Much has been made of Mad Men’s pitch-perfect take on period fashion and culture. From ad agency alcoholism to beards, racial inequality and reefer, Mathew Weiner’s smart, subtle AMC drama uses setting to bolster character, and character to manifest overarching themes.
One of the show’s unique qualities is its tendency to employ side characters in concert with umbrella thematic goals. This has been particularly effective when it comes to Mad Men‘s queer characters. Whereas a less sophisticated show might throw in a gay character haphazardly, the queers on this show reflect a linear evolution which mirrors changing societal mores. In this way, everyone from season one’s closeted Sal (Bryan Batt) to Season 6’s more confidently aggressive Bob Benson propels the viewer forward through a quickly changing, increasingly sexually explosive time.
The year is 1960 when we meet ad agent Sal, but 1950s norms and values still cling to the new decade. Initially, Sal is a sweet closet case who claims never to have had sex with a man. Over the course of three seasons, he keeps up appearances by dating and marrying, has his first gay sexual experience and maintains his position at Sterling Cooper until a client, Lee Garner Jr. (Darren Pettie), propositions him. He’s fired when he rebuffs the advances and in his last scene, calls his wife from a pay phone. Behind him, a group of apparently gay men head towards a thicket of trees, the image evoking a possible new layer of Sal’s relationship with his sexuality. This trajectory — closeted and sexually inexperienced to eyes-open-cusp of change — is indicative of the general societal shift at play in the early ’60s.
Lee Garner Jr. is a married man, aggressive and demanding. He’s primed to pick up on the gay clues Sal’s straight colleagues manage to miss. When he makes his move and Sal resists saying he’s married, Garner responds that he too is married, a set-up common for gay men at the time. Though not exactly a positive role model, Garner’s aggressiveness represents a notable behavioral contrast to Sal’s docile nature, perhaps foreshadowing the coming cultural shift in which queers will become bolder.
Then there’s poor lovelorn Carol McCardy (Kate Norby). Joan’s (Christina Hendricks) former schoolmate and current roommate, Carol confesses she moved to New York in the hopes that Joan would one day “notice” her. “Just think of me as a boy,” Carol begs Joan. Unfortunately plenty of lesbians still pine for their straight roommates, but in 1960, this sort of unrequited love was undoubtedly more common, as is Carol’s simplistic request. With no real examples of lesbian relationships, the best Carol can do is ask Joan to close her eyes and pretend. Joan, ever socially graceful and historically appropriate, glides right over Carol’s confession. Taking place in season one, this moment nicely exemplifies the confusion and bravery of lesbians navigating social norms.
Perhaps because of her own culturally defiant position as a woman climbing the career ladder, Peggy is again a sort of conduit for queer connection when Joyce Ramsay (Zosia Mamet) befriends her. Another queer character who seems comfortable with her sexuality, Joyce lobs a friendly proposition at Peggy (Peggy: I have a boyfriend. Joyce: He doesn’t own your vagina. Peggy: He’s renting it.), allowing Peggy to show off her own increasing comfort with queers. Whereas Peggy seemed initially shocked by Kurt’s sexuality, her response to Joyce, even in the face of Joyce’s sexual interest, is much calmer. Arguably this change in Peggy alongside Joyce’s own matter-of-fact sexuality represents an overall shift in society’s understanding of queerness, at least in an urban setting.
Season 6 offered a bouquet of divergent queer characters, indicating the way gay culture and culture at large had evolved by 1968. When Megan’s (Jessica Paré) glamorous costar and her husband first proposition Megan and Don, Arlene (Joanna Going) seems more swinger than queer. Perhaps she’s just experimenting with a new trend. But when Arlene treks across the city to ply Megan with alcohol while Don is out of town, her sexual interest in Megan becomes clear. Beautiful and successful, Arlene is a far cry from pitiful Carol. Arlene’s sexuality seems fully integrated. She’s in charge of her desire and open about her needs. Though Megan does not succumb to her advances, Arlene is more irritated than deflated and even tries a second advance.
Another Season 6 queer, Bob Benson (James Wolk), though closeted like Arlene, represents a person in charge of his own sexuality. While his advance on Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) seems to our modern eyes rash and ill-advised, at the time, there was nothing for a gay man to do but try, even if it might put him at risk. Unlike Sal, Bob isn’t afraid to ask for what he wants and when spurned takes it in stride, once again evoking a stronger, more fully integrated queer sexuality.
Notable for the fact that they both function as three-dimensional people in their own rights and for the way in which they manifest the show’s overarching themes, Mad Men’s queer characters deliver. Sterling Draper Price may have dropped their tobacco accounts, but from Season 1 to Season 6, the queers of Mad Men have come a long way, just like society as a whole.