The keeping of secrets, played out as a major plot device in Don’s case, echoes more or less loudly throughout the show’s many storylines. In Season 4, Roger knows the agency has lost its largest client, Lucky Strike, but does not tell his partners until one account executive finds out through a loose-lipped colleague at a rival agency. In another excruciating episode, Don’s lovesick secretary Allison – he goes through three that season, only two of whom he sleeps with – is forced to participate in a focus group about female beauty, knowing that her unrequiting boss is sitting on the other side of the one-way glass.
When the wife of agency partner Pete Campbell gets pregnant, Peggy struggles with memories of the secret child she bore Pete and whom she gave up. On a less-dramatic note, Pete’s father-in-law learns of his daughter’s pregnancy before the dad-to-be does, and lets the cat out of the bag, while media buyer Harry Crane regales colleagues with his advance knowledge of developments on the soap opera Peyton Place.
These characters live painfully isolated lives and often stand to lose a lot when the cat escapes, or the closet is flung open: They live in what is still an age of decorum and privacy. And perhaps, since we live in an age of informality and confession, that is why the show so appeals to us. We are fascinated not only by the surface of tight suits and beehive hairdos but by the depths of social stricture and emotional repression.
There was a tiny but telling moment in Season 4 when Don is unlocking the door to his apartment just as an old woman pulls her bundle buggy along the hall. Her husband has already opened the door to their apartment and stands there, asking querulously, “Did you get pears?” She does not answer his repeated request for information until finally she says, as she walks past him into the apartment, “We will discuss it inside.” She belongs to a generation for whom even the most trivial piece of domestic information is private; today, she might well have been tweeting about her purchases before she ever got home.
To call our attraction to Mad Men nostalgic is an overstatement. It is one thing to salivate over bullet bras and bespoke suits, quite another to long for the days before pay equity and civil rights. And yet, it is also unfair, as some critics have done, to suggest that our attraction to this critique of an earlier era’s hypocrisy is merely self-congratulation. We feel for the social predicaments of even the most despicable characters. Could the climate of the early sixties really have been this tense? Could regular people have been this horribly split between very public addictions and very private sorrows? Weiner’s is a dark view of his parents’ world.
Critic Daniel Mendelsohn pointed out, in a 2011 piece in the New York Review of Books – one of the few negative reviews Mad Men has ever received – that the show’s characters are presented at an ambivalent distance that mixes hope with disillusion; his theory is that this represents the viewpoint of the children. Weiner himself was born in 1965, making him only two years younger than Don’s youngest child, the unfortunate Gene, who is born as his parents’ marriage collapses.
But perhaps the audience’s view is closest to that of the troubled Sally, born at the height of the baby boom in the mid-1950s, and deeply hurt by her parents’ divorce. Peering through the banisters into the front hall as Mother shrugs her shoulders into a mink stole and pulls on her gloves in anticipation of an evening in the mysterious city, we see the flawed characters on Mad Men as glamorous and remote. Today, they are full of incomprehensible secrets that tomorrow will be revealed as unforgivable behaviour.