I’m not planning to blog regularly about AMC’s early-sixties drama Mad Men, but there are aspects of the stories it tells that connect up with the stories I tell in my work as a historian, and I’m going to talk a bit about that this morning. Spoilers for previous seasons, and for last night’s season three opener, follow.

Mad Men’s take on gender has always struck me as one of the show’s greatest strengths. It’s easy to underestimate, fifty years later, just how oppressive gender relations in the US were before the feminist movement of the seventies, and Mad Men does a great job of laying that out. (Not to argue that we live in a utopia now, of course.) It’s been observed that the show’s second season was “about” women, but gender issues — masculinity and femininity and sex roles — have been among its central concerns from the beginning.

Which brings us to Sal Romano. The juxtaposition of Sal’s public swagger — even flamboyance — and his private fear have always struck me as heartbreakingly real. Here’s a confident, attractive, successful man, a professional artist in New York City, no less, who lives in terror not only of the exposure of his sexuality, but of its mere expression.

Bryan Batt, who plays Sal, has an interview up at TVGuide.com that addresses this beautifully. “People come up to me and ask when Sal is coming out,” he says. “I say to them, ‘To what? What was there for him to come out to?'” Batt overstates the case when he goes on to claim that there was no gay movement in the early 1960s,  but he’s right that there was no “out,” not for someone in Sal’s position.

Sal’s character has been handled well by the writers from the beginning. I loved the first season scene in which he rebuffed the Belle Jolie salesman’s gentle overture, and I thought the treatment of his marriage in season two was pitch perfect. The recent episode in which he was witness to a European colleague’s forthrightness about his own sexuality was deft and complex.

Having said all that, though, I feel let down by the season three opener, in which Sal trysts briefly with a bellhop while on a business trip.

Mad Men has left the question of Sal’s sexual history ambiguous. I disagree with those who argue that he was oblivious to his sexuality at the time of the Belle Jolie dinner, but it hasn’t been made clear whether he’s ever had a consummated relationship. That lack of clarity gave the hotel room scene an even greater importance, and left me feeling cheated when it was interrupted by a fire alarm.

The long-simmering romance, finally acknowledged, then derailed without resolution is a television cliché. It’s the stuff of eighties sitcoms, and unworthy of a show like Mad Men. The Belle Jolie scene drew its power from the fact that nothing stood in Sal’s way but Sal — he was given the space in which to confront, and resolve, his own competing impulses. To deny him that in last night’s episode denied us the chance to see how he would handle the moment and its aftermath, choosing the cheap and synthetic suspense of a “will he or won’t he” plotline over the human drama inherent in watching a man live his life.

I’m excited about this season. I’ve written a fair amount about the early sixties as a historian, and I think Mad Men generally does an excellent job of making that curiously neglected historical moment — not quite a part of The Fifties of popular culture, nor yet The Sixties of myth — feel real and immediate. I’ve heard that we’re going to be seeing quite a bit more of Sal in the near future, and I hope that the writers give him a chance to breathe a bit more when we do.

October 12 update: Another unconsummated encounter for Sal on last night’s show, this one with horrific consequences. On the other hand, by the end of the episode we see him on his way to consummate another encounter, and are left with the impression that it may not be his first. So whatever the future holds for Sal, we know that he’s finally gotten laid.