A Dictionary of Mad Men’s Signs and Symbols


We all know there’s more to Mad Men than the lush interiors and good-looking cast that meet the eye. It’s a show laden with symbolism, hidden in everything from individual characters to the books they’re reading and their vices of choice. From the Freudian to the downright literal, the objects and personalities that populate the show practically all have meaning. With that in mind, we’ve attempted what we’re sure is impossible: to create a dictionary of three-seasons’ worth of symbols and, very briefly, tease out their meaning in anticipation of Sunday’s season premiere. Any experiment of this nature is sure to be both reductive and imprecise, so give us your arguments and additions in the comments.

Adam Whitman, Don’s real brother: The return of the repressed

Adoption: The (literal and figurative) failure of Pete’s manhood

Annabelle Mathis: Roger’s fading youth

Ann-Margret/ Bye Bye Birdie : Innocence, exuberance (the kind you can sell)

The Apartment : Joan’s self-awareness

Babies: Potential; responsibility

Bert Cooper: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in action

The Bible: Serious, life-altering contemplation; Jews

Betty: The Feminine Mystique

Betty’s BB gun: Agency

Betty’s psychiatrist: Classic sexism

Bloody Marys: Morning

Bob Dylan: The avant-garde, social change

Bobbie Barrett: Don’s female equal

Carl Winter: Peggy’s worst-case-scenario future

Carla: Pre-Civil Rights quiet racial oppression

Children: The metaphor for all that’s missing in Pete and Trudy’s relationship

Cigarettes: Anxiety

Conrad Hilton: A challenge; a male who out-alphas Don

The Draper kitchen: Domesticity; Don and Betty’s stable, suburban life

Don’s box of Dick Whitman stuff: Don’s double life; Don’s regrets

Don’s contract: Confinement, stability, commitment to the “Don Draper” identity

Don’s fedora: The epicenter of Don’s successful, put-together persona

Don’s valise: The possibility of starting over as someone else, somewhere new

Duck Phillips: All that is boring, stupid, privileged, and stuck up in the ad world; Pete in 20 years

Father Gill: Peggy’s Catholic guilt

Francine Hanson: The marital sob story that could await Betty

Freddy Rumsen: The death of the old-school adman

Grandpa Gene: Sally’s only true ally in the family

Greg, Joan’s husband: What “marrying well” meant in the early ’60s

Helen Bishop: Women’s lib, older version

Henry Francis: (Apparently) what Don can never be — upright, moral, frank in his affections

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Sally’s tragic precociousness

Horseback riding: Freedom

Hotels: Infidelity

Hotel bars: Glamor, possibility

Italy: Betty’s lost, Fellini-esque youth

Jackie and Marilyn: The girl you fuck and the girl you marry

Jewelry: Don’s way of compensating for bad behavior, showing affection

JFK: Youth, change

JFK assassination: What it looks like when the shit finally hits the fan

Jimmy Barrett: The rare person who sees through Don’s charade

Joan: The “Marilyn”s of the world; the male gaze, reflected

Joan’s accordion: Joan as performing monkey

Joan’s TV scripts: Joan’s potentially squandered intelligence, potential

Ken: Everything Pete will never be

Kodak: Picture-perfect family life, an ideal that Don will never know

Kurt: The Stonewall generation; Europe

Lady Chatterly’s Lover : Joan’s carnal nature; the stirrings of Peggy’s sexual awakening

Life magazine: Popular culture

Los Angeles: Escape

Lucky Strike cigarettes: Don’s powers of persuasion

Meditations in an Emergency : Could be Mad Men‘s alternate title

Midge Daniels: Don’s bohemian side

Paul: Pretentiousness

Paul’s girlfriend, Sheila: The Civil Rights movement

Paul’s neckerchief: Bohemian counterculture

Peggy: Women’s lib, younger version

Peggy’s mysterious pregnancy: Peggy’s repressed sexuality

Pete: Privilege

Pete’s rifle: Inferiority complex

Rachel Menken: Exoticism (she’s Jewish!), wealth

Railroad tracks: Escape

Richard Nixon: All that is evil, conservative

Roger Sterling: Don Draper in the future, if he’s not careful

Sally: Betty’s insecurities left over from her awkward youth

Sally’s dog, Polly: The love members of the Draper family can’t express for one another

Sally’s riding boots: Betty’s complicated love for Sally

Salvatore: Gay America, pre-Stonewall

Sardi’s: Show business

Scotch: Masculinity

The Sound and the Fury: Nothing compared to sex with Don Draper

Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce: A new beginning… or is it?

Suzanne Farrell: Youth, intelligence

Trudy, Pete’s wife: Frigidity

Valentine’s Day: Don’s (literally and figuratively) ailing heart

Washing machine: Betty’s sexual autonomy