“Better to illuminate than merely to shine, to deliver to others contemplated truths than merely to contemplate.” ~ St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II q. 188 a. 6 co.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Truth Well Told: How "Mad Men" Made Me a Better Person

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” 
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Preface: Three years ago, I was invited by a Midwestern college's Catholic Society to give a talk on a theological theme. I chose to pare down a paper I had written in a graduate class that was on the idea of spiritual transparency (especially in the novel and film, Diary of a Country Priest). Before wading into the primary source material, I waxed poetic about stained glass in churches and strung together some of my favorite ideas from all of the homilies I've heard since my reversion to the Faith. The title of the paper was, "Through a Glass Brightly."
When I finished presenting, I happily agreed to take questions. A young professor (who actually had founded the group that invited me) raised his hand and said something like, "Through your paper you've claimed that truth, goodness, and beauty are all one. Well what would you say about something like the popular TV show, Mad Men, which is arguably very aesthetically rich and even beautiful, but lacks those other two qualities?" Little did he know, I loved (LOVE) that show with a burning ferocity, so I confidently replied, "No! It's all three." My twinkling eyes scanned the faces of a couple dozen impressionable undergraduates whose expressions ranged from surprised to scandalized. I scrambled to explain myself for the next several minutes, but ultimately felt that I hadn't done the show or the question justice. Feeling embarrassed, I thought, "Good thing I won't have to see them again."
Then, we moved there.
But in the meantime, I started this blogmostly so that I could practice my ideas on several other topics before tackling this huge one when the show would finally conclude after seven seasons. That has now happened, and I'm ready. But I can't do it all here. I've tried. I've written many different versions of this, and ultimately I just don't want to spoil any of it for you. To satisfy myself fully, I plan to write a book-length compendium to the series with an essay on each episode exploring its themes in light of the whole narrative. (Knowing the ending really changes the re-viewing experience. It's wonderful.) If that's something you're interested in, let me know.
What I want to do here is give a brief apologia for the show in order to encourage those of you who gave up to give it another chance or to inspire new viewers to dive in. Above all, I want to honor the show for what it did for me and can do for you.
"Love the sinner, hate the sin." I had no idea what to do with that for most of my life. For a long time, I thought it was just something cryptic that Jesus said that we were not really expected to understand or practice. Leave that to Him since He's God and we're not. But it turns out, it's something that St. Augustine said, and it succinctly sums up an important dimension of Christian discipleship.
As an adult Catholic, I had embraced the apostolate in the purest mode I could imagine: I became a theology teacher and taught New Testament and Apologetics. I wanted to pass on the amazing things I had learned in college and give students the formation that I never had in high school. But with no teacher training and about six weeks under the bridge, I couldn't stand most of my students. In the middle of a class about the Passion account in John's Gospel wherein I practically opened a vein, ecstatically linking passages and illuminating themes, a student smugly said out loud, "You're just making this up as you go along." I stared at him in horror and sent him out of the room. As I tried to compose myself, I heard a low rumbling voice in my head: "Pearls before swine."
That seemed like a logical paradigm for a while: "I'm giving these kids gold and they don't appreciate it. To hell with them, then." But something about that didn't quite gel with the point of my job which was to present Jesus to teenagers...
I needed good spiritual direction. Thankfully, I got it.
"Like the material, love the kids." That's what the priest said. It sounded just as impossible as the first puzzling aphorism. "But the material is GOD! The kids are heathen idiots!" I huffed through the grille. "No," he gently corrected me. "The kids are human beings. God is more present in them than in the books, however great they are. And you'll never reach them if you don't get to know them." And so, I began to get to know some. I went the easiest route possible and focused on my A students. Loving them was enough to keep me in the classroom. But I didn't learn to love my D studentsor anyone in the world like themuntil I met Don Draper.
Watching Mad Men coincided with a moment in my personal life that allowed me to see myself and my work differently. Good art is good by its own merits and for the ways it allows vastly different people to make sense of their own experiences.
After five seasons of enjoying the show with my husband, together dissecting and analyzing each episode, I wanted to get to know the show's creator, Matthew Weiner. I listened to his interview with Terry Gross during an episode of her NPR's show, "Fresh Air." About half way through the discussion, Gross suddenly asked Weiner,
"How much do you want us to hate Don Draper, because as much as - speaking for myself, as much I, you know, to some degree, empathize with his existential crises and, you know, sympathize with it, as well, he's such a hypocrite, he's such a louse. He so mistreats his wife that I just get so angry with him. And I just want to know how angry do you want me to be with Don Draper? How much do you want me to dislike him as opposed to feeling some sympathy for his existential crisis?"
Then it happened. Weiner revealed himself to be the kind of artist I hoped he was:

"I'm going to sound like an idiot here. I don't want you to dislike him at all. I don't dislike any of these people. I am not judgmental when I am in drama or in life. And I think that you are supposed to identify with the dark parts of yourself [...]"

Yes. This is how I felt. Weiner's goal was reached in me.

When I was in college, I was particularly fascinated with two ideas: 1) the causes and effects of a bifurcated mind or identity as presented in works of  literature (particularly Doctor Faustus, Richard III, Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Gollum/Smeagol in The Lord of the Rings, and Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley) which explore in rich detail just how sins of deceit corrode the soul, often leading to madness; and 2) a line from Brideshead Revisited, "To know all is to forgive all," which helped me to appreciate our all-knowing, all-merciful God. These concepts went hand in hand: the devil divides, God unifies. So I came to understand that one of the primary goals of the spiritual life is to foster personal integrity. After all, if we're supposed to love others as we love ourselves, how can we even begin to do that if we ourselves are fractured and broken? How can we be healed by forgiveness if we won't reveal our transgressions? Is unconditional love really possible? That, my friends, is what Mad Men is about.

I have heard so many people say they lost interest in the show because there was no one to cheer for. I just don't understand it. The characters are just like real people, only we know them even better. We see them even when they're alone. In fact, we may even know them better than they know themselves, and that's why we are able to root for them. For instance, the audience knows early on that Don Draper's true identity is Dick Whitman: His mother was a prostitute who died giving birth to him, his father was a "dishonest man" who taught him nothing but how to drink, and after his father's death the poor boy spent his entire adolescence in a whore house. What does that do to a person? How does one recover from that? How?

Art can tell us because it imitates life. And this television show can tell us because it imitates great literature. Its power lies in its transcendent qualitiesall three of them:


Realism is one of its most defining characteristics. Matthew Weiner is obsessed with it. One time he called off a day's worth of shooting because the apples on the table were too biggenetically  modified ones didn't exist in the '60s. The props and costumes get a lot of attention. Yet what dazzles me is the truth about human nature. The people on Mad Men behave just like real people, especially those searching for meaning with little to no guidance from religion. But religious truths punctuate the show from beginning to end. The show functions as an education in the way things are.

Sin is treated as sin—as something that really harms the sinner, not as something that is merely disapproved of by others. Don's philandering is confronted in every season very directly and pointedly: "You're garbage and you know it" (Jimmy Barret), "You are not a good person!" (Allison), "Dying doesn't make you whole. You should see what you look like" (the ghost of PF Dinkins). "I'll do you a favor and take it out. But it's not your tooth that's rotten" (the ghost of Adam Whitman). There are clairvoyant ghosts! It's like a Medieval allegory play!

The show is often praised for its originality, exemplifying what C.S. Lewis meant when he wrote:
"Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it" (Mere Christianity).

The show is honest about the bad and rejoices in the good. It has a few blind spots but appreciates man's inherent dignity. It believes in the pursuit of virtue. Matthew Weiner is Jewish and may or may not be practicing. But his formative roots undergird much of the show. Shooting from those roots are Christian images and themes. He said in a recent interview, "I really do believe in the continuum of the Old Testament and the New Testament together." That shines in the Judeo-Christian values upheld in the narrative (family, loyalty, forgiveness, love, etc.), sometimes in relief. He has also said that he is "fascinated with Catholicism," which is clear in most of the ads made by Peggy, the entire sixth season, dozens and dozens of images, concepts, and lines throughout, and the finale (VERY MUCH SOnot spoiling is killing me). A recent Humans of New York post, featuring an Eastern Orthodox priest, reminded me (at least in part) of Weiner's presentation:

           "Who do you love most in the world?"
           "When did you find it most difficult
            to  love God?"
           "Why during childhood?"...
           "Because I always wondered why things
             happened to me."
           "How long did you wonder why?"
           "Until I found God, then I knew why."
           "Because people aren't bad, they're sick.
            And sick people do bad things."
Let's take a commercial break and read that again, along with the quote from Solzhenitsyn in my epigraph. Meditate on them for a moment and let your sick heart find solace. Brought to you by Mad Men.

Much of this goodness comes from the Western literary canon which permeates the narrative, especially Shakespeare, Dante, and T.S. Eliot. Weiner said in an interview, "There were a couple years there where The Waste Land was the most interesting thing in the world to me. I loved that it was so personal and grimy and gross and epic at the same time." I, too, studied the poem in college and noticed the affinity between it and Mad Men all along, so much so that the first version of this post was written over a year ago and it was titled, "Man Men in the Waste Land." I spared you the 1600+ words, but here's one point: The epigraph to The Waste Land contains a Greek phrase that means, "Lust is too burdensome, death is seen as a welcome." That might as well be the epigraph to all of season six in which Don is fixated on death in the midst of his most dangerous affair. He makes a pitch to Royal Hawaiian, the resort at which he spends Christmas with Megan, that features footprints and clothes left in the sand and no sign of a body that has been swallowed up by the beautiful blue waters. The clients can't see anything but suicide, and Don is surprised. He imagined that the man launched himself into paradise, but not by dying. Or does he? Later in the season, there is a moment when Don takes hallucinogenic drugs and sees his body floating in a pool. It calls to mind Eliot's fourth section titled, "Death by Water" about a Phoenician sailor, which ends with the line, "Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you." It's as if Eliot is talking to Don as he stares at himself facedown in the water, inviting him not to death by drowning, but to new life by baptism.

Also, I recently stated that the feel of the show is remarkably similar to the wonderful novel, Kristin Lavransdatter. If I don't get to it, someone please write a dissertation about that. Mad Men also makes many allusions to literature from the time period that the show depicts: Jack Kerouac, the Beat poets, Meditations in an Emergency, and many more. I know next to nothing about those, but I just want to point out that there's plenty in there for people with tastes that differ from mine.


Oh, it is so beautiful. I don't even mean the actors, costumes, and sets. Yes, they are aesthetically rich and pleasing, but so are many other things that do not also evoke a truly religious response in me. I can't make anyone else feel this way (alas), but if only I could show you what it's like when this show breaks me open, pours me out, and raptures my heart with love for God. I experience this every time Don and Peggy express their non-romantic love for one another. I experienced this in season one's episode, "Babylon," because I had just taught the Book of Revelation to my New Testament students and I was amazed by the apocalyptic imagery: New York City as Babylon, the men of Madison avenue as its kings, and in the final scene, the "scarlet woman" and the "caged bird." It is so well-crafted. Another time I died and resurrected as a better version of myself was when Don rejects the woman on the plane who invites him into another affair. He turns from her and opens the shade to let the light in. Later in that episode, he chooses not to drink himself numb and instead goes out on his balcony in the frigid winter air and mortifies his fallen flesh. He wants to be better. He may have "broken the vessel" as he says of himself, but he is not nihilistic like his seatmate on the plane. He will not resign himself to brokenness. It so thoughtful and sincere, so sad and moving and hopeful. The angles, the sweeps, the pacingit is all wonderfully generous to the viewer. Weiner cares immensely about our experience of the show. He doesn't beat us over the head with anything. He lets insights germinate within us instead of on the screen. Bless you for that, Matthew Weiner.

Mad Men is a work of art. It certainly has gritty, troubling elements but so does life, so does nature, so does any famous depiction of the Last Judgment. Weiner isn't the judge of the characters, he's merely the storyteller. Anyone who finds him- or herself in Hell on earth (the dominant theme of season six which opens with Don reading the Inferno) is there because of the choices they made. They are logical and true to life. And by watching the way in, we learn the way out.

That is how this show changed me. It held a mirror up to the dark parts of my own fallen nature; and after naming, claiming, and repenting of those things, I was able to see more brightly. It taught me not to disregard people who seemed like lost causes. There are no lost causes this side of Heaven. I had read that dozens of times in religious books before I believed it thanks to Mad Men. I love Don Draper. I will the good for him and anyone unfortunate enough to carry his crosses.

These lessons can be learned from many sources, but we must learn them. I know that people I love do not experience Mad Men in the way I do, but one must experience it. You know what it is. It's to take the time to know a person very well. It's to empathize rather than only to sympathize. It's to look at a stranger and believe in his or her eternal worth. It's to give someone the benefit of the doubt. It's to judge not lest ye be judged. It's to love one another.

It's the real thing.


If you're already a fan and watched to the end, check out these links:

"Mad Men and the Domesticity of Love" over at Ethika Politika.

"Don Draper's First Confession," by Haley Stewart at Carrots for Michaelmas.

"Mad Men Recaps," by Christy Isinger at Fountains of Home.

"Mad Men and the Meaning of Love," a Fountains of Carrots podcast.

"Love Among the Ruins in Mad Men" from Patheos.

"End of an Era," a montage of clips set to music. Grab a tissue.