You never know how a song is going to connect with someone. Maybe it’s tied to a specific memory or a general mood. For me, Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” is attached to Mad Men, which is, I recognize, an odd way to remember a song that became synonymous with a musical icon who died Wednesday, but like I said…
The song plays on a car radio at the start of “The Milk and Honey Route,” the show’s penultimate episode. It’s night and Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is on a solitary drive. The drive is soon revealed to be a dream sequence that brings to the fore Don’s central fear of being found out as a fraud. It’s one of the series’ most frequently recurring themes, and one that comes to a head throughout the episode and into the finale when Don confesses his sins to Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) at his weakest moment.
The song’s lyrics, on its face, speak more to Don’s (and our own) antipathy to change than anything else as Haggard proudly boasts about unflinching and simple values that had come to be regarded as passé in the moment of cultural revolution of the late-1960s and early-1970s. Don is running from the notion that his world has been devoured and that, despite his collection of accolades and worshippers, he is little more than a bauble on a shelf for his new boss. He’s also running from the infection of youth on the world and in his industry. This is an element touched upon more prominently in earlier seasons, but here it’s still relevant to a man who knows how to read a room and a calendar. This is especially true at this point in Don’s story, one in which he’s about to lose his daughter to adulthood after losing his young and beautiful wife to a freer world in California.
If you look a little bit further into the song, however, you’ll find an even stronger connection between Haggard and Don Draper in the way that their lives sometimes contradicted their natures.
For years, Mad Men fans had watched Don try to reform himself to be a better husband, father, employee, and man, failing every time and returning to a core sustained by booze, women, rebellion, and selfishness. Though he wasn’t a hippie, Don Draper wasn’t really a man who would have been welcome in the upstanding town of Muskogee, Oklahoma, either. And the same thing goes for Merle Haggard.
Haggard was known as a country-music outlaw, a man married five times who did time in San Quentin early in his life, accepted marijuana later in life, and spent five months on a houseboat doing cocaine in 1983. These things don’t mean that he was a fraud like Don Draper was, but Haggard lived a sometimes complicated life and had his share of complex feelings toward a song he apparently both wrote as a joke because he was “dumb as a rock” and as a serious response to Vietnam War protesters. It’s a song that he once told GQ, set his career back “about 40 years,” due to the labels it put on him, echoing a sentiment that he had expressed in a 2001 A.V. Club interview when he spoke about not having someone in his professional life to stop him from releasing “Okie From Muskogee.” In the same interview he labeled the song “a documentation of the uneducated who lived in America at the time.”
It seems appropriate that a song that would be mingled with regret for its creator should underscore this regret-filled spiral for Draper. It’s also a song about how eras end — for middle America baby boomers, for Sterling Cooper and Partners, for Mad Men, and for all of us, eventually. That’s the real kick in the ass about “Okie From Muskogee” and Don Draper’s existential crisis: We’re all going to question our place as we see time marching on and a lot of us are going to rail against what comes next. But, much in the way that Don Draper found a way to package and sell it and Merle Haggard found a way to make peace with his past and his failings, the hope is that we all find our own way to acceptance.