06/12/2013 05:24 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

How Mad Men Viewer Reaction Disappoints

Bob Benson, as he is, isn't enough.

This is what a vocal part of the Mad Men audience has been expressing, from critics to recappers to commenters, about the mysterious young man who was subtly introduced at the beginning of season six and has culminated with last Sunday's episode where he appeared to signal his desire for Pete Campbell.

For much of the season, there have been guesses about the true nature of the character. As a new hire, he seemed too eager for the world of Sterling Cooper and Partners: was he a spy? a secret officer? the bastard child of Don Draper? With the ridiculous theories being flung around, the suggestion that Bob Benson might actually be closeted at work seemed plain in comparison, but over the last few episodes this has been the theory most supported.

It's not hard to see how the imaginary could run wild: on Mad Men, viewers have become used to twists and turns with characters. And it's a lot of fun to try and guess where creator Matt Weiner is going with his universe. However, it was disappointing--and illuminating--to see the reaction to the show investing in a new gay character.

The first reaction was dismissal. "What makes you think Bob has to be gay?" some asked, in the dismissive tone that people get when they feel like something is about to be taken from them. "Bob is like us," goes the unspoken part, "and stop trying to find things to make him like you."

These naysayers aren't necessarily aware of the negative tone, but rather have been inculcated with the presumption and privilege that those around them are like them and they are like those around them. And, in a way, this was Matt Weiner's intention.

The secret signals that Bob had been giving off were exactly that, secret, known primarily to those fine-tuned to receive and be receptive to them. The word "gay," after all, so ubiquitous now, was a code word in the early 1900's, rarely used and carefully chosen to allow for a layered meaning that would go unnoticed by the majority when dropped in conversation.

Then, the reaction turned into boredom: another gay character? Hadn't this territory been tread bare with closeted art director Salvatore Romano, who was fired after refusing the advances of a male client? Mad Men didn't need to do this again, the rationale went, as if there was some checklist of minority interests that the show's writers went down: lady executive, check; black relations, check; gays, check.

Of course not. If anything, Mad Men has a habit of revisiting themes and relationships as a way to comment on change, or the lack of change. The point of Bob Benson being gay is to establish how attitudes had changed by the late 1960's, especially with Stonewall on the horizon. No one asked why Jim Cutler, a doppelgänger to fan favorite Roger Sterling, had to be introduced: what, aren't there enough old, white men on the show?

The fact that gay characters can be treated as one-offs is disheartening. Viewers often fall back on the comfortable position that a plot line isn't "realistic," which in some cases makes sense: Dawn, the first person of color hired at the former SCDP, couldn't suddenly become a partner without shattering the viewpoint of the universe. But, sometimes, the excuse of realism is actually an opportunity to confront one's own perception of the universe. Are there too many stories about gay characters for the Mad Men universe or for the viewer at home?

Lastly, and, most disappointing, is the idea that Bob Benson being gay isn't enough of a story to explore. "Fine, fine, he likes guys, BUT what if he's just pretending to like Pete to mess with him, or he's still a spy or..." This reaction at once diminishes Bob, by glazing over his desires and his interests, and pathologizes his actions. Sadly, too many early depictions of gays in the media turned them into sociopaths and murderers. That some fans and writers cling so desperately to Bob Benson leading a mass killing (riffing off Charles Manson) is depressing.

The blog Tom and Lorenzo has been a salve during this Bob Benson mystery period because the two authors have carefully and thoughtfully skimmed the evidence to support the gay man theory. "He's not a sociopath or even a schemer of any great note," they write. "He's an obsessively go-getting, emotionally damaged gay Golden Boy type who has lousy taste in men and is so bad at social cues that he'll declare his love for someone who's currently worrying that his mother has been raped."

It's not to say that Bob Benson will be a saint. The Mad Men world is filled with characters who live and breathe in the shades of grey. We watch because their actions often belie their intentions, and, so often, they are forced to confront how they are seen by others and who they truly are. The reaction over Bob Benson has given Mad Men viewers a chance to do the same.