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.