The first season of Mad Men is frequently lauded for its pitch perfect recreation of the early 1960s. Yet many fans of the show find that some of their favorite moments and scenes are actually set in the early 1930s. If the question we are all asking is how to tackle the living mystery that is Don Draper, the answer may lie in studying Dick Whitman. The writers and producers of Mad Men carefully crafted the scenes involving the Whitman parents and young Dick/Don to show how several aspects of Don’s life and character can be traced back to his unfortunate upbringing.
The first flashback scene in this episode shows a wondering hobo approaching the Whitman home, looking for a little work in exchange for a hot meal. As the Whitman "family" stands outside, the hobo says he is reminded of his younger self looking at young Dick. Abigail responds that she isn’t surprised. It becomes clear that Dick was raised in an environment where little was expected of him in terms of a successful future. The woman who raises him barks at him to "stop digging holes," and she means this in more than a literal sense. He is perceived as someone who will do nothing more in life than pointless, cheap labor and although Abigail Whitman tells him to stop, there is no real expectation that his existence will ever be worth more than the air he breathes.
At dinner that night, the hobo mentions he comes from back east, New York. Archie Whitman immediately tells us this is a sign of weakness and laziness, that it’s no wonder this man wound up a bum. Dick was raised in a home where the type of work they did in New York was seen as intellectual pointlessness, nothing compared to steady, independent farm living. His family saw the detractions but failed to see the possible benefits of a life with more possibilities and glamour. We can see why Dick had no choice but to run from this atmosphere if he was to ever embrace a dream of anything more, a dream that came true as Don Draper in New York City, for better or for worse.
The next scene featuring the hobo, played wonderfully by Paul Schulze (Jack’s boss Ryan Chappelle for those who remember the third season of 24), finds young Dick preparing a makeshift bed for the visitor by the light of an oil lamp. The hobo tells about his life before he became a "gentleman of the rails," claiming to have had a normal job and family. He hated the confines of being tied down, and one day just left his obligations for the open road. In this very episode, Don asks Midge to leave for Paris with him on a whim. Life at home and in the office is trying for him at this point, and he once again starts to consider escape a desirable option. The seeds of these thoughts can be traced back to the hobo who gave him hope of escape when he told young Dick that it was clear he is "one of us," one that cannot be tied down.
Immediately before the final Depression-era scene of the episode, we are treated to an emotional scene in which Don begs his young son to ask him anything, saying he will always be honest with his children. There is no way this doesn’t directly relate to the next flashback, in which Archie Whitman denies the hobo the coin he was promised the previous night for the work he did that day. The hobo draws a knife on the Whitman family fence post, to signify to other wanderers that a dishonest man lives there. As the hobo walks away, Dick fleetingly runs after him, before shooting a disturbed look back at his father.
Don’s glamorous lifestyle in the advertising industry suggests to the casual viewer that he is a million miles away from his grim, Depression-era upbringing. The flashback scenes in episode seven of the first season, “The Hobo Code," argue the contrary. We learn about what was expected of the young Dick Whitman, factors that prompt his drive to escape, the difference in how he was perceived by his mother figure and an extremely prescient hobo, and conflicts he has about honesty and integrity. As much as shots in the close of this episode (Don sleeping soundly like a rock, which the hobo said he would never due while holding a job, mortgage and family, and the closing image of the nametag on the office door to remind us who this man has become) suggest that Don is completely removed from his childhood, it is clear that elements of his life as the child Dick Whitman still impact the man Don is today.