Mad Men this week saw the return of my favorite recurrent symbol: The hobo! Guest character Beth (aka Rory Gilmore) told Pete she didn't like NYC because of "all the hobos." She always made the mistake of making eye contact and giving them money, then they wouldn't leave her alone and she couldn't stop thinking about them. Her dad counseled her to ignore them since you can't help everyone.

A brief history of hobos on Mad Men

One of the first eps of MM I saw back in season 1--and the one that made me love the show--was "The Hobo Code." In it the young Don Draper bonds with a hobo that's stopped by the family farm for a hot meal, a night in the barn and a little paid work. The hobo tells him there are men who leave their unhappy homes and travel all over the country, including NYC. He also teaches Dick about the hobo code, a secret set of symbols that the men mark on houses to give other travelers a heads-up about what to expect there. When he leaves Dick's farm he marks it with the symbol that means "a dishonest man lives here."

Ever since then Don's been associated with hobos and the show sometimes subtly commented on the changing nature of that character. You think about MM as being about the 60s, and it is, but it also grounds the characters in the time periods where they grew up. Just this last week Don, puzzled over his new wife's decision to quit advertising to return to the acting career she'd previously quit, talks to his older friend Roger about the importance of following your dreams by saying, "I grew up in the thirties. My dream was indoor plumbing."

Don as a boy romanticized these men who were so common in the Depression. Maybe he didn't see the darker side of their lives (his own life was probably darker anyway), but hobos were a familiar part of the society. I don't want to do my own romanticizing about how welcome itinerant, unemployed men were during the Depression, but from everything I've seen it does seen as though there was a sense that a man with no job could very easily be a good man desperate for one. "My Man Godfrey," for instance, includes giving a job and a place to live to a colony of hobos as part of the happy ending. In the MM episode they show it wasn't so unusual to give one a hot meal and a bed for the night. A lot of good people were out of work.

In the present timeline of the show, hobos show up again in the ep "The Gypsy and the Hobo." The title makes it sound like it's going to refer to Don (the hobo) and his current mistress (Suzanne), but it literally refers to Don's children going out for Halloween dressed as, what else? a gypsy and a hobo. So that brings up how that figure of hard times, poverty and desperation became a standard costume for children in the 50s. This same change was noted in the soundtrack. One ep closed the credits with the original version of "The Big Rock Candy Mountain," a hobo anthem about lakes of whisky and stew and cigarette trees and jails with walls made of tin. In a later episode Don goes to his youngest son Gene's birthday party where the cleaned-up 50s children's version plays on the phonograph. The lakes of whisky and gin have been changed to lemonade and the trees are peppermint. The candy is now actual candy.

I loved that reminder of how the incredibly harsh world of his childhood had been repackaged for children who didn't know it. I figured that was as far as they could go with the idea...until this ep! The hobos Beth and Pete discuss are completely modern. Beth calls them hobos, but what she describes is what we would call the homeless. These aren't men like the one who came by the Whitman farm looking for work. They're not going anywhere. In the years to come, even if plenty of them are also good people who fell on hard times, they'll become more and more associated with danger, addiction and mental illness. Where earlier hobos had some accepted place in society, the homeless don't.

Beth's father tells her to just not see them, and that's why they won't leave her alone once she does. If you're treated as an invisible person, someone actually looking at you is powerful. Beth is a "kind-hearted woman," which was also an important figure to hobos in the 30s (I believe the symbol for her was a cat). The kind-hearted women are in more danger from these men, since they're more desperate and less accepted.

Which is why, of course, for the first time the hobo character isn't Don at all, but Pete whose initial reaction to Beth saying she hates the hobo-filled city he loves is to take it personally. Don's hobo was the one who, in folklore and in his own mind, was associated with riding the rails and traveling--and the country. He made the road his home. Beth's are associated with the city. Don's could go wherever he wanted. Beth's have nowhere to go.

Oh, and of course there was the hobo code itself that got an update. Dick's original hobo marked their fence with the sign for a dishonest man (Dick's father), which faded into the sign on Don Draper's office that bore his own false name. This ep also ended in a symbol as Beth drew a heart for him in the steam of the window. Beth's symbol to Pete was confusing. He didn't know what the heart meant and then she erased it.


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