Breaking down Mad Men has become a national past time of sorts as the show’s creator, Matt Weiner has shown a propensity to layer the show with symbols and esoterica, ranging from the Kaballa, to gnosticism and even the zodiac. The symbol for Weiner’s production company is “The Sun” card from the Rider-Waite deck.
Last week on Mad Men, as the closing credits rolled, Jimi Hendrixes, “If Six Was Nine” dominated the ear space. It serves as a signifier of time, alerting the viewer that the year is 1969. Astrologically, 69 is also the symbol of Cancer, which will have a much prominent role in this week’s episode, “The Monolith.”
Mad Men itself is an exercise in Cancerian retrospection as the show bathes in nostalgia, surfacing businesses and brands that have long gone by the wayside. As a Cancerian vehicle for time travel, it also celebrates an important era in America’s (Cancerian country) evolution and development and in some ways is a poetic eulogy for the country itself as we see our collective past unspooled through the eyes of Madison Avenue, two hour lunches, ubiquitous atmospheres of nicotine clouds and ad campaigns that made us buy into the American dream with a full-fledged-abandon; our birthright to consume and court leisure and luxury like lesser deities to do our bidding.
Don is back at the bottom, where he started from, having agreed to harsh guidelines for his return, such as no drinking in his office and no solo meetings with clients. Don is on such a short leash, he may as well be hanging by a rope. In some ways, he is. Gone is his spacious office with the staggering skyline view of Manhattan. That belongs to Lou Avery, a cardigan wearing, dullard of a demi-urge who courts mediocrity at every turn, but has no problems displaying his fangs whenever Don is within pissing range.
Lou is Salieri to Don’s Mozart and Lou knows it.
Don’s half brother, Adam (first man) hanged himself as a blood sacrifice in some ways to protect Don’s identity, since Adam knew him as Dick, the whore mother’s son. Don is literally and figuratively a bastard.
Lane Pryce, one of the partners, also hanged himself and Don played a role in his demise as well. Now Don is occupying Lane’s old office, the place where Lane killed himself and he has become the Scapegoat of Cooper Sterling. Everyone from Burt, to Joan, to Peggy, to Lou, to Jim Cutler are ready to blame something on Don or direct their scorn in his general direction. Don is the hanged man.
This recent episode, is easily this season’s best and might be one of Weiner’s better offerings over the past few seasons, for reasons that are both sly and highly entertaining.
The year is 1969, it’s the same year that the Amazing Mets will stun the sporting world and capture the World Series. Of course, Don has pinned a Mets pennant to the wall, one that Lane had tacked up before him. The Mets were the underdog story of the 1960’s, that was until the New York Jets came along a few months later and did the same thing for New York and football when they stunned the heavily favored Colts. But we are getting way ahead of ourselves.
The Mets and Don were at that time, both losers, but if his narrative arc mirrors that of the Mets, by the end of this last season, Don, will be back on top.
He enters SCP and as the door of the elevator opens, he sees and notices the ominous looking, black elevator door opposite him. It’s a dead ringer for the Monolith that plays a central role in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey, which had opened a year earlier, on 1/1/68.
This is just one, sly reference to not just 2001, but perhaps a nod to Jay Weidner’s work on Kubrick, The Shining and 2001, as we shall see.
The Monolith is also a reference to the IBM 360, a super computer that is brought in by Harry Crane. It serves as a sub-anchor to the 2001 theme as their version of Hal 4000, the super intelligent agent within the agency.
As Weiner often does, he’ll have a contrasting sub-plot snaking around the main theme. In this episode, it’s Roger Sterling’s daughter who has abandoned her husband and young child to live on a hippie commune in upstate New York, where they don’t even have electricity. The arrival of the IBM 360 is in direct opposition to Margaret’s retreat from both civilization and technology where she can live on a farm, pick fruit, smoke pot and screw. It’s not very far from Roger’s activities as of late. In a weird, art imitates life imitates art trip, Roger Sterling has been spending lots of time hanging out with his young GF who brings guys (and girls) home, where Roger can cut loose in an occasional orgy. It’s not that far off from another Sterling (Donald) who has had his own, Roger-esque issues as of late. But back to our story.
One third of 2001 takes place on the Moon and the Moon is like a member of the cast in this episode. As Roger spends the night at hippyville, he lays out under the stars with Margaret and she asks him about the Moon and putting a man on it.
Roger says, “We can put one on the roof.” Is this some sort of reference about the validity of the Moon landing in and of itself?
The journey to spring Margaret and return her to husband and son starts at SCP, where Roger’s secretary is chased down by Roger’s grandson, sporting red overalls and a blue shirt. I believe that this is a reference to The Shining, where Danny Torrance roamed the halls of The Stanley Hotel (note Kubrick’s first name and the same name as SCP’s art director) wearing blue overalls and a red shirt. Is Weiner hinting at Weidner’s research that The Shining is all show and tell and that the Moon landing never occurred?
Paintings, lights, furniture and sculpture all play a significant role in the underlying symbolism of Mad Men. Phallic symbolism plays a part in this episode as well. Here is Don in his office, throwing the one, modern convenience he has at his window; the typewriter. Just like the human, it too is an endangered species.
Notice Don’s lamp, which looks like a large, semi-erect cock, attached to a light. This is pure, uncut, illuminated symbolism. Is Weiner making a connection to the phallic worshipping cults and tribes of Central Asia and their new identity as bringers of the light, the illuminated ones?
In one scene, Roger is telling the partners at the SCP partners meeting that Don hasn’t clubbed anyone on the head yet like some gorilla. Again, this is a reference to 2001 and the first part of the epic trinity, where primal blood is shed in the shadow of the Monolith.
Don has a conversation with Lloyd, about not just the computer, but what it means. Lloyd is the head of the leasing company installing the computer. He calls the computer “a cosmic disturbance” and likens it to a god in the making. It’s here where we learn that it’s the IBM 360.
Of course, 360 is the number of degrees in the astrological wheel. It’s also a reference to the carousel, Don’s first, major campaign for Kodak and the slide projector. It’s what he is synonymous with. The carousel exists as a time machine, which can move backwards and forwards in time as light is projected through the color stained cells, which manifest as memories.
The carousel also turns up in 2001.
It is the famous wheel in the sky, the Moon orbiting Hilton. At the end of the episode, “On A Carousel” by The Hollies is the song that is matched with the closing credits.
Weiner is playing with other themes here as well, like the fall of man and the rise of the new man; The IBM 360 and AI. Staying with the 6 was 9 thread, Roger’s son-in-law, Brooks, was arrested while trying to spring his ex-wife from the hippy commune (hello Manson family and Megan as Sharon Tate). His bail was $180, exactly half of 360. 180 adds up to 9 as does 360. Flip one of the nines and you get 6 and 9. In the novel version of 2001, Hal 4000 was activated in 1996 or 96.
Here is Roger’s secretary eating an apple (taking a bite from the forbidden fruit and tree of knowledge. Don makes a reference to the apple as well, which serves as an analogy for the computer and the ripeness of it’s business potential, but also a nod to Apple, the company which would come to dominate personal computing in the next century.
There are always strange items floating in the background of Mad Men. Here is a Peter Max like painting, hanging in the background of Roger’s office. Notice the “Eye Of Horus” and the magus’s wand.
One of the other story lines from this episode is the courting of Burger Chef as a potential client. Again, we’re knee deep in Cancerian nostalgia as Weiner resurrects another lost and faded, American institution. At one point, Burger Chef was second only to McDonald’s when it came to burger franchises. Burger Chef, unlike McDonald’s flame broiled their burgers and allowed their diners to build them at a condiments bar.
With Jupiter, retrograde in Cancer, these road trips down memory lane are both poignant and a little unsettling as we realize that the innocence of those times is long past, a chapter forever closed in the rapidly mutating, story of America. In fact even Don himself is a ghost of a man from another time. He wears suits, ties and hats. He’s a hard drinking ladies man, with more than a dash of macho. Don can only exist in Weiner’s symbolic universe and the echoes from another time.
Drunk and macho Don lights into Lloyd from the computer leasing company, basically telling him that he knows who he is, inferring that Lloyd is the devil and has been doing this since “The dawn of time” which is another 2001 reference, referring to the ape section of Clarke’s trinity. Is Weiner also inferring that the Moon landing was nothing more than marketing and a sophisticated form of advertising while also being fully staged?
As we move outward from the Cardinal Cross and it’s intense, interpersonal fury, Mad Men, Kubrick, the Moon, are like Cancer’s distant signals, beaming back to us through time, giving us one, last gulp of what was and hoping that it will last us through the wasteland of what might be.