Mad Men, "The Hobo Code": you’re an honorary [Key Series Moments]

“The Hobo Code” refers to the symbols that hobos, or “gentlemen of the rails,” used during The Great Depression to alert fellow travelers of the circumstances (good food, tell a sad story, dishonest man lives here) at homes where men are taken on as day laborers. This episode takes on a somewhat unusual structure – Don Draper is largely absent in the first half save for a “super hero” moment during the Belle Jolie campaign pitch, while we see lots of Pete and Peggy and Sal and Lois Sadler, the new switchboard operator.

pete campbell

Later, Don heads to Midge’s apartment in Greenwich Village which allows us to flashback to his Depression-era childhood on the farm, while meanwhile the office gang heads to P.J. Clarke’s to celebrate the Belle Jolie account pitch win.

After Don unexpectedly receives a $2,500 bonus from Bert Cooper, he a) doesn’t rush home to Ossining to celebrate with Betty and the kids and b) doesn’t head off to P.J. Clarke’s to drink and dance it up with the office staff and c) doesn’t go off with Roger for an Old Fashioned-tinged evening out on the town. Instead, d) he goes directly to Midge’s beatnik flat, where a full-on drug-fueled soiree is just gearing up.

So it’s clear that when Don gets a boatload of cash (by 1960 standards), he doesn’t look to the relationships he has at home or work, but to Midge, his mistress, which can be thought of as his fantasy life. And the bohemian glow and inhabitants of Midge’s apartment – when a guy wearing some kind of  Shriner’s hat says, “I’ve been thinking about this since Port Authority,” he sounds like he just walked out of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road – only adds to the nearly dreamlike quality once Don “crosses 14th Street,” as Midge once put it.

Interestingly, Midge brushes off Don’s wild offer to whisk her off to Paris, where they could be “eating breakfast in Versailles” the next morning. Don is welcome to come along with Midge and her fellow travelers wherever their whims take them (“We’re going to get high and listen to Miles,” Roy adds helpfully), but Midge is not willing to play the role of the traditional “other woman.” As we’ll see, as an aside, neither is Rachel Menken.

Later, Don realizes or at least believes that Midge and Roy are in love, and soon after gets an earful about being a suit at an ad agency. “You invent want,” Roy says. “You’re for them.” Don counters with his honest take on the world: “There is no big lie, there is no system. The universe is indifferent.”

This philosophy comes in part from his childhood. During a lengthy flashback, we see a hobo show up at a Depression-era farm looking for work, and he is reluctantly granted a place to sleep for the night on the condition that he will work for his keep. We get a glimpse of how lonely and sad Don/Dick Whitman’s childhood was when he tells the hobo, “Ain’t you heard? I’m a whore child.”

The hobo explains to Dick that once he had a wife, a job, and a mortgage, but the pressure was too great so he abandoned them with only the clothes on his back and became “a gentleman of the rails.” His depiction of his lifestyle is full of adventures and variety and some hardships but with the conclusion that no matter what the day brings, “Now I sleep like a stone.”

And so we get insight into Don Draper, the boy who would later learn to shape shift his personality and identity and sales pitch to fit the want of others, so that he might survive and even thrive. But at a price.

As we wait for the arrival of Season Five, currently scheduled to premiere in early 2012, stay tuned to TV Geek Army all summer long to get your Mad Men fix. Here we take a look at a key series moment from Season One, Episode Eight: “The Hobo Code.”

By Eric - TV Geek Army "Revered Leader"

About the author

Eric is the publisher and revered leader of TV Geek Army… at least in his own mind. TV Geek Army is a place for serious TV reviews and news for serious fans of great television. Contact: eric-[at]-tvgeekarmy.com 

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2 Comments
On: Monday, August 8, 2011
Mike Proper said:
With its appearance on Netflix, I've finally began making my way through the series (just finished the S4 premiere) so it's fun to look back on these episodes after just viewing them for the first time recently. I tend to zone out sometimes with the flashbacks to Don's youth, but this was a strong edition to his mythology. Hell, why hasn't there been a show about hobos yet? There's so much stuff about their code that I didn't realize was a real thing. Get on it, Hollywood!
On: Monday, August 8, 2011
Eric - TV Geek Army "Revered Leader" said:

Mike, if you're anything like me, after you get through your initial run through the series you'll go back and pay much more attention to the flashback sequences on subsequent viewings. Just for example as I mention in this piece, paying closer attention to the hobo's teachings (you can't say enough good things about Paul Schulze by the way) reveals much about Don's worldview. 

That said, some flashbacks -- particularly those from Season Three I'm thinking -- might be a little overdone, which could be why they seemed to have been fazed out in Season Four at the least. 

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