Two weeks later, the “Mad Men” season finale still resounds. Don Draper, that very carefully constructed illusion of a man, brought his three upper-middle-class children to see the decrepit Pennsylvania brothel in which he grew up. He told his office partners and Hershey execs the truth about his past. Finally, he shared the secret he has been running from and hiding for decades, that deep inside he is actually Dick Whitman.
Since the late 1980s, a small army of TV characters have come out of the closet as gay or lesbian. It has been a tried-and-true story arc, as the hero or heroine with The Big Secret faces down a few demons, external and internal, before living out in the open. With the recent Supreme Court decision against the Defense of Marriage Act and polls that show majority support for gay marriage, many say that watching so many gays come out on TV, along with knowing openly gay people in real life, has been essential to acceptance.
But coming out isn’t just for gays and lesbians. In that powerful “Mad Men” finale, Don Draper came out of the closet. In the world of advertising, truth is the enemy, but Don declared himself nonetheless. He risked rejection and scorn in order to quit his lies. In a way, he did what Ellen on “Ellen,” Kurt on “Glee,” Callie on “Grey’s Anatomy,” Oscar on “The Office,” Ian on “Shameless,” and so very many other gay characters have done; he revealed his true identity, somewhat clumsily but still quite movingly, and despite the consequences. Coming out is ushering your authentic self into the open, and it’s an equal opportunity TV trope. It can transcend sexual orientation, as a person decides to recognize his or her nature and live honestly.
One classic show that featured all kinds of coming out was “Six Feet Under.” Yes, there was Michael C. Hall’s David Fisher, with his poker face, dealing with the fact that he was gay. But his mother, Frances Conroy’s Ruth, followed a similar trajectory, coming out as a romantic and sexual woman after years buried in an oppressive marriage. Her kids didn’t want her to change, with the same kind of familial resistance that isn’t uncommon in gay coming-out scenarios. Both mother and son dropped their masks in order to set themselves free. “Six Feet Under” was about saying goodbye to the dead, but it was also about life, and bringing out feelings that needed to see the light of day.
“Wilfred,” which just began its third season on FX, is both an R-rated fairy tale about a man and his dog and a sweet coming out story. Ryan, played by Elijah Wood with the wide-eyed and innocent exaggerations of a silent-film actor, is a bottled-up, suicidal young man who can’t seem to let himself find purpose and pleasure. Wilfred, a dog whom Ryan sees as a man in a dog suit, is constantly pushing him toward life; Wilfred dogs Ryan. Played as a randy stoner by Jason Gann, Wilfred wants Ryan to stop suppressing his identity with politeness and passivity. And his prodding appears to be working, as Ryan takes more and more chances with each new episode.
Once hidden in the shadow of her husband, Alicia on “The Good Wife” has been coming out of the closet as a powerful, independent woman. Just about everyone on “True Blood” has had to come out as some kind of supernatural creature, not just the vampires — who “come out of the coffin” — but the likes of Sam Merlotte, who finally told his friends that he’s a shape-shifter. And over the years, a number of TV characters have come out as recovering alcoholics, including Leo McGarry on “The West Wing” and Abby Lockhart on “ER.”
Certainly coming out as gay has its own particular difficulties; shows such as “Brothers & Sisters,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Glee,” and “Dawson’s Creek” have tracked the particular kinds of anxiety, denial, and cruel disapproval that can plague a gay person. But the process of revealing yourself, of disclosing a status or a passion or a desire, has universal applications. It often creates compelling storytelling tension when a character is driven to be honest while risking denunciation and alienation.
When Don Draper stood openly displaying his childhood, you could feel his shame beginning to crumble. You could tell he was letting go of all the wasted energy it takes to hide in plain sight. Will he go back into the closet next season? That was the season’s cliffhanger. Don started to come out, and now we know there’s a chance that, ultimately, he may come out on top.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.