Mad Men episode 108: “The Hobo Code”

Peggy and Pete reunite, early in the morning at the Sterling Cooper offices. Sal receives a come-on from a fellow closeted homosexual, but balks at taking it farther than dinner and drinks. Don receives a large bonus check from Bert, which gives him the idea to whisk Midge away to Paris on a moment’s notice. Instead, Don smokes pot with Midge’s beatnik friends and has a flashback to a formative moment in his youth.

“The Hobo Code” may not be a universally loved episode of Mad Men, but it’s an important one, both for the same reason: the first extended flashbacks to young Dick Whitman. The peeks into young Don’s life as Dick have probably received the most criticism of this mostly critic-proof show, but I think most complaints don’t hold up. The biggest complaint is that the show spends too much time on the flashbacks, but a YouTube compilation posted a couple of years ago puts rest to that theory. Collecting every Dick Whitman flashback over the show’s 92 hours, the video totals up to 39 minutes. And in such little time, there’s much to be learned about Don’s psychological makeup, which why I think this episode in particular is so important.

In the flashbacks, we’re transported back to the Whitman farm during the Great Depression: young Dick, his father Archibald, and his step-mother Abigail. A nameless hobo shows up one day and asks if there is any work in exchange for food and a night’s rest. While Archie is initially hesitant, Abigail welcomes him in, although she clearly doesn’t like the hobo much herself. When the hobo says Dick reminds him of a younger version of himself, Abigail says she’s not surprised. Her contempt for Dick is barely veiled.

Later that evening, when the hobo is sleeping in the barn and Dick brings him instructions to say his prayers before saying goodnight, Dick initially takes pity on the hobo for not having a home. The hobo responds with a wandering man’s philosophy: every day is a new adventure, unbound from the mainstream world’s pressures of maintaining a family, a mortgage and other material possessions. The hobo makes Dick an “honorary” by showing him the hobo code, a series of drawings that show visiting hobos what to expect as they stop at a home–good food, a mean dog, a dishonest man, etc.

After Archie denies the hobo his promised quarter for a day’s work, Dick looks for any existing hobo codes near their mailbox, and finds one for a dishonest man. Dick looks at his father differently, probably for the first time.

Also noteworthy is that the hobo referred to Abigail as Dick’s mom. Dick corrects him, asking “Haven’t you heard? I’m a whore-child.” Don’s parentage is becoming a little more clear now.

It’s impossible to over-emphasize the importance of this encounter on young Dick’s mind. The grown-up Don will show time and again that he will run when things get tough, and will tend to glamorize life on the run.

The rest of the episode features small interludes catching us up on dangling plot threads. Peggy arrives early to work on her copy for Belle Jolie; Joan made it clear that Peggy’s writing should not interfere with her secretarial duties. Pete also arrives early that day, which leads to the second sexual encounter between Peggy and Pete.

Elliot, a representative of Belle Jolie, stops by the office and invites Sal to come by and see the architecture of the hotel he’s staying at. Elliot is sure that Sal will understand this as another kind of code, a closeted gay invitation for drinks, dinner and a night in Elliot’s hotel room. Sal is not ready to face his true feelings, and freaks out at Elliot’s very mild come-ons. Back at the office, Sal over-compensates by reciprocating the flirting of the newest Sterling Cooper switchboard operator, Lois Sadler.

Bert gives Don an unexpected $2,500 bonus check (about $20,000 in today’s money). Bert recognizes something in Don he sees in himself: a strong, business-minded man who will succeed due to his inherent self-interest. Bert gives Don the check, tells him to say thank you, and to spend a couple of bucks of that check on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. I can buy Bert as a Randian, but Don’s not so much objectivist as hedonist.

Don goes straight to Midge’s apartment, telling her to pack her bags for an impromptu Paris trip. Midge demurs, saying she’s got plans. Her theater buddy, Roy, is there, along with several of his friends–beatniks and early hippies. The big “plans” are to stay in, smoke pot and listen to Miles Davis.

These are the best scenes of the episode, as Don is exposed to the alternating euphoria and menace of a marijuana high. After going to the bathroom and initiating the flashbacks described above, he comes out and takes a picture of Midge and Roy together. He senses they are in love. Roy says love is “bourgeois” which leads to more insults of Don and his career, and Don sparring back. When Roy accuses Don of being part of the establishment that is holding people down, Don responds with one of his best quotes: “I hate to break it to you, but there is no big lie. There is no system. The universe is indifferent.”

This shuts up Roy and his friends, and Don gives an ultimatum to Midge–go to Paris now or he’s walking out. Midge says she can’t, so Don endorses the check, stuffs it into Midge’s bra, and starts to walk out. Roy tells Don “you can’t leave,” due to police being in the apartment building to check out a neighbor of Midge’s who abuses his wife. Don comes back to Roy with another great line: “No, you can’t.” Roy and his friends had taunted Don for his “square” appearance, but in the end, he was able to indulge in the same vices at the same party, but his appearance allows him to walk out and say hello to the police as he leaves.

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