Thursday, March 26, 2015

MAD MEN Ep. 8: "The Hobo Code"

(S           P           O           I           L           E           R           S)

In which every day I make pictures where people appear to be in love.  I know what it looks like.

Freddie: Donald walked around the village three times and then set it on fire.”

Abigail Whitman: Dick Whitman, stop digging holes.”

(If you’re interested in making this a potentially pleasing interactive experience, click on the link above and listen to Miles Davis’s version of the Concierto De Aranjuez while you read this essay.  The beginning of the piece is played by Miles buff Midge when Don first arrives at her apartment.  It’s a great theme song for this episode: as original composer Joaquin Rodrigo noted, the first section is intended to transport the listener to another time and place, while the second section was his way of remembering he and his wife’s honeymoon and the miscarriage that led to the loss of their first child.  And yes, that info is lifted from the Wikipedia page.  So laugh it up former students.)

By this point of my Sophomore English curriculum, we had finished The Great Gatsby and were waist deep in the big muddy of Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods.  Most people I talk to have never read this book, although some have read O’Brien’s Vietnam short story collection The Things They Carried.  And that’s a shame, because In the Lake of the Woods is a phenomenal examination of the haunting and cyclical nature of the past, and of the need for reckonings on a personal and national level, all wrapped up in the guise of a mystery about a missing woman.  It was both one of the most demanding and rewarding books that I taught in my ten year teaching career, perhaps the greatest example of my Form=Content stalking horse that I unloosed on the students.  There’s no real objective indicator of the truth, only various and disparate voices telling their version of the tale of Vietnam veteran John Wade and his wife Kathy, their failed run for a Minnesota Senate seat, and the past that they both try to flee but which ultimately annihilates the fragile construct of their lives.  It’s about how Vietnam was just another example of man’s inability to learn from the past.  It’s about fathers and sons, how a lonely boy, desperate for the love of a tortured, alcoholic father, invents the alternate persona of the Sorcerer to give him some power over his life…and how that persona becomes an escape hatch into a mental house of mirrors that delivers the boy from trauma after trauma, yet ultimately entraps him inside its furthest depths, frightened, confused, lost, alone.

So yeah, I’m guessing you can see the strong connections it has with Mad Men.

Of course, memory and the past were the twin wraiths that haunted most of this second trimester unit.  We focused on three alpha males who are the very embodiment of the classic American Dream, three men who come from nothing and through sheer force of will create idealized versions of themselves, alter egos which allow them to conquer the world…and lose their souls.  (For me, one of the key lines in Gatsby comes Nick says “So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.”  Think about all the complex implications contained in that one beautiful sentence, and how they apply to these three men.)  And three men who must come to terms with their troubled pasts if they have any hope of remaining human.

I failed to mention this in the “Ladies Room” essay, but one of my favorite passages in that Sophomore English course, and one that applies to Mad Men in spades, came from the conclusion of The Bell Jar.  In that final scene of the book, as Esther Greenwood prepares for the interview that might lead to her release from the hospital she muses:

 “We'll act as if all this were a bad dream."

A bad dream.

To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.

A bad dream.

I remembered everything.

I remembered the cadavers and Doreen and the story of the fig tree and Marco's diamond and the sailor on the Common and Doctor Gordon's wall-eyed nurse and the broken thermometers and the Negro with his two kinds of beans and the twenty pounds I gained on insulin and the rock that bulged between sky and sea like a gray skull.

Maybe forgetfulness, like a kind snow, would numb and cover them.

But they were part of me. They were my landscape.”  

Of all the characters we covered that year, all the ones searching for some greater truth in life, Esther’s realization is probably the most powerful moment that any of them have.  And it’s a sentiment that so many of the characters in Mad Men struggle to come to terms with.

“The Hobo Code” is the episode where, for the first time, we see Don try to make amends with his past, fleeting as this attempt might be.  Of course, it takes him getting high with Midge’s friends to loosen up his psyche enough to make this journey.  One of the show’s strengths is how it usually strikes a balance between ’60s cultural references as indicators of passing time and key plot devices.  Don’s drug experience in the village is a somewhat radical notion for a guy like him, but it’s also a harbinger of the slowly encroaching drug scene that would soon hit the mainstream.

It’s during the flashback to his childhood (spurred by Don’s reflection in the bathroom mirror, not the last time in the show’s run that literally facing himself will lead to revelation) that we finally see as solid of an origin story for our conflicted protagonist as we’re likely to get (for now.)  In it, we see how Don Draper is an amalgam of three people: Archie Whitman, the hobo, and young Dick himself.  Joseph Culp (the son of real life ‘60s icon of cool Robert) is such a perfect choice to play Dick’s father.  His imposing physicality, icy cruelty, and naked self-interest are all traits that young Dick would later adopt (along with his hairstyle and cigarette smoking technique) to create the armor of Don Draper.  But underneath that armor is the hobo’s wanderlust that motivates so much of Don’s itinerant ways.  And the fear of young Dick, the scars of being a dead prostitute’s child in an emotionally distant family still felt in the Don of 1960.  When the hobo recounts how a wife, kids, and mortgage left him frustrated and sleepless, until the night that death came to find him and drove him away from the safe life, it informs so much of what motivates the Don that we’ve come to know (and calls back to the pilot’s exploration of the Freudian death wish.)

But Don isn’t the only character in “The Hobo Code” who’s trying to come to terms with their past.  And their place in life.  Matt Weiner could’ve named this episode “Babylon Revisited” (yeah, I couldn’t resist), for even though Rachel Menken is absent from the proceedings, her insights into the dual meaning of “utopia” from Episode 6 (the good place and the place that cannot be) apply to all of the main storylines here.

Which is a great jumping off point for the romance between Pete and Peggy, that biggest of headscratchers for many viewers.  My students were always perplexed and repulsed by what good girl Peggy sees in weaselly Pete (although as the years progressed and more of them didn’t like Peggy either, they just didn’t care as much.)  So when the couple once again get it on at the outset of this episode (to the expertly timed comic bemusement of the janitor), they didn’t quite know what to think.  Matt Weiner has offered the easiest motive for the dynamic that exists between these two: each sees the other as the only one they can relate to in the office.  Both are younger employees with good ideas who are too often condescended to by their older superiors.  In Pete, Peggy sees someone who’s dashing in his own way (yeah, Pete haters, toss your tomatoes at me now), but also a covertly tender and vulnerable person.  And in Peggy, Pete sees a genuine person, someone who loves him for who he is, not for the rarified social status from which he comes.  In the aftermath of their office tryst, Pete delivers a touching monologue to Peggy, in which he expresses his frustrations with the crushing expectations that led him to his marriage, and how despite his best attempts Trudy seems like a stranger to him.  It’s a great, humanizing character moment, and Vincent Kartheiser really nails it.  And hey, in the end, love is strange sometimes; lasting relationships are often formed by people who logically don’t make sense together.

(A tip of the hat to “Hobo Code” director/stalwart tv cinematographer Phil Abraham and his episode DP Steve Mason for how they assemble this sequence.  Pete is introduced in closeup as he gazes out the window, and when he swings his chair around to greet Peggy, his framed phot of Trudy is revealed in the mid-ground of the shot.  Cut to the reverse shot and Pete’s rugby trophy is featured behind him.  They end up serving as symbols of his conflicting impulses, but also reminders of his legacy.  And when Pete and Peggy have their post-coital talk, the infamous hunting rifle from “Red in the Face” is prominently featured leaning against the wall to the left of the frame, a clever indicator of Pete’s reinforced masculinity.)

But try as he might, Pete can’t escape the shackles of his past that easily.  When Peggy asks him to dance at P.J. Clarke’s late in the episode, he icily dismisses her with “I don’t like you like this.”  It’s a rebuke with many implications, and as crushing as it is for Peggy, it’s also a very sad moment for Pete.  Like Don, he’s lost in the nether regions between what he wants and what he’s supposed to want.

And speaking of characters stuck between desire and expected desire, there’s Sal Romano.  There are fairly strong implications in the pilot episode that Sal is gay, but it’s only in this episode that his taboo leanings are finally confirmed during his meeting with Belle Jolie rep. Elliot.  Sal’s a fairly interesting character, in that most of his overall arc is defined by his suppressed homosexuality, and the consequences that its revelation holds.  Modern viewers might look at Bryan Batt’s performance and see the overt femininity (and wonder how no one at Sterling Cooper sees it), but we’re also dealing with an era not that far removed from metrosexual leading men like Cary Grant…and closeted gay leading men like Rock Hudson.  In a show with such a large ensemble cast, it’s difficult to fully develop every character, so Sal invariably suffers a bit in this department.  But all credit to Batt for creating such a sympathetic, conflicted, fully formed person in the limited screen time he’s given.

In the grand scheme of utopian desires, we ultimately land back on Don and his doomed relationship with Midge.  It’s interesting to view his progression in this episode through the lens of Bert Cooper’s Ayn Rand fixation.  He rewards Don with a check for $2,500, commendation for their purported shared sense of complete self-interest and lack of sentimentality for those who depend on their hard work.  Jon Hamm sells the subtle pangs of guilt that flash across Don’s face as Cooper utters these words, but he also rushes out to indulge these selfish tendencies by taking Midge on an impromptu trip to Paris.  He wants to reinforce the power of his base desires, but he’s still haunted by the past that created these desires.  When Midge refuses to go with him, and he signs away his bonus check to her (“Buy yourself a car”), it’s the second time this season that he’s tried to buy another character’s happiness on his way out the door.  Chase after a life with her he might, but it’s here that he finally comes to terms with the fact that they’ll never exist in the same world.  And when he returns home, the Randian superman image falls apart, as he promises Bobby that he’ll never lie to him.  (Despite Don’s attempts to redeem himself throughout the series by connection with Bobby, it’s with conflicted daughter Sally that he forms his most lasting bond.  Now, this could be because Kiernan Shipka has played Sally throughout, while Bobby has been portrayed by four different actors.  But that’s another discussion.)

It’s one of the fleeting moments during this season when we see the real Dick Whitman.  But, of course, the lies wouldn’t stop there.  His moment with Bobby is touching, but the final shot of the episode tells the greater story.  Once again, we see Don from the rear, this time as he enters his office.  The sounds of the office become deafening, and we finish with a close up of the name “Donald Draper” on his closed office door, as much the mark of a dishonest man as the hobo’s scrawl on Archie Whitman’s front gate.

To finish, a few loose ends:

*With the exception of a brief cameo in Season 4, this is the last that we’ll see of the lovely, vivacious Rosemarie DeWitt as Midge.  As I noted in one of the first episodes, she’s such a great minor character, and it’s sad that her time on the show was so limited.

*Elliot’s reference, early in the episode, to meeting Robert Mitchum is no throwaway line.  Legendary tough guy Mitchum (a spiritual forefather of Don Draper) rode the rails as a drifter and hobo in his younger years.  During that time, he acquired a fondness for marijuana, which led to a famous bust at the height of his fame.

*Best reaction of the episode?  Ken Cosgrove’s befuddled double take at Don’s “I’m not here to tell you about Jesus” line in the Belle Jolie meeting.

*”Ken, you will realize in your private life that at a certain point seduction is over and force is actually being requested.”  (Don)

*”We’re going to get high and listen to Miles.” (Roy, in a line reading that always gets me for how comically pretentious it makes him sound.  Kudos to Ian Bohen for making Roy just a bit of a jackass.)


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