Below the fold, we'll do the work.
I'm going to assume that everyone who's read this far has watched the episode, so I'm not going to bother with a plot summary. (The above link, and those below, can do that).
I found this to be an unusually focused and anvil-heavy episode that told one story that needs telling (Don's) in a fairly predictable path (that said: go Freddy!), and another, Roger's, that I have little interest in at this point. He's a man out-of-time; we know that. He does not fit in this era.
And with only ten episodes left in the series, I'm much more interested in what happens to Peggy, Joan, Betty, Pete, Dawn, Sally, Glen, Sal (!), Bob Benson, Trudie, or Kinsey than Roger. And I miss episodes which are about evolutions in advertising as opposed to just the characters themselves.
As for Don's journey, we're starting from near the bottom, and anyone who predicted anything other than resentment and alcoholism from being assigned to work for Peggy needs to turn in their secret decoder rings. No, Roger Sterling's vodka is not Don's Popeye spinach, but thank goodness he chose Freddy Rumsen to pull him out of the spiral and remind him of that basic truth of life: it's about the work. Sometimes, you just have to sit down and do it, no matter what.
Kubrick was everywhere. As the episode's title suggests, 2001 was the touchstone, even though the timeline is off (the film was released to theaters in in January 1968, over a year before the events of "Monolith"). The episode kicks into high gear in its second scene, with Don arriving at the office, stepping past a black monolith, and finding SCP's first floor as deserted as the white room where the film's sole surviving astronaut Dave Bowman goes to die. Short lenses accentuate the set's already bold lines, making fluorescent ceiling panels seem to stretch toward infinity like the white floor plates in Bowman's final resting place. Turns out the office is gathered on the second floor, where Jim Cutler and Harry Crane are announcing the installation of the new computer that Harry's been agitating for (and that he described to a client last week). "It's gonna do lots of magical things, like make Harry Crane seem important," Don tells Roger.Mark Lisanti:
Shades of the HAL 9000. "Monolith" talks about the uneasy relationship between humans and machines, which is also a theme in the Kubrick-written, posthumously released Steven Spielberg film A.I., which ended with a flash-forward to a future in which biomechanical super-beings picked through the rubble of human civilization. A longish conversation between Don Draper and the Lease Tech guy Lloyd is a mother lode of man-and-machine philosophizing that ultimately leads to Don proposing him as a new client and getting slapped down by Bert. Don thinks computers are the future, and clearly Lloyd agrees; in fact he talks about the machines as if they're people, and brags that his company is dedicated toward sustaining them rather than letting them die out in a regular cycle of planned obsolescence. "I believe in these machines," Lloyd tells Don. "I don't want to find them in a junkyard in two years."
The episode also includes talk of "the perils of technology," "a cosmic disturbance," rockets, a moon landing, astronauts, the finite nature of human existence, the expansion of human consciousness through both scientific research and drugs (Roger invites Don out for drinks by asking if he wants to "celebrate our technological advancement"), and, in that lovely scene at the commune between Roger and his daughter, the poetic and and mathematical appreciation of the stars. Kubrick's post–Dr. Strangelove work often concerned itself with conditioning, evolution, and the threat of specieswide extinction, all of which are important in this hour of the show. The opening chapter of 2001 — the prehistoric curtain-raiser that's ended with a bone-to-spaceship transition — is titled "The Dawn of Man," and "Monolith" contains many sideways references to that prelude, including Roger's vote of confidence in Don as potential copywriter for Peggy: "He spent three weeks alone in that cave and he hasn't clubbed another ape yet."
If onetime tragicomic laughingstock Freddy Rumsen can return from his extended exile to play such a crucial role in Don Draper’s final-season emotional development, we have to be prepared for virtually any marginal character, no matter how maligned, to return and potentially be redeemed in the Mad Men endgame.Molly Lambert:
That’s right: We’re saying a blind-drunk Duck Phillips may be back sometime during Episodes 8 and 14 to take a shit in the IBM 360’s punch-card slot, a move that will be hailed as a blow against the dehumanizing encroachment of technology in the advertising field. As his powerfully symbolic act is trumpeted around the industry, no one from SCDP will have the heart to point out Duck was actually trying to take a rage-dump in Don’s briefcase.
The titular monolith in “The Monolith” is the new computer, which arrived this week to displace the creatives’ lounge and disrupt the flow of energy in the office. Nothing like construction noise to get those brain juices flowing. Not that Don’s chi couldn’t use some serious work. “The Monolith” is a reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the genre-redefining science-fiction movie that blew minds a year before this episode takes place, in 1968. Don’s initial anger at the new computer and all it symbolizes about his new situation briefly melted into appreciation, before reverting to primal rejection. I’m not saying Don is going to smash the computer by the end of the season, but would anyone in the office be shocked if he did? Don throws things at other things when he’s overtaken by negative emotions, and then generally swan-dives headfirst into the nearest bottle of booze. Granted, Peggy may not have Don’s million-dollar arm, but she responds to stress differently. When she learns that Don will not be attending her meeting, and not because he has anything better to do, she just takes a few sharp breaths and gets back to the task at hand. The work is all. She doesn’t even clap back at Don, because she knows that’s probably what he wants. He thrives on other people’s high blood pressure, and Peggy is usually excellent at managing hers, other than a few recent obvious glitches. She might blow up, but she won’t go pop.And do read Margaret Lyons' history of Freddy Rumsen.