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Mad Men: “The Hobo Code”

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“The Hobo Code” (season 1, episode 8; originally aired 9/6/2007)

In which you can only run

(Available on Netflix)

If Mad Men is about inviting the audience to discern the truest selves of its characters, then Don Draper’s truest self is the man who leaves when the going gets tough, who’s made note of all of the escape hatches on his first time through the bunker, just in case. The problem is that the switch for “just in case” gets flipped sooner and sooner with every year. First, it’s leaving behind his past to join the military. Then, it’s assuming someone else’s identity under what are still mysterious circumstances at this point in the show’s run. But eventually, it’s just something like trying to decamp for Paris after Bert gives him a little “pep” talk that hits too close to home. (Bert believes that Don, like him, doesn’t really care about anyone but himself. Bert thinks of this as a good thing.) Center your life on escape, and pretty soon, all you see are escape hatches.

“The Hobo Code” digs down to try and figure out who the true selves of three of the show’s most enigmatic characters are. We watch as Peggy finds herself enamored with Pete once again, even as her campaign wins over Belle Jolie (with a little forceful convincing by Don). Don spends the episode trying to deal with what Bert told him, then ends up smoking some marijuana and reflecting on his past. Sal finds himself out on what amounts to a date with one of the Belle Jolie clients, only to admit that he’s not as experienced as he might seem. If the first few episodes were about carefully sketching in the outlines of these characters and this world, then we’ve reached the point where Matthew Weiner and his team have finally reached the apex of the first hill and have tilted those characters toward the long descent that will take us from what we thought we knew about them to who they actually are.

“The Hobo Code” is perhaps the most important episode in the whole series to understanding what makes Don Draper tick, but as an episode of television, it’s a touch ungainly. There’s nothing bad here, per se (though the Peggy and Pete thing is a little too difficult to figure out at this point, particularly for a first time viewer), but the episode doesn’t hang together as much as I might like it to. The best episodes of Mad Men have a satisfying snap that comes when all of the stories slot into place around the same themes and ideas, and “The Hobo Code” has some of that, in its examination of these people running from their truest selves, but it doesn’t have that snap, that moment when you recognize how interconnected everything has been.

What it does have are a bunch of bravura sequences and moments that are almost enough on their very own. Think, for instance, of the episode’s finale, which takes us from Don Draper’s childhood and the carving in the fence post outside his home that marks his father as a dishonest man all the way to his office at Sterling-Cooper, the door of which marks a very different kind of dishonest man. “The Hobo Code” invites us throughout to draw comparisons of young Dick Whitman to the hobo, to think of how he took this advice to heart and invented the Don Draper he became essentially from scratch. But it’s also indicating that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, so to speak, no matter how much Don might wish that not to be true. Don might have adopted the hobo’s code as his own, but he can’t escape the many other fragments and pieces that made him who he is, including the life he visibly tried to shunt aside. The harder he tries to run away from Dick Whitman and his past, the more his past comes back to haunt him. It’s a fairly common theme in fiction, but that’s because it’s true. The things about ourselves we try to deny are often those that most come to define us.

That’s true of Salvatore Romano as well. I don’t know if he’s actively trying to deny his sexuality, but he’s clearly doing his level best to not think about it. The scene with Elliott (the Belle Jolie guy) is a heartbreaker, as the two seem to be feeling each other out, but then we swiftly realize that for Sal, this always stops at flirtation. He’s not only inexperienced; he’s a virgin, well past the age most of us have our first fumbling adventures in sex. And not only that: He lacks the vocabulary to talk about this in any meaningful way. To be sure, gay men trying to hook up in 1960 New York have to speak in code and talk around what they’re talking about to get anywhere. But here’s a guy who’s all too willing to move past the code with Sal and get to what matters, and Sal’s just not able to do so. And from the way he rushes from the restaurant, it seems almost as if he’ll never be able to.


This is contrasted with the person Sal does successfully flirt with, the new switchboard operator Lois Sadler. She loves listening to him talk to his mother in Italian, and she wants to meet this suave, debonair man. When she does, she’s a little too eager, a little too ready to impress. But Sal handles the encounter well. He’s probably had many encounters with women like this in his life. He might have even taken a few of them to the bedroom and faked his way through that as well. But deep down, he knows that the only person he’d ultimately disappoint if he got together with Lois would be Lois. He knows who he is, but he’s scared to admit it to himself, just as Don Draper would be terrified if those words fell off his office door and were replaced by DICK WHITMAN. Sal seemed almost like a character of uncertain comic relief in the first half of this season, but “The Hobo Code” finds the tragedy in the character handily. This is a man who longs to be open, yet the world mistakes him for a straight man because it’s the only box anyone knows to put him in. And because it would never occur to Sal to start constructing other boxes (because it occurs to so few of us), he simply tries to get as comfortable as he can in the life that’s been made for him by other people.

The Peggy and Pete stuff doesn’t work as well—though I love the little shot of Peggy’s heels flying into the air in silhouette that marks the end of this scene—and in trying to figure out why, I went back to look at some contemporaneous reviews of the episode, particularly Alan Sepinwall’s. What I find interesting about Sepinwall’s piece is that he actually blames the actors here, believing that Elisabeth Moss and Vincent Kartheiser are, respectively, too weak and too mannered to carry over material that leaves lots of room to guess about motivation, as opposed to Hamm, who’s better able to get us invested in the mysteries of Don Draper’s past as Dick Whitman. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I’d put the blame for why some of this doesn’t work at the feet of the writers, who haven’t yet realized that Mad Men isn’t a Lost- or Battlestar Galactica-style mystery show that can be carried by the audience wondering about a character’s cryptic motivations. In the absence of larger mysteries—which Mad Men doesn’t have—it’s usually better to simply present the story in a more or less straightforward fashion. Here is why this character does this; here is why that character does that. (Notably, the Dick Whitman story does almost exactly this for Don Draper, providing back-story information that colors in why the man acts the way he does. We don’t get that for Peggy or Pete, not really.)


But that’s why it can be so fun to go back to the first season of a show you love and look at all of the things that the series once thought it was going to be able to do, then slowly shut itself off from. The switchboard operators are another example of this. They seemed like they’d be a pretty big deal in the pilot, or at least a minor Greek chorus of recurring characters, and then they got shunted off to the side in favor of larger roles for some of the other women of the office, particularly Joan. (Also, one of them used to be played by Kristen Schaal, whom Sepinwall refers to in his piece as “Mel, from Conchords.” Were we ever so young?) Similarly, this episode sees Don give what seems like a final kiss-off to Midge, whom he realizes is in love with her beatnik friend. The sequence where he goes over to Midge’s apartment is interspersed with those flashbacks to his Dick Whitman past, but it’s perfect in its own right, centered as it is on Don’s certainty that this beatnik business is just another pose. (Don can’t imagine anything being something other than a pose. He’s probably right.) He gives Midge the $2,500 he got from Bert and tells her to buy a car. Then he leaves, walking right into the middle of a bunch of cops, because he knows they’ll never see through his disguise in the way they would through the beatniks.

If “The Hobo Code” has a theme—and I’m increasingly convinced it does from writing about it—it’s that notion of disguises that hide who we truly are. Pete gets a look at something more like the real Peggy when he sees her dance the Twist at the party the office workers throw. (Presumably, it’s to celebrate the Belle Jolie success, since Freddy Rumsen is there.) He tells her he doesn’t like her like this, but that speaks to the central conflict of Pete in a nutshell: He’s such a phony that being confronted with the truth of anyone would simply make him try to curl up in his shell and shut out the world. Similarly, Don has moments of real, naked vulnerability, but they come with his own reflection and with his son, who’s too young to understand what his father is doing. When it comes time to deal with the world of business and the world of adults, he puts the hat on, and he leaves the apartment. He might be Dick Whitman somewhere deep inside, but on the surface, he’s so skillfully become Don Draper no one would ever dare question him about it.


That’s a hell of its own, though, right? To be a self-made, self-reliant man is a wonderful thing, but it also means that when it comes time to ask for help or to let someone in, it can be far too difficult. If Mad Men is going to be on some level a series about what happens when the surface fades and the predominant image gets chipped just enough to reveal what’s beneath, then what’s on the surface has to seem so strong that it would take a hurricane to knock it off course. And maybe that’s where Peggy fits into all of this. Sal and Don have both constructed guises they place between themselves and the world; Pete is in the process of trying to figure out what his might look like. But Peggy is still young enough and green enough—and this is all still unexpected enough—that there are moments where her real self peeks through. Pete reacts negatively almost subconsciously, and perhaps it’s because he he knows this is something you’re not supposed to do.

Because ultimately, it comes down to what Pete says of being married: Sooner or later, you realize that the person you’re married to is just another stranger. You might think you really know someone, but then you look at them and realize you have no idea what’s going on in their head, or they blindside you with something that didn’t fall into your predictable path for them to follow. We all fancy ourselves the protagonists of whatever story we’re in, but the flipside of that is that nobody else assumes they’re our supporting characters, because they’re too busy following their own story arcs. The people in Mad Men, as well as any other show I can think of, seem constantly to be tossing themselves into the middle of storylines of their own making, ones where they get to play both hero and victim, ones they hope will resolve in their favor. Yet when it comes time for someone else—a coworker, a friend, a spouse—to hop in and play the dutiful supporting role, they’re sometimes nowhere to be found. Life isn’t what happens when you’re busy making other plans; other people are what happen when you’re busy making other plans.


Maybe “The Hobo Code” is better than I thought.

Stray observations:

  • Peggy’s glee at her campaign getting picked up by Belle Jolie warms my shriveled little heart. There’s something about seeing Elisabeth Moss smile that always makes a scene light up.
  • It’s always interesting to me that Joan doesn’t seem to have the slightest notion of what Sal’s sexuality might be. She seems so worldly in other ways, but this probably really is something that she just wouldn’t have heard of.
  • Normally, the scene with “The Twist” would be a “Hey! It’s 1960!” moment. It even has that thing where everybody screams in recognition and runs onto the dance floor. (And, yes, I know that’s how it really was, but it’s become a cliché at this point.) But everybody’s having so much fun and they’re all such enjoyable dancers that I don’t really mind.
  • That’s Paul Schulze as the hobo. People who’ve followed me over here from the Sopranos reviews may recognize him as Father Phil from that show. He’s also a regular on Nurse Jackie.
  • Earlier in the season, Paul Kinsey sure seemed like he’d be one of the cool kids, but he’s been steadily eroded to the point where it seems like everybody is kind of making fun of him in this episode. At least he gets to dance with Joan.
  • Don: If you want someone to ask you a probing question about yourself, you probably shouldn’t rely on a toddler to do it. (You know Kiernan Shipka would have.)
  • Don’s speech to the Belle Jolie guys to get them to accept the pitch is such bullshit, and everybody knows it’s bullshit, but it’s artfully constructed bullshit, so they’re all too happy to go along with it.

Spoiling Cooper (If you haven’t seen the full run of the series to date, please leave!):

  • Sal’s secret won’t be exposed—I don’t think—until Don finds out about it in the season three premiere. And that season, of course, features Sal’s ouster, an event that the show has continued to make the final button on the character to this point. (I continue to think he’ll return in a guest spot in season seven, but I am almost certainly deluding myself. I also want to see Midge come back, but she probably died in a gutter at some point.)
  • Freddie’s drinking is highlighted several times here, particularly when he spills his drink a bit while dancing. That will become an important point next season.
  • Bert’s affection for Don in this episode is reflected again later in the season in one of the best lines of the series: “Oh, Mr. Campbell, who cares?”

Next week: Betty Draper takes to the skies in “Shoot.”