I’m not sure why I started watching Mad Men last year on Netflix, but it stuck.
Within the first few episodes of the show, I found the critical buzz justified. The characters are complicated and mysterious, making me want to get to know them more. The period setting in the Madison Avenue 60s and counter-cultural 70s is foreign but familiar, making me wonder what my parents were doing in those crazy days of moon landings and assassinations. The dialogue is profound but normal, the plots are quirky but not unbelieavable, and the advertising pitches are great fun to watch. In fact, as the show veered from boardroom-related-advertising-drama and focused more exclusively, in later seasons, on the troubled lives of its colorful ensemble, I started having less fun—but not so much that I didn’t want to see it through to the end.
Hence, I can understand the reason numerous TV critics and fans have called Mad Men the greatest TV series ever. It elevated television in ways few other shows have. It was thoughtful and sophisticated beyond what we’d expect, having our senses dulled by the small-screen pablum we have been spoon-fed since, oh, well…Silver Spoons.
But I’m a Christian, and I can’t not watch TV shows as anything but. Some of my more pure-minded brethren would undoubtedly find the show unbearable. The sex, the drugs, the smoking, the womanizing, the absence of any real moral center to the show are indeed disconcerting. I’m fairly comfortable in this media landscape, knowing that the world (clearly) does not share my values. I’ve stopped expecting Hollywood to cater to my tastes. Indeed, when Hollywood does cater to my tastes, they usually get the recipe wrong. We’re left with such Golden-Raspberry-caliber movies as “God’s Not Dead,” or “Fireproof.” (Sorry to you fans.) I understood from the beginning that Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner never set out to write a television series exploring issues of faith.
Having said that, although it’s unfair of me to judge Mad Men as the Christian I am, I must confess that I cannot avoid doing so. And as I watched the lives of the characters at Sterling-Cooper (and its many subsequent corporate forms) unfold, I kept rooting for them as a believer, wanting them to discover the same things about themselves, and about their Creator, that I did.
Interestingly, despite Weiner’s non-spiritual agenda, so many of the characters came close. Weiner’s introduction of a priest into Peggy Olson’s life, in season two, gave her some strength, following the very surprising and sudden birth of her clandestine child. Her ultra-Catholic family was as ugly in their faith and hypocrisy as you’d expect, but Father Gill seemed genuine—even Christ-like in his personality and demeanor. Even in his admittedly pushy attempt to save Peggy’s soul during the national anxiety of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Peggy’s discomfort seemed juvenile compared to his legitimate concerns that the world might end, and then where would she be?
And of course, Don Draper’s constant bottoming-out provided ample opportunity to find redemption. After another of our anti-hero’s famous benders, Freddie Munson—himself a recovering addict, and a former colleague of Don’s from Sterling Cooper—came straight from an AA meeting to inform Don, “You never have to have another drink again.” Don rolled his eyes, missing his opportunity. And in one of the last few episodes, as Don is looking for the lost soul he believes is his to save from herself—the waitress Diana—her born-again ex-husband practically gives him an invitation at the altar: “You think you can save her? Only Jesus can. He’ll help you, too. Ask him.” Don drives away, embarrassed.
For Weiner, these occasional encounters with faith and religion are like bumpers on a pinball machine, keeping the ball bouncing around in unpredictable ways. You don’t know where the ball will land—but definitely not safely in the arms of Jesus.
Again, I know this is not a show written to satisfy my evangelicalism. But oh how I wanted it to.
Which makes the finale from last night so disappointing. In the show (spoiler alert), Don has crashed through the rocks at the bottom of his life. Just as you thought he could drop no further, he is left abandoned at a hippie-retreat-Buddhist-meditation center somewhere in California. He has discovered his ex-wife’s terminal illness, and offers to come back to care for the children. But his daughter bravely asserts what everybody knows: We are better off without you; stay away. With his personal crisis climaxing, the long-running debate of the show’s viewers of whether he will commit suicide looms into panoramic view. The California cliffs sit in the background, inviting him to jump like the falling man from the opening sequence. Even Peggy suggests, over the phone, that he not be alone with himself. “I messed everything up,” he weeps. “I broke my vows, scandalized my child, took another man’s name and made nothing of it.” Peggy naively attempts to assuage him: “That’s not true.” But it is.
With Don breaking, Peggy does her best to pull him back from the edge: “You can come home.” But Don wonders, “Where?” Does he even have a home? Where would he go to?
Not to get all Bibley, but the exchange reminds me of another famous character who must have wondered if he could go home, too. It’s the story Jesus tells of the Prodigal Son, in Luke 15. A man takes his inheritance and heads to New York, where he blows it on Lucky Strikes and Madison Avenue girls. Perhaps, like Don, he finds himself paying to have dirty sex with a stranger in a dark alley, and discovers how low he has gone. Or maybe he finds himself stranded, paralyzed, by a telephone in California, contemplating a jump over the nearby cliffs. Regardless, some version of Peggy comes along and tells the son the same: “You can come home.”
In Jesus’ story, the son does. He crawls home, and finds his overjoyed Father running out to greet him. The fatted calf is killed and the wine flows: “For this son of mine was dead but is now alive.” Christians believe this is true for all of us. We all have a home, we all left, and we can all return home as easily as the story says.
As it is, this is not the home to which Don returns. A hippie angel sees him in his despair, and invites him to her session. While there, he meets a milquetoast version of himself, whose loneliness and pain finally allow Don to feel the companionship he has always sought. The scene ends in a tearful, brotherly embrace. In the final shot, we find Don calm and relaxed, meditating lotus-style on a cliff over the Pacific, chanting “Ommm” with his new Buddhist friends. The camera zooms in on a slight smile. In his trance, he has apparently come up with the next big thing in advertising—the famous 1971 Coke ad, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (in Perfect Harmony),” which plays at the end. We presume he returns to New York with his moxie.
It’s a fine ending, I guess--certainly creative. But he came so close to genuine redemption. He came so close to Jesus. He came so close to finding his way home to forgiveness and love. Sure, he made progress. He met someone like him, and realized he was not the only empty-hearted, self-loathing chap out there. But while that’s a good start in the right direction, it’s not quite home. Home is where we know we are accepted by God for who we are, and forgiven by him for our crimes against him and one another, because of Jesus’ gracious, sacrificial act. Home is where our family rejoices in us and wants us around forever. Home is where we learn new, authentic ways to live like Jesus—free from the false pretenses of image and advertising.
While coming close, Don Draper never made it home. He made it back to New York.
With a Coke, and a smile—but not much else.
What did you think of Mad Men? Did you like the finale? Interested to hear your thoughts….