Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "The Hobo Code" (season 1, episode 8)

Mad Men - "The Hobo Code" (season 1, episode 8)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Most days (except Saturday) I am offering a short review of another episode until concluding the first season. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on September 6, 2007/written by Chris Provenzano; directed by Phil Abraham): As if a subtle breeze has blown through the doors of Sterling Cooper, suddenly there's a sense that anything goes. Pete and Peggy, who had a one-night stand on the eve of his marriage at the proper time and place - late in the evening in her apartment - now screw on an office couch, early enough that co-workers won't hear them though a cleaning man notices their silhouettes thrusting through the frosted window and shakes his head. Peggy will transgress other boundaries as well in "The Hobo Code," as her copy - with a helpful (and extremely macho) push from Don - sells the Belle Jolie lipstick reps on her tagline: "Mark Your Man," an assertion of female possession. The agency fraternity, giddy with success, invites her into Don's corner office and jauntily welcomes her into the boys' club on their own terms, but nonetheless with at least a touch of enthusiastic open-mindedness beneath the veneer of sexist condescension. (Regardless, Peggy's own excitement is infectious.) Meanwhile, company operator Lois Sadler (Crista Flanagan) makes a move of a different sort, aggressively flirting with Sal after listening in on his Italian conversations with his mama. Sal lords Lois' infatuation over his art department co-workers but fails to show for Peggy's after-work celebration, much to Lois' disappointment. He has another liaison in mind...sort of. At a swankier bar, he runs into Elliot Lawrence (Paul Keely), one of the Belle Jolie clients who - close viewers may have noticed - carried himself in a slightly fey manner. Sure enough, Sal and Elliot hit it off, drinking and then dining together, letting down their guard enough for certain insinuations to emerge. Finally Elliot touches Sal's hand, and the adman's discomfort overpowers his attraction. Insisting, "I know what I want," Sal becomes one of the few characters to resist the call of liberation, storming away rather than consenting to a homosexual encounter. Elsewhere in Manhattan, Peggy invites a sullen Pete to do the Twist but he spurns her advances, his rejection implying that it's her confident presence, and not his blistering insecurities and self-loathing, that drive him out into the streets (and leave her weeping silently on the dance floor).

Don, meanwhile, experiences a liberation of his own - as well as some sobering reminders. His episode arc begins when Bert Cooper, thinking that he's offering a compliment along with a random $2500 bonus, compares Don to an Ayn Randian ubermensch and praises his unsentimental self-absorption. Don, happy to take the money but horrified by this "praise," spends the rest of the episode teetering between appropriately Objectivist domination - the Belle Jolie meeting and his subsequently rapey assertion that "seduction is over, and force is being requested" - and an anxious self-reproach for the dishonesty that characterizes his entire life. Visiting Midge in the Village, and stumbling across a bohemian rhapsody to the (glorious) tones of Sketches of Spain, he is repeatedly insulted by the beatniks for his Madison Avenue stylings - and he does cut quite the square figure in his gray suit amidst the beards, baggy clothing, and slouching postures. Nonetheless, Don agrees to smoke pot with the layabouts and he immediately digs the experience, grokking on the playout groove and declaring, with explicit reference to Dorothy Gale, "everything just turned to color." In the bathroom, he continues a flashback begun earlier in the episode, in which a homeless man (Paul Schulze) visits the Whitman homestead; stepmother Abigail (Brynn Horrocks) allows him to spend the night and even offers him payment for his work in addition to room and board, but Archie Whitman (Joseph Culp) is too stingy to follow through. Before his disappointed departure, the stranger teaches young Dick (Brandon Killham) the "hobo code" - graffiti left outside various houses by drifters to let the next one know what to expect. Sure enough, as he disappears down the dusty road, the hobo has marked "dishonest man" in the fencepost of the Whitman patch of land. Back in 1960, Don returns to his suburban house (what a difference twenty-five years can make, not just for an individual but for a society) and promises his own son that he'll never lie to him, but the episode closes on the biggest lie of all: Don closes his office door and the camera settles on the name imposed upon it, not "Dick Whitman" but "Donald Draper."

My Response:
So much of Mad Men has been about the repressive and/or sturdy rules everyone abides by, the understandings of what is allowed and what is forbidden (or what is so forbidden that it isn't even considered). In this sense, the series is a fifties narrative, at least inasmuch as "the fifties" has become shorthand for a conformist, stable era - although the decade didn't exactly see itself that way at the time. Of course the year is 1960 and the show has plans to span a decade so the solidity that has been established for seven episodes exists in large part to be slowly, steadily, relentlessly undone by the following eighty-five. Here, in many ways, that process begins: there's a restless energy afoot, beautifully captured by Abraham and brilliantly set up by Provezano, a couple first-timers who I hope have not offered their last input to the series. Freedom, with the danger as well as the exhilaration that implies, envelops all the characters in its whirlwind. It certainly takes more than one form, encompassing both the nihilistic uber-capitalism of Bert's self-centered individualism and the alienated dropout mentality of the proto-hippies in Midge's apartment, the materially comfortable but necessarily secretive cruising of would-be gay lovers and the impoverished but footloose lifestyle of the hobo. Indeed, the expansion of Mad Men's universe begins not just by teasing the sixties, but also by recalling the thirties. One was an era of social transformation undergirded by a taken-for-granted prosperity, the other an economic freefall in which bonds of family and religion were all ordinary people could rely on, but both decades had in common a confrontation with the flimsiness of social constructs and their superficial guarantees. They offer an understanding that reality is to be found not in the conventions of society but in the chaos that beats around its borders as well as any personal ethos that can provide the only genuine shelter from the storm, or at least a sturdy plank to hang onto while the violent twister transports you to Oz.

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