Through nearly seven seasons of Mad Men, we’ve come to learn a lot about the cast of the show (here’s 25 things you may not know), but my favorite thing about Mad Men, like Breaking Bad, is trying to dig a little deeper into the belly of Mad Men, to put those English degrees to good use, to dissect the show, to read into motivations, and to develop theories. Mad Men is not as quite as open to theory as Breaking Bad, but there’s plenty of room for interpretation. Matt Weiner makes a lot of literary references, and refers to movies from the time period, and he’ll even occasionally slip in a contemporary inside joke. That is fun, and it makes watching the show all the more enjoyable when there’s something to chew on after the episode.
I’ve collected a lot of the Easter Eggs, callbacks, bits of foreshadowing, etc. on Mad Men over the years, and posted them below. It’s not exhaustive, of course. There’s too much in Mad Men for that, but hopefully, it’s a fun post to read that will increase your appreciation for the show. If anything, stick around until the last entry for a wild theory on the end of Mad Men that I’ve developed using some of the breadcrumbs that Matthew Weiner has dropped over the course of the series.
1. We have seen Pete Campbell’s gun several times during the course of Mad Men, perhaps a literal Chekhov’s Gun, and if there’s one guy in the office likely to go postal, it’s Pete Campbell. My prediction: He uses it to shoot his dementia-riddled mother.
2. Aaron Staton plays Ken Cosgrove, who writes short fiction on the side. One of his short story characters is named Cole. Not so coincidentally, I suspect, Aaron Staton also voices a character named Cole Phelps in the video game L.A. Noire.
3. I’ve written extensively on how I think that Don Draper ultimately wants to kill his identity by the series’ end and once again return to his original identity, Dick Whitman. Here’s another clue: last season, in a fever dream, Don murdered an old girlfriend, which was a metaphor for wanting to kill his own philandering side, i.e., his Don Draper identity. That’s the thought that is buried in his subconscious.
4. It’s worth mentioning, because people often forget it, that Bert Cooper has no balls. Literally. If you missed it, there was an episode in which Roger made an offhand remark about someone named Dr. Lyle Evans in front of Bert Cooper being the worst person in the world for Bert Cooper to work with (we didn’t understand the reference at the time). Two episodes later, we find out that Dr. Evans gave Bert an accidental orchiectomy. He castrated Bert. We still don’t know for sure if he killed the doctor responsible for cutting off his testicles, or if Roger was just joking. And if you’re curious about the effects of an orchiectomy on a grown man, no: It does not change their voice (if you are castrated before puberty, then you become a eunuch because your voice will simply never change).
5. There’s a lot of literary stuff in Mad Men that’s easy to miss, especially if you haven’t read particular authors. One of my favorites, for instance, is that — when they were married — Betty and Don lived in Ossining, NY, home of the author John Cheever, who wrote extensively about suburban malaise in his fiction. In fact, Don and Betty lived on Bullet Park Road, the name of a 1969 Cheever novel. It’s probably no coincidence, either, that the same city is home to the Sing Sing prison, since Betty’s home life in her marriage to Don was like living in a suburban prison.
6. At the end of last season, when Don kissed Peggy’s hand after she quit Sterling Cooper, that was a nice little callback to the pilot episode of Mad Men, when Peggy — who was Don’s secretary at the time — reached out and touched Don’s hand to comfort him. He jerked his hand away: “I’m not your boyfriend. I’m your boss.” That dynamic is still playing out this season.
7. In “The Wheel,” the first season finale of Mad Men, Don has a pitch meeting with the guys from Kodak for their Carousel, a slide projector. His pitch: “This is not a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards, and it takes us to a place where we ache to go again.” Those words could not have been more apt for what Don was thinking in this year’s season premiere when, in a callback to that episode, he was using a projector slideshow to show pictures of his Hawaiian vacation, a place he called paradise.
8. If you don’t live in New York City, you may have missed this joke in the recent episode “The Flood.” In it, Peggy’s realtor tells Peggy that the value of a prospective apartment is going to skyrocket just as soon as the Second Avenue Subway is finished. At the time (1968), the Second Avenue Subway had been under construction for 39 years. Today, in 2013, it is still not finished. The subway line is often referred to as “The Line That Time Forgot.”
9. This is fun, if you didn’t catch it because you’re not 60 years old and have never seen the movie Bye Bye Birdie, but the Patio Cola ad on Mad Men was lifted, directly, from the opening portion of Bye Bye Birdie (go to 2:55 to see them side-by-side).
10. I don’t think all that many people realized this (particularly those who came to Mad Men late, via binge watching), but in season two, the reason why it was written in that Pete Campbell’s father died in a horrific plane accident was because the guy who played Pete Campbell’s father, Christopher Allport, actually died in real life. In an AVALANCHE.
11. I like to think that there’s some poetic symmetry in these two GIFs.
12. Matthew Weiner had originally planned to kill Harry Crane off in the first season. He was supposed to leap from the building to his death. In the fourth season premiere, there’s a subtle joke about that, when Harry says that he wishes his new offices had a second floor so he could jump out of it.
13. I didn’t know this, but according to DVD commentary, the general rule of thumb is that, if the actor playing a character has been a smoker (or still is a smoker), then the character is a smoker on the show. If the actor never smoked, then his or her character is not a smoker, which basically suggests that every actor on Mad Men besides Vincent Kartheiser and Rich Sommer has been a smoker at some point in their life.
14. I don’t know what the significance of this is, if any, but the last name of Betty’s second husband, Henry Francis, is also Don’s middle name (Donald Francis Draper). In a drama that is focused so much on identity, that cannot be a coincidence.
15. There also has to be something to the fact that Don has essentially driven two men to suicide, both by hanging. His brother Adam hanged himself after Don spurned his attempts to be a part of his life, while Lane hanged himself after Don threatened to reveal that Lane was “borrowing” money from the firm.
16. Speaking of Lane’s suicide, here’s three bits of foreshadowing from Season 5:
a) Lane at one point says of Sterling Cooper: “This is where I’ll be for the rest of my life.”
c) This was a lingering shot:
17. Remember when Harry and Don suggest they want to get the Rolling Stones to do an ad for them, noting that the Rolling Stones did a Rice Krispies commercial three years prior? Yeah, that happened.
18. In a 2008 episode, a brief snippet of the 1951 movie The Day The Earth Stood Still aired on Mad Men. That same year, Jon Hamm was in the remake.
18. Coincidence or purposeful? Christina Hendricks’ plays a sexy secretary, whose name is Joan Holloway. Maggie Gylenhaal plays a sexy secretary named Lee Holloway in the movie Secretary. In the movie, Lee even has a mother whose name is Joan Holloway. The movie is based on a Mary Gaitskill short story, and Gaitskill is exactly the kind of writer you know that Matthew Weiner is reading. If Joan has a second child, maybe with Bob Benson, and names it after Lee Garner, then we’ll know exactly what Weiner was doing.
19. I mentioned this in an earlier piece, but it’s worth re-mentioning that there are curious parallels between Don Draper’s life in 1968 and a movie that was mentioned in a client meeting in the sixth season premiere, A Star is Born. That movie was about an alcoholic actor who is a mentor to a woman named Esther Blodgett. Her career rises as the alcoholic actor’s falls, until eventually he loses all relevance, walks out into the ocean, and kills himself (which is what Don Draper’s ad for the Hawaiian hotel looked like). Initially, I thought that was a reference to Don and Megan’s relationship, but then, I saw that in a season five episode, Peggy says, “I was discovered, like Esther Blodgett.” It makes even more sense now, if you consider that A Star is Born is a parallel to Don and Peggy’s trajectory.
21. Many people may not have even noticed her, but Megan was around for 8 or 9 episodes in Mad Men before she ever mattered to the story. She was mostly a background player, appearing first as the front-desk receptionist in episode 2 of season four (it wasn’t until the end of season four that she slept with Don).
Here’s an interesting shot of Megan, in the background, but also IN BETWEEN, Don and the woman that he’d leave for Megan. That was a tasty bit of foreshadowing.
22. Via Slate, in “Mystery Date” last season, as a way to very, very subtly hint that Don was experiencing a fever dream, incredibly attentive viewers might have noticed that Don Draper both gets out of and back into his bed in the EXACT same fashion. That’s because the director simply reused the same footage, in reverse. Watch:
23. Note the painting in the background. It’s never hung the same way.
24. The very first thing I did after watching this week’s episode was spend an hour and a half trying to find the significance of the number 503, the hotel room number of Don and Sylvia’s sex room. Eventually, I typed in “Bible 503” and the very first listing was this page, and it contains several Bible passages that PERFECTLY FIT.
“So he drove out the man … Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth … And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD,” all of which align with Sylvia’s decision to drive out Don. There’s even some numerology that’s associated with the phrases “Drive out, Thrust Away” and “to accuse her to be a whore” which is exactly what’s going on in the episode between Don and Sylvia. The catch? I have NO idea how those passages and phrases relate to the number 503, but apparently, it has something to do with Hebrew Alef Bet Numerology. Unfortunately, I have no idea what that means, and while I give Matthew Weiner a ton of credit, I doubt he’s that familiar with Alef Bet Numerology.
25. Finally, here’s a wild theory that I’ve developed by not only reading too much into Mad Men, but overthinking it, but here it goes…
Check out these episode titles: “The Jet Set,” “The Fog,” “Seven Twenty Three,” “The Suitcase,” and “The Crash.” Now, free associate, given the repeated references to airlines in Mad Men over the course of the series from Mohawk Airlines, to Ted getting the best of Don by flying him through the rain. Add that to this real-life fact: A commuter plane, Delta Flight 723 (“Seven Twenty Three”) flying through fog in in 1973 crashed, killing 89 people aboard.
Now, wouldn’t there be some interesting symmetry here in the fact both the original Don Draper and the fraudulent “Don Draper” died in fires? In that case, the reference to Dante’s Inferno at the beginning of season six could have double meanings: Don traveling through the circles of Hell AND a large ball of fire consuming both Don Drapers?
Now, the attentive readers may ask, “But Dustin…I thought that in your theory, you posited that ‘Don Draper,’ the fraudulent identity, would die, but that there would be a rebirth of Dick Whitman?” Well, here’s where my theory gets interesting: Eight-nine people died on Flight 723, but two people survived. One, unfortunately, died only a few hours after the crash, but another lived for awhile. What’s to say, with a little revisionism on Matthew Weiner’s part, that Don Draper/Dick Whitman doesn’t pull off another identity switch after that crash? That he’s the survivor, but that he assumed yet another identity? That’s where Mad Men would end: With Don Draper dying in the real-life 1973 plane crash, and being reborn as someone else, assuming an all-new life. After all, 1973 is the year that the Chevy Vega — the car that the newly merged firm is tasked with advertising — began to undergo massive changes, and one of those changes may be a new ad firm, a move that could result in the bankruptcy of Sterling Cooper and Don’s decision to leave that life. We’ll just have to wait and see, obviously.