The theme of Mad Men Episode Four (“The Monolith”), with its brazen referentiality to 2001: A Space Odyssey, was “Progress: Its Nature and Consequences.”

Now in the third week of his restoration to Sterling, Cooper & Partners, Don arrives one morning to find the office empty of humans. Has there been a rapture? No, a different consummation: The Coming of the Computer. Up one floor, a ceremony is afoot for which Don did not get the memo, celebrating the installation of an IBM computer. The teleology is limned later by the owner of LeaseTech, the purveyor: “Isn’t it godlike that we’ve mastered the infinite?”

One obvious crux emerges: That of Man vs. Machine, or Creativity vs. Computer. The Creative Lounge, naturally, must be demolished to make way for the mechanical brain. “It’s not symbolic,” runs Harry Crane’s non-apology to Don. “No,” replies Don, “it’s quite literal.” (“There,” said the Mad Men writers’ room, “since we’ve made a joke about our heavy-handed symbolism, nobody can criticize us for it.”)

But a second crux emerges, and it is a classic Mad Men question: What do we count as progress? IBM and LeaseTech offer one kind of answer. The episode and the series favor a different one.

For IBM and LeaseTech, “progress” means “our technological advancement” (Roger Sterling’s sardonic phrase). In its hardest form, the IBM business model, “our technological advancement” entails a brutal regimen of obsolescence. Don says the goal is to “replace humans.” More than that, and paradoxically, IBM’s goal is to replace its own machines—“always replacing the equipment with the newest model,” as the LeaseTech owner says.

The LeaseTech business model, as explained by owner Lloyd Hawley, is based on resisting the obsolescence of the machines. Lloyd’s company can lease IBM computers cheaply because, unlike IBM itself, it does not always lease the newest versions. Lloyd once worked for IBM, but he defected for profit and principle: “I’ve worked with these machines. I know how resilient they are. I don’t want to find them in a junkyard in two years.”

Able to speak intelligently about his field of endeavor, even mounting a critique of the behemoth, Lloyd comes off sympathetically. Even Don is won over, in a scene at the episode’s midpoint. Here Don begins to view Lloyd as a potential client, of the kind Don likes best to work with—curious about advertising, with a charismatic product. But insofar as Lloyd’s opponent is not IBM but SC&P Creative, we side with Don against him. His bombast about technology and progress does not fare well against Don’s lyricism—especially when the subject is the stars, for heaven’s sake. Lloyd boasts, “The IBM 360 can count more stars in a day than we can in a lifetime.” Don retorts, “But what man lay on his back counting stars and thought about a number?”—and the round goes to him.

What then? If IBM and LeaseTech’s “technological advancement” bombast—their linear model of predictable and ineluctable triumph—is not a true model of progress, what is? The episode investigates other orientations to time and destiny, eventually finding one it can endorse. But first it spooks us with specters of regression.

The emblematic opposite of “technological advancement” at SC&P is the hippie commune to which Roger’s daughter Margaret has gone to rusticate. “Electricity and all that, it just brings problems.” If Mad Men is skeptical of the rise of the machines, it is no less skeptical of this countercultural-Luddite nonsense. The hippies’ opting out of modernity reflects their discontent with the here-and-now of their social contexts. Margaret has been unhappy in marriage and motherhood: “I’m tired of accepting society’s definition of me.” Her flight to the commune is thus an abdication of responsibility. As Roger tells her, “I know everyone your age is running away and screwing around, but you can’t. You’re a mother.”

Now this is interesting, in part because Don’s hostility to “technological advancement” may be seen, similarly, to reflect his discontent with his situation at work. (Computers are making him obsolete—except that the partners’ punitive restrictions on him have already done the job.) So Don’s regressive behavior during this episode is neatly paralleled by Margaret’s opt-out from modernity and motherhood. Nifty.

We’ll pick up there in a second. But in other respects, on the level of writerly craft, I note that this hippie interlude is kind of regrettable. Roger and his ex-wife Mona get very righteous, which many viewers seem to enjoy. Mona with her maternal zingers! “Sugar plum, these people are lost, and they’re on drugs, and they have venereal diseases.”

But the Sterlings are earnest as well as righteous, and the series does not do earnest well. “Being a young mother can be overwhelming, even with help”: This sounds too much like social-message telegraphing. Roger is even worse. “He needs his mother! … How could you just leave him? He’s your baby!”: This is melodrama. When Roger tries to compel Margaret to return to New York, their physical tussle occurs, naturally, over a mud puddle—which they topple into and scramble around in, ruining Roger’s beautiful suit. Because, note this, anguish is messy.

Too much, guys. Roger had one funny line in this episode (“[The computer] is going to do lots of magical things, like make Harry Crane look important”), and it was all downhill from there.

Back to Don, who presents another specter of regression, paralleling Margaret’s—but with a (possible) difference. In the office now for three weeks, he still has not been given any meaningful work to do, since the partners, with the exceptions of Roger and Pete Campbell, have been bent on sidelining him. When finally Roger and Pete manage to get him onto an account, Lou Avery sabotages it: He puts Peggy in charge of the project, so that Don will have to report to his former secretary and subordinate. Peggy, with a few scores to settle, pettily assigns Don entry-level work: Write twenty-five taglines for a fast-food chain. Don falls apart, as Lou had hoped. He refuses to do the work. After getting drunk alone in his office (now a firing offense), he calls up Freddy Rumsen in the middle of the day with the idea of going to a Mets game. He is regressing to the worst version of his old self—whiskey-soaked and imploding.

Here we begin to note another pattern of time and destiny, very different from the linear-progress model. Try a karmic circle on for size. Under the air conditioning vent in his office, i.e. Lane Pryce’s old office (Bert Cooper reminds him brutally of the “dead man, whose office you now inhabit”), Don happens upon the crumpled Mets pennant that had been an emblem of Lane’s affection for New York, the city that killed him. Rather than throw it away, Don pins the pennant on the wall—because he is feeling the karma. He is stuck in Lane’s office, and burdened with his other constraints, for his sins, as if he had been reborn into SC&P as a Lane-like lower form of life. The man who once was master of rebirth, dying to Dick Whitman to come back as Don Draper, now seems doomed to rebirth as to a cycle of futility. Don is no longer in control of his identity and destiny. The Mets pennant signals that, sooner or later, he will in some fashion follow Lane and become the next SC&P partner to destroy himself.

Or not? As the entire internet has well observed, the Mets pennant now (in 1969) looks forward to the Miracle Mets, who after notching losing records in every season of their existence, abruptly won the World Series. The Mets pennant may, then, be an emblem not of regression or futility, but of progress—though not the ineluctable-linearity, predictable-triumph model that characterizes “technological advancement.” Something more improbable and circuitous.

A salvage job. This model finds its exponent in the slightly cracked copywriter Michael Ginsberg. As the Creative Department disassembles its Creative Lounge, Ginsberg goes on a rant—which, like previous similar speeches from this character, is less crazy than it sounds. Ginsberg resolves to salvage a red sofa, is thwarted by artist Stan Rizzo, and explodes: “Let me put this in terms the Art Department can understand: They are trying to erase us. But they can’t erase this couch!”

Before decoding Ginsberg here, let’s glance back at earlier speeches. There was the Season-Five speech in which he told Peggy, in apparent seriousness, that he had been born on Mars and was a stranger on this earth—probably, Peggy determined, a cryptic reference to his having been orphaned in a Nazi concentration camp, so always tragically alienated. Then there was the Season-Six meltdown in which he cried out to Bob Benson, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”—alluding to the Trinity explosion while writing copy for Dow, which makes Napalm. In each case, as with “They are trying to erase us,” Ginsberg couches a profound point in language that is more or less figurative—and his manner, whether fanatical or strangely calm, makes it unclear whether he himself understands where figuration ends and literal reality begins. “They are trying to erase us”: These may be the words of a high-strung eccentric, but they have the ring of paranoid schizophrenia.

But we should look as well as listen, in this instance noting not just the speech but the sofa—by the looks of it, a Florence Knoll sofa (h/t my encyclopedic housemate Valerie Rogotzke), hence an iconic specimen of mid-century modern furniture. (And, today, quite prized. A quality reproduction will set you back $10,074 plus shipping.) Ginsberg’s salvage (or vintage) instincts, then, are spot-on. Contrast IBM, with its ephemeral machines. Stan Rizzo is wrong when he says to Ginsberg that a computer in the office will be like the Mona Lisa in a museum: “People pay entrance to the whole Louvre just to walk by that thing.” The computer will not endure down the ages. It will be in the junkyard soon enough—if not in two years, then in four or five. The computer will be “erased”; Ginsberg’s sofa, like the Mona Lisa, will not.

Who, then, has his eye on the future? And what, again, counts as progress? Note that Ginsberg’s salvage (or vintage) instincts are Mad Men’s instincts: The series is devoted to curation, to recovering things that have appreciated in significance or meaning. These things from the past are not obsolete; they should not be cast off; they are worth considering and assessing, now more than ever.

A more significant salvage job than Ginsberg’s is performed by Freddy Rumsen, in the realm not of office decor but of office psychology. Called in to take Don to a Mets game, this recovered alcoholic wisely takes the drunken man home instead to sleep it off. In the morning, Freddy gives the hungover Don a good talking-to: “What the hell are you doing? Aren’t they giving you a second chance?” Told of the twenty-five taglines, he exhorts: “Are you just going to kill yourself? Give them what they want? Or go in your bedroom, get in uniform, fix your bayonet, and hit the parade? Do the work, Don.”

Don’s regression to entry-level status will be a case of going backwards in order to go forwards. The salvage job will entail discerning value in what would otherwise have been thrown away, then making the most of it. Don must see that any work, even work he considers behind and beneath him, is an opportunity to “Do the work.” Likewise, his reduced position at SC&P is humiliating, but it is also a “second chance.”

Note the song that closes the episode: The Hollies’ “On a Carousel.” It calls back to Don’s great pitch for the Kodak Carousel, which ended Season One. In that meeting, Don imagined a slide projector as a “time machine,” transporting families to the happy moments of their snapshots. The product name—Don’s own idea—was a play on the promise of return, recurrence, recovery: We can circle back in happiness. And with this song over the end credits, viewers imagine Don’s circling-back to professional triumph, in a return that would be not a regression but a return to form, a vindication of Freddy’s salvage job.

Will it happen? We have reasons for optimism. The overall trend for Mad Men characters seems to be upward, albeit not linearly. With its general increase in earnestness—Roger was on a crusade last week, and is on another this week; here comes Mona with her wise maternal zingers; and above all, listen to Freddy Rumsen’s Tips For Changing Your Life—the series seems to be committing to the idea that selfish and/or self-destructive people can indeed become selfless and/or get their acts together.

The changes, though, will be not linear but circular-ish. If the new verbalizations of earnestness are causing a stylistic rupture, as I think they are, that may be because the Mad Men writers’ room is highly practiced at making these characters go in circles regressively or statically—rather than, as here, progressively. But this has always been Matthew Weiner’s justification for the Mad Men style of character development (or non-development): People don’t change in straight lines. In order to be realistic, the storylines have to be circuitous, returning semi-endlessly to the same themes and problems. The linear model of predictable and ineluctable triumph is a fantasy—or if it works, it works for machines, not for men.

Articles by Julia Yost

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