I love Mad Men. I love it like few other television shows; for its attention to detail, its slowly, carefully developed storylines and its uniquely cinematic visuals. Perhaps most of all, though, I love it for its characters, and the respect the writers pay them. I am a firm believer that the show is about Peggy Olson and Sally Draper, as much as, if not more than it’s about our favourite ad men, but often over the course of five series, it’s been the more peripheral characters who have captured my attention.
A case in point is dashing Italian art director of the first three series, Salvatore Romano. That Sal is gay is painfully obvious to 21st century eyes and ears, which only makes his private hell of lying, evading and macho posturing all the more excruciating to witness. The first time I watched the show, Sal was a welcome break from the uniform grey suits, a pithy one liner in a sea of glib, sexist remarks. On revisiting the show’s early episodes, however, I find myself drawn back to Sal’s character and the exceptional awkwardness of his situation. Like Peggy’s unnoticed pregnancy, the obliviousness of Sterling Coo’s employees to his massive over-compensation is one of the clearest markers that we are in The Sixties – and early in the decade, with both women’s and gay liberation but a glimmer on the horizon. Were he a character in a modern show, Sal would be almost offensively cliché; here his camp, ostentatious manner and style denote nothing more to his colleagues than artistic temperament.
But why do I want to bring Sal back? Certainly not because I was unhappy with his exit; one of Mad Men‘s greatest strengths is its ability to take characters and plots in believable directions, played out in a credible way. Even if you had hoped and prayed for the opposite outcome, shifts in direction such as a character’s departure never feel tacked on, the result of a writers’ room squabble, the way they can in other shows.
So, while my heart broke for Sal over the incident with the unspeakably creepy Lee Garner, Jr., while I squirmed in my seat as the penny drops for wife Kitty, during his bedroom rendition of ‘Bye Bye Birdie’, I couldn’t honestly say these moments felt anything other than real, believable and in sync with both the show’s themes and its period setting. Sal’s arc fulfilled his character’s function on the show, and in the end it was inevitable that he would have to leave. I don’t want to bring him back so he can skip off into the sunset with Mr Belle Jolie (although that might be nice), so he can somersault the boundaries of Sixties social mores and prejudices in the way a modern character might. I want him back for the same reasons I was pleased to see Paul Kinsey return, if only for one episode; like most of the characters, he feels like an old friend I want to drop in on, to catch up with and find out what life after Sterling Cooper had in store for him.
Mad Men has often been noted for its success in creating a milieu which expands beyond the bounds of the week’s storylines, a set of characters who seem to go on living even when you’re not watching them on screen. It’s why, although the Hare Krishna robes were a bit of a surprise, it was so enjoyable to dip back into Paul Kinsey’s life for one hour, to reconnect with the world outside the office. I have several visions in my mind’s eye of how Sal could briefly be brought back into the arms of SCDP, and as the decade draws on, some of them are ever more feasible. (Although to be fair, I had imagined ways of reintroducing Kinsey, and none of them involved eastern religion and an episode of Star Trek).
The increasingly revolutionary energy of the Sixties has seen SCDP hire – if inadvertently – a black secretary, and facilitate the rise and rise of Peggy Olson. At this mid-point of the decade we’re only a couple of years off the Stonewall riots, and while Sal might not be the type to be out hurling bricks at police (maybe that’d be hilariously frank German Kurt, another minor character I miss), there’s no reason he shouldn’t pop up again in a future episode. Whether or not he reappears though, Sal remains a character worth paying attention to. From his wonderfully delivered little repostes, to weighty, complex scenes like his almost wordless confession to Don on the plane, Bryan Batt took the character from providing background comic relief to magnifying and examining of a whole set of social attitudes. Even when hovering in the background, his beautifully subtle reactions always revealed multitudes about the changing Sixties culture.
I’ve always said I never want to see Mad Men venture into the Seventies; who wants to see Don Draper, a fat, balding, functioning alcoholic in a brown polyester suit, surrounded by flock wallpaper and secretaries in ruffle blouses? But with the beginnings of liberation just around the corner, maybe the Seventies will be Sal’s decade – just as they will be Peggy’s, and definitely Sally’s.
Long live Salvatore Romano, and bring him back. Maybe.