Mad Men's Religion

At the close of the AMC TV series Mad Men, antihero Don Draper (John Hamm), an aloof and morally ambiguous mid-century Manhattan ad man interested only in captivating corporations and women, who leads a double, maybe triple life, hears and responds to painful news and truths.

Don has fled work and family, heading as far West as he can, suffering the identity crisis that only an identity thief can, for he had assumed the identity of his war buddy after the latter was killed. Yet Don ends up a more sympathetic character than not. Surprisingly to him and to the show’s producers and loyal viewers, he has, when all is said and done, forged and maintained ties even amidst all the running and hiding. The finale, “Person to Person,” was penned by Matthew Weiner, brilliant creator and writer of the beautifully acted and mounted series. David Carbonara provided exquisite original music interwoven with well-chosen period songs.

From Utah Don sends his eldest child, daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka), newspaper clippings about his breaking a land speed record. She manages to contact him, “person to person,” from her boarding school, prevailing over his small talk and cracks about “high school,” to inform him that her mother, Betty (January Jones), a chain smoker like many of the show’s characters, is dying of lung cancer. Sally trusts her father’s instincts enough to betray her mother’s confidence. She wants her father to do what he does best: to charm and influence from a distance, and to emend her mother’s plans for the two younger children by advocating that their stepfather raise them. Sally handles her father well. She knows when to hang up so that he doesn’t argue, and she knows that he has the capacity to think out her suggestion. This is a moving, memorable scene.

Don then calls his beloved Betty, whom he has hurt in the past but with whom he has retained a bond. He offers to take the children into his home when the time comes, though at the moment he is a carefree vagabond. Betty tells him that she appreciates his intentions, but does not want to waste the rest of her time arguing. She has a plan involving her brother and sister-in-law, and wants things to be as normal as possible, and that his not being there “is part of that.”  This exchange by phone is one of the most moving television scenes ever. Betty’s “I know” is truly knowing of Don’s affection and of his capacity to honor her wishes and to deal with the truth about himself. As mother and daughter both understand, petty arguments are not Don’s style.

Don then heads to visit Stephanie (Caitz Lotz), the niece of Anna Draper, the widow of an army buddy who died in the war, and whose identity Don, whose real name is Dick Whitman, assumed. (He is welcome there because she knows his story, though it is not clear that his children and wives know the full story.) Stephanie tells him that she has given her son to his father’s parents. Don brings her the ring that belonged to her aunt, who befriended him and from whom he had to obtain a divorce before he could marry Betty under his new name.  

Seeing Don’s anguish, Stephanie suggests that he accompany her to a New Age retreat at which she hopes to find insight and direction. The getaway event, which coincides with Don’s own getaway, is replete with encounter exercises, group therapy, and meditation. There is a lot of discussion about whether “shoulds” should apply to everybody or to anybody. Stephanie is right to feel judged by the others when she shares in group therapy that she does not plan to return to her son. A woman says that this testimony makes her sad because she was abandoned by her mother, and Stephanie’s baby will spend the rest of his life at the door awaiting his mother’s return.

Don intimidates with his sheer physical presence (no telephone here). He glowers and towers over the woman who shared her opinion. After Stephanie runs outside in tears, he chases after her:  “Don’t listen to them,” he tells her. “You weren’t raised with Jesus. You don’t know what happens to people when they believe in things.”

Disturbed at Don’s invasion of her moment of awareness, Stephanie cries out, “You think that I don’t want to hear the truth? You show up with some family heirloom. You’re not my family. What’s the matter with you?” But Don digs in his heels, “I just know how people work. You can get this behind you. It will get easier as you move forward.” Fortunately, Stephanie knows better. She responds respectfully, using Don’s original name, “Oh, Dick, I don’t think you’re right about that.”

Stephanie abandons Don at the retreat so that she can return to her shoulds, as it were. At that point Don is not so happy with the motto of the place, which has been his own motto in life, “People can come and go as they please.” Seeking a familiar voice he telephones ambitious career woman Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), his longtime protégé, who begs him to return, asking, “Don’t you want to work on Coke?” Don does not renounce advertising. He simply responds, “I can’t. I can’t get out of here.” He is both physically and spiritually stranded.

Peggy has benefitted from her relationship to Don, and has willingly followed some of his advice against yielding to certain shoulds (particularly when giving up a child), always aware of the source of the advice she chose to heed. In the finale, as a result of Don’s call, she will pick up the phone (another very touching scene) to connect with her true love.

Peggy elicits verbal confessions from Don, by telephone, which he has never been able to make in person. She asks him what he ever did that was so bad. “I broke all my vows,” he says. “I scandalized my child. I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.” Earlier, whether truthfully or not, he had confessed to sympathetic war veterans, when drunk, that he was responsible for the death of an officer by lighting a cigarette. But this phone call resembles the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) confessions, the litany of the old Jewish prayers. Don had just earned the right to make that confession by helping a young man to find his way in the wake of that veterans’ event, and by taking the punishment for that young man’s crime, a punishment reminiscent of ancient biblical floggings, also mentioned in the traditional Yom Kippur prayers.

Ever since childhood Don was desperate to escape an environment that mixed brothels with talk of Jesus (including a preacher who tried to minister to the brothel and told Don that the greatest sin was to believe that God cannot forgive). Though, in a way, he assumed a Jesus-like role for the young man he protected, Don doesn’t want to “believe things,” but he knows the power of belief to raise uncomfortable questions about responsibility and then, possibly, to be manipulated to avoid those very questions.

Literally crumpled down in emotional pain from these accumulated phone calls and personal encounters, Don is asked by a woman if he is “waiting for a phone call” or if he has taken something. She invites him to yet another seminar, but he insists, “I can’t move.” She coaxes him effectively, like a good church or synagogue greeter, “Sure you can. I’m late. I don’t want to walk in by myself.”

At this group therapy session, a man named Leonard (Evan Arnold) comes forward just as Don enters. Leonard laments that people walk right by him at work and don’t see him, that he has never been interesting to anyone, that his wife and kids don’t even look up when he is in the house. “No one cares that I’m gone,” he says, even though he obviously has been dedicated to family and job. “They should love me -- maybe they do -- but I don’t even know what it is.” He says that you can spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, or that no one is giving it to you, but you don’t get what “it” is.

To everyone’s surprise, Don rises and hugs Leonard, weeping with genuine emotion. Could it be that Leonard has become a surrogate physical presence for all those with whom Don spoke on the telephone? I thought of the old phone commercial, “Reach out and touch someone.” Don has certainly achieved that in more ways than one, with certain people, maybe even more than Leonard who has never left his family.  Does that give Don peace?

The series ends with a prayer thanking “Mother Sun” the sweetness of the earth, the hope of a new day, “the lives we’ve led, the lives we get to lead,/new day, new ideas, a new you.” Don smiles while he chants “om, om” with the others, and the famous “real thing” Coca Cola commercial closes out the final episode, implying that Don returned to the ad agency to produce an iconic classic.

The message that comes across from the finale, as characters’ future courses are clarified, is that some people search for the “real thing,” some sell it, and some do both, depending on personality and stage of life, but that Don does the selling so artfully that he reaches a plane of spirituality or at least inspiration. Don has even used Jesus to sell an ad campaign. (Sept. 6, 1007, Chris Provenzano)

Matthew Weiner inserted the Jesus theme because of Don’s background, but the gifted writer has also shared that his Jewish heritage, particularly growing up as part of a religious minority, shaped the Mad Men stories. Whether constructively or not, Mad Men has dealt with prejudices against Jews and depicted many kinds of Jews, as I have discussed earlier. But it hardly dealt with Judaism.

For a long time, the only significant invocation of Judaism was by Christian characters who did not like the way Jews were acting. Peggy’s devout Catholic mother was not happy that her daughter’s Jewish boyfriend, Abe Drexler, a self-absorbed writer for leftist journals, requested that he and Peggy move in together. (April 29, 2012; written by Jonathan Igla) Peggy’s mom speaks bluntly: “I’m not going to give you a cake to celebrate your living in sin.” Peggy retorts angrily, “I thought you’d be relieved that I wasn’t marrying the Jew.”  Her mother is adamant: “It has nothing to do with that.” She is concerned about the morality of it. “You are selling yourself short. This boy, he will use you until he decides to get married and have a family.” The writers purposely leave it ambiguous whether or not Peggy’s mother means a “Jewish family.”

Peggy’s mother does not come across as anti-Semitic or anti-Judaism. Indeed, one gets the impression that she makes a point of referring to Abe as “Abraham” because she wants him to live up to his biblical namesake and to Judeo-Christian morals. After all, when Mom arrived, Abe blurted out, “Peggy made a ham. It’s my favorite.” Mom responds, “Really?” as if to say, “What kind of a Jew would say that? What kind of person makes a “favorite” out of something that is prohibited by his religion?” (Is Abe praising ham in order to be accepted by Peggy’s mom, like copywriter Michael Ginsberg extolled crabs and lobster before his colleagues, whether he had previously eaten them or not?)

Abe exploits Judaism by making things up for his own selfish purposes.  He gets jealous when Peggy neglects him to ruminate on a presentation, especially when she panics because she wants to use a particular kind of candy that Don gave her. Abe tells her that he will buy her a similar kind of candy and say a “brucha” (blessing) over it. The comment echoes old misconceptions that food becomes fit or kosher through a magical blessing instead of through prescribed preparations introduced by blessings. It is insulting both to Jewish tradition and to Peggy. (April 22, 2012, written by Semi Chellas and Matthew Weiner)

Interestingly, maybe tellingly, Judaism assumed front and center stage in the 2015 debut episode, just weeks before the finale. Don dreams about Rachel Menken Katz, the beautiful department store heiress and executive with whom he had an affair. (She had tried to resist the affair when she learned he was married and ended it when he wanted to run off with her, leaving Betty and the children behind. Hearing of the situation, her father sent her off on a long trip, preventing any relapse or closure of the affair. Later she married, and, after a while Don ran into her and met her husband at a restaurant.) Don inquires about Rachel and learns that she passed away the week before, and that the family is requesting that donations be sent to the National Jewish Hospital in Denver. Don immediately sends a donation. Is this the first and only time that he has been moved to donate to a charity? Weiner surely knows that zedakah, donating because it is the right and just thing to do, is an important  mitzvah (commandment) and value in Judaism. So is comforting the mourners at shiva (the seven days of mourning).

Don feels compelled to visit Rachel’s home during shiva. Apparently, this is not his first shiva. Rachel’s sister, who years before had been opposed to the affair (and may have told their father), greets Don with an “I know who you are.” When she tries to explain the shiva minyan (prayer quorum) to him, he says that he is familiar with such things: “I’ve lived in New York for a long time.” Rachel’s sister makes a point of inquiring about Don’s family, even as she points out Rachel’s children to him at his request. She tells him that Rachel died of leukemia, but is quick to add, “She lived the life she wanted to live. She had everything.”

As if to authenticate that statement, the afternoon service begins, as usual, with “Ashrei,” “Happy are they who dwell in Thy house” (Psalm 84:5) -- even in a house of mourning, with mirrors covered according to a custom which discourages the vanity that can scar life itself. There is, indeed, an authenticity here that contrasts somewhat with the retreat center. At the retreat, Don spotted a trend. There, donating was, to Don, a form of tipping. At the shiva there is the gravitas of tradition, continuity and constancy, as well as a community of past, present and future -- and of shoulds which somehow bolster a different kind of happiness.

It would seem from the interest in religion evident in Mad Men that Matthew Weiner is most capable of making deeper and more insightful statements about Judaism in particular and religion in general -- and, indeed, about morality. One hopes that he will do so intentionally and explicitly and with authenticity.