'Mad Men' and sex: Done right, or an easy way out?

Mad-Men-Sal_l

As I write in this week’s issue of EW, Mad Men has come back with a third-season premiere chock-full of fresh details and revelations about familiar characters. My colleague, the canny Karen Valby, has a full TV Watch recap of the premiere episode, but I want to write here about the one scene I couldn’t discuss in any detail in the print mag without revealing a SPOILER that I can, with this warning, get into now.

I’ll wait a few minutes for you to leave now, if you don’t want to know the details of the subplot I’m going to discuss here. Suitably decided? Okay.

I’m referring to the sex scene between Sal Romano (the superb Bryan Batt) and the bellhop. I’m not saying this was the most important subplot in the premiere – certainly seeing Don Draper in his bare feet in this night’s opening shot, a symbol of the naked soul within, was the hour’s crucial hint of what’s to come in season three.

But for Sal’s repressed sexuality, something we’ve known about since the first Mad Men season, to be brought to the fore on premiere night suggests how important this element is to series creator Matthew Weiner. On one level, leaving Sal in the closet for so long (and he remains so even after last night, to everyone except Don) was merely a necessary period detail for Mad Men. Given the era, there was probably no way an out gay man could have risen to the position Sal has within the ad agency. And marrying him off to a woman who doesn’t demand much beyond his smile, his kindness, and his paycheck is also in keeping with the times.

Choosing to have Sal cruised by a horny bellhop, and to have Sal enjoy his romp while on a business trip, is one of those neat (sometimes too-neat) symmetries that Weiner regularly employs. In this case, it made dramatic sense for Sal to engage in illicit sex as much as it did (and has) for Don Draper to do so on previous business jaunts. These away-from-the-office excursions are Mad Men excuses for men to behave madly – more freely and more true to themselves than they are at work or at home. And certainly the scene was staged beautifully: We could share the anguished joy and release Sal felt. By the time this episode occurred in 1963, Allen Ginsberg may have “Howl”’ed and Frank O’Hara (the poet whose work Don read last season) had enjoyed trysts and steady relationships with a variety of male companions, but these were bohemian artists, not the buttoned-up businessmen of Mad Men.

Weiner wrote this episode, and I treasured his usual small-but-significent period details. In these scenes I’m talking about, for instance, it was great to be reminded that, once upon a time, a fire escape was actually something people used to escape from a possible fire, as we saw here. (Does anyone in a big city hotel ever think about using these rickety, rusty things in case of an emergency anymore?)

But I do think Weiner took one easy way out: In the scene near the end, on the plane ride home, Don made it clear by implication that Sal’s secret is safe with him, and that he’s not upset with Sal. I would hazard, however, that a guy like Don, all steely self-discipline, furtive secrets himself, and raging straight hormones, would have been (in the realism of this series) more hypocritical, and thus repelled by what he glimpsed in Sal’s room. It would have freaked out Don’s very (straight) soul. He may read poetry out of curiosity and despair, but Don is ultimately a social and artistic conservative: He wants Betty home waiting for him with a home-cooked meal, and remember, he dismissed the famous DDB Volkswagen “Lemon” ad campaign by saying, “I don’t know what I hate about it the most.”

But even for a daring drama like Mad Men, accommodations must be made: Don must remain our sympathetic hero, and a homophobe — the “-phobe” here meaning someone frightened, not hating — cannot be a hero.

What do you think about this subplot? Enjoying Mad Men in general? I sure am.

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  • Leslie

    I definitely enjoyed the premiere, & can’t wait to see more. But I have to disagree with your opinion on Don’s reaction. I think Don was astute enough to see the parallels between his situation & Sal’s, & chose to respond with silence & non-judgment, much like he did with Peggy when he found out about her “condition” last season. There are many negative aspects of Don’s behavior/persona, but being judgmental never seems to be one (at least not from what I remember). I think his response to Sal’s incident was consistent with Don’s behavior & character throughout the show thus far.

    • Lisa Simpson

      I completely agree, Leslie. It was a parralel to his scene last season with Peggy when he told her to do whatever they wanted her to do and get back to her work. Private lives for Don are sidelines to ambition, and should be dealt with as such. His marriage to Betty is barely more than a facade, and being a husband and father is as much of an expected role for him as being married to a woman is for Sal. And as Ken Tucker pointed out, these men are only themselves on business trips, and Don wasted no time reverting to his philandering ways.

      • Mary

        I mostly agree with Lisa and Leslie. Discretion is the name of the game for Don Draper. He has terrible secrets of his own. And who’s to say he wasn’t a bit disgusted, but being Don simply advised Sal “limit your exposure”.

      • J

        Lisa, great point about Don and Peggy. I hadn’t thought of that, and perhaps Ken Tucker didn’t either. This seems to be another of the unexpected dimensions of Don’s character: his sympathy with other people leading dual lives. I liked that Don didn’t sell out Sal. The easy choice for Weiner would have been to have Don grow incensed. By taking an alternate road, there’s a new plot dimension to explore. Looking forward to it…

    • Lorie

      ITA with you.

      • Aldana

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      • Carolina

        Nov06 How comfy are those Zara booties? When I find Zara shoes I like when spinpohg for others and I find a pair of nicely designed shoes, I always wonder if they are actually comfortable to wear.

    • fz

      Very astute leslie

    • MiamiMaria

      And let us not forget that Don’s philandering is the least of his secrets- his whole LIFE is a lie, if anyone can empathasize with Sal’s secrets, it is Don!

      • Mary

        That’s true. Don can’t judge anyone for leading secret or double lives. He’s doing it himself!

  • Peter Schwartz

    That’s just a silly assumption. Don’s life is full of secrets, and he knows how hard that can be. Maybe he just likes Sal and understands that he has secrets too and is happy to leave it at that. He also knows that Peggy has a baby and he did not judge her about that.

    • mattmeszaros

      Exactly. If Don can empathize with anything, it’s one’s desire to keep a secret.

  • Davivid

    Don did look shocked and freaked out. But of course Sal’s secret is safe with him – after all, he wants “Bill’s” secret safe with Sal.

    • Marian

      I have fond memories of gonwirg up picking blueberries on my grandpa’s blueberry patch. They were were juicy and huge! I got my fill of blueberries every summer. Grandpa has been gone for a long time now, but blueberries always take me back to my childhood. I can’t wait to check out this book and share it with my son!

    • Youngmi

      Oct26 The beige bangle is so nice! I didn’t know this brand, so thank you for the uoirodicttnn! I simply adore costume jewelry: for me, the bigger the better (especially when it comes to necklaces). But for real’ jewelry, I’m like you and definitely prefer discreet and more classic pieces. Have a great day Toni!

  • Suzanne M.

    I enjoyed the season premiere very much. However, I think that Don was at first repelled by what he saw in Sal’s hotel room. You could see it in his eyes as he hesitated at the fire escape window and again when the hotel guests were waiting outside the hotel to determine the fire situation at the hotel. Why was he repelled? For the exact reasons you stated: he is a very straight man with very straight hormones that allows him to have as he put it “more chances” with the opposite sex even after he is married. However, he is an intelligent man with his own secrets/demons to contend with, and he inevitably does the very right thing by letting Sal know on the plane ride home that he will keep his secret and Sal should do the same “by limiting his exposure.” Well played and well written.

  • austinite

    I agree with Leslie. Don can’t afford to be judgmental of other’s behavior, because then he’d have to take a closer look at his own. Implicitly, though, he did let Sal know that he knew. Rather than letting his disapproval carry the day, Don is relying on Sal’s own discretion to control the latter’s behavior.

    • VSangel24

      I totally agree with you Austinite. Well said. Even though Don, concluding with his character, would definitely disapprove; He could not be too judgemental because of his own demons and secrets lurking deep within. Whereas he may not concur with Sal’s orientation, he does revere him as a talented contributor so he should keep the secret to himself to retain Sal at the agency. In those times being a gay man would be insensatively callous therefore Sal would keep Don’s secrets in order to assure his secrets would be safe also. Don trying to move forward would require not exposing Sal. Mad Men is a complex, series that subtley displays moments of importance and interactions, making the viewers watch closely or else miss the magic that aptly exists. Great show full of incessant creativity that surprses and delights.

      • Clark

        VSangel24 great assessment of the show, very concise. Don has many reasons why he kept Sal’s private enigma, each motive could be easily authenticly entitled. I guess we will find out all the reasons and more innovative ideas soon enough!

  • belle

    Don kept Sal’s secret for the same reason he kept Peggy’s.

    I’m so glad this show is back!

  • Jack Wang

    Certainly Don can keep a secret, so can Sal and so can Peggy – they all have secrets of their own and some they share as well. But more importantly, Don does not judge or expose Sal because that would be inconsistent with the mantra of his life: “moving forward”. Having a talented artist like Sal leave the agency would be counterproductive and it would be destructive to his creative department. Don is probably channeling Bert Cooper, who famously said, “Who cares?” when Pete Campbell exposed Don’s faked identity in season one.

  • Tom

    Well as Bert Cooper once pointed out, you never know how alliances are made. Yes, Don is repelled on a personal level, but on a professional level he likes and respects Sal and his work. And in an office where 1/3rd of the staff has been fired, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.

  • hoganbcmj

    I agree with Leslie too. It makes perfect sense Don would empathize with Sal’s owning a deep dark secret and the shame that goes along with it.

  • hoganbcmj

    And also: “The phobe cannot be the hero” … but the adulterer can? Again, I think you’re off with that theory, Ken.

    • Fabb

      littomika on August 30, 2011 I like that I am a egftraul person. I love being able to show my appreciation to others and count all of my blessings. I dont like taking things for granted, because life is so special and the people you love should feel they are loved.

  • hoganbcmj

    One last point: Don was/is one of Peggy’s few supporters at Sterling and for that reason, already displays characteristics of left-wing, forward thinking acceptance.

    • Jara

      You are right. Don is shown as forward thinking about Peggy (he really is he truly does not seem to worry or care about a woman rising in the ranks, all he cares about is that she is good.) Moreover, I don’t know how Ken can call him a real social conservative. Remember when he was asked “So what you you think about [a rival agency]hiring their first Colored copywriter”. While the person asking was clearly expecting Don to indicate disgust or disbelief, Don instead said “Well I wouldn’t want to be that guy”. Don is 100 percent secure in his sexuality (that may be the ONLY thing he is secure in) And thus is less likely to be repulsed then some guys of his era.

  • Luisa

    It didn’t seem like Don was repelled, really–more surprised than anything. But he’s certainly not one to be judgemental. Just like you’ve all said, it’s the same with Peggy’s secret: he understands, and secrets are safe with him.

  • Louis

    I don’t watch the show…but it’s sad that to today’s Hollywood,anyone who doesn’t approve of same-sex relationships can’t be a hero.

    • sarah

      You don’t watch the show, but you needed to come on here and share your bigotry? What a wonderful addition to the conversation!

      • paula

        I think it’s bigoted not to accept that some people DO take religious exception to homosexuality. Yes, the civil laws shouldn’t allow them to discriminate legally, but there are nearly 9 billion people on the planet, and we WON’T all think the same way (“correctly.”)

      • Andcap

        Right on, Sarah. Louis, do you have any idea what this discussion is about, or are you just more concerned with making sure that a homophobic agenda is followed?

    • toomuchtv

      why are you commenting on a show you don’t watch?

  • JR Tomlin

    Could a series possibly be more boring? I’ve caught a few episodes of this tripe. It’s men lusting after the days when they had all the power and were all that counted. The most exciting thing about it is that homosexuals exist. Imagine that. *yawn*

    • Luci

      Posted on Great to hear from you. Our creative aencgy Evolved Digital (www.evolveddigital.tv) know all the secrets and I am sure they’ll be happy to give you some quick guidance if you need any

  • COOTS

    I THINK DON KNOWS HOW IT CAN FEEL TO HAVE YOUR “SECRETS” EXPOSED BECAUSE PETE WAS BLACKMAILING HIM ABOUT HIS PAST.SO I DONT THINK HE WANTS TO DO THAT TO ANYBODY ELSE.HE DOESNT CARE WHAT SAL DOES IN HIS PRIVATE LIFE.HE JUST LOOKED SUPRISED..LIKE IT NEVER ENTERED HIS MIND THAT SAL COULD BE THAT WAY.

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