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John Slattery and Jon Hamm in a scene from Mad Men.

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.

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.

That knowledge gap between viewer and character drives the drama on Mad Men, but as Season 5 beckons, so do sexual liberation and psychotherapy. In their early seasons, Betty and Don seemed a perfectly matched pair when it came to emotional repression and a fatal lack of self-knowledge. But in season four, she was finally talking to her daughter's therapist while Don was recording his feelings in a diary.

Who would Don Draper be if, liberated from his secret past, he integrated his psychic compartments and joyfully embraced an honest present? The answer is actually an alarming one for the future of Mad Men: He would be somebody much less dramatic.

Mad Men: A short account of the story so far

Season 1: Philosophizing and philandering ad man Don Draper has a high-flying career at alcohol-soaked Sterling Cooper, an unhappy wife in the suburbs, a bohemian mistress in the city, and a secret past: He swapped dog tags with a dead soldier in the Korean War. Account executive Pete Campbell, a nasty, blue-blood climber, does not succeed in blackmailing Don with that info – but does manage to seduce Don's new secretary, Peggy Olson, who hides the pregnancy and will give up the baby.

Season 2: Don has another affair; wife Betty throws him out, has revenge sex, takes him back and gets pregnant with their third child, while the agency is threatened by a merger with a British firm. Office manager Joan Holloway marries a doctor, while her former lover, agency partner Roger Sterling, divorces his wife for a 20-year-old.

Season 3: Don conspires with Roger and new British partner Lane Pryce to escape the clutches of their unsympathetic new owners and start up their own agency, with the recently departed Joan back at the helm, and rising copy writer Peggy ever faithful to her unappreciative boss. Pursued by an older man, the political aide Henry Francis, Betty divorces Don and jets off to Reno with their new baby and her new boyfriend in tow.

Season 4: When Joan's husband departs for Vietnam, she turns to Roger and soon finds herself pregnant, leaving audiences debating whether she has gone through with an abortion. Miserable with the punitive Betty, Don's daughter Sally runs away from home to be with him. The new agency suffers a serious blow when it loses the Lucky Strike account. Don finally recognizes Peggy's professional worth; but it is his new secretary, Megan, to whom he proposes.

Kate Taylor

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