Mad Men Hinges So Much Emotional Weight On So Few Words

Mad Men can say so much with so little as these two moments prove. Two lives hang in the balance and just two words decide their fate.

Mad Men is the best written show in the history of television. While it is capable of grandiose arcs and memorable speeches, rewatching the series has confirmed that the show’s use of brevity is what packs such an emotional punch. I’m not talking about Roger’s quips but rather how Matthew Weiner and his team of writers can build up storylines for multiple seasons only to release the suffocating tension and pay everything off with a single sentence, if not just a couple of words. Lines that can be subtle yet explode off the screen, much like the slogans the characters seek to create. Mad Men is immensely quotable and in the interest of trying to capture some of the show’s brevity myself, I’m restraining myself to discussing just two of the most potent examples.

Don Draper has a secret. Or rather, Don Draper is a secret. His life is a lie and has been since Dick Whitman stole a fallen soldier’s identity in the Korean War. Don is a deserter, liar, fraud. As much an invention to advertise as the commodities he flaunts. We learn the truth about Don over the course of the first season and in the penultimate episode the conflict comes to a head when Pete Campbell learns it too. Don’s identity and life are to be ruined, his entire being on the verge of imploding, as Pete rushes to their boss Bert Cooper’s office to reveal the truth only to be saved by his two-word response: “Who cares?”. The entire situation is instantly defused much to the shock of Pete, Don, and the viewer. It’s one of the show’s greatest moments and the scene’s sudden evaporation of tension isn’t a disappointment but a thrill.

“Who cares” changes our perspective of Mad Men’s world, time, and characters. It offers insight into what these people truly care about. It’s easy to be mistaken for thinking Cooper is a noble figure. That he says it because he cares about Don. I remember being tricked by this on my first viewing but it soon becomes blisteringly clear that is not the case. Cooper isn’t the lovable quirky grandpa of the show but rather a man who follows the tenets of Ayn Rand. Bert cares only for the business and that’s why Don is important to him. He puts Campbell back in his place and simultaneously owns Don. Cooper may speak of loyalty at the time but there’s a fine line between that and leverage, and in later seasons he comes to use this knowledge he claims not to care about as a threat. Yet in the moment it plays into Mad Men’s exploration of the American Dream, that you can become anything you want with hard work and no one will care about the past version of you, yet a darker version on the backdrop of the show’s early seasons during the perceived freedom of the Camelot era. Don ends the season publicly perceived as the ideal American man yet personally his life is strained and untenable. Cooper may not care but Don realises how much he does.

“You people” are the two most heartbreaking words in the history of television. For three seasons Sal was a key character, one of the core group at Sterling Cooper, and then his life disintegrates in a single episode and is never seen again. Sal is a closeted gay man and lives in terror of his true nature being revealed. That is what happens when he rebuffs the advances of a male client only for that client to tell Sterling Cooper that Sal is gay and he wants him fired. Don chooses the client over Sal and swiftly fires him. The scene is already deeply upsetting but then Don says it: “You people”. We realise this is not just a business decision but is personal too.

Don found out a few episodes earlier that Sal is gay, catching him in the act with a man, and has kept it a secret. We think that this is because Don is a nice guy, he is the protagonist of a show after all and has to be somewhat likeable, but no. Once Don can, he insults Sal and the gay community. The show commits to being brutally honest and Don is a man in the 1960’s. He’s not a hero or different because he’s the lead character, he’s homophobic and delivers a final unnecessary insult that cuts deep. Don knows what it is to live a lie but now that’s he’s in the position Cooper was in with him two seasons prior, he has no sympathy for the man we thought was his friend.

There’s just something about those words and that delivery from Jon Hamm that make the single line so painful to hear. It’s difficult not to draw comparison with another show Matthew Weiner worked on, The Sopranos. That has a similar storyline with Vito being discovered to be homosexual but takes a very different tact. Both styles work for their respective shows but I find Mad Men to be much more affecting. In The Sopranos everything is overstated and the characters use every disgusting slur and insult imaginable because the story is more about Tony and his cronies protecting themselves, showing each other how homophobic they are to make sure everyone knows they aren’t secretly gay too. There’s genuine homophobia there but a lot of it is alpha male bluster whereas Mad Men doesn’t use such foul words or dedicate episode-after-episode to disgracing Sal. All it needs is one scene that puts the viewer there with Sal when he’s betrayed by a friend and two words that feel like such a gut punch, upending Sal’s life.

The heartbreaking ending and pay off, if it can be called that, to Sal’s storyline is so powerful because of the three whole seasons building up to it. As a viewer it felt like we were keeping his secret for him, hoping he could navigate this time successfully and find happiness, but then it is suddenly cut down in a random episode in the third season by two words. Even after its entire seven-season run, Sal remains one of my favourite Mad Men characters, and Bryan Batt’s performance is a major reason why. It’s easy to forget that for its first couple of episodes the show was surprisingly unsubtle about some things, Sal’s sexuality included. But the series soon came to trust the actor and he could imply so much in the performance without it ever needing to be said aloud. So to hear Sal’s sexuality openly discussed was all the more shocking. Sal is never seen again and I’ve been torn on my thoughts on this ever since watching the show for the first time. It would have been nice to see him as an openly gay man in the final season but the lack of a happy ending feels upsettingly truthful. It’s a powerful and brutal ending.

There are so many more quotes that instantly spring to mind but these two feel like companion pieces in a way. Two lives hang in the balance and two words decide their fate. And let us not forget the end of the series. Don’s story concludes, his spiritual journey completed, with two back-to-back scenes where he doesn’t say a single word yet everything is clearly communicated in a few simple but incredibly important actions. Mad Men can truly say so much with so little.

What are your favourite Mad Men quotes? Let me know in the comments and be sure to geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.

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