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'Mad Men' recap, 'The Monolith'

“What do you do around here, Don?”

That’s the question on everyone’s mind, even Don’s. Four weeks into his whimper of a return to SC&P, he remains in career limbo, cooped up in a mausoleum of an office his without so much as an ad campaign to his name. Relapse was inevitable, which means repetition was unavoidable.

In last week’s episode, "Field Trip," we saw Don swallow his pride and accept his old job on SC&P’s conditions, not his. It was a new leaf for the entitled and narcissistic anti-hero we love to hate. But of course, it didn’t take long for the tantrums to come back.

When I was pining for old Don, I meant the charming Don who churned dazzling copy from Seasons 1-5, not the cringe-inducing, sloppy mess from Season 6. It’s painful and embarrassing to watch. Truth is, we’ve been expecting the return of this Don. Not just the viewers, but his co-workers, too.

That’s the trouble with self-immolation, especially one so spectacularly disastrous as Don’s Hershey fail last season: Walking away unscathed is impossible when the fire spreads so far that it burns bridges in its destructive path. Now these friends-turned-foes are practically foaming at the mouth to see Don crash and burn again.

Bert, Cutler, Lou and pretty much all the partners, except Roger and Pete, are convinced he’ll implode. Joan plots with Peggy to find if he’s broken a rule on his agreement. “How does he fit into everything here?” Joan asked last episode. He’s an intruder, and he doesn’t belong.

But Don isn’t the only invader at SC&P. After an excruciatingly long and tense elevator ride, Don walks into an empty office and finds everything halted. A red phone eerily swings off the hook (more on the significance of that imagery in a bit), implying something devastating has happened. It’s almost as if a meteor came hurtling to SC&P and swept out the dinosaurs. The technology-adverse dinosaurs, that is.

As Don walks upstairs, he finds the staff crowded around a clunky but then state-of-the-art computer. It’s an invasion that Don, and mostly anyone who’s Team Don (think: Roger and Ginsy) sees as the death of the creative backbone of the agency, aka Don.

It "can be a metaphor for whatever’s on people’s minds,” IT whiz and entrepreneur Lloyd says. Don’s never been an optimist, so this looming, whirring machine that’s commandeered the creative team’s lunch room only means one thing: doom.

That is, until Lloyd asks Don for advertising advice. Lloyd is eager to find a way to make Lee’s Tech stand out from IBM. Suddenly, Don flips on that pro-technology switch as soon as he’s useful again.

“They don’t have you and they don’t advertise,” Don cajoles Lloyd. This is the Don we want. It’s heartening to see the return of this charismatic genius of an ad man. But any spark of hope that Don reignites is quickly doused by a gulp from a stolen liquor bottle and a deluge of self-hatred.

Bert shoots down Don’s idea to pitch a campaign to Lee’s Technology, since his interaction with a potential client clearly violates the partners’ strict stipulations. Don starts huffing and puffing and boasting that he could have taken his talents anywhere. When Bert asks why he didn’t leave, Don says it’s because he helped start that agency.

“Along with the dead man whose office you now inhabit.” Ouch. Bert, leave the zingers to Roger and Meredith. Even Ice Queen Betty would say that’s cold. From the pang of regret that floods his eyes as he turns his head, Bert knows that it was out of line, even if it was true (note how the agency’s new name, Sterling Cooper & Partners, knocked out both Draper and Pryce from SCDP).

Don storms out of his office. He knows his career there is as good as dead. Accepting his fate, he tacks up Lane’s old Mets pennant he found under his desk.

To Lane, that pennant was his desperate attempt to shed his British persona and blend in as a full-fledged, baseball-loving American. Eventually his financial struggles caught up with him, leading him to embezzlement, termination and suicide.

To Don, it’s a white flag of defeat. He, like Lane, tried to be something he’s not: someone who belongs. Namely, a respectable, functional partner of the agency he started. It worked for so long, until his boozing and self-loathing ruined his personal and business relationships.

Now that cursed pennant haunts him. It’s there as he slams the door when he realizes he must report to Peggy (his female protégé — how humiliating!) and it’s there floating above his head when he wakes up from his pity- and booze-induced creative nap.

He even puts it in the same exact spot, right next to the door where Lane’s lifeless body swung listlessly after hanging himself in Season 5, which was eerily mirrored by the dangling red phone off the hook in the beginning of this episode.

As tiresome as "Mad Men’s" repetitive plotlines can be, the writers’ intricate weaving of past seasons' details into current episodes is what makes this show still enjoyable. It’s a thanks to all the loyal fans out there who have stuck it out all these years.

Surprisingly, Don’s relapse doesn’t result in him getting fired. Instead of drunk-dialing an ex — there’s too many to list here — Don calls Freddy. A wise call, even if his intentions were just to duck out to a Mets game. Freddy’s the only person who’s Team Don and isn’t a bigger mess than he is (I’m looking at you, Roger). And he’s one hell of a sponsor.

The morning after Don’s woe-is-me rager, he’s hungover and griping to Freddy that nothing’s back to the way it was. Freddy replies with a strong cup of coffee and a heaping serving of reality: “How the hell do you think that’s going to happen when you’re at the bottom of the bottle?”

If freelancing doesn’t work, Freddy should become a life counselor. “Are you trying to kill yourself? Give them what they want?” Don isn’t killing himself; he’s killing his career. Which, in Don/Dick’s world, is the very essence of Don.

Freddy tells him to suit up and "do the work." That’s the only option he has left as damaged goods. Freddy’s inspirational speech has Don close to tears. And it looks like it sinks in. We see him back at the office, typing with purpose. He might be writing tags for Peggy, but at least he’s writing.

Since the show began, theories have swirled that Don will die or kill himself at the end of the series, likely by throwing himself out the window like in the opening credits. That’s too obvious and I couldn’t see series creator Matthew Weiner appeasing fans in that way.

A death is imminent, as if the countless suicide references didn’t make that obvious enough. But I don’t see a casket in Don’s future. More likely, he’ll shed the façade he’s grown to hate. “You go by many names,” he drunkenly snarls at Lloyd. He means himself. Maybe he’ll drop Don and go back to Dick.

I had a feeling Margaret, Roger’s spoiled yet spiritual daughter, drank the Kool-Aid. Proving that rebellion is not limited to reckless teenagers, the 20-something housewife ran off to upstate New York to join a hippie commune.

But she’s not the only one with a rebel streak. Don rebels against the partners by drinking at work. Roger rebels against his family by philandering and experimenting with drugs. And Margaret rebels against her family by more-or-less doing what her father has done his whole life. Only difference is that she dons a hand-spun sweater instead of a three-piece suit. And her zingers are far crueler.

“I love myself. I don’t have to lock myself in the bathroom with a bottle of gin every day,” she cloyingly says to her mom before twisting the knife. No, but she does practically hook up with a hippie next to her sleeping dad. Ew, ew, ew! What about that says self-love? Get it together, Marigold.

“I thought she was finally happy,” Mona says of her daughter. Funny, we all said the same thing about Roger when he got remarried to Jane, and again when he blissfully dropped acid, and again when he started a sex commune in his own apartment. Actually, that last part was just pathetic.

Margaret, like her father, isn’t truly happy. She uses the free-love hippie stuff as an excuse to feel philosophically and morally superior to her family. Yup, just like Roger on LSD.

This like-father-like-daughter trajectory that Margaret has taken makes me worry about Sally’s future. After all, Don has led a vaguely similar life to Roger’s (married with kids, divorced, married again, divorced again). His daughter might follow the same path as Roger’s.

Last season, Sally was caught drinking and assumed another identity by using a fake ID. Two very Don Draper-esque things to do. But will she spiral out of control like Don or revolt like Margaret?

The next episode is titled "The Runaways." Margaret fled home this episode. Sally’s great escape could be next.

MORE HIGHLIGHTS FROM "THE MONOLITH":

BEST ROGER ONE-LINERS: Lots of gems from the Silver Fox this episode, but these two were my favorite:

“It’s time to leave Shangri-La.”

“Now I see why we’re eating so early.” – Roger regarding the excessive weed toking at the hippie commune.

BEST MEREDITH ONE-LINER: “Don’t eat that — you’re so trim!” to Don as he chews on junk food. More Meredith, please! Roger’s lost some of his luster since becoming a messier version of Don.

BEST GINSY ONE-LINER: “The other one’s full of farts!” – Ginsberg about the couch shuffle. Nice to see Ginsy’s gone from psychotic last season back to default neurotic this season.

MOST DISAPPOINTING PROMOTION: Peggy’s Burger Chef project. Yes, I’m ecstatic that she’s overseeing Don and is raking in more cash, especially since she trash-talked Lou. (“[He] doesn’t know a thing about creative.” – burn!) But like Joan and Dawn’s recent promotions, it was a move purely based on politics, not her talents or performance. On the plus side, Lou feels threatened, very threatened, by Don. Good. I like seeing that talentless brute suffer.

MOST DURABLE MACHINE: Don’s typewriter. He hurled it against the window and it worked just fine later. Flash forward five decades and my computer spazzes if I have too many tabs open.

WHAT ABOUT BOB?: I really do miss Bob Benson. Snide remarks from Pete don’t count. I’d prefer my creep factor in the form of a plastic smile with two cups of coffee in hand over a Charles Manson-esque commune.

CALIFORNIA LOVE: No word from Megan this episode. Wonder how soon it will be before we see Don served with divorce papers?

MAN ON THE MOON: The moon landing was referenced twice in this episode: once by Lloyd the IT guy and again by Margaret. If they’re mentioning it this much and it hasn’t even happened yet, I’m betting it will be a big part of an upcoming plotline. Just three more episodes left of this half. You can bet we’ll see it this season.

BIGGEST UNANSWERED QUESTIONS: Don’s not the office’s only lush. How long until Roger finds out that liquor in his office is gone? More importantly, why didn’t Lloyd tell one of the other partners, or at least Harry, about Don’s alcohol-fueled freak-out? And why didn’t Peggy tell the partners that she saw Don drunk? Those three things should have gotten Don booted immediately. The clock — or watch or timepiece or conversation piece — is ticking for Don. His time at SC&P is fleeting.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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