As Mad Men returns after a 17-month hiatus, fans of the series eagerly await the news: Will ad man Don Draper’s impetuous engagement to his secretary, Megan, produce a happy marriage? Is there a future for lonely-heart copywriter Peggy Olson with her new leftie boyfriend? How will coronary-prone partner Roger Sterling react if he finds out office manager and chief bombshell Joan Harris did not abort his baby? Will Joan’s husband survive Vietnam – and will the agency survive the loss of top client Lucky Strike?
To be sure, these are the kinds of burning narrative questions that drive any prime-time soap, but in this case the audience’s ignorance carries real thematic weight: On Mad Men, everything turns on who knows what. The show’s plot is based on secrets; its theme is dawning knowledge.
In a taut series pilot that instantly captivated audiences and critics back in 2007, creator Matthew Weiner delivered a bitterly pointed surprise ending. We had followed Don through two days at the agency, punctuated by an evening with a girlfriend in a Manhattan loft, and another date with a female client before finally, at the end of it all, we watched with shocked realization as he took the train back to the suburban home where his wife and children lay sleeping. The hollowness and mendacity of his life, to be examined again and again in the series, was initially delivered as a brilliant sucker punch.
Most of the time, however, Weiner builds dramatic tension with the reverse device: the audience’s knowledge of information of which the characters are unaware. “Look out behind you!” we want to yell at the ad men as they smoke, drink and fornicate their way to cancer, cirrhosis and divorce.
Weiner greatly enlarges that classic device, however, turning it into a vehicle for social and historical critique. The show derives much of its exquisite tension from the audience’s knowledge that everything from smoking bans to the JFK assassination are coming down the pipe. Sometimes, he turns the device into a little ironic joke, merely winking at his viewers: Without benefit of seatbelts, Don’s giggling children are flung around the car when their distracted mother, Betty, drives off the road. Sometimes, he uses our foreknowledge as a frame through which we see a character: The solution to Peggy’s and Joan’s many struggles is feminism.
It’s a device that intensifies our sympathy: What contemporary working woman doesn’t long to tell the ambitious Peggy, as she chafes at her colleagues’ sexism, that history is on her side? Still, our awareness gives us the big picture, not the fine detail. We do not know what Joan and Peggy will become when the door of their cage is finally sprung open.
Perhaps we will begin to find out in Season 5 (expected to be set in 1966 or 1967), along with discovering whether Don can live his true identity. That is, of course, the biggest skeleton in the closet, revealed at the end of the first season: Don Draper is actually Dick Whitman. He grew up illegitimate and dirt poor on a farm before serving in the Korean War, where he took over a dead officer’s dog tags and identity as a means to escape both a painful past and further service.
That fraud – a rather obvious metaphor for the ad man’s work creating glamorous identities for cigarettes and floor polishes – increasingly haunted Don during Season 4, following the death of his old friend Anna, who was the real Don Draper’s widow and the keeper of the new Don’s secret. When he is panicked by a government investigation necessary to attain security clearance to do ad work for a defence contractor, he does fess up to his latest girlfriend, market researcher Faye Miller, who suggests there must surely be a way to come clean.