Matthew Weiner has never been shy about flaunting proto-literary symbols on Mad Men, but this season, he went symbol-crazy: From the Victorian fainting couch that reflected Betty’s throwback romanticism to the dog food that mirrored Don, props (both heavy-handed and subtle) have loomed larger than some characters this season. Herewith, Vulture’s slideshow of Mad Men’s third-season symbols and what they mean.
In the premiere, Boss Cooper stares at a kinky Japanese illustration of a giant octopus having sex with a woman. “What man could imagine her ecstasy?” Enter a reinvigorated Don, sex-machine ad man of the year.
Also in the season-three premiere, CFO Lane Pryce arrives — and discovers this ant farm, representing his cold, scientific misconception of the office as his ordered colony and science project. For his first management experiment, Pryce pits Ken and Pete against one another to see what will happen.
Poor Sal. He almost gets lucky with the bellhop, then his pen bursts. It’s a goofy premature-ejaculation gag and a sign of his season-long arc: excitement followed by messy disaster.
Betty isn’t the only one harboring romantic fantasies of pure love. When Don sees a hippie-ish vision of Miss Farrell dancing with ribbons, he touches the grass beneath him and dreams of her as clean and pure. It’s an indication of how sentimental he is under that façade — and quite possibly a symbol of flower children to come.
Sally becomes obsessed with Quang Duc’s self-immolation, since it mirrors her own overly dramatic sense of suburban rebellion (and her passionate defense of misunderstood Grandpa Eugene).
Eugene’s helmet, a souvenir from WWI, becomes a kind of totem for old-school male values. Eugene believes in kick-ass glory, but cynical Don doesn’t see the romance of killing — or the previous generation’s triumphal machismo. Unsentimental, Don tells Bobby to take it off — “It’s a dead man’s hat” — uneasily referencing the fact that Don is wearing a dead soldier’s name.
Old coot Eugene has strange ideas about bedtime reading for Sally, warning her about the ways selfish licentiousness led to the collapse of one great civilization — and no doubt spells doom for spoiled brats like, well, everyone on this show.
When Betty gives birth, she disappears into Demerol-induced hallucinations. Does the strange worm in her hand represent her sunny hope for her new baby? Her childhood? A more simple place where she can retreat and be utterly alone (and without Don)?
Inspired by Sally’s curiosity about Medgar Evers, the gothic side of Betty’s Demerol haze is a vision of her badgering mother standing over the bleeding, reanimated corpse of the Civil Rights martyr saying, “See what happens when you speak up?” It’s an intense vision of Betty’s fears, particularly how much she dreads confronting Don.
Pryce’s vision of ant-farm-ish scientific-corporate perfection is wrecked by the season’s most idiotic gimmick: a jai alai ball launched from a cesta. Why? The game is destined to be a blatantly ridiculous failure, fueled by family money and nepotistic connections. It’s also hugely profitable for Sterling Cooper. For Pryce, the illogical profitability of jai alai is messy evidence of bizarre American-style business, and after the ant farm breaks, he begins to loosen up.
When Lane Pryce receives this ludicrous snake charmer’s basket and cobra, it’s a sign of his parent company’s utter clueless callousness — and how his bosses are mercenary vipers.
Ken triumphantly rides his new account into the office, a swaggering cowboy on a ludicrous green-and-yellow steed. How rapacious and unbridled is American capitalism? How ruthless is a corporation? It will literally chew you up and spit you out.
“Just when he got it in the door,” dashing English accounts man Guy MacKendrick has it brutally chopped off. “He’ll never golf again,” his boss says, revealing how arbitrary and absurd even the most purportedly logical corporation can be.
When Duck sends Peggy an Hermès scarf, it’s more than a professional gift: It’s a romantic gesture that presages their affair and it’s a reminder that Peggy isn’t just a career gal, she’s a gal with romantic dreams, too.
While secretly a-courtin’ with Henry, Betty purchases an enormous tufted Victorian fainting couch. The actual object seems tumorous, gross, and as utterly out of place in her modern home as her unfashionable fairytale ideas of romance.
When the eclipse approaches, curious kids brace themselves and look into the darkness. Betty nearly faints when she looks up. Don is uninterested. In a season obsessed with shadows and light, it’s a metaphor for how painful it can be to look into the darkness and force yourself to see what might hurt you. The kids are protected, Betty can’t handle it, and Don is utterly incurious.
One of many Roman symbols: Don and Betty have one last love-among-the-ruins fling in actual Rome. By the end of the episode, their love is revealed as a chintzy fake and they’re left with nothing but nostalgia for better times, in the form of this tacky Roman Colosseum trinket. (Bonus: In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud used Rome’s ruins to talk about how successive social orders warp the psyche, an organizing principle of the show.)
When Pete discovers the sobbing au pair, he finds her with a wine-stained dress. It’s a symbol for Pete’s degraded notion of romance and his own privilege, foreshadowing his pathetic act of coerced sex.
Roger’s old gal pal Annabel makes dog food out of horsemeat, like everyone else. But word has gotten out. She’ll spin it — but refuses to change the name or what’s in the can. Just like Don, who’s changed his name and spun a whole fantasy around himself — but is still full of it.
At first, Bobby said he wanted to be an astronaut for Halloween, then for metaphorical purposes, he and his sister dressed up as a hobo and a gypsy. The parallel: Don wants to be a fancy ad man but just can’t stop acting like his father, a rootless, no-good drifter.
When Joan crashes that beautiful flower vase against the head of Dr. McRapey, she’s smashing all her romantic dreams to bits.