Mad Men has often been advertised as an alluring, glamorous glimpse at a bygone era, with plenty of innuendos and pencil skirts in its promos: just the sort of advertising a show about an advertising company would kill for. But it would probably take less than one episode for a new viewer to realize that the trailers lionizing Don Draper’s suits and baritone are as much lies about Don’s life as any plot point in the show itself.
Mad Men is ruthlessly practical in its narratives, which introduce and dispose of characters with all the caprice of real life, and painstaking in its tracing of the fragility of relationships. Colleagues are a collection of snipes and second-guesses with occasional moments of creative telepathy. Family are less a source of fellow-feeling than an ongoing diplomatic negotiation between nations that will never reach an accord. But this show understands the lifesaving qualities of nuance. Rare is the divorce so permanent that you can’t occasionally share an understanding silence down the phone line; rare is a character who’s universally misunderstood. Even romantic relationships feature moments of brutal honesty. It might not be pleasant to be known, when the moment comes (Pete Campbell certainly regrets his candor when he snaps at a happy Peggy Olson, “I don’t like you like this”), but Mad Men isn’t much concerned with being pleasant.
Still, for a show so otherwise aware of all the small things that line up to prevent happiness, and the importance of those small reprieves, Mad Men is fairly certain sex is a herald of disaster. When Betty explains to Sally in “The Souvenir” that a first kiss is, “very special… It’s where you go from being a stranger to knowing someone. And every kiss after that is a shadow of that kiss,” it’s framed as a melancholy realization too deep for Betty to comprehend its full truth. But that existential speech is also delivered in the same episode in which Pete rapes a neighbor’s au pair after suggesting she owes him for getting her out of trouble with her employer. This reframes Betty’s fairy-tale bummer as a flat lie: First kisses are just the beginning of the end. Whether transient or ongoing, whether a sign of sociopathy or just illicit, on Mad Men, sex is the antithesis of intimacy.
The thematically centered episodes that have become the series’ calling card make the most of this nihilistic refrain, often pitting sex against more resilient relationships, or pairing one doomed dalliance against another. And yes, with the possible exception of the Cosgrove marriage, they’re all dalliances. Whether a feverish hotel grope or a ten-year marriage, of the many ways Mad Men suggests people can come to understand one another, romance is almost always a swing and a miss.
This is perhaps most obvious in the show’s central focus: Don, the serial adulterer, endlessly desperate to start over and voted most likely to look for it in bed with someone. His marriages are slow-motion disasters: His first ground to a halt, his second is slowly imploding across a continent. His conquests are so numerous as to approach self-parody; when he speaks to a woman he doesn’t sleep with later, it’s the show’s equivalent of a twist ending.
But Mad Men goes to great lengths to highlight relationships notable for both their successful intimacy and their not-coincidental chastity. The most poignant might be Anna Draper, the war widow whose husband Don impersonated, who becomes his longstanding confidante and close friend—a closeness, it’s suggested, partially sustained by their lack of romance. Their empty marriage is still his only emotionally successful one. After his wife Betty discovers his secret (a newly even playing field that ends their marriage, as much because intimacy and romance can’t cohabit in Mad Men country as because of any dangers implied by the lie), Don turns to Anna in his devastation. Her reassuring “I know everything about you, and I still love you” is as close as he’s ever come to a holy grail.
The relationship between Don and Anna is so platonically unshakable that it’s often set as a counterpoint to others, as in “The Gold Violin,” where Anna’s first entrance emotionally bookends the crumbling Romano marriage. But its longest-running counterpoint is to one of the series’ most emotionally barren relationships, a dubious distinction well earned: Joan Holloway and her husband Greg Harris. The first in-depth flashbacks of Don and Anna’s relationship in the season-two episode “The Mountain King” sit alongside one of the most horrifying sexual moments the show ever had: Greg raping Joan on the floor of the office, a violation so vividly staged that it hung in the air in every scene they ever shared afterward. When Joan finally decided to end their marriage three seasons later, all she had to say was, “You’re not a good man. You never were, even before we were married, and you know what I’m talking about.” Despite never once having communicated effectively before this, the rest of her point is understood so implicitly Greg doesn’t bother to dissemble; intimacy is possible the moment the sexual relationship definitively ends. (It’s the reason Roger Sterling tends to start liking his wives as soon as they decide to divorce him, and why Joan’s comfort with him increases the further away from their affair she gets.)
Naturally, some romantic disaster is to be expected in any show so focused on the internal lives of its characters—this isn’t Ad Agency & Order, which might be able to ignore personal romance except when a gruff VP has to get on the phone to tell his wife it’s a late night as they chung-chung to commercial. The show is also not inclined to advocate for the wonder of romantic fulfillment in an era (and within an industry) it makes clear is deeply misogynist. And, perhaps as a reflection of the size of its cast, the series’ few steady relationships are also narratively inert; we rarely see the Cosgroves because Ken has yet to slide into romantic disaster.
But it isn’t merely that the show prefers romantic conflicts for the sake of suspense or growth, either. Don’s string of affairs are also largely narratively inert, a series of increasingly disillusioned women marking time before Don realizes that sex with them has somehow not brought him to catharsis, and they vanish from the landscape of the show once things have ended. Betty’s marriage to Henry Francis is as pettily beleaguered now as it ever was, as Betty retreats into her ice-blond adolescence whenever a line of communication threatens to open, but the show records it with the dispassion of a home security camera. When a sexual storyline does carry suspense, things tend to be even worse—as with Sal Romano, whose position at the company was doomed the moment his homosexuality became more to the agency than a suspicion in the back of Joan’s mind. (The distinctly business-only intimacy of Sterling Cooper protected Sal until someone from the outside brought in a sexual intent.)
To no one’s surprise, Peggy’s navigated these bleak thematic waters with more determination than most. Sex is still a herald of disaster, of course—the show can’t shake a central tenet just for a girl with some pluck—but Peggy fights to adapt and conquer in this sphere as in any of the show’s others. It didn’t seem like that was possible at first: One of the most devastating reveals of a show that specializes in devastating reveals is the first-season shocker that Peggy’s pregnant, an unwanted side-effect of her affair with Pete. She gives the baby up, and waits a full season to tell Pete about the child. It’s only after Pete (another serial cheater, exceeding Don only in coercion) comes to terms with it that she and he find a quiet, comfortable footing—an intimacy that was impossible between them when they were still in a sexual relationship.
Peggy sets a pattern of low-stakes romantic disappointment that suggests she’d just as soon ignore the whole business. The rule of sex as a roadblock to real intimacy still stands, whether with hapless hippie Abe (who broke up with her after she nonchalantly stabbed him), or with Ted Chaough, who’s as close as Peggy has come to being affected by a relationship since Pete. But since Peggy’s greatest struggle for acceptance happens in a different arena than the personal, her romantic troubles aren’t nearly the blows to her character that workplace setbacks are. In fact, going into the final season, one of her steadiest relationships is her office friendship with onetime opponent and current right-hand man Stan Rizzo, who called her after hours just to shoot the shit after she switched agencies, and who now serves alternately as a reality check and a champion. But his feelings for her, the series suggests, are deeper than that: He’s kissed her before, once as a power move and once more genuinely, if emboldened by a little chemical assistance. It’s an open question whether they’ll give in to the entropy sex brings to relationships on this show, or maintain their own version of the Anna-Don Draper marriage: a sexless meeting of the minds.
The ultimate relationship on this show—its most valuable narrative linchpin—is the Venn diagram of where Don and Peggy meet. Sexless but occasionally coded with romance (in the pilot, she came on to him; their high point in the first half of this season was their slow dance in an empty office), their relationship with one another is their most emotionally fulfilling. It’s also narratively dynamic, of course: There’s no easier way to make Don the bad guy than by having him condescend to Peggy, and no more effective an emotional beat than when Peggy demonstrates her intimacy with him, and Don accepts it for what it is. “The Suitcase,” still a series highlight, spends nearly its entire screen time fascinated just by the way they regard one another, actively choosing one another in a way neither of them does in their other relationships. “Stop,” he says, when Peggy tries to apologize for another of her romantic dead-ends interrupting the night. “You don’t have to explain.” And she doesn’t; he lays in her lap, and she sips a drink and looks across the office at the work yet to be done. It’s a sincerity he’s never managed with his wives or mistresses, and an ease she’s never achieved with boyfriends. When Don receives the news that Anna’s died, Peggy understands; when Don reaches for her hand, so does she. It might be the closest an episode has come to a happy ending.
Though Mad Men is known for unpredictability—and this upcoming season could very well see Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce implode and everyone scatter to the winds—its thematic underpinnings are steadier. Hoping that Don and Peggy maintain this particular status quo takes on an air of magical thinking; viewers have seen enough romance go sour that the first reaction to a new love interest has become a sort of weary dismay. Nearly every real connection on the show is between people who aren’t having sex—or at least, not any more—and while there’s not enough time to turn around a sensibility entrenched for the last six seasons, it’s also equally a comfort that wherever sex is not, there’s the possibility of understanding. Mad Men’s the unsexiest show on TV, and like everything else about Mad Men, that’s by design.