In the first-season episode “The Hobo Code,” which in many ways is the most important of the series, Don Draper is selling Peggy’s copy to a reluctant client. He goes on the offensive, asking them to leave if they aren’t serious about changing their strategy, and along the way he makes an enigmatic statement: “Listen, I’m not here to tell you about Jesus. You already know about Jesus, either he lives in your heart or he doesn’t.” The pitch proves effective, and when Ken Cosgrove mentions how great “the Jesus thing” was (perhaps implicitly asking what it means), Don explains that “sometimes force is actually being requested.” I am probably not alone in finding this explanation, such as it is, less than helpful.
So what does the quote mean? Or better: What role does it play in the episode and the season? Two other threads in the episode could shed some light: Don’s flashbacks to a time when a hobo visited his childhood home and the gathering of bohemians in the midst of which he has those flashbacks. In Why We Love Sociopaths, I argue that the hobo essentially provides the young Dick Whitman with his life philosophy of unfettered freedom and that this is closely tied with the fact that the hobo reveals Dick’s father to be a dishonest man. If we reflect on this crucial scene’s relationship to the enigmatic quote, it becomes clear that the hobo is not entirely unlike Jesus — like the Son of Man, he has no place to lay his head, and he speaks to Dick indirectly via the “hobo code,” which is not entirely unlike Jesus’ preferred method of speaking in parables. The hobo also plays a salvific role in Dick’s life, but it is not the traditional Christian one: he saves Dick by “revealing the Father,” but revealing him to be corrupt and impotent. His role is similar to that of Jesus in Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, who openly reveals the death of God that Judaism had attempted to cover over or disavow.
The bohemians had been associated with Judaism in the previous episode, which ends with the haunting song “Babylon.” As the party is winding down, Don reenacts Freud’s drama. The bohemian with whom Midge is in love begins lecturing Don on how his job invents lies to build a false system, and Don replies: “Well, I hate to break it to you, but there is no big lie. There is no system. The universe is indifferent.” Another bohemian is crushed, saying, “Aww man, why did you have to say that?” The death of God, even the malevolent God that the bohemians believe to be pulling the strings, is traumatic but freeing — as Don illustrates when the police come to the building and the bohemians warn him that he can’t leave the apartment. Don corrects them: “No, you can’t.” Don’s ability to assume multiple identities, his lack of principle, his indifference to keeping his hands clean, allows him freedom of movement while the bohemians are trapped.
Yet the Marrano theme that I pointed out yesterday is still operative. The hobo is a kind of negative Christ, who cannot lead Don to final salvation but only to “somewhere else.” Indeed, the hobo seems to give birth to a series of botched messiahs, as Don plays a similar role for Peggy by setting her free from the expectations of marriage and family through giving her a writing job — and immediately after she is promoted, she has her unanticipated child, giving birth to another orphan like Dick Whitman.
What does the quote mean, then? Jesus seems to represent change as such — the willingness to cast off one’s identity and try something new. Having Jesus in your heart means paradoxically to have nothing in your heart, to have a hole that cannot be filled, an irreducible distance that keeps you from getting “stuck” in social obligations or loyalties. Jesus living in your heart means recognizing that God is dead, that the universe is indifferent, that we are radically and vertiginously free — and therefore can never be saved.