Mad Men, Season 3

Week 1: Sal's Secret Is Safe
Talking television.
Aug. 17 2009 1:02 PM

Mad Men, Season 3

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Week 1: Sal's Secret Is Safe

Dear Julia and John,

I've always had a soft spot for Salvatore, and I think you're right about the London Fog campaign, Julia—it's an opportunity for Draper to tell Salvatore, "Your secret is safe with me." (And, also, in a between-the-lines kind of way, "Dude, next time close the blinds.")

Mad Men. Click image to expand.
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Think about it. Here's a guy who's basically monosyllabic, capable only of the most Delphic pronouncements. ("I keep going to a lot of places, and ending up somewhere I've already been.") He's only ever really articulate when he's selling a product—it's as if he's shaken an emotional stutter; he just sings. And at its best, the show situates these pitches in such a way that they deliver an upswell of emotional catharsis that dovetails with all the turmoil that's gone otherwise unexpressed. You're right, John: As ad copy, the "Limit Your Exposure" campaign is a dud. But in some ways it's nice to see Draper flounder. Obliged to broach the matter of Sal's sexuality, the best he can do is start pitching and force the pitch to say something he can't say himself.

In another show, that moment on the fire escape would be a signal to viewers that at some point in the next 13 weeks, the secret will out and Salvatore will be exposed. It's a classic slow-burn device, especially in premium cable dramas. (Think of the gradually unspooling tragedy of The Sopranos' Vito Spatafore after he was spotted in flagrante by Meadow's boyfriend in Season 5.)

But given who Draper is, my bet is that Sal's secret is safe, just as Peggy's was last season. And this commitment to double lives and discretion—indeed, the fact that their secret lives almost endear Peggy and Sal to Don—is part of what makes Draper (or D-Squared, as we call him at my house) the most mystifying, satisfying character currently on television.

The flip side of Don's stunted empathy, alas, is his status as a babe magnet of world-historical proportions. I mean, is this Entourage? The writers do allow one sly wink at the implausible forthrightness with which every coat check girl seems to throw herself at Don when Sal remarks, with his patented nobody-here-but-us-straights leer, "I've never actually seen a stewardess that game." To which Don can only reply, rather sweetly, "Really?"

I hope we push past the will-Don-bed-the-bimbo-or-head-home-to-Ossining routine this season. It's a juicy hook for a show, no question, but as a trope, it's a little confining. When Don plays opposite the types of power women who really get his blood up—Rachel Menken, Bobby Barrett—it's a fun pas de deux because the women are unpredictable and Don's not holding all the cards. But from the moment Shelly the Kate Bosworth look-alike offers that refill, we realize the only thing that might keep her fancy lingerie on is thoughts of long-suffering Betty. Or a fire alarm. Don is irresistible and she is "game." I guess as fantasy that's fun (and the clockwork reliability of Vince's pheromones on Entourage has kept that show on air for an improbably long time). But at this point it's a little predictable.

All that said, this season's off to a great start. The Malcolm McDowellish Lane Pryce promises to be an excellent villain. I love that he answers Bert Cooper's Rothko and Japonaiserie by accenting his office with an actual suit of armor.

George Bernard Shaw suggested that England and America are "two countries divided by a common language," and while that's not precisely the fault line I envisioned the show taking on next, it certainly seems rich with potential. On that subject, Roger gets the last word (and the best line in the episode, once again). "I told him it was a stupid idea," he says, of an exchange with his new British overlord. "But they don't always get our inflection."

Patrick

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