The character Salvatore Romano on AMC’s Mad Men is particularly repressed. While his fellow ad agency employees stifle their desires and dreams in roles carved out for them by society’s expectations, they are able to sublimate them into imperfect but acceptable relationships.
Not so, Salvatore, whose homosexual identity is stymied at every expression. His co-workers, largely WASPs, regard a first-generation Italian-American as practically alien, despite his smooth cultural assimilation. Meanwhile, they ignore what is, to the viewer, a daily reminder of exactly where it is that Sal does deviate from the strict and socially enforced norm. Indeed, Sal’s characterization is almost exclusively stereotypically homosexual: an artist, tied to his mother’s apron strings, who enjoys Broadway musicals…the character’s biography on AMC’s website even winks to the reader that he lives with his wife in an apartment “mostly decorated by him.”
In a modern setting, that would be a crassly flat depiction of a homosexual character. Not so in the context of Mad Men. Why?
Every character on the show is repressed in one aspect of their identity or another (perhaps the only exceptions being Sterling and Cooper, who at the top of the ladder are permitted their excesses and eccentricities). Accounts man Pete Campbell strives for immediate success, but rarely accomplishes anything to earn it; when he does, he inevitably becomes a worse person for it. His biggest account was a “gimme” from his father-in-law, and despite their strained relationship, betraying his dead father’s memory in order to curry favor with a potential client hollowed Pete out a bit. The fact that Sterling-Cooper didn’t even procure the account makes it an exceptionally empty sacrifice, save for a show of commitment to the company.
By contrast, newcomer Peggy Olson finds her gender prohibitive to her ambitions no matter whether she acts feminine or masculine, constantly fighting to make her voice heard among a table full of men who appreciate her presence, but inevitably her efforts to develop more thoughtful and effective ad campaigns are expelled like cigarette smoke. Peggy is repressed every time she asserts herself as a good, or at least empathetic, person by the very same board that should be trying to get inside people’s heads and hearts.
Similarly, office manager Joan Holloway succeeded by being alternately icy and a sexpot, which allowed her to extract cooperation from male co-workers while setting the limits of exactly how much harassment she would accept from them; in effect, doling out compliant victimhood by playing the flirtation game, meanwhile holding most of the power. And yet, it was only as a script reader that she found herself challenged and her work truly fulfilling. Despite her talent at it, she wasn’t even considered for the job, trapped by the image created for her by her co-workers, her figure, and her own compliance.
But poor Sal is denied even the modicum of satisfaction that others obtain in their passing triumphs: Pete’s promotion, Peggy’s campaigns getting adopted, Joan’s relative autonomy and authority. Although his actions affirm his sexual identity to us at every turn, they’re invisible to his office. Expressing a real and major part of his nature, he’s simultaneously afraid to acknowledge it. given the opportunity to spend a night with a mutually attracted client, he backs away in horror from giving breath to what he sees as a part of himself that must be denied.
Worse still, when Sal finally gives in to his longings, he’s interrupted by a fire alarm and caught by Don Draper. Sal’s Catholic side must be screaming at his gay side at that moment. No sooner has a door opened than it’s slammed on his fingers. Trauma isn’t immediately encouraging to self-discovery, but it can be in the long-run. The episode winds up with Don about to ask Sal, brimming with fear, a question. Sal’s palpable relief shows the dichotomy within the character.
Therefore Sal’s homosexuality isn’t his primary characterization; rather, his repression is. How he deals, as an individual, with desires that are forbidden by the world around him, the decisions he makes, are what let us know him as a person.