As you may have noticed, I think way too much about Mad Men, to the point sometimes that it becomes a crippling obsession. After I spotted Room 503 in Sunday night’s episode, in fact, I spent the better part of the next two hours trying to figure out what Weiner was referencing. I had a half-baked theory in my 25 Fun Facts, Callback, and Theories piece, but it wasn’t satisfying. So, I’ve spent maybe another hour or two each day trying to figure it out, and, after a ton of Internet research, I think we’ve found a winner.
But before we get there, let’s look at four other theories that the Internet has come up with.
1. 503. In HTTP terminology, it’s a Service Unavailable error (via Reddit) and in SMPTP terminology, it refers to Bad Command Sequence (via Salon). Cute, but no.
2. With all the theories about the impending death of Don Draper, though it doesn’t work, I like this theory, mentioned by a Redditor. J.D. Salinger’s A Perfect Day for a Bananafish takes place in Room 507 of a hotel with a lot of “New York advertising men.” At the end of it, Seymour — psychologically traumatized by the war, much like J.D. Salinger and Don Draper — goes to his room, pulls out a gun, and kills himself, while his wife is napping on the bed. Maybe Room 503 is a spiritual sideways sequel of sorts to A Perfect Day for a Bananafish? It’s hard to tie 507 to 503 with just the New York advertising men as a through line, but as a member of the Cult of Catcher, I like to tie everything to J.D. Salinger.
3. Someone on Facebook suggested that 503 (5+3=8) might refer to the 8th Circle of Hell, which is reserved for “panderers and seducers” and “sins that involve conscious fraud” (Draper, obviously, is a fraud, because he assumed someone else’s identity). I like this theory, especially with the earlier reference to Dante, but it’s not satisfying, either.
4. This theory has some validity: It could be a reference to season five, episode 03 (i.e,, 503), which concerned Betty’s cancer scare, much like Joan’s scare with the ovarian cyst in this episode. In both episodes there was some concern about the future of the children. More than anything, this suggests to me that — if we see the number 503 again — we should probably expect the death of a parent. But in neither case did it concern Don Draper, so I’m dismissing this one, as well.
5. This one — from the extensive comments section over on Tom and Lorenzo’s recap — is on the nose, and the most likely of five, assuming you do the math again (5 + 3 = 8 = BUtterfield 8).
There was something very familiar about the scenes with Sylvia in the hotel room 503 in bed with nothing on but a sheet and then it dawned on me. BUtterfield 8! The 1960’s movie with Elizabeth Taylor!
The opening scenes of that movie has Liz Taylor as prostitute Gloria in bed, wrapped in a sheet, waking up after a night of partying with a client. The scene with Sylvia is almost a dead ringer for Elizabeth Taylor – from Sylvia’s hair style, to her undressed state, to the color of the walls in the hotel room, to the camera angles – it calls back to the movie.
I’ve never been able to grasp Sylvia’s hairstyle in all her scenes with Don until I saw this episode, it all came together for me. Matt Weiner had foreshadowed it when Betty dyed her hair dark brown and said, “Elizabeth Taylor” to Henry. Don treating Sylvia as a prostitute, Sylvia being styled as Liz Taylor in BUtterfield 8, and Liz Taylor playing a prostitute in BUtterfield 8.
That theory is further bolstered by the fact that a friend of Betty Draper’s has made a reference to BUtterfield 8 on another episode of Mad Men.
Moreover, if you Google “Butterfield 8” and “503” you get this image of a record with Gloria’s theme from the movie. Note the “E-503” on the right.
Does it add up perfectly? If you do a little stretching, but clearly the themes between this episode and BUtterfield 8 are similar, and while the reference may be both obscure and oblique, I think this is exactly what Weiner was referring to, assuming he was referring to anything at all.