Friday, December 21, 2012

Mad Men: The Hobo Code (1.8)

I'm probably showing my age when I say this, but there's always something so rewarding when you're watching an episode of this show and suddenly spot the overriding theme that seems to link all the storylines. I'm sure it's usually a narrative idea that hits most people like a freight-train, but it's hard for me to not get a sense of excitement when the various subplots, seemingly so disparate at first, are all of a sudden all connected and written to express a certain sentiment or a specific concept. It happened here towards the very end, the three storylines clicking together and being all about signals and warnings, both those we use to impart messages to others, as well as the ones we're not entirely conscious of, but which alter circumstances all the same.

A lot of Salvatore's interaction with Elliot was filled with codes and hidden meanings, Elliot sensing Sal's sexuality and slowly trying to tease it out through specific phrases. It's the kind of story that really propels you back to the era in which Mad Men takes place, individuals not yet even having a place to embrace that secret, instead still utilizing secret signals to even notify somebody that you're gay and in the vicinity. What was so surprising with all of this is that, up till now, I certainly assumed that Salvatore just wasn't out at work, that he was probably enjoying an active sex life elsewhere, more of a glass closet than something truly suffocating. But the dinner with Elliot led to some tragic revelations, namely that Salvatore is still so terrified by both his own feelings as well as what could potentially occur if word got out. So much that he hasn't actually pursued anything remotely sexual. As a result, he's left this shell of a man, too afraid to go down either route.

What makes it worse is the romantic affection shown to him by Lois, one of Sterling Cooper's switchboard workers. She overhears his Italian conversations with his mother over the phone, and sets up this entirely incorrect image of him in her head: the charming European bachelor who is flattering and quick with the banter. Again with the signals, and how they're sometimes confused. Lois tries valiantly to grab his attention, and I don't think there's any sadder moment here than the shot of Salvatore realizing that she has fallen for him, and the frustration that he's being seen as a sexual being again, when it's so much easier to remain without affection of any kind.

Peggy and Pete's story is also about misread signals, the two of them having sex in the office at the top of the episode and the Sterling Cooper celebratory party exposing the truth about their affair. Peggy dances and tries to be sexy and available towards him, but he quickly condemns her behavior. See, this isn't about Peggy at all. She had this vision in her head of being somebody that Pete cares for and wants to be with, but she's only ever been used by him as a kind of placeholder for something truly meaningful. Every time he feels crappy about himself, he goes to her for some kind of release. It's about him more than anything, and Elisabeth Moss' face after he dismisses her at the bar is ridiculously powerful -- embarrassment, devastation, shock; all building up inside of her within that moment.

Don had the only story this week with literal signals, via the hobo code taught to him in flashback. A lot of this story was about Don's own embodiment of what makes a man, and the work and loneliness that comes with it. Bertram notes at the beginning that the two of them are so alike because of their indifference to the world around them, both guided only by their own self-interest -- and it makes them so brilliant in the workplace. Inspired by the hobo he encountered as a child, he clearly owns that philosophy of being able to escape and work hard enough to gain success. Like the hobo, Don left his world behind in pursuit of a different life, and it's why he reacts so violently to Midge's beatnik friends -- all sitting around complaining about the world and getting high instead of actually doing anything about it. It's irrelevant that Midge has fallen in love with somebody else, Don would have been out of there in a heartbeat regardless.

But there are still parallels between Don now and the Dick Whitman of the past, or at least his lineage. The hobo writes in code that a dishonest man lives in the Whitman home, and soon after the camera lingers on Don's new 'home', the office emblazoned with his new name. Don has run all his life and appears comfortable in his current surroundings, but he can't hide so well from the truth, his dishonesty worn around his neck like a noose. A


- I loved that Peggy got a happy ending with the Belle Jolie account. Nobody screwed her over or took credit for her ideas, and just as you begin to assume that she'll be left outside Don's office and remain treated like an everyday secretary, she's called in for a drink with the fellas. Aww.

- Black characters have never been particularly well represented on Mad Men, but two examples here proved affecting in their short scenes: the elevator operator being casually demeaned by Pete, and the cleaner so easily glimpsing Pete and Peggy boning in the office, rolling his eyes all, "Damn white folks!"


Hobo: I'm from just east. About New York, originally, some other places.
Archie Whitman: Ah, New York. It's how you took to being on the bum so easy.

Peggy: Dance with me.
Pete: I don't like you like this.

Guest stars
Rosemarie DeWitt (Midge Daniels); Robert Morse (Bertram Cooper)
Writer Chris Provenzano Director Phil Abraham

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