'Mad Men' and sex: Done right, or an easy way out? | EW.com

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

Mad-Men-Sal_l

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.

Originally posted August 17 2009 — 2:13 AM EDT

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