Guest Starring Dante Alighieri:
References to Inferno on American Television

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2016, Volume 15, Issue 1


Sarah Annunziato
University of Virginia

On 10 January 1999, a family of mobsters and their associates entered American living rooms for the first time via the small screen. This date marked the premiere of HBO’s acclaimed series, The Sopranos. According to the television critic Brett Martin, it also marked the dawn of a “third golden age of American television” (9).

This third golden age corresponds to our present era and follows previous golden ages of the 1950s, when the medium was new, and the 1980s, when network television enjoyed a flowering of high quality productions such as Hillstreet Blues and St. Elsewhere, among other offerings (Martin 9). According to Martin, series dramas or comedies centering on deeply flawed protagonists characterizes the present golden age (4-6). During this period, we find a proliferation of programming focused on characters whose flaws range from the typical, such as the relationship columnist who ironically cannot make any of her own relationships work, to the extreme, like the mobster who suffers from acute depression and anxiety. In the midst of this golden age, many shows also feature guest-starring turns from a fourteenth century Italian poet, Dante Alighieri.

These appearances consist of allusions to Inferno, the first canticle of Dante’s masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. To be sure, what we are viewing are not adaptations of Dante’s great work, nor are they what the film scholar Geoffrey Wagner would term analogies, or works that use Inferno as the foundation for entirely new narratives (227). Rather, we see examples of television shows that include some type of reference to the structure of Dante’s hell, particular textual episodes, or the poem in a general sense.

These references to Inferno provide the viewer with a greater understanding of the television characters’ psychologies, while suggesting how each character’s mental state may drive future plots. In all instances, the citations from Dante’s poem apply to male figures who appear on present-day television programs. The references to Inferno create a link from characters of the American small screen to the protagonists of the great poem, Dante the Poet and Dante the Pilgrim.1 This connection suggests that Dante is, in fact, the prototype for Martin’s "difficult men" who now populate many contemporary television series created in the United States. The purpose of this article is to explore this phenomenon by briefly examining how American programming of the third golden age tends to utilize the allusions in general and then to discuss the specific case of AMC’s Mad Men. However, before delving into that analysis, let us first consider why Dante’s comedy lends itself so well to the medium of television in the first place.


The Divine Comedy as Television for Modern Audiences

In his essay “Dante, Television, and Education,” Amilcare Iannucci concludes that The Divine Comedy’s preeminent textual characteristics closely resemble those of television (1). Drawing on criteria enumerated by John Fiske and John Hartley,2 Iannucci concludes that Dante’s comedy embodies many qualities that are typical of oral communication: “dramatic, episodic, mosaic, dynamic, active, concrete, social, metaphorical, rhetorical, and dialectical” (3-4). Iannucci additionally notes that the text’s memorability further contributes to its orality, for the ease with which large sections of Inferno can be learned by heart make it possible to perform the poem before an audience (4).

These are important observations, for, as McLuhan states of television in his seminal work Understanding Media, television changed the notion of reading. He explains, "The old literate habit of racing ahead on uniform lines of print yielded suddenly to depth reading. Reading in depth is, of course, not proper to the printed word as such. Depth probing of words and language is a normal feature of oral and manuscript cultures, rather than of print" (325). Since it is a work of the Middle Ages, Dante’s text belongs to what McLuhan refers to as “manuscript cultures.” As Fiske notes in a later study entitled Television Culture, orality is also central to television both because of the dialogue upon which the medium relies and because viewers derive meaning and assign importance to television programs by discussing and gossiping about them (106). Therefore, both television and The Divine Comedy must rely on a high degree of orality to convey their stories. Furthermore, as Iannucci notes, in Inferno, this orality creates a “poem in fieri” -- the reader feels as though the next section has yet to happen even though it has already been written (4).

In this way, Dante’s work is also similar to the concept of the televised series. In series television, each episode of a particular season stands as its own work and, therefore, may center on specific plot points and characters; however, all individual episodes fit together as part of an ongoing story. As Louise Spence notes, this construction lends an allusion of open-endedness to the series (91), which is similar to the idea of a “poem in fieri.” We can easily apply this type of structure to The Divine Comedy. Dante’s poem consists of three volumes, or canticles: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Inferno itself is further divided into thirty-four canti while the other two volumes consist of thirty-three. Each canto corresponds to an episode that forms part of the ongoing story arc of every individual canticle. The canticles in turn resemble each season of a three-season long television program.

In addition to these structural characteristics, Dante’s work shares another important similarity with televisual texts. As the poet himself makes clear in his letter to one of his benefactors, Cangrande, The Divine Comedy is polysemous because the reader can interpret it in both a literal and an allegorical way. (Alighieri, Epistolae 199). Fiske notes that polysemy is also a trait inherent to television (15) -- the televisual text itself may strongly suggest certain interpretations of plots and characters, but the audience may also assign new meanings to them, just as Dante’s readers do with his work (15-16). Finally, as in television, which is designed to tell stories that are accessible to a wide audience, Dante states in the same letter to Cangrande, that he chose to pen his poem in the vernacular, “the low language that even women talk”  (Epistolae 201). While a crude and sexist comment, we understand that the poet wishes his work to be accessible to a greater number of people, not just to those who read Latin (Iannucci 3). All of these aforementioned parallels between Dante’s work and television suggest some reasons for the poem’s allure in that medium.


Dante in Primetime

During the third golden age of American television, Inferno attracted writers almost immediately. For example, allusions to Dante’s text appear in The Sopranos “Whoever Did This,” a 2002 episode focusing on Uncle Junior’s trial on RICO3 charges. In a mildly humorous moment, a journalist covering the proceedings reports that earlier in the day a boom microphone had struck Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) and knocked him down “nine, no seven  steps.” Given Uncle Junior’s past actions, this comment could be a cunning reference to the circles of Dante’s hell, and two in particular that correspond with sins that we know Uncle Junior has committed thus far: violence and treachery.4 As a mafioso, Uncle Junior has previously ordered hits on enemies, including his own nephew, the show’s protagonist, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini). This act of attempted violence against a relative would earn Uncle Junior a place in the ninth circle of Dante’s hell, alongside others who have been treacherous to family members.

The circles of hell make another cameo in 2006, during the episode entitled “Join the Club.” Here, the show’s protagonist, Tony Soprano lies in a coma after a dementia-addled Junior has shot him. While unconscious, Tony has a dream about being on a business trip on the West Coast when he accidently switches briefcases and wallets with a stranger. Left with no money or credit cards, Tony checks into a hotel under the other man's name. The room he receives is number 728. Once again, each number corresponds to a circle of Dante’s hell wherein Tony faces punishment for his many sins: violence, lust, and fraud. Later, while taking the stairs in lieu of a broken elevator, Tony stumbles and falls, landing on the fifth floor, or the level of the wrathful, another of the character’s flaws.

Interestingly, “Join the Club” is not the first episode of The Sopranos to discuss the possible relationship between Tony Soprano and hell. In the series pilot, Tony’s wife Carmela (Edie Falco) tells him that she thinks he is probably destined for eternal damnation. The protagonist takes this prediction somewhat poorly, and he refers to it again in the 2002 episode “Whitecaps.” Carmela herself ultimately apologizes to Tony for saying that he was likely to spend eternity in hell in “Join the Club,” thus creating another link between the episode and the concept of eternal damnation.

The types of references to Dante’s numerology that one finds in both “Whoever Did This” and “Join the Club” serve to remind the viewer that while the show does explore its characters’ more humane facets, each of them ultimately have a darker, more dangerous side that more often than not, wins out. In the end, the suggestion is that redemption through personal growth will most likely not come.5  The last season of The Sopranos, in fact, bears out this conclusion. In the final episodes, Tony Soprano becomes increasingly erratic, which eventually culminates in a diagnosis of sociopathy from his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). She ultimately terminates her relationship with Tony when she learns that traditional therapy is ineffective with sociopaths and may even exacerbate their condition.6 However, according to real-life psychiatrist Glen Gabbard, Dr. Melfi’s diagnosis is incorrect:

Our current understanding of psychopathy leads us to an unequivocal conclusion: Tony Soprano may not be New Jersey’s version of Mother Teresa, but he is clearly not a true psychopath. He has profound and loving relationships in both his families -- Carmela and his children at home and the gang down at the Bada Bing. Despite his philandering, he loves Carmela and is intensely loyal to her in his own way. And Tony is far from a man without a conscience. (33-34)

Hence, since Tony does not lack a conscience, unlike a true sociopath, he could theoretically regret and later repent for his many sins. However, throughout the series, while the viewer glimpses many moments during which the Soprano patriarch does indeed struggle with some of his more repugnant actions, he never truly corrects his behavior. Thus, the show suggests that true redemption will remain forever elusive for the beleaguered mobster, much like it was for the condemned souls Dante the Pilgrim encounters during his travels through hell.
It is also significant that the structures of Dante’s hell take the form of circles. Since a circle is a shape with seemingly no beginning or ending point, it perfectly represents the idea of eternity. There is no way out. Tony’s mafia lifestyle is similarly a never-ending cycle of crime and violence; he lives in constant fear of either arrest or death. The show’s controversial ending might reflect this reality. In the final scene of “Made in America,” Tony arrives at a diner to meet his family for dinner. As he waits in a booth facing the door, the camera constantly cuts between shots of him and the exit. It also pans around the restaurant to highlight a couple seated in a nearby booth, a man at the counter, and a little bit later a pair of young African-American men who stroll over to a jukebox. With the arrival of each new costumer, tension in the scene mounts. The couple seated in the booth behind Tony appear harmless, but they are also seated in back of him, thus physically placing him in a somewhat vulnerable position. The man at the counter is dressed in the leather jacket and dark clothes that many of Tony’s fellow mafioso wear, and the African American men visiting the jukebox are similar to the two hitmen who tried to assassinate Tony in season one. In short, there are possible threats all around the mob boss. Moreover, during an earlier conversation with his lawyer, Tony learned that there was a good chance that he may soon be indicted. In the midst of all this tension at the diner, the scene abruptly fades to black and the series ends forever. This finale has baffled both television critics and fans alike for nearly a decade leading to myriad interpretations. The ambiguity of it mirrors the ambiguity and anxiety of Tony’s own life: the only way to leave the mob is through incarceration or death, usually through violence. He cannot possibly know precisely when either of these fates will befall him, but he knows that one of them will at some point. Ultimately, neither death nor jail really signals an end to suffering. For the Catholic Soprano patriarch, death means eternal damnation for his many sins while prison represents a kind of hell on Earth. Hence, like the souls of Dante’s text, Tony’s life is a constant circle of endless fear, anxiety, and violence leading to no positive outcomes.

The show Angel also uses the structure of Dante’s hell to explore similar themes. In the episode “A New World,” Lilah (Stephanie Romanov), a devious lawyer, has come to offer Wesley (Alexis Denisof) a job at her firm, which he refuses on moral principles. Before leaving, she gifts him with a copy of Dante’s Inferno. As their conversation about the Tuscan poet begins, they are both pictured within the frame, but then the image abruptly transitions to a series of reverse-angle shots that create a sense of intimacy for the audience. It is as though we are also a party to this discussion. From here, the image changes again, to one of Lilah walking away from Wesley. She is photographed in crisp focus while his image is momentarily blurred behind her then gradually brought back into focus. This technique forces the audience to train all of its attention on Lilah’s words as she tries to remember who Satan is munching on when Dante finally sees the great beast at the center of hell’s ninth circle. As she turns to walk back towards Wesley, the camera zooms in and then transitions into a close-up on his face as he acknowledges that it is Judas Iscariot. The close-up captures Wesley in a moment of apparent worry and tension brought on by Lilah’s reference to the infamous biblical figure. Her parting words to him, “the worst spot in hell is reserved for those who betray, so don’t pretend you’re too good for us,” hints at his past mistakes. He has betrayed those closest to him on two previous occasions, both when he turned against his former colleagues on the Watcher’s Council to rescue a woman he loved, and later when he kidnaps Angel’s infant son to save the baby from a prophecy, only to allow Angel’s enemies to secret the child away to a hell dimension. The framing technique used throughout the scene highlights how Wesley’s previous misdeeds still torment him and asks an implied question: will he ever achieve some kind of redemption?

Both The Sopranos and Angel represent television dramas; however, comedic works also sometimes employ similar references to Dante’s Inferno. In the season five episode of How I Met Your Mother, “Robots Versus Wrestlers,” Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) ditches his friends to attend a swanky party of intellectuals. While there, he recites part of the first canto, and while doing so, Ted has a personal epiphany: "I cannot believe this. I’m reciting The Divine Comedy in the original Italian and no one’s making farting noises... Oh this is weird. I’ve never gotten this far… You know, I actually sound kind of douchey… Oh my God, I’m out of control. Listen to me, I’m completely unleashed… I’m the biggest douche on the planet. I wish somebody would stop me." At this moment, Ted receives a text message from his friends that does stop him. He realizes that rather than holding back his love of intellectual pursuits, as he had previously believed they did, his friends actually save him from becoming pretentious. In this way, a reference to Inferno reveals not only one of the protagonist’s more serious character flaws but also allows him to correct it in time to achieve his own type of redemption. This point is significant because, as Ted goes further and further into his recitation of the poem’s first canto, he becomes increasingly aware of his own error, which is excessive pride in his intellectual prowess. Along similar lines, as Dante the Pilgrim ventures ever more deeply into hell, he too, achieves a greater understanding of the error that led him to become so lost in the first place. In fact, it is no accident that Ted recites Inferno’s opening canto, in which the poet details losing his way in a dark wood and not understanding what wrong turn led him there to begin with.
While sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother enjoy using the poem to comedic effect, so do variety shows such as Saturday Night Live. The popular series borrowed Dante for its send-up of the 2012 vice-presidential debates.7 In this skit, which aired during episode four of the thirty-eighth season, while discussing the unemployment crisis, the fictional Joe Biden (played by Jason Sudeikis) describes his hometown of Scranton: “if you went to the lowest circle of hell, you would still be 45 minutes outside of Scranton.” With this reference, SNL manages to poke fun at the vice president’s frequent negative portrayals of his hometown as well as his reputation for making inappropriate statements.

Finally, even cartoons are not immune to the charms of Dante. Two animated programs of note, Futurama and The Simpsons , each feature episodes shaded by allusions to Inferno. In “Hell Is Other Robots,” Futurama examines what eternal damnation would be like for machines when the temperamental Bender (John DiMaggio) finds himself consigned to hell. Bender’s predicament begins when he joins a new religion that requires him to give up all of his many vices and live a sin-free life.  A night of debauchery forces Beezelbot (voiced by Dan Castellaneta and Maurice LaMarche) to repossess Bender’s soul and drag him into the robot hell of the episode’s title. In what is a clear reference to Dante’s poem, the entrance to this realm is through an attraction at a dilapidated carnival in New Jersey called “Inferno.” Meanwhile, once in robot hell, Bender learns that his torments will be ironic re-enactments of each of his earthly sins. This type of punishment recalls the law of symbolic retribution that governs Dante’s hell. According to this principle, each soul suffers a form of cruelty that somehow represents the type of sin that led to eternal damnation in the first place (Armour 2).8  Although Bender’s friends ultimately rescue him from this fate, his foray into robot hell reflects his vice-prone personality.

The Simpsons also evokes the law of symbolic retribution in its fourth “Treehouse of Horror” episode. The family’s patriarch, Homer Simpson (Dan Castellaneta) makes a pact with the devil that enables Satan to claim Homer’s soul if the latter eats a forbidden donut. This plot point serves as an apparent reference to Homer’s gluttonous nature, which is a recurring theme throughout the series. Of course, the hapless Simpson patriarch does eat the dangerous pastry and lands in hell where the devil forces him to consume an endless supply of donuts. Ironically, rather than experiencing pain, Homer actually enjoys his fate and even demands more sweets. This surprising reaction not only works as a joke about his penchant for overeating, but also mocks the law of symbolic retribution itself.

These scenes raise an important question: why use allusions to Dante to explore the characters’ psychology? All these references appear in shows that center on male protagonists, and while each allusion may not target that protagonist specifically, they always relate to a male character. This point is significant because, as Martin notes, much of the programming associated with the third golden age of television centers on deeply flawed and confused male anti-heroes. Martin writes, "[T]hese were men in recognizable struggle. They belonged to a species you might call Man Beset or Man Harried -- badgered and bothered and thwarted by the modern world” (4-5). In fact, Dante the Pilgrim could perhaps be viewed as an early forerunner of this type of character. His travels through the other world result from a crisis that stems from some mysterious error. Inferno’s opening lines -- “In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost” -- reflect the idea of a personal crisis while the later phrases in line nine -- “I cannot rightly tell how I entered there, I was so full of sleep at the moment when I left the true way" suggests an error, or a deviation from the “true way.”  Man’s constant struggle to control and not give into his wild, baser instincts lies at the heart of many programs associated with the third golden age (Martin 83-84). Along similar lines, the souls Dante the Pilgrim encounters in hell have engaged in that same battle -- and lost. Curious viewers of the final program to feature allusions to Dante wondered for many seasons whether a similar fate might befall Mad Men’s Don Draper.


Don Draper in the Dark Wood of the 1960s

Mad Men was created by Matthew Weiner, who prior to inventing the fictional world of Don Draper worked on The Sopranos. Set in an advertising agency during the 1960s, Mad Men follows the tumultuous life of Don Draper unfolding against the backdrop of one of modern history’s most tumultuous decades. The show debuted on 19 July 2007 and quickly established itself as one of television’s most acclaimed programs. In fact, Mad Men would go on to win four consecutive Emmy awards for best drama during its eight-year run. When the viewer first meets Don Draper (Jon Hamm), we learn that he works as the creative director at the Sterling/Cooper advertising agency. Don is married to a former model, Betty (January Jones), and has two children. By season three, the Drapers will welcome another child and soon after decide to dissolve their marriage just as the employees of the former Sterling/Cooper opt to dissolve their firm in favor of creating a new one: Sterling, Cooper, Draper, and Price. By season six, Don has weathered a bout of post-divorce depression, remarried an aspiring actress, and merged SCDP with another firm, Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough, to create Sterling/Cooper and Partners. Throughout this entire time, our hero has kept a major secret hidden from nearly everyone: he is not, in fact, Don Draper, but rather Dick Whitman. Dick Whitman stole Don Draper’s identity during the Korean War by switching dog tags with him following an explosion that injured Dick and killed the real Don Draper. By season six, Don/Dick is about to descend into alcoholism, engage in a reckless affair with a neighbor, become estranged from his teenage daughter, nearly lose his wife, and definitely lose his job, all while living through 1968. He is also about to develop a penchant for Dante.

It is during this season of the show that we discover several allusions to Inferno. These references tell the audience that Don’s fractured identity has reached a crisis point: he must either reconcile his past and present selves or remain caught in a vicious cycle of self-destruction that closely resembles the infernal circles. This particular issue is nothing new for Mad Men’s hero. As William Siska writes of Dick Whitman’s identity theft: “With this act, Don Draper becomes a quintessentially American figure, shedding his past to reinvent himself, unaware that the tenuousness of the re-created self will lead him to doubt his own authenticity” (200). The artwork for season six of the series alludes to the challenge that Siska describes. Posters for Mad Men depict two Don Drapers clad in business attire. One of them appears to be walking towards the viewer while looking furtively over his shoulder at the other Don Draper whose back is towards us as though he is moving in the opposite direction. This image suggests that season six aims to deal with the question of Don’s duality yet again.

That season of Mad Men begins with a woman’s piercing screen, which opens onto a point of view shot. The scene unfolds from soft focus, as the audience watches from the perspective of someone who lies prostrate on the floor. We first see the worried face of Don Draper’s wife standing over the unknown person, and then we glimpse a new face that belongs to an unidentified doctor who offers medical assistance. This initial scene dissolves into a shot of Don Draper reclining on a beach reading a paperback edition of Inferno. A voiceover in Don’s unmistakable baritone intones the comedy’s first line cited earlier. This curious beginning leaves the audience confused. We do not know whether the person we saw having a heart attack in the opening shot was Don Draper or someone else. Hence, when we see Don on the beach, we are uncertain as to whether this is a memory of an earlier time or the beginning of a fantasy sequence. This way of juxtaposing the scenes recreates the same ambiguous quality at which the opening lines of Dante’s canto hint. “I came to myself in a dark wood” is a phrasing that suggests awakening from an unconscious state. In addition, we also see a copy of Dante’s text and hear one of its most celebrated quotations. Since the poem begins with Dante the Pilgrim in crisis, its use in this episode suggests that Don Draper is about to undergo some type of similar crisis. The series creator, Matthew Weiner also drew this connection in an interview with The Daily Beast: "[Dante’s Inferno] has one of the greatest opening lines ever, which is part of the reason I loved having it there, because it really did seem to launch the season and what I think we’re going to be talking about, which is that Don may have lost his way or found himself in the woods."

Although we do not yet know what the nature of Don’s crisis will be, the episode soon provides us with a clue. Later that night, as our hero sits in the hotel bar, he encounters a young soldier on leave from Vietnam for his wedding. He strikes up a conversation with Don when he notices that the latter has the same military-issued lighter as he does. That lighter of course, recalls the fiery explosion that led to the rebirth of Dick Whitman as Don Draper nearly twenty years earlier. In a callback to that particular plot point, Don Draper and the soldier accidently switch lighters, reminding the astute viewer of Dick Whitman’s switching of his dog tags with those of the original Don Draper.

Dante makes another appearance in the second part of “The Doorway" in 2013 as Don and his wife Megan (Jessica Paré) ring in 1968 with their neighbors, Arnold (Brian Markinson) and Sylvia Rosen (Linda Cardellini). When Arnold, a heart surgeon, is called away on an emergency, our hero furtively meets with Sylvia, and we are mildly shocked to learn that they have been engaging in a clandestine affair. As they are about to make love, Sylvia asks, “Did you read my Dante?” Sylvia, as the owner of Don’s copy of Inferno, does not seem coincidental. Her name, Sylvia, in fact derives from the Latin word for forest: silva. Therefore, once again we note another allusion to Inferno’s first canto and its dark wood. This same episode also references Don’s fractured identity in an earlier scene. When he prepares to pose in his office for a company photograph, the photographer tells him to “just be yourself,” as the camera zooms into a mid-close-up of Don’s confused face. For him, the photographer’s advice is more than complicated.

However, Mad Men has not finished telling us about Don’s personal crisis and confused identify. While his affair with Sylvia burns passionately, it does not burn for long. As we arrive at the 2013 episode “Man with a Plan,” which takes place in June of 1968, Sylvia and Don are about to arrive at the end of their time together as a couple. While Don works on an ad campaign for Chevrolet, Sylvia calls and demands to see him. They meet in a Manhattan hotel where Sylvia will spend the next day or so as Don pops in and out in between work obligations. Curiously, the camera cuts to four separate close-ups of the hotel room door: once when the couple arrives; twice again when Don sends Sylvia a package and she opens the door to collect it and then closes the door to head back inside; and finally when they depart the room for good at the end of the episode. The number inscribed on the door is 503. As mentioned earlier, Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, previously worked on The Sopranos, which also used the number stenciled on a hotel room door to allude to Inferno.9 However, it is not in this episode of Mad Men, but the one that follows when we begin to understand what the number 503 might mean.

In that follow-up episode, Sylvia has already ended the affair with Don, but he has not taken the news well. In fact, “The Crash” opens with Don pacing outside Sylvia’s door and eavesdropping on her conversations with her husband. When she realizes what he has been doing, an angry Sylvia calls Don at work to tell him to leave her alone. During the conversation, she speaks about what her husband might do if he were to learn of their affair. She imagines, “he’ll murder me and then he’ll murder you,” in an apparent reference to the fate of Paolo and Francesca, the tragic lovers Dante meets in Canto 5.10 The rest of the episode slides between Don’s present at Sterling/Cooper and flashbacks to his past, where he recalls his first sexual encounter with a prostitute who worked at the brothel where he grew up. As he recalls his time with her, he remembers her painting a beauty mark on her face in the same spot where his erstwhile, present-day lover Sylvia has a similar mark. Therefore, it would appear that Don’s obsession with Sylvia in 1968 stems from his need to reconnect with relics from his past as Dick Whitman. In this context, the 503 stenciled on his hotel room door in “Man with a Plan” could represent the number 8. The eighth circle punishes several subcategories of fraud, one of which is falsification. Among the falsifiers in Dante’s Inferno, we find counterfeiters and souls such as Mirra and Gianni Schicchi -- both of whom are in hell for assuming false identities.11

As Don’s journey through 1968 winds to a close, his descent into alcoholism worsens as do his marital and professional difficulties. In fact, it appears as though Don is suffering from what social psychology refers to as a discrepancy between his actual/own self (or his perception of who he really is) and his ideal/own self (or his perception of who he would ideally like to be). This type of discrepancy results in feelings of disappointment, dejection, and frustration (Higgins 322). In fact, Don appears dissatisfied with everything. As Sylvia announces her intention to end their affair in “Man with a Plan,” he sadly tells her, “it’s easy to walk away when you’re satisfied.” It is this dissatisfaction that motivates his extramarital affairs, drinking, and professional implosion. The season’s final episode explores this last theme when Don makes a pitch to Hershey’s in the Sterling/Cooper boardroom. He tells a completely invented story about happily eating Hershey bars with his father while growing up that impresses the Hershey executives. However, he cannot sustain the lie. Don breaks down in the boardroom and confesses the story of his past to all present. This professional blunder costs him his job in the episode’s closing moments. However, perhaps not all is lost for Don. As “In care of” ends, Don drives his three children to Hershey, Pennsylvania, for Thanksgiving. On the way, he stops before a dilapidated house and points it out to them as the place where he grew up. As the credits roll, the very popular song “Both Sides, Now” by Joni Mitchell plays. Some of the lyrics could very easily apply to Don Draper: “I’ve looked at life from both sides now/From win and lose and still somehow/It’s life’s illusions I recall/I really don’t know life at all.” These lines remind the viewer of the fact that Mad Men’s hero has examined the world from two contrasting perspectives -- that of Dick Whitman, a poor man from a disreputable family, and Don Draper, a respectable and wealthy executive. As the song intones, despite seeing life from these varying viewpoints, Don Draper’s existence  remains founded on a series of illusions that have left him with an uncertain future in the final weeks of 1968. However, his confession to his children in the closing moments of “In Care Of” suggests that Don may be able to remedy his present-day situation by embracing the full truth of his past.

The final season of Mad Men aimed to provide answers to some of the series’s long-running questions, such as how, or if, Don would eventually reconcile his two conflicting selves. As the show’s final episodes aired, Don Draper began revealing the truth of his past to more characters, including his daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka). However, it is really in the series finale that the protagonist’s fate becomes clear.

In a 2015 episode, “Person to Person,” Don finds himself on a cross-country journey towards California, where he hopes to return a family heirloom to Stephanie (Caity Lotz). Once at his destination, Don accompanies Stephanie to the Esalon Center for a spiritual retreat of sorts. It is here that he finally has the great personal epiphany that seems to have eluded him throughout the previous six and half seasons of Mad Men.

In the episode’s second half, Don calls his former protégé, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) during a bout of intense depression. As he speaks with her, the camera zooms in for a close-up and allows the audience to feel a more intimate connection with the character. Don is at his most vulnerable, and we can tell by clearly seeing the concern and sadness etched into his face. Although she is not physically present to see what we do, Peggy also perceives that Don is in a bad state. She tells him that he can always come home and then asks, “Don’t you want to work on Coke,” in a reference to the possibility that McCann/Erickson may assign Don to an ad campaign for the beverage company. When asked what he has done that he considers so terrible Don replies: “I broke all my vows. I scandalized my child. I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.” It is that last sin that stands out. Once again, Don’s identity theft returns to torment him, only this time it is not specifically the crime itself, but the fact that he has not done anything valuable with the real Don Draper’s name that bothers the protagonist. Don still believes that he is not worthy to live in the world that the real Don Draper once inhabited. As he hangs up with Peggy, he slumps to the ground and takes several heavy breaths. His physical actions and body positioning signal once again to the viewer that he is still in great emotional distress. Fortunately for him, someone else participating at the retreat arrives to invite him to a seminar where he will meet a man named Leonard (Evan Arnold). Leonard, like Don, confesses to feeling like no one sees the real him and like he is incapable of accepting or understanding love. At the end of his monologue, Don embraces him as though he had finally found a kindred soul.

This scene fades into another one where we see Don standing atop a cliff at sunset. A voice-over serves as a transition from this moment to the next scene, where Don sits atop the same hill at sunrise participating in a sun salutation. A chime is heard in the background, and then the camera zooms in for a close-up on Don in deep meditation. As he sits in thought, the scene dissolves into the Coca-Cola ad “Hilltop,” which depicts a group of young people singing on a mountain top. The setting in which the commercial takes place resembles the hill where Don Draper was just seen meditating. Moreover, many of the singers wear clothing very similar to that of the participants at the retreat where Don met Leonard. Most interesting of all, we also see a young, blonde woman wearing braids and red ribbons in her hair. A woman with a very similar hairstyle had also appeared at the Esalon Center and spoken to Don just moments before his phone call to Peggy. The obvious suggestion is that Don did return home and write one of the most iconic commercials of advertising history. It is of particular interest that the device that signals the transition from the fictional television program, Mad Men to the real commercial “Hilltop” is a chime. The chime sound suggests the dawn of a new idea, or a realization. Don Draper’s realization seems to be that what he is meant to do with the name he took so many years ago is create iconic advertising. In short, our hero reconciles his warring identities by embracing the understanding that what he is at heart, is an ad man through and through. In some ways, the conclusion of Don Draper’s long voyage also resembles how Dante’s text hints that the divine poet will eventually finish his own odyssey by returning home and writing a great narrative about his journey.  In fact, the poet alludes to this outcome in Inferno's line three: “Ah, how hard a thing it is to tell of the wood, savage and harsh and dense, the thought of which renews my fears. So bitter is it that death is hardly more! But to give account of the good that I found there I will tell of the other things I noted.” The use of past tense verbs in these verses establishes that the poet is reflecting on his completed journey from a present-day perspective. The implication is that he also returned from his tumultuous voyage and was then inspired to write, just as Don Draper would be.



The “third golden age” of television relies heavily upon male figures tormented by personal foibles. As the examples discussed in this article illustrate, their presence on the American small screen coincides with a strong interest in Dante’s Inferno. The link between modern-day television characters and the poem’s iconic protagonist indicates that Dante the Pilgrim, and even Dante the Poet, are the metaphorical forefathers of today’s “difficult men” such as Don Draper. It will be interesting to observe the ways in which Dante will influence the struggling anti-hero in future twenty-first century American television.


1. In The Divine Comedy, Dante the Pilgrim is the term typically used to describe the character who travels through the otherworldly realms encountering various souls while Dante the Poet is used to refer to the narrator.

2. In their book, Reading Television, Fiske and Hartley identify eleven characteristics inherent to oral communication. This type of discourse is “dramatic, episodic, mosaic, dynamic, active, concrete, ephemeral, social, metaphorical, rhetorical, and dialectical” (124-125).

3. RICO refers to the Rackateer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. This is a federal law in the United States under which those suspected of having ties to organized crime are sometimes prosecuted.   

4. Dante’s hell consists of nine circles that each punish a specific type of sin. Both the punishments and the sins grow increasingly worse as one travels deeper into hell. The seventh circle punishes three kinds of violence: violence towards others, violence towards self, and violence towards nature and God. The ninth circle punishes four types of treachery: against relatives, party or city, guests, and benefactors. See Canto 11 of Inferno for a detailed discussion of the plan of hell.

5. In his book, Brett Martin notes that David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, first made contact with Italian culture while in college. Chase learned about Italy though the films of Fellini, among others. He believed that Italian culture gave him insights into the inner-workings of his own family, which in turn became the basis for the Sopranos (37).

6. The terms "sociopath" and "psychopath" are both used in contemporary psychology to refer to people suffering from antisocial personality disorder. In practice, many clinicians use them interchangeably although there is some debate about whether they do in fact refer to the same type of illness (Bonn, “How to Tell a Sociopath from a Psychopath”).

7. Saturday Night Live premiered on American television many years before the start of the medium’s third golden age. However, since the program continues to air new episodes to this day, it is part of the present-day television landscape, and as such has been effected by recent changes in the medium. For example, some popular shows of the third golden age have inspired skits on Saturday Night Live, such as “The Soprano Diaries.” The same conclusion also applies to The Simpsons (discussed in a later section of the present article). In fact, the episode “Poppa’s Got a Brand New Badge” of The Simpsons features a sequence wherein local mafioso Fat Tony and some associates drive to the Simpson residence while the theme music from The Sopranos plays in the background. This obviously parodies the iconic opening sequence of HBO’s mob drama. The Simpsons also once spoofed Mad Men’s familiar format for previewing upcoming episodes.

8. The premise of Showtime’s series Dexter also resembles the law of symbolic retribution. Dexter focuses on a serial killer who only assassinates other serial killers, or people who have committed especially heinous murders. Dexter essentially enacts his own law of symbolic retribution on his victims by subjecting them to a fate similar to the atrocities that they have inflicted on their victims.

9. Matthew Weiner is credited as an executive producer of “Join the Club,” the episode in which the number of Tony Soprano’s hotel room recalls various circles of Dante’s hell.

10. Paolo and Francesca are two souls sentenced to spend eternity in the circle of the lustful. They are, in fact, based on real historical figures Paolo Malatesta and Francesca Da Rimini, who were brother and sister-in-law. In Canto V of The Inferno, Francesca relates to Dante that, one day while reading together of Lancelot and Guinevere, she and Paolo became passionate. Francesca’s husband came upon them in the middle of this indiscretion and murdered both of them. The real Francesca Da Rimini wed Paolo Malatesta’s brother in 1275. Around 1285, it is believed that her husband discovered Francesca with Paolo and murdered both of them. For more information on the real Paolo and Francesca, see Ronald L. Martinez and Robert M. Durling.

11. Mirra and Gianni Schicchi each appear in Canto 30.


Works Cited

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