On Sunday May 17, 2015, one of history’s great TV shows finished. The brilliant, thoughtful, poignant, funny, deep, jarring…I’m running out of adjectives…
Mad Men, for those many, many people who haven’t watched it, charts a map of America through the 60’s as lived out by the creative director of the fictional Stirling-Cooper advertising agency, Don Draper. Draper’s handsome, charismatic, smooth-talking ad man has become an archetype of 60’s Americana and a walking metaphor for getting what you want.
All in all though, Mad Men is not about philandering or advertising (or even liberty – though it’s worth a read), but about change and fulfillment. Centering primarily around the characters Don & Betty Draper, Roger Sterling, Pete Campbell, Peggy Olsen & Joan Holloway and a wide cast of brilliant supporting characters, showrunner Matthew Weiner shows the stark realities of people who feel unfulfilled in various aspects of their lives.
In the last couple of episodes, the normally uber-subtle Weiner begins to deal with this more directly. The ex-husband of one of Don’s flames challenges him to find solace in God. Pete Campbell waxes lyrical about why they seem doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again, desperately seeking greener grass, only to become dissatisfied with the colour when they finally reach it. Roger lives out the Phantom of the Opera in the SCDP building. This wasn’t a season climax, but a series of repeating circles from day 1. It’s not a trip to a Hilton Hotel, it’s the 7th circle in Dante’s Inferno. In the world of Mad Men, change is not only inevitable, but implacable. It’s an unforgiving beast that simply assures you – despite what Don says in the very first episode – that everything is not okay.
In the last episode of season 1, Don visits Peggy in hospital and encourages her to swiftly give her baby up for adoption, remarking, “you’ll be amazed how quickly you’ll move past this.” In the final episode, he tries to offer the same advice to another friend, who says, “I’m sorry, but I think you’re wrong on this one.” Don has been trying to move on with his life for a decade, but he always ends up in the same places. Much like his pitch for the Kodak Carousel, he travels around and around, and back home again…but rarely with anything having changed.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, particularly through the lens of Christianity.
The characters of Mad Men are always desperately looking for the next hit, the next binge, the next big client, the next affair. Yet while the chase fills them with anticipation and exhilaration, the fulfillment of their goals is always fraught with disappointment and the preparation for the next big hope. Perhaps nobody typifies this better than poor Pete Campbell, the villain turned comic relief of the series, constantly endeavouring to be the ‘next Don Draper’, never realising how broken and searching Don himself is.
I know a lot of people like these characters. No, not the alcoholism of Roger or the casual adultery of Don, but people who strive. Who set goals and believe big but don’t have any actual purpose or direction behind it, who may be trying to move from somewhere to somewhere else, but usually don’t know how they got somewhere to begin with.
Peggy reminds Don of something very important in the final episode. “I know you get sick of things, and you run – but you can come home.”
This is at the heart of the Christian faith – the knowledge that there is an eternal, fulfilling home with God for everyone. This is at the heart of my whole life. Out here in the world are billions of different choices I can make my whole life, mostly good, some not so good. But none of those choices has ever or will ever wholly satisfy me. It’s not that those choices aren’t good, it’s that when I build my life on expecting happiness from those choices, or even satisfaction, I find them, like the characters of Mad Men, ultimately unfulfilling. I can’t be sustained by the nostalgia from a Kodak Carousel. I can’t pack my life experiences wholly into a Samsonite case. I can’t even devote my life to the memory of one weekend in a Hilton Hotel – or a more budget-friendly Howard Johnson. All these things are fine, but not fulfilling.
I don’t want to buy the world a Coke, I want to tell the world about Jesus.
Maybe it seems simplistic to put it that way. But I’ve watched enough Mad Men to know that those who place their trust in their achievements, efforts and conquests, ultimately fail. The strongest ones are the ones that see a bigger picture. The ones who aren’t afraid of change, but live both within it and looking ahead to it. The ones who dare to do something that matters, because they know that they too, matter.
I deeply loved the style, flair and brilliance of Mad Men. I mourn the end and I’ll probably rewatch the whole thing sometime soon.
Luckily, I don’t trust in the show for my fulfillment.
I find that when I come home.