On February 5, 1969, ABC premiered a show that was so reviled so fast that it was never seen again. The Cleveland affiliate pulled the plug after the first commercial break and the West Coast didn't air it at all. That show was "Turn-On," a sketch comedy that's been described as "visual, comedic, sensory assault involving animation, videotape, stop-action film, electronic distortion, computer graphics -- even people." The central conceit is that it was written by a computer, perhaps a built-in defense for why the show was unable to connect with humans.
If "Turn-On" was entertainment as made by unfeeling technology, then what does work look like through the same filter? It's a question that's on the mind of "Mad Men" this season. In last week's episode, we saw Jim Cutler realize the agency is falling behind rivals in the technological arms race. In this week's -- which appears to take place less than a month later -- Sterling Cooper & Partners is in the process of receiving a new IBM 360. What exactly it will do is unclear besides, of course, serving as a shiny lure for clients. It's installed in a prominent place, behind glass and, just so you make no mistake about the symbolic import, the blue machine replaces the creatives' lounge.
At first, this feels heavy-handed, this notion that an ad agency in 1969 would replace creatives with computers. (See last week's recap for detail on the history of computers and ad agencies.) But by episode's end, it's clear the real theme here is not man's struggle against technology but man's struggle against an obsolescence that can and will come in any number of ways, a story told through Don Draper's continued attempts at rehabilitation.
Don is back, but he's only moved his exile in-house. For weeks, he's been doing nothing, which in his eyes is better than doing something that will have him report to Peggy, who has won both a raise and a new project: a Burger Chef pitch. She orders Don to write 25 tag lines and he throws a typewriter at the window. It gets worse when Don brings a new-business idea -- computers! -- to Bert Cooper, who essentially tells him to get lost. Don does get lost, in a bottle of vodka pilfered from Roger Sterling's office. He gets so drunk he actually wants to go to a Mets game.
The Mets association is triggered by a pennant Don finds in his new office, the old dwelling of Lane Pryce. One of this season's big questions is whether Don will suffer the same fate as Lane, who was chewed up and spit out by life and the agency he helped build. Don has been given a second chance, but the agency has moved on. As Cooper notes, "You thought there would be a big creative crisis and we'd pull you off the bench. In fact, we're doing just fine."
I think it's telling that the awards that are visible on Don's office wall are all from the late 1950s, a decade ago. The Carousel keeps coming up as well -- Cosgrove mentioned it last week, somewhat nostalgically, and this week's closing song is "On a Carousel" by the Hollies. (Sample lyric: "People fighting for their places/Just get in the way.") Don is still a vaunted, in-demand creative, but his days are numbered and the very place he has built doesn't need him any more than it needed Lane, "a dead man whose office you now inhabit," as Cooper puts it.
Adding a computer to the existing existential stew is a bold move on the part of the "Mad Men" writers. In other hands, it might have quickly devolved into a five-paragraph thesis on the dehumanizing effects of technology. But the show is too self-aware for that. Calling the episode "The Monolith," a reference to 1968's "2001: A Space Odyssey," puts us squarely in that dystopian territory. Sterling at one point refers to Don as an ape. And then there's Lloyd, the computer installer. His name rhymes with Floyd, as in Heywood R., the character who touches the monolith in "2001." In Stanley Kubrick's film, that action is about interacting with the tools of an advanced, evolved civilization. The monolith in "Mad Men" is something different. It is the IBM 360 and it is advanced, but we haven't necessarily evolved. As an unconcerned Stan Rizzo at one point notes, "That computer is the Mona Lisa. People pay entry to the Louvre to walk by that thing."
It's not the HAL 9000 Rizzo sees, but a museum piece. It's less technological disruption than an advertisement for that disruption, an insight that puts him several steps ahead of Don, whose initial read on the contraption is that it's just one more thing working against him. He interrupts a conversation between Harry Crane and Lloyd about "Turn-On" and takes the discussion quickly into business.
Don: "Who's replacing more humans?"
Harry: "I'm sorry you lost your lunchroom. It's not symbolic."
Don: "No, it's quite literal."
Lloyd: "I go into businesses every day and it's my experience these machines can be a metaphor for whatever is on people's minds."
So as with Rizzo's take, we have here a moment in which the characters are themselves interpreting the very script of which they are a part. When a drunk Don encounters Lloyd later, he sounds like he's listened to "Sympathy for the Devil" one too many times. "You talk like a friend but you're not …You go by many names. I know who you are … You don't need a campaign, you have the best campaign since the dawn of time."
Is this just Don misreading his own situation again or something else?
There's a moment of soused clarity here, as Don realizes that technology is not itself the problem. Evolving to be of the moment, to be modern, is one of many impossible challenges, but it's not everything. We may want our struggles to be epic, historical, heroic or tragic on a grand scale, but they're really quite small. We're taunted by things like petty ego and alcoholism and selfishness. As Freddie Rumsen will remind him, what Don really needs is to stop drinking and do his work -- nothing more epic than that.
The episode's other main arc, Roger's attempt to rescue his daughter from an upstate New York commune, only extends this. Margaret has, at least in the short term, forsaken a life with her husband, son and electricity for a rustic love shack. Yet, looking up at the night sky, she pines for that rocket that will go to the moon, for technology. We know the man on the moon will come in just a few months, but that will do nothing to repair a father-daughter relationship damaged long ago. Sterling, like Draper, is reaping what he has sowed. There is no "2001" starchild, just a grown daughter and an aging man, rolling in the mud.
Thanks to Pete Campbell's Rolodex and a chance meeting, Burger Chef has entered the picture. Burger Chef was an actual chain that at one point was second to McDonald's in number of stores. It was sold to the owner of Hardee's in 1982. That was essentially the end for the brand, though it does live on in the hearts and Pinterest boards of fans like this one.
To get your week off right, here's a bunch of Burger Chef commercials: