Choosing the past or future: The latest episode of Mad Men

There will be spoilers for the most recent episode of Mad Men below.

Here, I’ll give you some space to scroll past.

That should be enough. Someday I’ll figure out how to include a “cut” in Blogger.

Am I just getting wiser to the writers’ thematic tricks, or was it all a bit obvious this week? The episode was called “The Hobo and The Gypsy”, and the first connection I made, of course, was to little Dickie Whitman’s encounter with a hobo waaaaay back in the day. I believe that was in Season One. But the Gypsy?

I’ve learned to watch the show by asking myself, “What is the theme of this scene? What are they trying to say?” and in every scene in this episode, the characters were being asked to make a choice between either their past, or their future. Annabelle, the rich horse-farm client (and past lover of Roger Sterling) was trying to salvage the past reputation of her daddy’s business. And she was trying to reclaim her past fond memories of Roger in pre-war Paris. For the first, Don tried, oh, how he tried, to sell her on the idea of abandoning the past by changing the name of the dog food that her beautiful horses became. Let go of the past and create a new future – it’s obvious to us why Donald Fucking Draper would see that as the ultimate solution, right?

And Roger’s choice, too, was for the future – his beautiful young bride, Jane, instead of his beautiful old lover, Annabelle. Or so we were led to think; never once did Roger mention his wife by name when turning down Annabelle. “You’re not [the one]”, he said, implying or allowing Annabelle to infer that the one was, in fact, Jane. But then what are we to make of Roger taking the phone call from poor Joanie, asking a favor? “You want to be on some people’s minds,” he said, “Some people, you don’t.” He liked the idea of being on Joan’s mind, didn’t he?

Dr. Greg, Joan’s husband, was also clinging to the past – he wanted to be a surgeon, but didn’t make the cut. Apparently being a psychiatrist isn’t good enough for him, in spite of all Joan’s coaching and prep work on his behalf, so he blows the interview. So intensely is he hanging on to the past that he signs up for the Army, his one chance to still be a surgeon… and blinds himself to the future escalation of war in Vietnam. He thinks his Army pay and rank of Captain will be enough to protect him.

Joan, who is fighting for the future she always imagined (a capable and upwardly-mobile doctor husband to care for her needs), has her past dreams rubbed in her face when Dr. Greg whines “You don’t know what it’s like to want something your whole life and count on it and not get it, OK?” Oh, my, yes, she does, and right now that thing she’s wanted her whole life is crying like a spoiled kid on her couch. And she promptly smacks that thing she’s wanted her whole life over the head with a vase. She realizes her past still has some influence, in the form of Roger, so she makes a call for help, since Dr. Greg isn’t getting it done.

Who am I leaving out? Oh, right, the big showdown between Betty and Don. This part of the story was many-layered; Donald Fucking Draper represents the future, an identity created out of whole cloth, a poised, confident, take-charge guy, versus Dick Whitman, a scared, poor, self-loathing man trying to escape his roots. Donald F. Draper works in shiny, new, Manhattan, in a tall skyscraper, with the rich and powerful kings of corporations; Dickie Whitman worked on a farm, and then dug ditches in foreign lands as a lowly foot soldier.

Betty, his wife, and their three kids and giant house in upstate New York are Donald Fucking Draper’s past; Suzanne, the schoolteacher, Donald Fucking Draper’s newest, and closest-to-home, fling, with whom he’s ready to run off with, is his future.

Donald Fucking Draper’s Cadillac is his future; the photos and documents he keeps in a box in his desk, that Betty finds, is his past.

But when Betty confronts him with the evidence of his past, instead of choosing one or the other, he finally chooses both, and confesses (mostly) to Betty what he’s been hiding from her since before he met her. He didn’t tell the whole truth – it wasn’t the Army’s mistake that gave him the name of Donald Fucking Draper, it was his own act – but he told enough, and it was clear that he was ashamed and afraid of what it all meant.

So when Bobby Draper went from choosing the astronaut for Hallowe’en (the future) but ended up being the hobo (the past), he was mirroring his father’s choice. And the two oldest Draper kids were the hobo and the gypsy at the end of the episode, with their father standing, nonplussed, behind them, again, the symbolism to me was of the past (hobo) and the future (gypsy, complete with crystal ball). The look of satisfaction on Donald Fucking Draper’s face when their neighbor asked him, playfully, “And who are you supposed to be?” tells me that the choice has been made.

What an amazing episode of a masterfully-written show. I particularly liked Amanda Marcotte’s analysis, as well as Silkstone’s recap over at Open Salon, if you want to read more in-depth on the many levels of metaphor and details that go into this show.