. On the contrary, it was nice to reminded that Kubrick was really on the rise at the time, which reminds us that pop culture in the 60s, even that rightfully thought of as “counterculture”, was enmeshed in a sense of dread that predates the Manson family murders and the tragedy at Altamont. Building an atmosphere of dread has been the order of the day in the past few seasons, so paying tribute to the master is not only fun for audiences, but just plain decent hat-tipping.
On this episode, we talk about the Kubrick references, particularly regarding the theme of evolution and change. Also, Portnoy’s Complaint makes its mark and so does the late 60s culture of total rejection of the buttoned-up past.
2001 was the obvious touchstone for this episode, but as Matt Zoller Seitz says, there seems to be references to The Shining as well.
In the end, though, the episode’s desolate, desperate feeling is more The Shining than 2001, and not just because of Roger’s grandson’s vaguely Danny-like haircut or the fact that its main character is an alcoholic writer struggling to dry out while living in a “haunted” office previously inhabited by a man who killed himself and having deep conversations with a guy named Lloyd. (“You talk like a friend but you’re not,” drunk Don tells Lloyd. “You go by many names. I know who you are.”) The overhead shot of a trashed Don looking up at the Mets pennant is framed in a way that suggests a man in a coffin, and a phrase Don uses in a subsequent phone call has more than one meaning: “in the bag.” This is truly a life-and-death struggle for Don, as suggested by the Neve Campbell character’s bizarrely dreamlike conversation with him on the plane in the season premiere. He could die of thirst before he turns 50. Appallingly few people are actually on his side.
Either way, both movies are famously obsessed with the idea of dying alone. Don is dying alone, symbolically if not in actuality, entombed in his office and sliding into irrelevance while the future, represented by the computer, is making quite a racket outside. But, as we note in the video, the show resists an easy, reactionary anti-technology message. Just like Jack in The Shining, there is a sense that Don deserves to die, since those who love him are only hurt by him. The only way he can make things right is to start over, for real this time. Start helping people instead of hurting them. He still isn’t speaking to Peggy at the end of the episode, but he’s sucked it up and has started to work for her. That’s a good first step.
Mad Men gets accused a lot of being a show that exploits audience foreknowledge about the cultural changes these characters don’t know about to tell its story. That’s a criticism I reject, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I think that it would be wholly obnoxious for the show to strike a faux naive pose in an attempt to pretend it’s telling the story from the point of view of a contemporary writer, like a John Updike or a Philip Roth. The writers know and the audiences knows that the narrative viewpoint is from the future, so why pretend otherwise?
More importantly, the “we know what’s going to happen” thread sewn through the show is not nearly as much about making the audience feel morally superior as critics think. Never has this been more obvious than with the computer storyline. We in the audience know where the computers are headed, and we know that the creatives who are losing their shit really don’t have to worry as much as they are. The last shot, of Don at a typewriter, is actually what the future looks like, except we have little screens in front of those typewriters. The IT industry might have convinced us all to call it “content” instead of “creative”, but the idea is the same. A contemporary writer might have seen a man at his typewriter as an image of someone struggling against the dying of the light, but from our vantage point, we know that it’s not nearly that bad. It’s just…different.
But I don’t think we’re meant to be laughing arrogantly at these characters for not knowing what we know—and also, what a weird thing to think we’re ever asked to do, since duh, they don’t have psychic powers. Most of us have lived through a bunch of technological upheaval ourselves and so their fears are entirely relatable. Indeed, there’s still an unease throughout our society that we are making ourselves obsolete because of our computers. That fear, that the next iteration of computing device will be the one that ends us, continues to plague us. HAL 9000 continues to scare us. Indeed, the metaphor of a common room being uprooted and replaced by a computer feels almost too 21st century, with our endless hand-wringing about how our computer screens are supposedly replacing face-to-face interaction. (Never mind that most people actually feel more connected than they did when they went home after work and didn’t have immediate, 24/7 access to other people simply by pressing a button.) There was no ironic distance here.
Thoughts? Feelings? Opinions on the shift from the phrase “venereal disease” to the current “sexually transmitted infections”?