A new character joined the cast of Mad Men this season (the show’s seventh and final), and as with most ensemble shows, what was interesting was seeing how all the existing characters adjusted. The difference? The new character was a computer, and it’s given the season thus far a subtext of technology versus creativity.
Identified by nostalgic graybeards as an IBM System/360 Model 30, the new computer at Sterling Cooper & Partners (SC&P) was championed by head of television advertising Harry Crane, who said the computer was needed to analyze local and national ad buys. (In fact, Harry backed himself into this computer corner by lying to a client who mentions that another ad company is getting a computer; he pretty much forces SC&P to buy the computer to back up his claims.) And in one way or another, all six of the season’s episodes so far have touched on it, and just about all of the characters have had an existential moment regarding their future in the context of the computer.
As we’ve written about before, change is hard.
Some react to the new computer more strongly than others—copywriter Michael Ginsberg responded with a full-blown schizophrenic episode that involved accusing the computer of forcing them all to become gay, and then sawing off his own right nipple (which he then presented to Peggy). Putative star and creative symbol Don Draper became philosophical; in an episode using the metaphor of the movie 2001, he asked, “What man lay on his back counting stars and thought about a number?” But nobody has been able to escape the computer, or what it (somewhat heavy-handedly, according to some critics) symbolizes. The computer itself tends to act as a metaphor for whatever’s on people’s minds in offices where it’s installed, according to the head of the leasing company.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the people in Creative who seem most threatened by the computer, with its cold technology. It took away their lounge, because the company needed the space for the computer room. (These days, companies are putting such shared spaces back in to promote brainstorming.)
And a number of the creatives seem worried that the computer will replace them. Ad Age points out that partner Jim Cutler specifically equates choosing the computer over taking back Don, who’s been on leave for six months after being a little too honest with a client.
But in reality it’s the people in Creative—the ones who touch upon emotions—who are the least likely to be replaced by the computer. In fact, it’s Harry, the computer’s champion, who is most in danger. Harry is the one who is in charge of media data—a function that is eminently suitable to being replaced by computer. But nobody on the show seems to realize that yet, least of all Harry. Indeed, the computer appears to be bringing Harry the one plum he hadn’t achieved yet in the firm: a partnership, after SC&P decides to play up its new computer to cover up the fact that it lost a big client.
Mad Men has always been about, as much as anything, the creative process, with the various other characters having almost a sense of awe and reverence over Don’s ability to be creative. At the same time, they are also shown feeling contempt and jealousy that his creativity allows Don to get away with things the other employees wouldn’t dream of doing. His misbehavior resulted in his exile, which led the other partners to realize the agency could, in fact, continue without Don, at least after a fashion. Several of the partners have almost seemed to take joy in Don’s exile, and upon his return made references to him thinking he was coming in on his white horse to save the day—which may have been their fear.
This Sunday’s episode will be the last of the abbreviated season (the other half of the season is scheduled to be aired in April 2015), and there’s been a lot of speculation about how the show, and Don himself, will end. With the reputation creative people have of being a little crazy—with Ginsburg being a prime example—more than one person has suggested that Don will follow the example of the “shadow Don” in the opening titles and jump off a building, literally or figuratively. But creativity and technology aren’t mutually exclusive, and hopefully the show will demonstrate how the two learn to coexist.
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