Unpacking the Literary References Informing 'Mad Men' Season 6

Jon Hamm in ‘Mad Men’ Season 6/Image © AMC
Jon Hamm in ‘Mad Men’ Season 6/Image © AMC

"The Crash," the latest aptly titled episode of “Mad Men,” is a runaway toboggan ride through the emotional wasteland of Don Draper’s psyche that’s been analyzed and dissected as much as the Zapruder film at this point. Love it or hate it, “Mad Men” has now entered the realm of myth with Don Draper doubling as an Orpheus-like tormented soul who has descended into the underworld under the illusion that he can reclaim his idealized woman (the mother he never had) only to discover he’s powerless over his desire for instant gratification, ultimately dooming himself to a life of misery. If Freud were on the case, he would have diagnosed Don with textbook repetition compulsion, a self-destructive pattern of behavior, described in Remembering, Repeating and Working Through, as repeating the circumstances of a traumatic event over and over again.

We’ll leave any further deconstruction of Don’s psyche to the professionals -- the legions of bloggers who parse the show’s subtext in weekly recap posts that read more like the abstracts for a PhD dissertation on the moral degradation of American ideals in the late 1960s. But the proliferation of  literary references (both implicit and explicit) peppered throughout this season, particularly in episode 8, bears further scrutiny. And because everything in “Mad Men,” from Roger Sterling’s streamline moderne office furniture down to the pile of cigarette butts at Don’s feet, is freighted with meaning, there must be something to be gleaned from reading into the featured books and myriad author quotes embedded throughout Matthew Weiner’s multilayered dialogue.

Literary Cameo: The Inferno by Dante Alighieri
This season opened with Don splayed out on a Hawaii beach reading Dante’s Inferno, with a voiceover narration of the famous passage that remains the best and most succinct description of a midlife crisis ever written: “Midway through our journey I went away from the straight road and found myself in a dark wood.” There’s clearly more at play here than the garden variety midlife mortality panic behind Don’s descent into a state of sin-soaked anomie. Don is a man who manufactures his own despair, trapping himself on a treadmill of torment, even while vacationing in paradise with his smart, beautiful wife.

Takeaway: Don is damned to a hell of his own making but it’s not inconceivable that he’ll find some sort of redemption since he’s still hovering in outer circles, between lust and gluttony.

Literary Cameo: Ralph Waldo  Emerson
In the episode entitled “Man with a Plan,” Peggy Olsen concocts a fantasy in which her menschy boss is reading Emerson, the godfather of transcendentalism and great proponent of individuality and man's inherent power to prevail over society’s corrupt  influences.

Takeaway: Emerson was an optimist and an ethicist. In other words, he was the anti-Don, which is precisely what Peggy was looking for when she fled her deteriorating mentor for her new boss' high-minded ideals.

Literary Cameo: Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe
“The Crash” quickly spiraled into a drug-fueled stream-of-consciousness trip into the messy creative process involved in straddling the line between art and commerce. During one of the copy team’s many incoherent brainstorming sessions, Stan, the show's skirt-chasing art director, quotes Poe’s last published poem, Annabel Lee, about a man fixated on a beautiful woman he can never possess.

Takeaway: This poem clearly has resonances for both Stan and Don and the rest of the dirty dogs working at SCDP. Romanticizing lost loves is an affliction we all suffer from in one way or another. But in the most recent episode, this compulsion to relive (and rewrite) the past has debilitated Don and endangered his family and professional life. It’s no accident Poe’s work continues to strike terror in the hearts of readers.

Literary Cameo: My Heart Leaps Up by William Wordsworth
In episode 8, the creative team continues to try to crack the code to the Chevy campaign with a half-baked idea about the nostalgia associated with a father giving his son his first car. Peggy then chimes in with an offhanded aside adding that “the child is the father of the son.” This line was cribbed from the above Wordsworth poem, about how our memories of childhood fill the well we tap throughout our lives to be reminded of who we should aim to be.

Takeaway: In an episode overstocked with flashbacks  to Don’s abusive childhood, this poem offers a kind of solace in its message that there are gifts to be found in an unhappy childhood if we submit to heeding the lessons embedded in our own pain.

Literary Cameo: Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
Levin's terrifying novel about a pregnant woman who is convinced the satanic cabal living in her building has targeted her baby is ominously introduced in a scene in which Sally Draper has been left alone to tend to her younger brothers. Placing this literary creep-fest in the hands of a child home alone signals that some of our fears actually turn out to be worse than we’d imagined.

Takeaway: Both Don and Sally are more vulnerable than either acknowledges. And it also points to the fact that Don may feel like he’s become the grown-up version of satan’s spawn.