Last night’s episode of Mad Men ended with Don driving through the middle of nowhere, far from home, picking up a curly-haired folkie hitchhiker bound for Minnesota. Yes, that’s Bob Dylan’s home state. Immediately, I thought, Is that guy supposed to be Bob Dylan?
Now, I know what you’re going to say: Dylan left Minnesota long before 1970, when the episode is set. But Mad Men’s chronology isn’t exactly linear. Characters seem to be experiencing their lives in loops, making the same mistakes over and over again. (“You think you’re gonna live your life over and do it right,” Pete Campbell recently said. “But what if you never get past the beginning again?”) Roger recently joked that he and Don might be traveling through time. Isn’t it possible that, in a world where Don has become unstuck in time, he might be able to meet Bob Dylan? Or at least some version of Dylan who’s just as real to Don as the ghost of Bert Cooper in his passenger seat?
No, I’m not arguing that Don literally traveled back in time to literally meet Dylan. Symbolically, though, it seems fitting that a Dylan-like figure would show up in Don’s life. Like Don, Dylan was born in the Midwest. Like Don, he changed his name, moved out to New York, and got caught up with the West Village beatnik scene for a while. Like Don, when he found his empire crumbling, he ached to be “back in the world of Coca-Cola.” Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” was playing during the season one finale, when Don returned home from his big Kodak speech to find Betty and the kids gone. Don could’ve written these lyrics for Betty: “I once loved a woman / a child I’m told / I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul.” “Song to Woody” was playing at the end of “A Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency,” after Don said of his baby son, “We don’t know yet who he’s going to be”—a line that has relevance for both Dylan and Don, two self-made men whose lives have taken on a certain mythological value. Just look at the opening lyrics to “Song for Woody,” which seem to describe what was happening to Don last night after he learned that he wasn’t the first to pull into Diana’s old driveway: “I’m out here a thousand miles from my home / Walkin’ a road other men have gone down.”
Clearly, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner is a Dylan fan. Remember that Peggy went to a Dylan concert and Lou Avery once compared himself to Dylan, a fellow dreamer. Weiner must know that George Lois, a legendary ad man and one of Mad Men’s many inspirations, helped inspire Dylan to write “The Hurricane.” Weiner even tapped the graphic designer Milton Glaser, who’s best known for his 1966 poster of Bob Dylan, to design the ads for the show’s final season. According to the New York Times, someone on Mad Men’s promotional team took that famous Dylan poster, cut out Dylan’s hair, pasted it upside down, and sent it to Glaser for inspiration.
So what does all of this mean? Well, Mad Men is just as open to interpretation as Dylan’s lyrics. (Feel free to share your theories in the comments below.) I’m sure there are plenty of good ways to read that final scene last night. But, as my colleague Jeff Labrecque pointed out, if Dylan was hitchhiking back to Minnesota, that means we’re watching his timeline in reverse. Does this mean Don will find himself right back where he started, too? Will we see him finally live his life as Dick Whitman in the end? Will he reconcile with Betty in some way? Will we see him finally going home again, to his spiritual home, in California?
Whatever happens to Don, I wonder about that hitchhiker. It can’t be an accident that Don had his social security card in an envelope when he set out for Wisconsin. Maybe that hitchiker will steal it, along with Don’s identity? That would make a nice full circle for the show. Don Draper goes back to being Dick Whitman. And some hobo from the Midwest starts his life over again, as Don Draper—just like Dick Whitman did long ago.