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May 7, 2014 - 11:30pm

'Mad Men' RECAP: Transition and triumph



Maddie Thomas: This week's episode of "Mad Men" proved Matt Weiner's ability to turn even a transitional episode into an extraordinary piece of television. Last week Don finally found his way back into the SC&P offices. This week, he felt the ramifications of what his return would really mean: Peggy's overseeing him on a new project, and he is not at all happy about it. Amidst Don's almost-breakdown, we also got an in-depth look at Roger through his relationship with his daughter, Margaret (or perhaps ... Marigold?) who seems to be taking more after her dad than he initially realized. Meanwhile, the creatives are getting pushed out of their lounge by Harry Crane's giant computer and Pete's using his father-in-law's death as a business strategy. Claaassic. Of course after Don agreed to all of the SC&P partners' stipulations at the end of last week's episode, we knew there was no way he'd be able to gently transition back into office life. "The Monolith" took the time to set him back just enough, so that by its end, Don was glued to his typewriter, working on rebuilding his reputation from the ground up with reinvigorated motivation.

Chloe Gilke: The "Monolith" of this episode is the computer being installed in the SC&P offices, but it's hard to turn off my film major brain, and I couldn't help but think of "2001: A Space Odyssey," and the mysterious extraterrestrial machines that figure into that film. They're a symbol of evolution, not just of the technology itself but the people that use it. In this episode, Don finds himself yet again struggling against the grain of an office that barely has a place for him. He's essentially dead weight (or, at least, occupies the deceased Lane's office), and doesn't even have the dignity of inviting Peggy into his own office. The silly Meredith (great hair, though) has replaced competent and ambitious Dawn. The computer's installation is noisy and unrelenting. Maybe it was the privilege of watching it on a big screen for the first time (the perks of being home for the summer), but the sound design was absolutely gorgeous. I liked seeing him struggle, but Don's decision to buckle down and carve a place for himself in this brave new office was rewarding, and the perfect cap to my favorite episode of the season so far.

Akshay Seth: There were so many conflicting themes running throughout Sunday night's episode and Weiner did a wonderful job of tying them together in order to better define his characters. The installation of the gargantuan IBM computer squarely in the middle of the office, replacing creative's old lounge, was a "literal" way of saying Don's way of doing business is quickly being forgotten. Of course, we can't forget that Don's been moved into Lane "Hangman" Pryce's old office, an obvious foreshadowing of Don's symbolic, if not literal, death. But I think the big takeaway from this episode was Don's clear arc, starting at neutral, bottoming out toward the middle, and working hard to reestablish his reputation. Weiner defined it brilliantly by contrasting it with Roger's story - he started out distanced from his hippie daughter and ended pretty much in the same position.

Maddie Thomas: In terms of Roger, I'm wondering if that the storyline with his daughter will be at all eye-opening for him. She was pretty clear about how his absence in her life has had a negative impact, but maybe going to the commune and witnessing his daughter sneak away in the middle of the night for sex with the gross weirdo hippie man will help him come to some important realizations about his own life. On some level, every dad wants his daughter to stay his little girl forever. There's nothing that could provoke a protective father more than sex. The other big male/female foil relationship that was explored in this episode (pardon that terrible transition ... ) was Peggy/Don. On some levels, I was really hoping that they would find some way to team up against Lou and become the powerful duo we all know they can be (spin-off superhero show about Peggy and Don as a crime-fighting duo, Tumblr make it happen) but of course that would be way too gratifying and way too easy. Don is (somewhat) understandably bitter and Peggy seems generally pissed off and confused. Don has always been a mentor to her but now she's worked her way up the ladder. They're essentially equals now; in fact she's basically his boss, at least when it comes to the BurgerChef account. I'm just hoping that as Don continues to evolve and Peggy continues to rise up the ranks, they'll be able to join forces once again. Hopefully in the not-so-distant future.

Akshay Seth:I think she is his boss. Lou Avery played that perfectly: sliding Don over to Peggy so he can establish himself as the top of the ladder, but at the same time knowing that if Don pulls a Hershey, the shit will hit Peggy, who's excelling at her job, not him.

Also side note: I love Ginsberg's mustache. You guys think I could pull it off?

Chloe Gilke: Peggy (along with most viewers, I presume) may have a distaste for Lou, but he's certainly giving her more freedom in the workplace and arguably a better boss than Don. I'd love to see a glorious Don/Peggy team up (or at least another big centerpiece episode about their relationship. "The Suitcase 2.0". Tumblr, make it happen). I'm not sure that will happen, though. He accepts Peggy's power, but grudgingly enters her office and grumbles through the work he assigns her (at least, until the end). It takes Freddie Rumsen, king of pulling himself back together, to get Don back on track. He and Peggy make a great team, though. Whether protégé and mentor or 'shipper fodder, they have a similar creative intuition and drive, even if they aren't always on the same wavelength. Even if they won't have a glorious Star Wars themed wedding and adopt some kids in the end (sorry, I've been rewatching "30 Rock"), it's in their best interest to collaborate and learn to navigate the new technology and learn to evolve together. (Tie in with the monolith reference. We can't escape the #CIRCLES).

Also, you could totally pull off that mustache, Akshay. We should assign all the Daily Arts dudes to grow facial hair like one of the SC&P men. Who gets Stan's lion beard?

Maddie Thomas: Speaking of "30 Rock," I've always been one to compare Don and Peggy to Jack Donaghey and Liz Lemon. The relationships are really similar: Very platonic, very mentor/mentee based and also very necessary. Sometimes I wish Peggy and Don could get over themselves and care for each other unconditionally like Jack and Liz do, but I guess that is a pipe dream in this world of hour-long drama. I'm also glad that Freddie Rumsen has become an important and relevant part of this season. Even though he's kind of considered the resident "sad sack," he is also an actual alcoholic with a real problem. In this episode he sort of becomes Don's pseudo-sponsor. I think Roger and Don's drinking habits seen through a modern lens would easily point to alcoholism, but in 1969 neither would ever admit to that. There's a certain sensitivity to the struggles of addiction in Weiner's choice to add dimensions to the Freddie character.

Akshay Seth: I'm still not convinced Don bought into the technology aspect of it. He still saw that guy from LeaseTech as just another potential client, and when that idea was shot down, he got hammered and exposed what he really thought about the new computer systems. He's willing to finally put in the work, and refurbish his reputation, but I think he's going to do it the way he's always known - through an artistic, meandering temperament. The attitude toward technology in this entire episode was kind of negative. Weiner kept saying it has its uses but the most impactful scene was when Don first walks into the office and sees the entire staff gone, drawn, almost replaced, by a silent machine.

Chloe Gilke: Even before that, the clatter and noise of the construction was unsettling. I take the computer as just another example of all the change going on at SC&P (and even the '60s culture of the time, if you want me to jump into film theory territory) — it's progress, but with that shot of Don entering the empty wasteland of SC&P, you can't help but wonder if it's evolution or a step backward. And the way Don sat down at the typewriter at the end, it seemed more like he was resigning than relishing the use of the new technology. (Also: in song choice analysis of the week. This week closed with The Hollies' "On A Cariousel." Trying to catch up with the change and regain his position of workplace power? Or a nod to his pitch in season one? Matt Weiner is a mystery to us all).

Maddie Thomas: I definitely thought that "On A Carousel" was a nod to the circular and cyclical nature of this show and this episode. (#CIRCLES ALWAYS AND FOREVER.) Lately Don seems to be constantly rising and falling and rising and falling. He came full circle in the span of this episode alone, starting with his belligerent attitude toward Peggy and ending on that optimistic typewriter note. Speaking of which, though, I have a hard time believing that we've gotten past whatever Don's version of "rock bottom" is. Things seem to be going almost too smoothly at this point, and I'm wondering if Betty's startled reaction to a phone call in the always-cryptic promo for next week's episode means that we're in for another downward spiral in the near future. I can feel in these episodes that Weiner is building to something. I just can't figure out what.

Akshay Seth: I agree. The symbolism seems to be almost too heavy-handed, with Don trashing Pryce's Mets pennant and then, literally a scene later, we see it plastered on a wall in his office. Don ends the episode convinced he has a chance at rebirth, and I think so does Peggy, but he has too many enemies within the upper ranks to be simply reinstated back to his old position. I think in the next episode, despite whatever good work he might complete, he's going to hit a brick wall in the form of Lou Avery or Old Racist Cooper.

Chloe Gilke: I'm also interested to see what happens with Roger. He also found himself on a metaphorical carousel this week (time is a flat circle, after all), riding in a car with Mona to investigate what countercultural shenanigans his daughter had gotten into. Nevermind that Margaret's a mother now and Roger and Mona are long divorced. The sentiments that Margaret brings up — her unhappy childhood, Roger's dedication to his work and female companions and lack of regard for his family — are timeless. The consequences of the choices he's made in the past are finally catching up to him. He and Margaret share some sweet moments together, looking up at the stars and nearly going as far as Sally telling her father "I love you" a few episodes ago. After she insults his parenting, he tries the old Shrek move and tries to throw her over his shoulder and carry her off, but he trips in the mud and they both stumble some more. Roger's really come a long way since season one, and isn't the same brash and cocky silver fox we've grown to love. I'm interested to see if he can come back from this too, or if all the old boys of SC&P are fated to be lost in the sea of computers, female bosses and racist old dudes.

Akshay Seth: It's as if they're both desperately trying to erase their past, but time and again, come up short. It's the same sort of arc we saw in seasons one and two when Don was trying to move past the fact that Don is not his real name and he has a brother and a weird sort-of-half-wife and Peter Campbell knows he's lying. That whole dilemma ended in literal death - the brother commits suicide and the sort-of-wife gets cancer. This season is drawn within a smaller time frame but with all the foreshadowing of doom, there has to be a casualty — maybe not Don, but someone closely tied to his past. I also feel a little sorry for Peggy, who, it seems, is just always out of the loop this season. The only reason she was given the fast-food campaign was because everyone thought her "womanly touch" was what the execs were looking for and as a power play between Lou and Don. That would feel like the typical run-of-the-mill sexism we've seen so often in the series, but I always felt Peggy had a chance to transcend it because she always knew when it was being directed at her. In this season, she just seems clueless. She's much better at her job than Lou, but is always coming across as hapless. First with the flowers, and now this campaign.

Maddie Thomas: I agree. Somehow even with a $100 a week raise and more responsibility than ever, Peggy as a character still feels lost. I don't think even Peggy knows what she really wants out of life anymore. She has the job and status in the office, but how far can she realistically go in terms of power with the men of SC&P in real control? And, on a more general note, how far can the rest of the characters realistically go before getting left behind? One thing’s for sure: those who can adapt will succeed and those who are stuck in the past will get left by the wayside. I have a feeling we’ve got a big episode awaiting us next week. Can’t wait to talk about it with you guys.