Though Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) return to SC&P in “The Monolith” certainly stirs the pot, his presence (purposefully) feels challenged by the introduction of the company’s new computer system, installed right where the copywriters work in the lounge. In fact, the key exchange of the episode involves Don, Harry Crane (Richard Sommer), and Lloyd (Robert Baker), the man who comes to install the gargantuan IBM unit. At one point, Harry assures that the taking over of the creative lounge for the computer isn’t symbolic of them jettisoning the creative department, to which Don retorts that they haven’t symbolically evicted them, but rather literally kicked them out.
It’s a fitting central dialogue that quietly encapsulates the episode, which is the first episode since “Time Zones” where the narrative constantly felt busy with story rather than depending on symbolic acts and pauses. Don’s dealings with Lloyd and his infernal machine is balanced with Roger’s (John Slattery) unlikely voyage to upstate New York with Mona (Talia Balsam), his ex-wife, to retrieve Margaret (Elizabeth Rice), who’s abandoned her family for commune living. This, of course, realizes the uneasy undertones of the lunch Margaret and her father had in “Time Zones,” and their interaction in “The Monolith” reveals a certain inability for Roger to coincide who he really is and what he symbolizes for a myriad of others.
Though Roger plays the understanding and “cool” father upon arrival at the commune, sharing a joint with his daughter’s new lover and helping out with dinner preparations after Mona drives off, his pride and perverse jealousy over his little girl comes into play. Roger has enjoyed the fruits of sexual and social liberalism without being what you might call a “liberal” over the last few seasons, and as his daughter goes from kissing him goodnight to sneaking out with her new boyfriend, the limitations of his belief in personal freedom is spelled out. The script lays it on a bit too thick when Margaret calls him out, but the series has rarely been so curt and unsparing in its treatment of Roger’s now-hysterical hypocrisy and his shallow approximation of being the hippest guy in the room.
For her part, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) strived hard to be more than just a symbol and succeeded for the most part. The heads of SC&P choose Peggy to head up a presentation for Burger Chef largely on the fact that she’s a woman whom they presume the client will see as a standard-bearer for the housewife contingency, but undermine her by saddling her with an emasculated Don. In a canny bit of writing, Don tries to usurp Peggy by pitching Cooper (Robert Morse) on a possible advertising plan for Lloyd’s company, only to have his one-time business partner and friendly colleague tell him that he’s just keeping a dead man’s office warm.
Don remains in that very office for most of the episode, sneaking a drink from Roger’s stash and breezing through the first few chapters of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, a novel that chronicles dreamy nostalgia giving way to a stark, unkind adulthood. Don is no longer the lynchpin of SC&P, and his livelihood is now dependent on his work rather than his reputation. It makes his relationship with Lloyd, who used to work for IBM, all the more fascinating and relevant. Lloyd’s business model takes advantage of rampant progress by leasing out quickly discontinued IBM units that are still working, but aren’t the latest and greatest. He doesn’t have to create or invent, only sell an old product in a new way, which is what Don is clearly struggling with as he paces around his office. It takes a pinch from Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray), a man who took a long time to get over his own unflattering reputation as a weak, embarrassing drunkard, to wake Don up, and as he sits at his typewriter, it’s clear that the office is finally inhabited with a creative presence rather than a lonesome totem of the past.