Before postmodernist self-reference, there was dramatic irony: a little wink from the writer that acknowledges the audience. It’s not just that we know something the characters don’t. It’s that the writer knows we know. This common soap-operatic device lets the audience in on secrets bound for explosion: adultery, murder plots, or the revelation of a child’s real parents. Mad Men is more subtle in its use of dramatic irony. Because the show is arguably one long character study, it’s not as interested in plots that go boom. Instead, dramatic irony often helps to flesh out the characters involved by demonstrating how they react to situations and adding texture to a scene. Don’s real identity, for example, is something that we and certain other characters know about. But his reasons for keeping the secret are treated with more significance than the possibility that anyone else might find out. When the truth is occasionally exposed, the reactions are restrained. Case in point, Bert doesn’t even care. Even the scene with Betty lacks melodrama. After five seasons of solid storytelling, here are five of Mad Men’s greatest moments in dramatic irony. There were many to choose from, so if your favorite isn’t here, tell us about it in the comments.
He’s from Europe – “The Jet Set” (S. 02)
The set-up: In the break room, Sal, Joan, Harry and Ken tease Kurt and Peggy about their pending “date” to the Bob Dylan show. To clarify things, Kurt casually tells everyone he’s gay. The room goes silent.
Why it’s great: There’s a bit of a Kuleshov effect that pits Sal’s reactions against everyone else’s. Peggy brushes off the news, hiding her disappointment. Ken’s face literally falls. Joan blushes. Harry serves up slapstick stupor with a piece of donut still lodged in his cheek. And closeted Sal cautiously holds back, waiting to see how disgusted his colleagues will be, or perhaps how much they can tolerate. Piercing the quiet shock, Kurt looks to Peggy, tells her “eight,” and pours himself a coffee. Sal is incensed, then dejected. What he works so hard to conceal is something Kurt can put bluntly without breaking a sweat. Kurt and Peggy leave, and the remaining colleagues let their homophobia loose while Sal forces himself to smirk and chuckle in all the right places. This short scene goes from funny to tragic so quickly.
Who would’ve liked to be there: Kitty Romano, poor thing.
The Promotion(s) – “Out of Town” (S. 03)
The set-up: Having just laid off Burt Peterson, Sterling Cooper’s Head of Accounts, Lane Pryce first tells Pete he’s been promoted to the position, then tells Ken the same thing, separately. Neither immediately knows they’ve just gotten the same promotion. Believing they’re about to be the other’s boss, they exchange loaded pleasantries on the elevator as they head home.
Why it’s great: Pete and Ken have been neck and neck for years. On the surface, this conversation has all the trappings of a ceasefire, with a few notes of relief. They commend each other on their strengths, but you have to wonder if there are actually no hard feelings or if the cordial banter covers up each man’s plans to fire the other. After all, these niceties are challenged only a few scenes later when Pete and Ken realize they’re co-heads.
Who would’ve liked to be there: The usually impotent Lane would have enjoyed the power this scene attributed to him. Roger would have appreciated its humor. Bert (Cooper) would have relished this prelude to a good old Randian bloodbath.
Betty Knows Dick – “The Gypsy and the Hobo” (S. 03)
The set-up: At the time that this episode aired, viewers had had a good week to process Betty’s discovery that Don was really Dick Whitman, and that he’d been married before. She does nothing about it until 25 minutes into “The Gypsy and the Hobo.” During that time, she’s played the dutiful wife at Sterling Cooper’s anniversary party, endured nights alone which she suspected Don was spending with a new mistress, and had a fruitless conversation with her family lawyer. When Betty confronts Don about his past, the conversation takes hours in their narrative, and 14 minutes in real time.
Why it’s great: What really cements the tension in this lengthy scene is the fact that Suzanne, Sally’s teacher, is waiting for Don in his car the whole time. They’re planning a romantic getaway, and she’s crouched down in the seat to avoid being seen. While we’re thoroughly immersed in the Don and Betty showdown, we can’t help but remember the Suzanne loose end, and it makes us uncomfortable while watching the scene. Don demonstrates the depth of his disregard for others. He never considered how Betty might react if she discovered he’d hidden his true identity from her for so long, he’s defensive when she calls him on it, and he completely forgets about the mistress in the car. When Don and Betty are done, he doesn’t check up on Suzanne. He puts on his pajamas, brushes his teeth and goes to sleep. Come to think of it, that sort of negligence is what got him here.
Who would’ve liked to be there: It would make pragmatic sense to say Suzanne. But for sentimental reasons, I vote for Adam Whitman.
They Were On a Break – “Chinese Wall” & “Blowing Smoke” (S. 04)
The set-up: On the heels of losing Lucky Strike, Don begs his girlfriend and SCDP psychological consultant Faye Miller to help him poach clients. Furious that he would cross that line, she storms out. A few days later, Don has a tryst with his secretary Megan. Immediately afterwards, he goes home to find Faye waiting for him, ready to give some names.
Why it’s great: It seems Don thought things were over with Faye, but if he were more skilled at relationships, he would have known it was just a fight. When he thanks Faye for eventually ceding, you can tell he feels some guilt, an emotion he never reserved for Betty. That audience-only awkwardness returns in the next episode when Faye and Don are discussing cigarette companies in the boardroom, and Megan is framed between them. You almost expect her to stop working, look up and yearn. Later, when they make a dinner date, Faye says to Don pointedly, “tell your girl to make reservations.” She’s an observant lady. Has she noticed any inappropriate lash-fluttering?
Who would’ve liked to be there: Let Peggy have this one.
Business At a High Level – “The Other Woman” (S. 05)
The set-up: Jaguar dealer Herb Rennet says he’ll happily support SCDP’s pitch if Ken and Pete arrange to have Joan spend a night with him. Ken assumes it’s the end of the road with Jaguar. Pete thinks it’s just the beginning, propositioning Joan and then the partners.
Why it’s great: There are so many converging motives in this story, and no one completely comes clean, all to Joan’s detriment. Pete uses Joan’s open-ended refusal (“you couldn’t afford it”) to make it sound like she wants to negotiate pricing. Roger begrudgingly agrees to the dirty deed so long as he doesn’t have to pay for it, still bitter that Joan snubbed any financial aid towards their son. Lane convinces Joan to ask for a partnership with a 5% stake instead of a lump sum, cleverly covering up his embezzlement. And Bert wants Pete to tell Joan she can still say no, but that information never gets to her. Though Don eventually tells her not to go through with it, when we revisit that heartbreaking scene, we realize it’s too late. Pete orchestrates this whole affair with well-timed half-truths, and it works because he banks on everyone else prioritizing their own agendas over Joan’s.
Who would’ve liked to be there: Ken, who even told Peggy that Jaguar was a lost cause.
Honorable mention – Love Among the Ruins (S. 03) Roger settles on the date of his daughter’s wedding: November 23, 1963.
Olivia Collette is a writer based in Montreal, which means she knows (someone who knows) Jessica Paré! She’s contributed to Roger Ebert’s Far-Flung Correspondents, The Spectator Arts Blog, Sparksheet and others. Olivia blogs at Livvy Jams and The Scrawn.