The Divine Comedy’s Reverberations in Mad Men and The Sopranos

Dante Alighieri
Dante Alighieri

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri is one of the most iconic and famous texts ever written, which has been influencing other canonical works ever since it was completed nearly seven hundred years ago in the fourteenth century. Dante’s epic poetry has inspired artists from a variety of fields in different eras – from religious paintings and sculptures in the Middle Ages to films and television shows in nowadays’ popular culture.

The junction between the Divine Comedy and modern media formats is an attestation to the timeless ideas, conceptions and imagery of the text that evidently still resonate with contemporary audiences many centuries after its original conception; accordingly, it is fascinating to explore how and what notions in Dante’s fourteenth-century poetry intersect with today’s entertainment industry. This essay will examine and analyze the influence of the Divine Comedy on the award-winning esteemed television drama series Mad Men and The Sopranos, and will illustrate how the shows’ characters and plot are reflected implicitly through allusions to Dante’s work.

Literary references are quite prevalent in Mad Men as “[l]iterature has been an integral part of the AMC show since its inception” (Bausells, 2015), and therefore it is not surprising that the show alludes to such a canonical text as the Divine Comedy. In the eighth episode of the fourth season of Mad Men, a subtle allusion to Purgatorio’s sixth terrace assists in elucidating a whole sequence of gluttonous behaviors of Don Draper that commence at the end of the previous season, and also hints about Don’s soberer future. At the end of the third season, after the separation from his wife Betty, Don moves into a new apartment in New York; this apartment, both figuratively and not, turns out to be the base from which Don begins an utterly voracious lifestyle throughout the following season.

Don spends Thanksgiving Day in his apartment with a prostitute, during which she utters statements such as “I never know how you’re going to react” and “I know what you want,” suggesting that it is a recurrent tryst for them (S04E01). On Christmas, Don returns drunk to his apartment, where he makes sexual advances toward his assisting neighbor, which she repels; the following night, Don, again drunk, calls his secretary to bring him the keys to his apartment after he forgets them in the office, and when she does, he makes sexual advances toward her, which this time succeed (S04E02). On New Year’s Day, after his colleague Lane tells him during a night of drinking that he and his wife had separated, Don invites him and two prostitutes to his apartment, where they spend the night (S04E03). Don then finally reaches the peak of his ravenous bender: after he wins an award and drinks with several friends, Don returns to his apartment with one girl, only to wake up a couple of days later with a different girl whom he does not remember, nor does he remember the time elapsed (S04E06). Then, in the middle of the eighth episode, Don tells a cab driver to take him to his apartment at “Waverly and Sixth,” a subtle allusion to the Divine Comedy that reveals what Don’s apartment represents: the sixth terrace in Purgatorio where the “sins of gluttony” (XXIV.128) are situated.

In this episode, Don decides to make a change in his life: in a repentant, confessional voice-over, Don narrates his desire to change; he explains that he wants to gain control over the way he feels, that he wants “to wake up,” and that he doesn’t “want to be that man” (S04E08). Indeed, throughout the episode, Don attempts to moderate his drinking, he laboriously exerts his body by swimming, and most importantly, at the end of the episode, he refuses to return to his apartment with Faye after a date because he wants to give this relationship a chance. Besides the allusion to Purgatorio and Don’s repentance, there are more resemblances between this episode and Purgatorio’s sixth terrace. When Dante reaches the sixth terrace with Virgil and Statius, they notice in their path a tree “with fruits that smelled both savory and good” (XXII.132), yet a voice from the branches tells them, “This is a food that you shall lack” (XXII.141); similarly, throughout the episode in Mad Men, Don struggles to cut off his drinking as he constantly sees enticing liquors and other people drinking in front of him. One of the sinners in Purgatorio, Bonagiunta, compliments Dante for his “strette” – narrow or tight in Italian – style (XXIV.59); at the beginning of the episode, Don equivalently confesses that he has “never written more than 250 words.”

Following this episode, Don does manage to moderate his drinking and conduct a relatively healthier lifestyle, as well as healthier relationships – first with Faye and thereafter a marriage with Megan. In the first episode of the next season, it is quickly revealed that Don does not live in his infamous apartment anymore, and he now lives in a new apartment with his new wife, Megan. If so, allegorically situating Don’s apartment on Purgatorio’s sixth terrace reflects Don’s gluttonous lifestyle after his divorce from Betty and, ultimately, his desire to repent and change, which is fully established when he moves into a new apartment with his new wife.

A much more evident and conspicuous allusion to Dante’s Divine Comedy in Mad Men appears in the first episode of the sixth season. Almost right at the beginning of the episode, a voice-over of Don recites the first lines of Dante’s Inferno while sitting at the beach in Hawaii, reading John Ciardi’s paperback translation of the Inferno, “Midway in our life’s journey I went astray / from the straight road and woke to find myself / alone in a dark wood” (I.1-3). This allusion almost instinctively helps with the general characterization of Don Draper – a solipsistic middle-aged man who is lost and in need of guidance for virtue as he journeys through sins and sinners. To strengthen the Dante-Don connection further, later on in the episode, one of Don’s clients chooses a peculiar set of words to negatively comment about Don’s proposed advertisement after it reminds him of suicide: “I’m sorry, but this is very poetic”; like Dante’s poetry, Don’s advertising might be exceptionally creative and sophisticated, but it is too dark for an advertisement.

Other commentators view Don’s chronological advancement in the episode as if he moves down through the nine circles of Dante’s Inferno: the Hawaiian beach represents Limbo; Don and Megan have sex (Lust); Don and Megan engorge food, drinks and marijuana (Gluttony); Don expresses his desire to reduce the maid’s Christmas present (Greed); Don gets angry at several copywriters (Anger); Don asks the doorman what did he see when he almost died (Heresy); Don promotes a suicidal advertisement (Violence); Don misrepresents his marriage to his neighbors (Fraud); and Don sleeps with his married neighbor (Treachery). The end of the episode brings some closure to the allusion to Dante. When Sylvia, the married neighbor with whom Don has an affair, asks him if he read her Dante, he answers that it reminded him of her – obviously not such a great compliment but, perhaps like his proposed advertisement, he then describes it and her as “beautiful,” suggesting he does acknowledge that in spite of its allure, it is also full of sin. Thereafter she asks him what he wants for this year, and he answers that he wants “to stop doing this,” again reaffirming that he understands that he himself commits the sins depicted in the Inferno that he was reading at the beginning of the episode. Somewhat loyal to his wish, Don does try to live a sin-free life and marriage throughout the season and even proposes to Megan at the end of the season to relocate to California for her career and their marriage (S06E13).

The glaring allusion to Dante’s Inferno in the opening episode of the sixth season of Mad Men, therefore, constitutes a guide to better understand the progression of the plot and Don’s conflicted state of mind; additionally, it sets the tone for the rest of the season as Don attempts to live outside the Inferno’s sins.

Dante's Inferno

In The Sopranos, a couple of delicate allusions to Dante’s circles of hell as they are portrayed in the Inferno unveil the nature of the crimes that the associated characters commit (Annunziato, 2016). In the fourth season, as Corrado “Junior” Soprano walks down the stairs leaving court, a microphone of a news crew accidentally hits him, and he falls down the stairs; a reporter thereafter recounts that the “reputed mob boss Corrado Soprano just fell nine, no, seven steps” (S04E09). This refined allusion to the Inferno’s ninth and seventh circles portrays Junior’s sins: he commits treachery against his own kin – his nephew Tony – when he conspires to kill him (S01E11) and therefore deserves to be in “Caina,” which is in the first ring of the ninth circle of Dante’s Inferno (XXXII.58); as a senior mob boss, he is involved in multiple acts of violence “inflicted upon a neighbor” (XI.35-8), which earns him a place in the first ring of the seventh circle of the Inferno.

Another similar allusion to Dante’s circles of hell outlines Tony Soprano’s multiple vices. When Tony is under a coma after the demented Junior shoots him (S06E02), he has a long dream where he sojourns in hotel room number 728, which can represent the myriad of sins Tony commits: just like his uncle Junior he is incredibly violent (seventh circle), he cannot resist his lustful impulses and cheats on his wife repeatedly (second circle), and as a mobster, he commits many acts of fraud (eighth circle) that can place him in “bolgia” number five for swindlers (XXI.41), six for hypocrites (XXIII.92), seven for thieves (XXV.2), and ten for counterfeiters (XXIX.57). Thus, these allusions to Dante’s Inferno help in the criminal characterizations of Tony and his uncle Junior.

Another connection between The Sopranos and the Divine Comedy is the concept of eternal suffering in hell, as Dante is the one who branded and “made eternal punishment exotic and real, as well as Christian” (Sweeney, 2014: 3). As Dante walks through the gates of the Inferno, he sees an inscription at the entrance that includes the statements, “Through me the way to everlasting pain … Abandon all hope, you who enter here” (III.1-9) – indicating that souls in hell are doomed to suffer forever without the possibility of salvation.

In the very first episode of The Sopranos, Tony’s wife Carmela tells him that her priest helps her “to be a better Catholic,” and thereafter she says, “What’s different between you and me is you’re going to hell when you die” (S01E01), implying that after death they will never see each other again. This condemnation apparently haunts Tony long after because years later, when he and Carmela endures a crisis in their marriage, he brings it up again when he tells her, “Don’t worry, I’m going to hell when I’ll die” (S04E13), suggesting that after death they would be apart forever. Several years later, the repentant Carmela sits next to the hospitalized Tony when he is in a coma, apologizing for her remark from the show’s first episode, “It’s a sin and I will be judged for it,” and later adding, “You’re not going to hell” (S06E02). The idea of eternal suffering in hell after death, as Dante framed and coined it, thus reiterates in The Sopranos throughout the seasons and hounds the main characters Tony and Carmela following the sinful deeds of Tony as a mobster.

Dante’s Divine Comedy is about 700 years old, yet it remains influential in today’s popular culture. Writers of distinguished television shows incorporate Dante’s work into their scripts as points of reference, which assist the keen viewer in understanding better the characters and the plot. The allusions to the Divine Comedy in Mad Men and The Sopranos create another layer of meaning and interpretation within the pixelated images of the shows and add more profundity to characters immersed in lives of sin. It is quite remarkable that after centuries of theological, cultural and scientific progress, Dante’s conceptualization of hell yet remains almost unchallenged in Western society, and it is still employed to convey notions of sins and punishment in popular culture.

Works Cited

Annunziato, Sarah. “Guest Starring Dante Alighieri: References to Inferno on American Television” in Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture, Volume 15, Issue 1. 2016.
Sweeney, Jon M. Inventing Hell: Dante, the Bible and Eternal Torment. Hachette UK. 2014.