The Hobo and The Gypsy: Mad Men, Season 3, Episode 11
It’s more complicated than that. ~ Don
In Season 1’s brilliant episode of Mad Men, “The Hobo Code,” we learned about Dick Whitman’s childhood by focusing on a time that a hobo visited his father’s Depression-era farm, seeking shelter and food and a bit of money for some work, only to be cheated by Archie Whitman’s meanness (in both senses of that word). The young Dick seems fascinated by the vagabond, who teaches him about “the hobo code” – the chalk signs that hobos of that era left on fences or walls to inform the next vagrant who came by whether the person who lived there was kind and generous or a cheat like Archie. (Think Twitter for the 1930’s.)
But of course (like almost everything in this series), “the hobo code” has two meanings, which have become more apparent as the show goes. Don has been living by the hobo’s code, which is to move through a world but not belong to it, or to the families or homes you visit, and his struggle throughout the entire series has been about deciding whether to remain a hobo, a man without a real home or identity, or to take the risk of becoming a real person, including fully committing himself to his family. By signing a contract at work recently, he put the first nail in the coffin of his hobo life, but he did not look happy about it, and in cheating more seriously and close to home with Suzanne, he seemed to actively un-do that act in a spasm of rebelliousness against commitment.
In Episode 11 of Season 3, "The Hobo and The Gypsy" (a parallel identity that Don has also inhabited), Don is finally confronted with the costume he has been wearing, as artificial as the ones his children take on at episode’s end. In shedding it, Don finally learns that intimacy can only arise out of authenticity and truth. But before we get to the dramatic denouement that we’ve all been waiting for, we see two other sets of characters debate issues of identity and truth-telling as they try to make peace with their past dreams – and demons.
Roger is visited by an old flame, Annabelle, with whom he shared a Lost Generation love affair in Paris, “on vacation while other people were jumping out of windows” after the 1929 stock market crash. Both spoiled heirs to family fortunes, Annabelle nevertheless had callously dumped Roger for lacking direction, breaking his heart. Now a widow, she wants to rekindle their love affair, having realized that Roger was “the one” as well as “the one that got away” but Roger has to gently but firmly break the news to her that she wasn’t, for him, turning down her advances by calling himself a happy newlywed and insisting that “this girl is different.” But which girl? Given how much more appealing Annabelle is than the utterly vapid Jane (at least to this middle-aged woman viewer), we have to believe that Roger (who loves living up to his name) must genuinely be in love with someone, but whether it's Jane or Joan, we are left to wonder.
Having failed in her quest for love, Annabelle is still hoping for a miracle to save her family horse farm, which is literally looking like the dog’s dinner. Throughout the episode, we are reminded of Shakespeare’s immortal question, “What’s in a name?” -- but while a rose by any other name might smell as sweet, in the wake of the 1962 film, The Misfits (a title that fits so many MM characters), horsemeat stinks. People have become squeamish about what’s in dog food, a hypocrisy which Annabelle ascribes to the fact that unlike “beef” and “poultry,” there is no euphemism to make horsemeat palatable. Despite her recognition of the power of words, she wants Sterling Cooper to solve the problem without any change in the formula or the name, because her father came up with it.
As with other agreements Don enters into, this one is made to be broken. As he will later with Betty, he has to explain the hard truth to Annabelle, saying “the name has been poisoned” and must be changed, arguing against her sentimentality with “it’s just a label on a can” and the real point is that “it’s a quality product.” Just as Smitty has his head-slapping moment of realizing that the focus group dog owners are describing themselves in how they characterize their dogs (prompting one of Don’s trademark dry-as-toast comebacks, “This your first group?”), so too is Don describing and also selling himself, as he’s done every day since becoming Don Draper. While acknowledging the value of a product’s (or a person’s) name, he sees no reason to be attached to it when necessity argues otherwise.
Annabelle, however, is having none of it, still valuing patrimony in a way that Don has left far behind (perhaps because his father was an SOB – but then so was Annabelle’s, according to Bert). Annabelle and Don may have both eaten horsemeat (a fact that seems to shock Roger when Don says it) but we immediately know without being told that she had it in a bistro in Paris and Don had it on the farm, probably because a horse had to be put down, and meat couldn’t be wasted. From such life experiences come different values, ones that also separate him from his upper middle class wife, as well as from silver spoon mouthed Roger.
In the end, Annabelle can’t handle the truth, either from the horse’s mouth (Don) or the horse’s ass (Roger) and so gets back on her high horse and leaves Sterling Cooper in the dust.
I realized there are other ways to heal people rather than cutting them open. ~ Greg
Our next two players in this episode of Truth or Consequences are Joan and Greg. While Greg mopes around, bemoaning his lost dream of being a general surgeon (if not Surgeon General), the ever-resourceful Joan calls up Roger to ask if he could possibly find her a better job, and the tender, funny, intimate conversation between the two leaves you wondering if Roger is being honest about which girl he’s in love with.
Greg is half-heartedly pursuing his new career plan to be a psychiatrist, and practices interviewing with Joan (who I’d hire to be my coach any day) while revealing his disdain for the tenets of the profession. After first evading her question about why he’s choosing psychiatry by saying, “That’s kind of personal,” he surprises Joan (but not us) with the news that his father once suffered a nervous breakdown. Showing she too wants authenticity, Joan compliments him on how he comes across when talking with honesty and vulnerability, but Greg scoffs at the idea of openness and so blows his interview and the chance to hear other people open up about their feelings for the next 40 years.
After throwing a toddleresque tantrum ending with the immortal words, “You don’t know what it’s like to want something your whole life and count on it and not get it, OK?” – making plain his belief that women couldn’t possibly have dreams or ambitions -- Joan shows she knows a thing or two about shrinking heads by throwing a vase at his fat thick one (yeah, Joanie!) to get it back down to manageable size.
Chastened (or perhaps brain-damaged), Greg comes up with a solution that makes him nearly bust with pride, even as he admits how obvious it was all along: He’s going to Be All He Can Be in the Army, which is so desperate for doctors, they’ll even take Dr. Cut Up (as Roger calls him), giving him a surgical residency and making him a Captain. Of course, later he might have to go to Germany or even Viet Nam “if that’s still going on” but he doubts it.
Joan looks stunned at this news, but also relieved and happy. Greg assures her that she won’t have to work anymore because Uncle Sam will take care of both of them, but given we’ve heard Roger recommend her to a fellow exec who needs someone to organize his office, I foresee a conflict coming in which Joan will have to decide if she’s really ready to put her feet up and get knocked up, or if she misses the authority she had at work more than she wants to admit.
Interesting as they are, these storylines are mere warm-ups for the heavyweight match of Truth or Consequences between Betty and Don.
Betty learns the truth of her situation and the consequences of a potential divorce when she takes the kids to visit her father’s house and negotiates with her brother William over selling it. He wants to buy her out, but not at market price, but that’s not even the bad news. That comes from the family lawyer, Milton, who Betty asks for advice about her marriage, confessing what she hasn’t even spoken aloud yet – that her husband has deceived her and everyone else.
Milton seems unfazed by this news (leaving me to wonder…isn’t there something called matrimonial fraud, and if so, wouldn’t this qualify?) and instead paints Betty a grim picture of New York divorce law – she won’t get any money and Don could even get the kids. True to the time, he asks her the two key questions women in her situation were always asked: Does Don hurt her? (Although in the upper middle class manner, he delicately phrases it as whether he "scares" her.) And: Is he a good provider? Hearing her answers, he advises her to go home and work things out with the father of her three children.
With cold legal water thrown in her face, Betty surprises Don by coming home sooner than expected – and just as he’s about to leave on a getaway with Suzanne, who has realized that she wants more and is beginning to push for it, a move that surprisingly Don responds to, revealing how close he is to abandoning his marriage.
But Betty’s showdown at the “You’re Not OK Corral” not only wipes that possibility off the map, it even seems to make Don forget Suzanne is out in the car waiting for him. Or at least it felt that way, and I’m sure I’m not the only viewer who was on tenterhooks, expecting Suzanne to burst in just as Don and Betty finally had it out (a scripting mistake, in my opinion, that undercut the intense dramatic power of this confrontation that we’ve waited so very long for).
Don at first resists Betty’s demand that he open up his Drawer of Mystery, and his vehement “this is my desk – it’s private” speech suggests that a man’s desk is like a woman’s purse – not to be trifled with unless you have permission to enter. Given that in psychological terms, a woman’s purse is considered analogous to her vagina, I guess that means those big ole wooden desks represent a man’s privates. Certainly in this case, we know the desk hides Don’s Dick.
I don’t even know him. I met him at the wedding. ~ Milton the lawyer about Don, but seemingly channeling Betty
In an extended and masterfully played scene (by both actors), Don not only comes clean (well, mostly) with Betty about his life, narrating it with the family pictures she’s uncovered, but also finally allows himself the emotional release for what he’s lost (especially Adam) as well as for what he’s gaining (authenticity and intimacy with Betty). It’s heartbreaking to see Don finally acknowledge that he drove Adam to his death by denying him the contact that he wanted, and that it came about because he didn’t want to risk losing the life that he’d created as Don.
“He hung himself,” he tells Betty bluntly, and that’s true not just of Adam but Don as well, who killed his birth identity and hung himself in taking a new identity, with all the strictures that such a deception entails.
Betty’s response, “Am I supposed to feel sorry for you?” is satisfying in a way almost all of her dialogue is here, as she finally takes charge of her life and her relationship, not letting Don get away with anything, calling him a “very very gifted storyteller” who can explain anything while still saying nothing. But Don’s response to that question, “I don’t know,” seems utterly sincere. We see that he isn’t speaking from self-pity as Betty suspects but instead, having opened up a vein, is now pouring out the truth like blood that can’t be stopped.
Yet even in spilling his story with seeming relief, Don fudges a few facts, saying that the Army mixed up the identities and not that he deliberately exchanged the dog tags, using the classic rationalization, “I didn’t think I had a choice and I don’t know what the difference is.” And when Betty catches his lie about getting divorced from Anna “the minute” they met (when it was actually just 3 months before they married) and asks, “Why couldn’t you tell me any of this?” he bristles and deflects with, “When? The day we met? On our first date? On our wedding day?” capping it with the ultimate put-down, “Why did you need to know?” Betty’s response, “You don’t get to ask any questions” fails to address the point – that of course his future wife needed to know about his past.
While the focus is on Don, Betty reveals herself as well, saying that she’d always assumed that Don was “some football hero who hated his father” and that she’d known he grew up poor because he "doesn’t understand money," a comment which carries echoes of her father’s sneers to Don that “you people think everything is about money’ as well as Roger’s rich-boy country club put-downs. Like those two men, Betty thinks people don’t understand money if they don’t see it exactly the same way she does, as a signifier of class and position, rather than as merely a useful tool (the way Don does).
Similarly, Don and Betty have differing views of identity. Don, seeing identity as a tool just like money, argues facilely that “people change their names, Bets. You did.” To which she retorts, “I did, I took your name” – a name which she now knows is false, and thus an affront to the deep familial and social meaning that names have for her (as they did for her parents).
Her father had claimed that Don couldn’t be trusted “because he has no people” and it is only in presenting his people, in a raw storytelling style utterly different from his usual slick pitches and seductions that Betty slowly begins to trust Don, real sympathy breaking over her face as he tells her the names and fates of his kin. And yet Gene was right – Don has no people because “they all died.” He has only Betty and his kids, and in the end he asserts his connection to them, correcting Betty who has spoken of his hiding secrets in "her" house by saying “This is our house. Those are our children.”
Hobo and gypsy no more, he has joined himself to Betty at last. Upon first being confronted, Betty notes his uneasiness and asks, “Are you thinking of what to say, or are you just looking at that door?” to which he responds, “I’m not going anywhere.”
And for once, he doesn’t. Betty may follow him from room-to-room with the shoebox of secrets and threaten, “We’re not done here,” but it is Don who takes the shoebox into their bedroom, that most intimate spot of married life, and asks her to sit down next to him, so he can finally consummate their marriage by telling the truth of who he is.
Earlier, Joan has told Greg that psychiatry is “a field about the most intimate details of life,” to which the clueless Greg responds, “More intimate than their organs?” Here we see not a psychiatrist’s couch but a married couple’s bed as the site of intimacy -- not of organs in sexual ecstasy, but of hearts opening in honesty.
As with sexual encounters, the real moment of truth occurs in the cold light of morning, when lovers must face each other (and themselves), and accordingly we see Don and Betty (under the ever-watchful eye of Sally) exchange what could be married couple banalities about breakfast but which we know say so much more:
Betty: You want something?
Don: You gonna have something?
They thoughtfully solicit each other’s desires, but acting in tandem at last, neither eat, before parting with tenderness and promises to go trick or treating with the kids that night. At that time, we again see them in perfect sympathy, the conversation about dinner echoing the one of the morning:
Betty: Do you want anything?
In an act of nurturance and affection, Betty takes the sandwich she’s been eating and hands him the remaining piece, which he eats. Don is choosing not to want something unless his wife and partner wants it and has it as well, and in the end, he finds he is wanting nothing and yet gets fed.
Trick-or-treating with the kids a short while later, their neighbor Carleton says “Well, look at this, we have a gypsy and a hobo!” to the kids before surveying Don and Betty in their suburban costumes and joking, “And who are you supposed to be?” In their rueful, resigned and yet finally contented faces we read their unspoken answer: Ourselves.
Like Bobby, who announces his intention to be an astronaut for Halloween but ends up as a hobo, we don’t always become the people we dream of being. But there might still be a bag of candy for us in the bargain, if we’re willing to give up the trick for the treat.