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Each week, Alissa Wilkinson reflects on the latest episode of AMC’s Mad Men.
Let’s talk about hobos.
The first hobo was Cain, the son of Adam, doomed by God to wander after he killed his brother Abel. Eventually he built cities, but he was itinerant before then. Other hobos, or part-time hobos: Abraham. Isaac. Jacob. Moses. Most of the prophets. Paul. The apostles, generally.
Hobos—itinerant, traveling, homeless (mostly) men—are the stuff of the real myths, and also the stuff of Mad Men. As Margaret Lyons pointed out at Vulture, the hobo motif was set up way back in season 1 of the show, and the penultimate episode of Mad Men picks that theme back up and echoes it loudly. Even the title—“The Milk and Honey Route”—has obvious Biblical implications, but also refers to a 1931 book subtitled “A Handbook for Hobos.”So everyone’s off on an awfully big adventure, nearly all of them at least temporarily homeless and uprooted.
Only now, Don is the hobo—a wealthy one, but still, he is literally homeless—who teaches some of the hobo code to a young, incompetent con man in whom he must see himself. (Don insists he code-switch, even adopting proper grammar—something young Don had to learn, too.)
The oddly fatherly interactions Don has with the kid echo the rest of the episode’s theme, which carefully tracks with what Matt Weiner has always said was part of what lay underneath Mad Men: kids who were young in the 60s and saw their parents’ lives. It’s a show about families, parents and children, one generation passing a heritage on to another, an era fading into the next, something I alluded to in my last recap.
Take Pete, for instance. Against all odds, Peter Campbell has rocketed to the top of the most-likely-to-turn-out-to-be-a-decent-guy list in Mad Men. I’d hardly believe the transformation, except for the candid conversation with his brother at the restaurant. “I think it feels good, and then it doesn’t,” Pete says to his brother, who is contemplating yet another adulterous liaison.
Then the soft bombshell: the brothers discuss the fact that they learned this behavior from their father. I’ve spent a fair amount of time contemplating over the past few years how tolerant female characters have sometimes been of their husbands’ obviously bad behavior on the show, and at some point I came to realize that if this is what you knew your father was doing—and nobody talked about it—then it was just what you put up with in your own life.
But Pete seems, against all hope, to be breaking the pattern, something the girls of my generation seem to take for granted. Can it stick? I’m fairly certain we’ll never find out in this show (though I’d definitely watch a “Campbells in Wichita” spinoff), but I’m not sure I’ve ever been more emotionally involved in the show than Pete and Trudy’s scene in this episode, and I am glad for the opportunity.
Then there is the bigger story, of Betty’s cancer. Betty has learned everything about life from her family, which we’ve learned about in bits; she is an image-conscious woman who has been slowly filling in what she lost since she was very young—as she says to Henry when he’s surprised she’s going back to school after the diagnosis, “What was I ever doing this for?” For herself, it turns out. To have something that was hers, which her cancer gives her as well: control.
But what she passes on to Sally in her oh-so-Betty letter is vital: the acknowledgement that Sally’s life will be a great adventure, and that she loves her. If I were Sally, those words would function as a mother’s blessing throughout my whole life, the impetus to do something great. It also recalls the line from Peter Pan in which Peter declares that “to die would be an awfully big adventure.”
So everyone’s off on an awfully big adventure, nearly all of them at least temporarily homeless and uprooted: Pete and Trudy and Tammy presumably to Wichita; Betty toward the end of her life; Sally toward the start of hers; the failed con-artist kid, with Don’s car and the admonition to not waste the opportunity; and Don himself, alone at a bus stop, having divested himself of nearly every connection and possession he has, including his secret shameful story from Korea.
Where are they headed? I don’t believe in predicting the ends of shows (though I dearly hope we get back to Peggy in the finale), but if you check The Milk and Honey Route (you can find it here), you’ll note that the author outlined what a hobo’s life is about:
The road the real hobo follows is never ending. It is always heading into the sunset of promise but it never fully keeps its promise. Thus the road the hobo roams always beckons him on, much as does the undealt card in a game of stud. Every new bend of the road is disillusioning but never disappointing, so that once you get the spirit of the hobo you never reach the stone wall of utter disillusionment. You follow on hopefully from one bend of the road to another, until in the end you step off the cliff.
So maybe the falling man in the opening credits has always been plummeting from a cliff—or maybe we’re just at another bend in the road. We’ll see on Sunday.
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