Commentary

Episode 704: Moonstruck, Or Raging Against The Machine

madblog-s7e4bCalled “Monolith,” this was one heavy-handed, overwrought episode, written by Erin Levy. Heavy on M's (the moon, Mona, Mona Lisa, The Mets) big lunar symbolism, and the show’s official theme -- death -- it offered as much of a meta-commentary on “Mad Men” itself as a new storyline. As Lloyd the unlikely tech explorer tells Don, "It's been my experience these machines can be a metaphor for whatever's on people's minds."

Given all the tension in the office surrounding the coming of the IBM 360, you’d think it was The Bomb. I mean the Big One. As in worries about the Cold War. Duck and cover, Sterling Cooper!

Really, why would anyone wear a hard hat to announce the installation of a room-sized computer behind glass walls? What would be falling on their heads? And isn’t everything metal? (Like the Iron Curtain?)

And what’s with the hammering? All the banging was more like a theatrical flourish, like the constant dirge of “Flores para los muertos”  (flowers for the dead) during “A Street Car Named Desire.” Were they building a wooden coffin?

Don comes into an empty office, as if everyone had suddenly vaporized, save for the single piece of evidence that there’d been life on this planet: a desk phone with its receiver dangling off the hook, the cord suggesting  a hangman’s noose.

madblog-s7e4gIt struck me that all of the talk of technology killing creativity was about 30 years ahead of its time in the ad industry. After all, 1969 was still a pivotal moment for small creative shops to get started and make their marks.

Sadly, the eclipse (the dark side of the moon?) is happening now. Media companies are the new Leviathans. Most of the remaining smaller agencies known for great creative have long been gobbled up by giant monoliths of global holding companies that have to make their quarterly numbers. At this point, most of the profits are coming from creative accounting, not the actual client messaging. Shades of Lane Pryce! 

Starting with the Monolith, the obvious allusions were to the murderous HAL-9000 in "2001: A Space Odyssey.” But there were also references to Apple, the company that saw IBM as its biggest threat and set out to destroy it. Apple’s most famous commercial, “1984,” shows a blonde runner throwing a sledgehammer at “Big Brother” on an enormous screen. Big Brother was meant to suggest “Big Blue.” “We shall prevail” is the last thing Big Bro says.

While the other creatives were raging against the machine, Stan, the bearded, love-beaded art director, called it a piece of art, “The Mona Lisa.”  “People will be lining up to see it in the Louvre,” he said. Apple established the whole design superiority issue for otherwise ugly machines, and indeed, The Lisa (one of Apple’s first computers, named for Steve Jobs’ daughter) is now a museum piece.

madblog-s7e4On to another M: I loved having Mona back. Played by Talia Balsam, she was actually the first Mrs. Clooney, and is married to Roger (John Slattery) in real life. The writing and acting in the car scene, en route to Kingston to rescue Margaret from the dirty, venereal-diseased hippies, was flat-out marvelous.

In this episode, it seems everyone is Don and Betty except for Don and Betty. Mona wears a completely inappropriate outfit (a fur jacket) for visiting the farm, as Betty did in her school trip last week. In the opening scene, Pete’s new real estate agent/girlfriend looked and sounded exactly like Betty. And the breakdown in the mud between Margaret and her father perfectly paralleled the story of what Don has selfishly wrought on his own daughter, Sally.

Lou shows up to a meeting in a sharp suit, which made him seem more Don-like. Freddy is impersonating Don around town, selling his work. And Peggy is running the new pitch for Burger Chef, which should be Don’s role.

Back to the commune: Margaret was always an annoyingly underwritten character, more a stereotype than a fleshed-out person. But would she actually go from wearing hats for brunch at the Plaza with Daddy to a commune within months? To freeze, churn butter, and rut with a greasy-haired, moneyless stoner of a boyfriend named Clay? (As in feet of.) It would be much more likely for someone of her moneyed, spoiled, young-deb background to run away to California to the Dennis Hopper crowd (he was taking a child bride at the time), where her style would be more silk head scarves and Pucci patio pants. Or, like Prudence (Mia Farrow’s sister) and The Beatles in 1968, she could escape to an ashram in India.

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Running away, and flouting the rules, was another major theme, as manifested by Don as he hid in his coffin, er, office. It’s the office of a dead man (as Bert made overly clear), with Don still bearing a dead man’s name, and a career that’s dead in the water.

But another symbol of death becomes a possible flicker of life: Don finds the Mets pennant in Lane's office. At first, he pitches it, but then later hangs it up (he seems to smile, remembering Lane’s adopted team). Of course the underdog Mets won the World Series in 1969 and were known as "The Amazing Mets," and "The Miracle Mets." (MM.)

Also, you have to hand it Don for being an autodidact, who tackles the smart books -- why he was reading Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint,” published in 1969. Is it a sign that Don’s life is becoming more Rothian and less Cheeveresque? The book is based on a therapy session between protagonist Portnoy and his analyst -- and various couches are seen throughout the episode, a metaphor not only for psychoanalysis, but creativity and self-awareness (and, for Ginsburg, farts).

Don spends a lot of time on his office couch, drying out, hallucinating, and who knows what else. (He is also shown playing solitaire -- with cards, not Portnoy-style.)

Losing his sofa is too much for Ginsburg, who enlists Don to help him carry it, also letting Don know that he needs to pull his weight, which Don emphatically does not.

madblog-s7e4Don is stamping his feet like a child after a humiliating couch-sit in Peggy’s office, being treated like the fetus copywriter sitting next to him. Don refuses to do his tagline assignment. (That's a terrible way to create an ad -- as Don points out, first you have to figure out the strategy.)

He jeopardizes his job, and any payout, by disobeying the rules about booze and filching a bottle from Roger. I don’t think any of us could watch Don go down that hole again.

I actually wondered whether Ms. Neve Campbell might be on the other end of his invitation to the Mets game. Thankfully, it was Freddy, his only friend, who saves him, like an AA sponsor. (Get it?) Freddy tells Don to do the work.

One last design note: What happened to Roger’s stark, hospital-white Clockwork Orangey-office?  It’s now brownish and hideous. Pretty much everything about the ‘70s design was ugly: the earth tones, wallpaper, the macramé, the polyester. It’s an assault on the eyes for all who loved the starched rigidity, natural fibers, and major undergarments of the early ‘60s. I see no Banana Republic lines sprouting from the present costumes. Has the ugly clothing made the characters ugly?

I wonder if Don is going to Think Different.

Tags: mad men, tv
Recommend (6)
22 comments about "Episode 704: Moonstruck, Or Raging Against The Machine".
  1. Martin Kleinman from Communications Strategies , May 7, 2014 at 1:13 p.m.
    I think that, in this episode, Don turns the corner after plunging so low that he jeopardizes his partnership equity by stealing the booze, getting toasted at work and basically flipping off Peggy's "homework assignment." Like the Miracle Mets, I think (hope) that Don succeeds, against all odds. On that sofa, he has hatched a plan. He will do Peggy's dopey tags, but more importantly, he will somehow win the Burger Chef biz and, in so doing, destroy Lou (yay!), get his own mojo back, and find a path to success in a new world, surrounded by the creatives who clearly still respect his chops, even as the rest of the dinosaurs/partners die in the tar pits of life.
  2. Jonathan Hutter from Garrand , May 7, 2014 at 1:28 p.m.
    Brilliant assessment as always. Your last line makes me think; Don has always been conservative, and his appearance in these late 60s episodes reinforces that. I've always thought that he might not make the changes required (but that has nothing to do with him dying). I found this one of the saddest episodes ever, from Don's humiliation at work (although I always believe he has a plan) to Roger's humiliation by his daughter. I found most of the other parts either extraneous, or only modestly advancing the story. Which makes me want Sunday to come that much faster. (PS: although the column is slightly late this week, I like it better than staying up until 10pm Tuesday to read - lunchtime is the correct daypart for this).
  3. mark weiner from PRIME Research , May 7, 2014 at 1:57 p.m.
    My only wish is that I discovered this expert analysis years ago...it's the best I've found. One point which I had hoped to read in the review: Don attacks Lloyd the computer guy for being...Don. Beyond the physical resemblance, what did Lloyd do to generate Don's hostility?
  4. Ellen Considine from SwartAd , May 7, 2014 at 2:05 p.m.
    The use of The Hollies On a Carousel at the end was most appropriate. I couldn't bear watching Don go down again. Carousels go around but the horses go up and down. Harkens back to the The Wheel episode/carousel presentation. Are we all just going round and round? He's back to the beginning, typing away at copy. Riding along on a carousel, trying to catch up to you. Riding along on a carousel, will I catch up to you? Horses chasing 'cause they're racing. So they ain't so far. On a carousel, on a carousel. Nearer and nearer by changing horses, still so far away. People fighting for their places just get in my way. Soon you'll leave and then I'll lose you Still we're going round. On a carousel, on a carousel, round and round and round and round round and round and round and round with you. Up, down, up, down, up, down, too. As she leaves, she drops the presents that she won before. Pulling ducks out of the water, got the highest score. Now's my chance and I must take it, a case of do-or-die.
  5. Bob Shiffrar from Lehman Millet , May 7, 2014 at 2:44 p.m.
    Some thoughts, probably useless, but perhaps entertaining at least: Portnoy famously used, among other things, a piece of liver for his handy hobby. Don's been using his liver to get off for years. Portnoy's shrink's name? Spielvogel. As in Backer Spielvogel? Yes, that agency was started ten years later, but there are many similarities between them and SCDP. Philip Roth had his own Don Draper-type alter ego: Nathan Zuckerman. The '69 Mets went from worst to first. Is Don using them as an avatar? Or will he in the near future? They didn't start the season very well, but went on several winning streaks that put them into the playoffs. The Mets "pitching" coach in 1969 was Rube Walker. Which "rube" will win the Burger chef account: Don/Dick or Peggy? Leslie Van Houten was a member of her homecoming court. And most of the Manson women were born into upper middle class families. So it didn't strike me as that odd that Margaret became Marigold. Don almost calls Lloyd the computer guy "Satan" to his face. Funny, given all of the early-series proclamations that Don was actually the devil. Bert Cooper was downright nasty to Don. Less J. Pierrepont Finch, more Dennis Barlow than usual. My personal interior design style mixes classic mid-century pieces with early '70s accents. Nothing brings out the beauty of an Eames chair quite like a red plastic wall.
  6. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER , May 7, 2014 at 5:38 p.m.
    1) roth----prefer the antagonist in Indignation....much cooler name 2) around the time of the episode carl ally pitched ibm account, office products division (a group formed in anticipation of justice department breakup of international business machines....carl wrote a tagline: MACHINES SHOULD WORK. PEOPLE SHOULD THINK. got the account for a decade until the free market operated and the justice department went off in another direction 3) i liked the episode a lot, but once again i liked barbara lippert's exegesis even more....i do think the agency breached the contract by having don report to someone other than lou...but i used to read every syllable of my employment contracts and developed paranoia as a result
  7. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com , May 7, 2014 at 6:22 p.m.
    Bob-- great stuff! yeah, I thought of Carl Spielvogel, too. Plus, he used to write the advertising column for the New York Times. I didn't understand why Don got so mad at Lloyd-- unless it was projection after he was shamed by Burt for suggesting new business. Tom-- That's a great tagline. Wonder if he had to come up with 25 to get there.
  8. Cynthia Amorese from JAL Enterprises NY , May 7, 2014 at 7:09 p.m.
    I wondered about that Devil speech, too. Was Don lashing out because Lloyd -- recast as tempter, seducer, trap-setter -- got Don's juices flowing with dreams of new-biz possibilities he couldn't pursue? Or was it that, drunk, Don saw Lloyd as the metaphor for what was on his mind after the encounter with Burt -- suppression, rejection, impotence? My favorite scene of the night was Freddy bluntly telling Don to get in uniform, attach his bayonet, and hit the parade. I love when men talk to Don like stern but affectionate fathers (like Connie Hilton did earlier). I also love that Freddy understands that Don is a warrior.
  9. Larry steven Londre from Londre Marketing Consultants, LLC and USC , May 7, 2014 at 7:24 p.m.
    Thanks, Barbara. Obviously your readers are not playing Solitaire like Don was. Don was drinking vodka. He has been into “brown” goods...Manhattans. He steals or borrows Roger's Smirnoff Vodka, if you are going to drink at the office “Leaves you breathless”…but Don had way too much to drink. “Not ready----we just got the research. ” In the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s many creative agencies would come up with a "great" creative ad/campaign and then would write the strategy document or creative workplan/brief to fit it. They talked in the episode as “sneaking” up on the strategy. Seems similar to Don's remark about tag lines before the strategy. My favorite previous episode was the Kodak presentation and Don presenting “The Kodak Carousel.” The music was “Carousel.” All the best.
  10. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER , May 7, 2014 at 8:46 p.m.
    carl ally (both the inc. and the man) wasn't given to generating two lines, let alone 50 or if they generated them, they wouldn't show them--the client might buy the wrong one.......but the ibm one was carl's best....would still work today
  11. Larry steven Londre from Londre Marketing Consultants, LLC and USC , May 7, 2014 at 10:29 p.m.
    A little on Burger Chef. Where is MM going with this new business request? Frank and Donald Thomas created the “Flame Broiler” and opened in Indianapolis, Indiana. A couple of years later they opened their first “Burger Chef.” They created the first "value combo," something Peggy and Don and others could discuss in later episodes. It’s then and today; it’s about bundling and value. For Burger Chef it was called the “Triple Treat,” a 15¢ hamburger, 15¢ fries, and 15¢ vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry milkshake. When milkshakes were made of milk and not called a shake. I remember McDonald’s had malts and shakes. They went to just shakes. Got milk?
  12. Jonathan McEwan from MediaPost , May 8, 2014 at 1:02 p.m.
    To be reborn one must first die. And it seemed to me that Don was throwing in the towel. Everybody, Peggy especially, humiliated him. Burt seemed to goad him to give it all up. And Don went into a suicidal death spiral, from which Freddy (who reminds me vaguely of the angel in "It's a Wonderful Life") came to rescue him. So let the rebirth begin. Please.
  13. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com , May 8, 2014 at 1:14 p.m.
    I love the idea of Freddy as the angel in "It's a Wonderful Life." May similar themes.
  14. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com , May 8, 2014 at 2:55 p.m.
    I see the robot terre has no sense of irony.
  15. Tom Scharre from The Hunch Fund , May 8, 2014 at 3:09 p.m.
    Only three episodes left. And then - the long drought. As always, your insights are a good read. Here's my take - after a second viewing - on the Lloyd/Don/the Drunk vs. the Devil scene. (I'm channeling my inner Lippert here, but Lloyd's name begins with two "L's" ~ as in H-E-Double Hockey Sticks-HELL.) When a drunk falls off the wagon, he typically looks for a scapegoat. It was somebody or something that triggered the fall. In this case, I think intoxicated Don saw Lloyd's new-business tease as being responsible for a downward spiral. First, he tried to pitch Roger (unfortunately absent) which in turn led him to Bert which in turn led to him being humiliated which in turn led him to stealing Roger's booze which in turn led to a public drunkenness. Why? The devil made me do it.
  16. AC Winters from ACWintersEsq , May 8, 2014 at 3:41 p.m.
    The one M reference I didn't really get was Stan calling the IBM the Mona Lisa. I guess it was meant as this brings people through the door the way the ML drives traffic into the Louvre, but it needed a bit more explication. I didn't see Don's office as a coffin so much as him lying on the couch like he was at a shrink's office, which apparently fits for Portnoy's Complaint which he was reading.
  17. Claudia Reilly from none , May 8, 2014 at 4:31 p.m.
    Another wonderful analysis of the show. Waiting for your "Mad Men" posts remind me of when I would wait for Pauline Kael's film reviews in The New Yorker because she made me think about life and writing and always helped me see what I had not seen with my own eyes or had seen but couldn't articulate. And you do that too. God I can't take any more ennui and angst on the show. I feel relief when Roger shows up because he seems to have the pluckiness of what was this incredibly creative, fun, wild era. The computer talk annoyed me as the first talk I recall of computers in a creative business was the very early 80s and everyone made fun of the guy who kept trying to get us to take computers seriously. He'd wander down the hall talking about how SOMEDAY we'd listen to him. I want to shout at the characters "You have MONEY! You have EXPENSE ACCOUNTS! The whole world is loving advertising and you're getting to be CREATIVE! Enjoy yourselves and kick up your heels and light another cigarette and if you're scared you're drunk, just brew a pot of Maxwell House coffee and have some fun!"
  18. mark weiner from PRIME Research , May 8, 2014 at 4:52 p.m.
    I posted the question of Don's lashing out at Lloyd and I've come to believe that it's Don's own self-loathing...Lloyd is fresh and naïve about advertising just as Don was when he met Roger/before he worked at the agency. Plus he looks like a young Don! His accusations towards Lloyd could be used to perfectly describe Don. Perhaps a moment of misdirected clarity and self-awareness?
  19. George Parker from Parker Consultants , May 8, 2014 at 5:18 p.m.
    Barbara... Barbara... You have to stop this obsession with Mad Men. I stopped watching when it turned into a soap opera, obviously written by people who had never worked in advertising during the glorious sixties. Your Tuba fetish has turned into a Don fetish. However, unlike your Tuba, Don does not actually exist. Let Tom and I bring you back to the reality of Four Seasons Dinners, whilst imagining that George Lois is doing layouts on the $500 a pop table linen, across from the "Faux Hitler." This is the "AdScam" two stage recovery program. Stage 1: Buy a drink. Stage 2: Drink the drink. Always happy to oblige. Cheers/George "AdScam" Parker
  20. Maria Elgar from HARDTRIBE , May 9, 2014 at 5:20 p.m.
    totally missed portnoy's complaint! as always you are enlightening! yes agree roger's daughter transformed pretty quickly but i did love seeing her character changing ... the mud fight was great. fathers struggling to control their independent thinking daughters is an age-old story!
  21. Jim English from FJC , May 10, 2014 at 4:46 p.m.
    Thanks Barbara. 1969: Moon Landing, Mets, and the year The Gap was founded. How many great columns have you written about those Gap campaigns.
  22. Sally Edelstein from Sally Edelstein Design , May 12, 2014 at 5:36 p.m.
    Like many suburban housewives in the late 60's an increasingly frustrated frustrated Betty Francis's own suburban odyssey seems to have stalled. The space age was in full swing but to believe the ads that ran at the time, while men went to the moon, housewives were left back on earth to clean it. The dawning of the space age may have caused some businessmen to ponder their obsolescence but homemakers needn't worry their jobs were secure.http://wp.me/p2qifI-2eD