Mad Men, Season 3

Week 5: Why Dennis Hobart Didn't Smile
Talking television.
Sept. 14 2009 5:44 PM

Mad Men, Season 3

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Week 5: Why Dennis Hobart Didn't Smile

If only Betty had had Julia as her therapist instead of that taciturn, ethics-deficient shrink from Season 1! Your interpretation of Betty's dreams is convincing, Julia, and it's made me rethink my quick dismissal. You've convinced me that they conveyed important insights into Betty's psyche—her fears about her marriage and about rearing another child in it. I still wish, though, that there could have been another way to get the message across. I agree with Patrick that the dream sequence is rarely a good idea and would add that it's a particularly risky move on Mad Men. As we've discussed, this is a series that is almost comically committed to verisimilitude. It's jarring to throw a dream sequence, however meaningful, into a show that won't permit itself the flight of fancy that there was a 5:32 train to Ossining. Though perhaps this is precisely the effect that Weiner and his writers were after.

Patrick, I want to take up some of the questions you raised about Don's exchange with Dennis Hobart. Let's start with perhaps the most mysterious: Why didn't Hobart return Don's smile when they crossed paths in the corridor? Several TV Club readers have noted that Mr. and Mrs. Hobart are conspicuously without child when Don passes them, leading some to speculate that the Hobarts lost their baby. Everyone noticed Dennis' icy stare, but there's some disagreement about what emotion his wife's countenance was meant to suggest. I went back and watched it again this morning and thought I saw a woman who was smiling serenely. But some readers felt it was more like she was spaced out. We know that the nurses at this hospital aren't shy with drugs—maybe a tragedy did befall the Hobarts, but the missus is too hopped up on goofballs to show it. (Maybe she's having this crazy dream in which she imagines herself as Snow White and then visits with her dead parents plus the ghost of Hattie Carroll!)

John Swansburg John Swansburg

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.

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I see some problems with this interpretation, though. While we know that Pam Hobart (I think that was her name) had a troubled delivery, if anything, it seems like she was the one whose life was imperiled. (Recall that Dennis worries aloud that if anything happens to Pam in childbirth, he won't be able to raise a child that had cost him his wife.) Baby Hobart was breached, but we know that he eventually found his way out of the womb. When the nurse tells Dennis he has a son, she explains that he can visit the baby in the nursery, but must wait to see his wife, who is still in recovery, having lost a lot of blood. Even allowing for the scary practices and unreliable writing utensils of the Ossining hospital, if the baby's life had been in danger he presumably would have been kept in the ICU or its equivalent. The fact that Pam had a trying delivery also makes it seem less likely that Dennis was wheeling her home, babyless, and more likely that he was wheeling her down to the nursery to look in on their son or to the solarium to pick up some copies of Ladies Home Journal.

I'm more persuaded by the reasoning of Frayster guyroy, who writes that Dennis "turned away because he made a vow he knows he won't keep. He substituted Don for God in his vow, and turned away in shame once the crisis was averted and he knew he wouldn't keep his promise." We don't know all that much about Dennis, but what we do know suggests that guyroy might be right about him not being up to fulfilling his vow to become a better man. He ogles the teenage nun [or was it a candystriper?] who helps Don dislodge his pack of cigarettes from the vending machine. When Don asks him how the inmates at Sing Sing know he's dangerous, he gives a little shrug/smirk that said to me "frequent baton-whuppings." He confesses to Don that he struggles not to bring the prison home with him at night. And he brought a bottle to the hospital—even Don hadn't ever thought of that. Dennis, perhaps, had started to think about what life will be like for his son in his household, a scenario Don doesn't seem interested in confronting. Earlier, after admitting to Dennis that he doesn't throw the ball around with his first son as much as he'd like, he quickly turns back to his magazine, tearing out an advertisement that catches his eye.

I also wonder if class might have played a role in Don and Dennis' final exchange. These are men from two very different Ossinings, brought together by coincidence and Hobart's Red Label. In a show that never chooses its products lightly, I couldn't help but wonder if that choice was significant: It's a luxury brand of blended Scotch, but it's the economy model—Don's probably used to Black Label. * It felt like an aspirational purchase for Dennis, even more so after he compliments Don on his gold watch, saying he'd like to have some day but can't at the moment because of his job. I wonder if his feelings of kinship with Don—with his gold timepiece and well-cut suit—wore off with the booze. 

The other exchange between Don and Dennis that felt especially significant is the one in which Dennis explains that each of the inmates at Sing Sing blames his parents for how he turned out. "That's a bullshit excuse," Don shoots back. Yet Don had his own vision of his dead parents in the season opener, he gazed at a photograph of his father last week, and at the beginning of this episode he tells Ms. Farrell that he understands the "very special pain" that comes with losing someone at a young age. Though he never had anything like Sally's connection to Grandpa Gene with either of his parents, he'd lost both  of them by the time he was her age. Don may not like the idea of blaming your troubles on your parents, but he can't seem to stop thinking about them, and not just in his dreams.

I'll have my sundae now.

John

Correction, Sept. 15, 2009: The article originally suggested that Don Draper might have been a drinker of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, a product that was not available in 1963. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

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