Where are the doors? Who gets to say who can walk through them? And when people realize that a door is locked to them, how do they feel?
Every scene in “The Hobo Code” asks some version of these questions, and the timing seems just right. In its first seven episodes, Mad Men was fascinated by the entitlements of its white male ad executives: their expense accounts, their mistresses, their suits and shiny cars. But the glamorous images had a chilly undertone, especially when the show put them in the same frame with people who shined their shoes, mopped their floors, and fed their families. “The Hobo Code” spends an entire episode in that second mode, juxtaposing the straight white male characters who can walk through any door they want against people who can’t, because they don’t have the key or have been instructed to use the servants’ entrance or they had no idea there was a door there. It is the first episode to devote the bulk of its running time to the concerns of the dispossessed, alienated, and disempowered—women, homosexuals, African Americans, and white counterculture types who’ve chosen to identify as outsiders. This last group has it the easiest of the lot, and the episode’s writer, Chris Provenzano, explores this. Although the script scores a few points against Midge and her beatnik pals (just as “Babylon” did, though not as crudely), it’s essentially a sympathetic portrayal, because it shows how Don, outwardly a crisply attired, Brylcreemed embodiment of Madison Avenue’s influence, feels like an outsider himself. But the freedom to identify with outsiders is a form of privilege, too—one that’s denied to the show’s African-American characters, who thus far have been treated as a Greek chorus, a tradition that continues in this episode.
“The Hobo Code” strings its story through four key scenes. The first is the opening, which finds Pete Campbell leaving for work at 7 a.m. when he doesn’t need to (a sure sign of a married man who isn’t happy at home) and stepping onto an elevator operated by Hollis (La Monde Byrd), the only recurring African-American character in season one of any significance (and not much significance). As the doors slide shut, we hear Peggy in the lobby asking someone inside to hold the doors. After she hustles in, the doors stay open a bit longer so an African-American janitor can board. Normally he’d take the service elevator—the out-of-sight, out-of-mind lift for blue-collar workers in a white-collar building—but this morning it’s kaput.
The second important door scene comes right after the first, as Peggy heads into Pete’s office to talk to him about the Belle Jolie pitch. Pete, who’s depressed over his workplace woes and his unhappy marriage, repeatedly asks Peggy to close the door. When she finally does, he puts the moves on her, and she accepts, falling onto his couch. This leads to a shot of a janitor out on the main floor noticing Peggy’s and Pete’s silhouettes through the glass: a high-heeled shoe pedaling the air, a torso rising into view. The man doesn’t smile or roll his eyes or mutter in disgust. His face is blank.
The janitor’s moment makes an impression because it’s more than many period shows typically allow, and it takes on more weight when you recall that Peggy tells Pete there’s no reason to close the door because “nobody” is here. She’s right, but not in the way she means it: A black janitor is “nobody” here, of lesser social importance than even a white secretary.
About halfway through the episode comes a third significant door moment: A group of men saunters into Don’s office to celebrate closing on Belle Jolie, the company for which Peggy had devised the “Mark Your Man” campaign. They’re laughing as they enter, and after the door shuts they laugh again, more loudly. The scene holds on Peggy’s face in close-up as she hears their laughter. It’s as clear an image of gender discrimination in the midcentury white-collar workplace as the show has given us. Peggy’s face is anxious, as if she’s worried the joke’s on her. It is.
This scene and others that follow sully what might have seemed like an unabashed victory. Don had steamrolled Belle Jolie’s executives into accepting Peggy’s strategy by insisting that it showed a deeper understanding of women than the company’s usual (of course it did; it was written by a woman): “You’ve given every girl that wears your lipstick the gift of total ownership,” he said. En route to the celebration in his office, Don says something that underlines this statement’s hollowness: He tells Ken, the Masher Supreme, that “you’ll realize in your private life that at a certain point seduction is over and force is actually being requested.” Of course, Don and the other straight white men are the ones who truly have “total ownership” of this workplace, and of everything else beyond its walls. It’s telling that in Don’s deal-sealing statement, “total ownership” is a “gift” being given to women by a cosmetics company run by men. The appearance of progress is not progress.
This is the episode where Peggy starts to separate from Joan, her supervisor and would-be mentor. Without putting too fine a point on it—always a risk on a show loaded with signs and symbols—“The Hobo Code” gets at how Peggy’s achievement is different from any that Joan might have enjoyed thus far: It’s a creative triumph that stems from her femaleness but has nothing to do with sexuality.
Joan, on the other hand, brings everything back to sex. Most of her advice to Peggy has been about how women can survive in a male world by turning men’s lust to women’s advantage. Joan’s undermining of Peggy’s achievement confirms the worst stereotypes of women resenting the success of other women in male-dominated workplaces: “I’m glad your other work was suffering for a reason,” she says through a hate-smile. But the context makes it impossible to condemn her: At Sterling Cooper, a woman can claim a small piece of turf at best, and it’s natural that Joan would worry about somebody else grabbing hers.
Peggy gets a limited acknowledgment from the “boys”—just a quick drink in Don’s office, after which they ditch her—but she creates her own victory party at P.J. Clarke’s, with melancholy Pete’s encouragement. In a thrillingly cinematic moment, a distraught Pete and a radiant Peggy make eye contact—Peggy on the dance floor, Pete slumped on a bench—and she twists toward him and invites him to join her. He refuses. He says, “I don’t like you like this.” He sounds betrayed and miserable. Peggy’s face falls. What does he mean “like this”? Successful? Respected? Not dependent on Pete? She drifts back to the revelry as if on tender soles. When she resumes her dance, she wipes away a tear.
Don, meanwhile, is over at Midge’s, hoping to convince her to fly to Paris, all expenses paid, on Bert Cooper’s $2,500 bonus. This is the first instance of Don impulsively deciding to burn down everything he’s built at home, and perhaps at the office as well; whereas a vacation with the mistress in Niagara Falls or Atlantic City could’ve been a secret weekend indulgence, Paris would have amounted to a statement. But Midge refuses. Don realizes why when he looks at a black-and-white Polaroid of her with her scruffy boyfriend Roy and realizes they’re in love.
The heart of this scene, though, is a consideration of Midge’s friends. Provenzano’s script mocks them a bit. But it also situates them accurately in this time and place. Midge’s pals could’ve been figures in Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster.” Don is a young Dick Nixon on the outside, but inside, he has a rebel’s temperament. He treats people of lower social station as emotional and moral equals. And he subconsciously rejects the suburban nuclear-family fantasy that he worked so long to achieve.
Don smokes marijuana at Midge’s party, apparently for the first time, and announces that he feels like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, in the scene where the film goes from black-and-white to color. The joint sparks Mad Men’s first extended, multipart flashback, one that gathers most of the other subplots beneath the heading “sympathy for the dispossessed.” Don stares into a mirror and remembers how a drifter played by Paul Schulze (Father Phil on The Sopranos) took refuge with young Dick, his stepmother, Abigail, and his father, Archibald (Joseph Culp), during the Depression. In the Whitman kitchen, Abigail incidentally repeats a line of her mother’s—that life is “like a horseshoe, fat in the middle, open at both ends, and hard all the way through.” She then gives the hobo advance chore payment of a quarter, but Archibald takes it away, promising to give it to him the following day.
These flashbacks feel like the dour real-world equivalent of a superhero origin story. The hobo implants the idea in Dick that New York is a marvelous place where a sad little boy can reinvent himself. Later, the hobo tells Dick that “we all wish we were from someplace else, believe me,” and that after Death came to find him, he ran away from his family and his mortgage and “freed myself with the clothes on my back,” and now “sleeps like a stone.”
At the end of it all, the man is denied the promised quarter, and we see the family’s fence, already marked with a faded symbol from the titular pictograph language, because when you’re on the lowest rung of society’s ladder, even lower than a poor farmer, the only power you have is the power of warning. “This is how we talk to each other,” he had told young Dick in the barn, holding up a piece of chalk.
The sign on the Whitman fence tells those who can read it that “a dishonest man lives here.”
Excerpted with permission from Mad Men Carousel by Matt Zoller Seitz.