The 1960s in America represented a time of great turmoil. The decade saw the murders of a president and a civil rights leader, the threat of a nuclear missile attack, and a war. The decade also began the shift away from the 1950s expectations of marriage and family along with working the same job, whether you were happy or not, until you died. The time of transition from the 1950s modest ideals to the 1970s free love, war refusal, job mobility, and increased rights made many in the transitional decade of the 1960s feel stuck in their place or unsure where to align themselves. The second and third seasons of Mad Men show how confined the characters felt within the times as they were beginning to shift, and how they struggled to find their place in the social structure. In the arc of each character we see the struggle within themselves to define their lives, and how often that definition proved limited. There is a clear distinction between the opening season and the second season of the series, with the latter taking a more in-depth look into the lives of the people we’d been introduced to thus far. The second season opens by illustrating several characters getting ready for their day, dressing in their image, the way society perceives them.
In the opening episode of the second season of Mad Men, Don Draper is getting a physical, something he doesn’t seem to do regularly, forever hiding from the fact that he is aging. Don even buys a Cadillac in the second season, the ultimate signal of class and wealth. This purchase reminds Don of when he first started out in sales selling cars, reassuring him that his financial gain and climb up the social ladder means that he has achieved real success, and that the means he used to gain that success were worth it. Don is stuck in the 1960s perception of what it means to be a man who provides for his family and gives the impression to those around him that he is living a prosperous life. Don rebels against the notion that Sterling Cooper must bring in younger creatives to attract younger clients because, for him, it would mean submitting to his extinction. To rebel against the threat of the unknown young person, Don seems to make strides to better his relationship with Pete.
Pete is the kind of young person that upper management is pressuring Don to employ in order to change the demographics of their clientele, but at least with Pete, Don knows who he is and what informs his decision-making. Pete is a calculated risk that Don can manage and control in many ways, as opposed to the unknown that a new hire would represent. When Pete is going through a difficult situation—when his father’s death conflicts with Sterling Cooper’s attempt to court the airline responsible for his death—he seeks solace in Don’s presence. Don tells Pete, “There’s work, and then there’s everything else,” signaling the first time Don extends an olive branch to Pete.
Don’s life with other women has undergone no such rebirth, however. He is continuing his philandering, this time with the wife of a Sterling Cooper client: the celebrity comic Jimmy Barrett. Don and Bobbie Barrett’s affair arises as a power play, a means to prevent Don’s company from having to pay out money or lose a client after Jimmy’s mouth gets him into trouble on the set of a commercial he was shooting. To get Bobbie on his side and influence her husband, Don is forceful with Bobbie before softening. Bobbie fits the bill of the type of woman Don is attracted to because she embodies personality traits that he does not. Bobbie seems to know what she wants out of life and appears to have her life under control while Don is unclear about what he is after and spends most of his time avoiding life. His newest affair is not a meaningful connection to another person; it just presents the next opportunity for Don to keep running from his past and his unfulfilling home life.
Don and Betty’s domestic circumstance is just as troubled as ever, as the second season of the show inserts parenting differences into their domestic fold. Betty is intent on using corporal punishment as a means of disciplining her children, which is something Don fervently protests. The show brilliantly uses flashbacks to showcase aspects of Don’s early life, one of which shows him getting hit by his father. Don says this experience only made him hate his father and dream about ways to kill him rather than correct his behavior. This belief that hitting children will improve their behavior is very much a product of the 1960s and represents one clear way in which Betty is stuck in the period in which she lives.
As the second season progresses, Don and Betty’s marriage is further tested. His continued affairs, their differences in parenting strategies, and Betty’s increased sense of distance and isolation from her husband begin to be more than their union can take. While at her father’s house, tending to him after a recent stroke, Betty and Don make love. This instance of intimacy doesn’t come from a place of love, though, but rather a moment of desperation. Betty feels ostracized by her family, who are upset by the fact that she moved away from them and has been less involved with the care of her father—something that already causes Betty much guilt. This one night leaves far-reaching effects as Betty becomes pregnant, leaving her feeling more stuck in her position with Don. A married woman in the early 60s with a new baby would be expected to ignore her unhappiness to maintain the family structure.
We learn a lot about Don’s relationship with Peggy throughout the second season. We learn that it was Don who encouraged Peggy to go on with her life after her decision to give her child up for adoption, and it was he that supported her and covered for her at work when she was still in the hospital recovering from childbirth. Don’s past trauma made him the perfect person to help Peggy through her personal struggle. He also recognizes that Peggy is breaking away from her confinements as a woman in the 1960s, and Don’s magnetism to the outcast inspires him to help Peggy where he can. Not only is he one of the few people to recognize Peggy’s talents as a copywriter, but he also realizes that her creative process is similar to his own. Peggy is the only other copywriter we see, besides Don, who uses improvisation when trying to come up with a pitch. This leads Don to the understanding that Peggy has a similar relationship to the world that he does; they can both take themselves out of the office and the moment and gain inspiration in a more lively way.
Still rebelling against the world according to his social status and how hemmed-in he feels in his relationship with Betty, Don takes the opportunity provided by a work trip to California to clear his mind and come to some resolution about his feelings of confinement. Once he arrives in California, Don is instantly approached by a group of nomads who have taken up residency at a mansion. They invite Don to stay with them, and Don abandons all work commitments to escape the constraints of his existence. Don is running like he always has when the weight of the veneer over his life proved too much to maintain. California, and the nomads he met there, show Don an entirely new way to live and a life he never knew could exist. Such an existence, though, at this time in his life, was too much for Don to comprehend. His position in his company, his marriage, the expectation of masculinity placed upon him as a man in the early 1960s prevented him from living the wanderlust life he seemed destined to live.
In a further attempt to avoid returning home to his confined life filled with bathroom towels he’s not allowed to use, Don decides to visit the wife of the man whose name he stole. The audience learns that Anna Draper saw a restlessness in Don (formerly Dick Whitman) that led her to allow him to assume her deceased husband’s identity as a means to make something of his life without the disadvantages he faced with his personal history. When Don is finally refreshed enough to return home, he comes the closest he ever has to admitting his infidelity to Betty when he tells her, “I was not respectful to you.” One wonders if this may be a sign that Don is recommitting to his marriage and the promise he made to the real Mrs. Draper to build a positive life for himself.
Early in season three, however, we realize that Don is not turning over a new leaf at all. He begins another affair, this time with a former teacher of Sally’s. While attending Roger and Jane’s engagement party, Jane reveals that she knows about Don’s marriage problems. This angers Don, as he is both frustrated at himself for opening up to Roger in the first place, and angry at Roger for spreading his business. Don does not like anyone knowing aspects of his personal life, both because he has created his own life with an assumed name and because he has completely succumbed to the generational expectation that demands a man be in constant control over himself and his marriage.
Don loses all control and the cover of his artificial life when Betty discovers the box of mementos documenting his history and exposing the Dick Whitman part of Don that Betty had never known. “I’m surprised you ever loved me,” Don tells Betty when she confronts him about his past, a comment revealing Don’s insecurity in his own skin and his belief that his worthiness as a man is measured by his ability to find a wife and start a family. Don is entirely truthful with Betty, and he is recommitted to the life he made with her, ending his most recent affair, but this newfound dedication comes too late for Betty who is sent reeling after discovering the secret history of her husband’s life. Don’s marriage to Betty ends with the two of them agreeing to a divorce and staying on good terms to better co-parent their children. As one chapter ends, a new one begins, and Don is finally granted the chance to build something of his own and for himself as he becomes a partner in the newly christened Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, formed in the season finale of Mad Men‘s second season.
Peggy is the character that is perhaps most obviously stuck in the position that her gender and social status dictates. She has gotten what she wants in her career, working as a copywriter, but she is used as the token woman and only given female-centric accounts. Peggy is often the victim of or forced to listen to the sexualization of women by her colleagues. Regularly advised on how to show maturity as a woman or how to advance her career in a male-dominated industry, Peggy’s agency as a human being is always under assault. Oddly, though, the one campaign that Peggy would be expected to be a part of, she is left out of because the Maidenform campaign has been overtly sexualized. Among her peers, Peggy is not thought of as an object of desire, so she is not included in the meetings or the casting for the brassiere campaign, further complicating Peggy’s struggle to find balance between her work and her sexuality.
This constant struggle against the expectations of society and of her colleagues is a source of endless compromise in Peggy’s life. For instance, when Freddy Rumsen is fired from Sterling Cooper after proving himself a liability to the company, Peggy is thrilled to gain his accounts as her own but devastated over his departure. Freddy was the first person to see potential in Peggy, and without his support, Peggy likely wouldn’t have become a copywriter. Her loyalty almost becomes a liability, which is something we also see with Don when Roger chastised him over his reluctance to chase a more significant airline account when Sterling Cooper already represented an airline. Similarly, when Peggy requests and is granted her own office—a victory for a young woman in the male-dominated field of advertising in the 1960s—she is scowled at by every man in the agency who shares an office because she took what they perceived to be theirs. Peggy is often faced with this conundrum, where making positive improvements for herself at the office means accepting disdain from co-workers jealous of her success.
Peggy and Don have proven that they work creatively in a similar way, mainly through improvisation and interactions with the outside world rather than their office walls, even though Peggy gets to work early and stays late every day. Their relationship reaches a critical breakthrough when Don admits that he is overly hard on Peggy because he sees a bit of himself as well as great potential in her. He validates her for the first time when he approaches her about following him in his new partnership at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, vowing that if she turns him down, he will spend the rest of his life trying to hire her. Peggy sees this as an opportunity for a fresh start and as a means of advancing beyond the place where everyone remembers that she began as a secretary.
Peggy and Joan represent the two dominant mindsets of women of the early 1960s. Joan is largely content with the idea of marriage and building a family as her end goals in life and Peggy desires a career more than a husband and puts marriage and children as secondary goals. They both see that the other represents something that they are each rebelling against in their own way, making their relationship strained. Peggy feels the need to assert herself over Don’s new secretary, both because she used to work in that position and knows what he wants and likes and also because Don has become a mentor to her and knows more about her than anyone else in the office. When Peggy scolds the incompetent Lois, reducing her to tears, Joan backs Peggy publicly, reminding Lois that crying is forbidden in the office, as even emotions were under the suppression of the 1960s. However, as a means of asserting herself Joan moves the copy machine into Peggy’s office after her interaction with Lois, making Peggy’s office the epicenter for chatter and office equipment pranks.
The harshest of Peggy’s critics and doubters may be those to whom she is related. Her sister and mother can never seem to give Peggy the benefit of the doubt. Her career ambitions are odd to them, a striking reminder that Peggy has little interest in adhering to their commitment to family or the Catholic faith that drives every aspect of their lives. They love Peggy and support her in their way, but they struggle to realize that the constant not-so-subtle putting down of Peggy only leads to her desire to pull away from them. Peggy’s mother wants her to forget about moving to the city, take on less work, come to church, and find a husband—goals that only intensify after Peggy’s pregnancy. Placing her child up for adoption proved Peggy’s reluctance to let her place in history define her, and showed she was fully capable of breaking away from societal expectations in order to do what was in her and her child’s best interest.
Peggy struggles with her place as a woman in the 60s. She wants to make a meaningful connection with a man, but every date she goes on is strained because these men are not used to dating a woman more successful than they are. Peggy’s declaration, “I always pick the wrong boys,” suggests that she may not know what she wants or how to get it, no doubt due to the confinements of gender and success that she is always battling. Her stilted interactions with Father Gill, the visiting priest at her church, suggest that Peggy is experiencing a crisis of faith post-childbirth. On the one hand, Father Gill doesn’t condemn Peggy’s life as the rest of her family does, yet he creates more opportunities for them to work together in the hope that she will confess to him after her sister informs him about Peggy’s affair with a married man. Peggy’s own family can’t forgive her decision, and they seem to want to see to it that no one else does, either.
Pete is delivered a disorienting blow when his father is killed in a plane crash that prompts Sterling Cooper to attempt to gain the responsible airline’s account in an effort to rebrand them and bring more business to the agency. The death of his father is a complicated issue for Pete, as the last time the audience saw them interacting was when he denied Pete and his new wife Trudy the financial help they needed to move into a new home. Pete’s father had no qualms making it clear to Pete that he disapproved of his profession and thought it a dishonest way to make a living. When Pete finds out that his father had frittered all of the family’s money away, he uses his personal tragedy in the pitch to American Airlines in an attempt to gain their business.
Pete is faced with the confinement of the social constructs of the era when he and Trudy are unable to immediately conceive a child after their marriage. When the couple visits a fertility specialist, Pete overtly celebrates the discovery that his sperm count is high, ignorant of the fact that Trudy is devastated by the idea that she may never carry a child. Trudy is clearly a woman of her time, and has longed her whole life to marry and have children. She desires a child so much that she breaks from tradition by considering adoption. Pete’s mother claims she will disown him if the adoption takes place because she cannot fathom her son “pulling from the discards.” His marriage presents many struggles against the time in which he was born and the ideas of what masculinity means in the early 1960s. When Pete confides in Peggy the problems he is experiencing in his marriage and conceiving a child (while also coming onto her again) Peggy admits to him that she had his child and gave the baby up for adoption. Pete is shocked, of course, and looks back upon the pain he caused and the comments he made about Peggy and her weight, struggles that he created. This conversation also reveals that Pete’s own child was placed for adoption prompting him to rethink his stance on adopting a child.
At work, Pete’s life is consistently in a gray area. He successfully handles the California business trip after Don’s sudden disappearance, but he is not rewarded as he expected. Unbeknownst to both of them, Lane Pryce names both Pete and Ken Cosgrove Head of Accounts, as a means to sort out which of the two will rise to the title. Pete only cares about status and moving up in the company—as well as what Trudy can tell her friends his title in the office is—and he is angry and devastated to share his promotion with Ken. Ken, however, has a life outside of the office and is unbothered by titles and status, and he is overjoyed to be recognized and to be moving up at Sterling Cooper. When Pete eventually loses the promotion to Ken after this trial period concludes, he decides to leave Sterling Cooper, just as the partners are choosing to break off into their own agency. To stay afloat, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce will need a certain number of accounts, a number that Pete can help them reach. Don and Roger approach Pete at his home to court him to join their efforts. Pete initially states that he will only join them if he is made partner, which is refused but left open as a future opportunity, giving Pete enough of an ego stroke for him to agree to join them.
Still attempting to be the desirable man he wants women to see him as, Pete sees his neighbor’s nanny crying in the hallway of his apartment the week his wife is on vacation. Pete helps her replace a wine-stained dress she ruined, but it is clear he expects something else in return. When his advances are rejected, Pete blackmails the nanny by telling her that if she does not accept him sexually, he will reveal that it was she who damaged her employer’s dress. Pete is so desperate to fit into the mold of what a Madison Avenue account man is expected to be that he will force himself on a woman who turns him down in a desperate attempt to preserve his ego.
Pete is destroyed by expectations of what he thinks he is supposed to be, spending most of his time trying to make himself an example of the social constructs in which he lives. Pete’s ego takes another enormous hit when his neighbor confronts him over his interactions with his nanny. His neighbor firmly tells him to “stay out of the building,” thoroughly embarrassing Pete as this means that not only does his neighbor know what Pete has done, but that the nanny was so repulsed by what happened to her that she risked her job to tell him. Pete is also turned down on the business trip to California, as we see him make several unsuccessful attempts to appeal to the women he meets there. Feeling emasculated in his marriage, and denied nearly every time he tries to step out on Trudy, Pete feels as if he’s failing to uphold the masculine ideals of the early 1960s.
When Joan gets engaged and flaunts her ring around the office, it seems as though she has finally reached her ultimate goal, fulfilling all of her dreams. Joan begins to train Jane, who has been hired as Don’s new secretary. Joan realizes that Jane is the “updated model” she always talked to Roger about, one of the younger girls that she feared coming in to replace women her age. Jane’s introduction into the office comes at a pivotal time in Joan’s life as her engagement has just been announced and her anxieties begin to mount that monogamy signals a loss of desirability.
At the perfect time in Joan’s life, she is thrown into Harry Crane’s burgeoning television department, helping him read scripts to avoid problematic ad placement for Sterling Cooper’s clients. For the first time, Joan is seeing the results of her work in something that won’t be replaced; secretaries come and go, but the work she is doing with Harry is vital to their clients’ interests. Joan is also being recognized by the clients for her excellent work, giving her a sense of validation as she is being acknowledged for something other than her looks. When the television department is given more money, Joan is immediately replaced by someone less qualified and less interested in the job, delivering a crushing blow to her newfound confidence. The fact that she wasn’t even considered for the position and that it was always a foregone conclusion that a man would be hired was a clear indication of how her status as a woman kept her from reaching a higher position at Sterling Cooper.
The defining moment for Joan comes in the second season of the series. Joan’s fiancé visits the office in order to assert his dominance over the men she works with and to make clear that Joan is his now. Feeling especially uncomfortable after Joan and Roger share an exchange, her fiancé Greg demands that Joan show him into Don’s office and make a drink for him. Greg continues to pressure Joan before eventually forcing himself on her and raping her on the floor of Don’s office while she resisted every second of the way. Greg raped his fiancée because his 1960s sense of masculinity was assaulted by the idea that Joan may have been with another man and that she works alongside men. In the same way, Joan was expected to remain quiet about this severe violation as a means of standing by her husband and always giving him what he wants. The gender inequality exposed throughout the series is often harrowing, but never more so than in the rape Joan suffered, which was never addressed nor consequences brought about.
After deciding to fire Jane once it is revealed that she broke into Bert Cooper’s office, Joan seeks help from Roger, who she knows is attracted to her, crying to him. When Roger takes pity on Jane and hires her back, defying Joan, it is clear his alliance has shifted, further signaling to Joan that she is losing her place within the office. Expected to maintain order in her domestic life despite the sexual violence she experienced from her husband, Joan is asked to plan a dinner party for her husband’s superiors at the hospital where Greg hopes to become a surgeon. After creating a picturesque place setting and offering herself as entertainment when she sings and plays music for her husband’s guests, Joan realizes how much she is being exploited as an accessory of Greg’s, rather than his partner. The audience can read on Joan’s face at the dinner party that she is beginning to realize that her dream of marriage was much more circumscribed than she anticipated. Audiences quickly realized that the same forewarning she gave to Peggy now applied to Joan herself when she said, “sometimes when people get what they want, they realize how limited their goals were.”
Once Joan is married she makes plans to leave her job, believing that Greg will be accepted into the surgery division at the hospital and she will no longer need to work, but she has mixed feelings about it. In some ways, she is happy and still seems determined to make her marriage work and to be the type of wife she thinks she needs to be. In other ways, however, Joan is saddened at seeing the changing of the guard happening right in front of her and wishes to maintain that which she knows and is comfortable with at work, holding on to the last bit of power she has. She has also seen aspects of her husband’s character that she is not satisfied with, and is still reeling from the sexual assault. When Greg does not get the position in surgery that he expected, it means that Joan will have to continue working. She’s already been replaced at Sterling Cooper and going back there would mean letting those in the office know that the perfect life she convinced them she lived was a sham, so she looks for work elsewhere.
Forever flexible and resourceful, Joan helps Greg prepare for an interview for a position in the psychology department once it becomes clear that Greg will never be a surgeon in New York. The interview goes poorly, and Greg wallows in self-pity unleashing his frustrations at Joan by saying, “you don’t know what it’s like to want something your whole life, to plan on it, to count on it, and not get it.” The audience knows Joan better than her husband does, and we understand that she has been planning for marriage and to live as a wife her entire life only to not get what she wanted because she married a man-baby with a fragile sense of masculinity and no sense of self. Just as nearly everything has fallen apart for her, Joan is called by Roger who pleads with her to help his new agency transition and begin working for themselves. Joan happily obliges, grateful to work again. She realizes that she treasures her self-sufficiency more than she thought and that her status as a woman doesn’t have to define her in such a limited way.
Season two of the series sees Betty speaking ill of her children in the first episode. When asked if she dislikes wearing her riding boots in the house or the car she replies “manure, children, what’s the difference?” Betty seems to be experiencing a common aspect of motherhood, feeling as though her identity is inextricably linked to her children. We’ve already seen that Betty gave up a modeling career to marry Don and assume the expected role of a wife in the early 1960s, and it’s becoming clear that her unhappiness with Don’s constant cheating and her identity as only a mother has taken a toll on her. When Betty sees a woman with whom she went to college working as a prostitute, her eyes are opened to a way of living she has never imagined. In response, Betty uses her looks to have her car repaired for free, and she is liberated by the experience of having a life outside of motherhood. When an engaged young man shows interest in her at the stables, Betty revels in flirting with him then pulling away before she acts in a way unfaithful to Don. Despite her assumption that Don has crossed that line, Betty remains faithful.
In the sixth episode of the second season of Mad Men, Betty wears a bikini during a heatwave as she serves breakfast to her children. Enjoying the freedom she feels in feeling sexy in her new bikini, she flaunts herself in front of Don who instantly belittles her and claims that she looks desperate. This comment levels Betty, as she was beginning to find confidence in herself, as her own person, rather than Betty the mom, or Betty the wife. When Glen Bishop re-emerges, Betty shares an afternoon with him where they share sandwiches and drink Cokes while watching cartoons. Glen tells Betty that he’s come to save her, and Betty lets this play out for the afternoon before calling Helen Bishop to make amends with the only person Betty knows that understands divorce.
When Betty discovers that she is pregnant, her sense of self takes another hit, as she must now prepare to begin her motherhood journey all over again. Betty also briefly worries that this will complicate her separation from Don as there were few things more scandalous in the 1960s than a suburban housewife with two children and a new baby leaving her husband. When the children spend the night with Don and Betty spends the night on the town, she makes love to a man who she meets in a bar, liberating her limited sense of self and making her believe that her pregnancy does not necessitate her remaining in a marriage marred by unfaithfulness. After first meeting and being attracted to him at Roger and Jane’s engagement party, Betty begins a letter-writing correspondence with Henry Francis, the Director of Public Relations and Research for the New York governor, Nelson Rockefeller. Henry, a divorcé himself, is instantly smitten by Betty asking her to spend time with him. Betty wavers on what to do; she is attracted to him but refuses to give into infidelity. Betty can prevent herself from acting on her feelings towards Francis, but not from continuing their correspondence.
In the midst of Betty’s crumbling marriage and her crisis of self, she also learns that her father has suffered multiple strokes and is in poor health. Betty and Don pretend that they are still a cohesive unit when she visits her father’s home, even conceiving their third child while they are there, but this is merely an act of desperation rather than a signal that their relationship can be saved. Betty goes into labor just after her father dies, inspiring her to name her newest son Eugene after her father. This decision infuriates Don, as he doesn’t want his son to share a name with a man who hated him, but Betty stays firm, further defying Don and signaling her desire to break away from him.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for Betty to dismiss the notion that Don is cheating on her. As time goes on, Betty becomes more convinced that her husband is unfaithful to her. When Jimmy Barrett confronts Betty at a party with the suspicion that his wife and Betty’s husband are having an affair, Betty tells Don that she knows he is seeing someone else. This represents the first time Betty is so assertive with Don and the beginning of Betty breaking away from society’s expectation that she lives with her husband’s infidelity in order to maintain her family dynamic. Realizing she doesn’t have any proof that Don is having an affair, Betty and her husband share an insincere reconciliation while Betty begins to go through Don’s belongings looking for evidence of his infidelity. As she unravels, Betty tells Don she no longer wants him in the house. As a last-ditch effort to save their marriage presents itself in the form of a trip to Rome, Betty and Don seem happy, as if the spark that initially ignited their love has been rekindled, only for it to be snuffed out as the two resume their lives once they arrive back home.
Shortly after their trip, Betty discovers Don’s box of history and learns everything about him that he has kept hidden from her. She confronts Don with her discovery, forcing him to finally stop running, and he tells Betty everything. This revelation confirms much more than Betty’s suspicion of infidelity and is more than she wishes to move past, deciding to divorce Don. Henry Francis has already promised Betty that he will marry her and make her happy, a comfort that Betty has been waiting for most of her adult life. Henry also promises to financially take care of her children, as well, expediting divorce proceedings and negating the need for Betty to prove Don’s infidelity to a judge to gain child support. Once she has decided to no longer be a prisoner to the circumstance of her gender and place in the world in the 1960s, we see a freedom radiate from Betty that has been suppressed since she was first introduced to audiences.
When Sal realizes Ken possesses a depth like no other in the office, he cannot help but become intrigued by him. Ken Cosgrove’s character is an interesting one; he is good at his job, extroverted, and cheery, a far cry from the stiff career-centered ad men with whom he shares the office. Being the art director at Sterling Cooper, it is clear that Sal has intellectual interests outside of the office. Ken and Sal begin talking about art during work hours, leading Ken to ask Sal to read and offer feedback on a new story he has written. Sal jumps at the chance to review Ken’s work but doesn’t stop there, inviting Ken over to his house for a home-cooked meal. Ken obliges, happily leaving the bachelor life for a night of hot food and company. Sal knows Ken is heterosexual, but since he is confined to the social standards dictating that he hide his sexuality, all Sal has are nights like these to enjoy the company of another man.
While Ken is in their home, Sal’s wife Kitty tries desperately to engage in conversation with her guest but is cut off at every opportunity by her husband. Sal dominates the evening and the conversation, excluding his wife without even realizing it. Later in the series, after Sal begins directing commercials for Sterling Cooper, he reenacts a scene from Bye Bye Birdie that Patio diet drink wants replicated for their pitch. Throughout his spirited display, Kitty realizes that her husband is gay, and the sadness spreads across her face as she contemplates what to do next.
One of the young ad men that was hired to bring in younger clients reveals himself as gay, demonstrating to Sal that there are people who live as openly gay, a prospect that certainly appeals to him in some regard. Seeing a career man refusing to hide his sexuality fascinates Sal as he has only met closeted men up until that point in the show. Being faced with a clear break from what society expects invigorates Sal as he looks longingly at the man living the life he wishes to live. On a trip with Don, a bellhop comes onto Sal, and he accepts his advances. Just as the two become intimate, the hotel’s fire alarm goes off and Don, escaping down the fire escape, sees the two men together. The rest of the trip is awkward for Sal as he awaits what he perceives as an inevitability: that Don will bring up what he saw with Sal. On the flight back to New York, Don tells Sal he needs to talk to him. After a deep breath, Sal listens as Don begins to test a pitch for the account that spawned the business trip. Don comes up with the tagline, “limit your exposure,” which Sal realizes is advice Don intends for Sal. Don doesn’t judge Sal’s sexuality, but he does want him to be careful since he is all too familiar with the social implications of the time.
Sal’s all too brief character arc concludes when he is in the editing room going over footage from that day’s Lucky Strike commercial shoot. When Lee Garner Jr. demands to see the footage, Sal relents against his better judgment, as he wants to wait until the commercial is done before showing it to the client. As Sal is preparing the video, Lee makes a pass at him which Sal brushes off, attempting to turn him down without embarrassing him. When Lee persists, Sal openly refuses him, meekly saying, “I’m married.” When Lee gruffly continues his advances, Sal darts away from him telling him that he has misread Sal before repeating that he is married. Lee eventually leaves the room but calls Harry Crane of all people to demand that Sal be fired from the agency and that Harry handle it himself.
Harry believes that Lee was drunk and wouldn’t remember the phone call,so he does nothing; he fears going against Lee’s orders but doesn’t have the authority to fire Sal. When Lee comes to the office for a meeting and to check on the status of Lucky Strike’s commercial, he is furious to see Sal in the room and storms off without explanation. Harry and Sal fess up, and Don talks to Sal privately where he implies to Sal that he should have slept with Lee to please the client, as if sexual availability is part of his job at Sterling Cooper. Since Lee Garner Jr. represents Lucky Strike, the most significant account at Sterling Cooper, Sal is fired, exiting the episode and the show. Sal’s sexuality was tied into his social standing, his appearance at the office, and his livelihood, preventing him from achieving happiness and living his true self due to the confinement of the 1960s.
Every character throughout the show had their personality and their sense of self stifled by the generation in which they lived. Whether it was societal expectations, the class construct they belonged to, their gender, or their sexuality, everyone in the series struggled because they were not allowed to be true to themselves. Fortunately, with each passing day, we see the shift that the 1970s will bring with it, allowing the characters to freely discover who they are without limitations imposed upon them. As each season progresses, we see increased growth and characters that break out of their confinement to learn more about their lives and themselves, each stronger because of their intense imprisonment in the time in which they lived.
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