The ghosts of 'Mad Men'

The television series 'Mad Men' is one of the most popular of all time, in no small part because of its moral center. It's still memorable becausee it's a meditation on beauty, decline, and the commoditization of our most deeply held beliefs. 

At its fictionalized advertising agency, Sterling Cooper, it begins as a man's world, so such abstractions are never discussed outright.  

But these unspoken themes are demonstrated in the writing of the show’s creator, Matt Wiener, in his determination to show rather than tell his audience about a strange and supernatural place beyond the slick pitches and shallow patter of the advertising industry. 

Virtue exists in Mad Men.  It’s just always slightly out of reach.   And despite the shifting morality of the 1960’s, glimpses of religion, the traditional kind, stubbornly recur throughout the series.  Peggy’s Catholic upbringing.  Freddy Rumson’s 12-step odyssey.  The Judaism of Rachel Mencken.  Hints of an ancient and elusive deity haunt the show’s narrative. God has a pulse in Mad Men; just barely. He keeps showing up, but he doesn’t stick around where he’s not wanted.

Often interpreted as a chauvinistic romp through 1960s corporate America, Matt Wiener has likened his critically acclaimed series to an expose on masculinity, the toxic kind. No doubt a rapacious male gaze dominates the world of Sterling Cooper where beautiful women, stylish men and plenty of gratuitous sex inhabit the screen.   Despite its licentious premise and politically relevant social commentary Mad Men is inhabited by something more archaic – hostile spirits - the ghostly kind, that forewarn of a world where no one gets away with anything.  Ever.

Orthodox Judaism makes its most unexpected appearance in the sixth episode of the first season ‘Babylon.’  As Don courts a new client, the Israeli Tourism Ministry, he seeks the counsel of Rachel Mencken a Jewish department store heiress whose fleeting presence casts a shadow over the entire series.  Don wants to see more of her but it’s better for Rachel that he doesn’t.  When Don later suggests they run away together Rachel correctly identifies Don as a coward. He could never face the salons of Manhattan with a Jewess on his arm.  By the end of the episode, Don pouts in a beatnik club with his mistress, Midge, and her boyfriend, as the episode’s closing song commences in the form of a live band. 

But instead of a standard pop hit to close out the show we get the “The Waters of Babylon” a biblical lament over the loss of a place, namely Israel, and consequently God.   It’s a hint of the sacred amid the profane, and reveals the meaning of the entire series.  Mad Men is not a voyeuristic re-encounter with the sexual revolution of the 1960s, it’s a confrontation with a moral universe that is fearsome and immoveable. Ignore it at your peril. 

Beauty and its shadow

As morality unravels, beauty remains fixed.  Don Draper looks good in a suit even in the midst of rapid decline.  Possessed of a superficial wit and wisdom early on the slivers of truth hidden in Don’s jingles are soon replaced with stolen concepts and empty narcissism.  By the last season we can be assured that for Don there will be no more original ideas; only cynical manipulations.  Whatever poetry Don once commanded, it has been sacrificed at the altar of Pavlovian gratuity.  Seduced by the glamour and superficiality of the advertising industry he helped create, Don can no longer differentiate between true beauty and its shadow.  In the final episode of the series Don, after a long journey west, arrives at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California.  To another type of man this might have been the conclusion of a pilgrimage, an occasion for atonement at the end of yet another failed marriage. 

Enrolled in group therapy Don focuses on a man in a sensible sweater who compares himself to a bottle of ketchup.  Don is interested.  He’s finally found his target audience.  Minutes later when it’s revealed that Don has experienced a breakthrough for his company’s flagship Coca-Cola campaign, his noble cross-country search for meaning appears to have been nothing more than an exercise in corporate field research.  For guys like Don there is no quest for meaning only the hyping of the next sugary confection.   

Qualities like loyalty occur off-screen, glimpsed through minor characters.  How many times does Don hand an inconvenient acquaintance a fistful of cash to go away?  Don’s brutal cynicism, often disguised as realism, results in two divorces, and the alienation of his children and many of his friends. After a pitiless encounter with Don, his business partner, Lane Price, commits suicide.  Female intimates overdose on heroin, die of leukemia and contract incurable cancer.  The kiss of the black widow is a sweet-nothing compared to a dalliance with Don Draper. 

“You only like the beginning of things.” A jilted girlfriend tells Don in Season 4.  Ironically, for a man who appears charismatic and impulsive, the consumerism Don practices renders him utterly predictable.  Changing women, careers and identities with dexterity Don feeds his spiritual restlessness with a call to move ‘forward’ but his sense of direction is fatally flawed. To indulge in an unending series of new experiences leads to its own kind of hell.  On the beach in a Hawaiian paradise beside his second wife Don famously peruses Dante’s Inferno, but what he’s really experiencing is Dante’s rule of contrapasso where an equal and fitting punishment for sin awaits in the offing.  There will be no happy ending for Don and Megan because Megan isn’t a wife as much as Don’s latest beginning. 

Apparitions and admonitions

Booze, drugs and sex are heaped on anything that resembles divine longing.  A personal relationship with God is unthinkable for the characters that drive Mad Men’s narrative, but a moral universe with the inevitability of final judgment is an immoveable reality.  As Don commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife a stubborn cross dangles from Sylvia Rosen’s neck.  Throwaway scenes appear every couple of seasons where a minor character asks Don if he’s found God.  Unexpectedly, Matt Wiener injects a supernatural dimension into the secular and sexually liberated world of Madison Avenue. Catholics inhabit a reality of statues and sacred art, Sanctus bells and stained glass. Don Draper occupies a haunted landscape of falling elevators, plagues of cockroaches and an eerie cigarette lighter that won’t go away.   No matter how Don twists the fabric of life to suit his appetites the universe is waiting to snap back with a vengeance. 

Ghosts stalk the spiritual wilderness of Mad Men casting judgment on Don Draper in the most unlikely places.  In Season 5’s “The Phantom” Don’s half-brother appears during a dental visit.  “I’m gonna do you a favor and take it out,” Says Adam another suicide fueled by Don’s indifference.  “But it’s not your tooth that’s rotten.” And then there is the ghost of PFC Dinkins. “Dying doesn't make you whole. You should see what you look like.”  Says the dead soldier to Don in a drug-induced dream.  These ghosts aren’t innocuous, harp-strumming seraphim. They are avenging angels, the old-fashioned kind, rendering a deeply personal judgment.

In Don’s ultimate campaign conceived while at a spiritual retreat, the ‘real thing’ that he discovers is a bottle of sugar water. The 1971 Coca Cola commercial ‘In Perfect Harmony’ is known not only as the greatest advertisement of all time, it peddles a vision of nirvana that has preoccupied the American imagination unto the present moment. Amid the pseudo-Gospel flourishes of white-robed devotees cradling bottles of Coke, there is a splash of 21st-century multiculturalism. Is it a surprise that the advertising industry is responsible for ushering in the era of the ‘rainbow’ with singers of every color and nationality teaching the world to sing about soda pop? Globalism with all its economies of scale is the next corporate project - a kind of ghost of Christmas Future – imparting gifts that will pay dividends to Don and men like him for decades to come. 

In the show’s exultant final montage, as Peggy and Stan fall in love, Joan starts a business and Roger marries for the third time, off-screen that stubborn moral universe awaits.  Happy endings, like God, will be elusive for the American archetypes created by Matt Wiener.  Don Draper and his cohorts are not moving forward but plummeting downward as the famous opening sequence portrays.  Possessed by an inability to discern the true, good and beautiful from their monstrous imitators the cast of Mad Men are enthralled by new beginnings and blinded of moral direction.  Despite their ad agency aptitude for spinning narrative there is no coherent storyline except for the Biblical zinger– “As a dog returns to its vomit so a fool returns to his folly.”     As privileged and sexually permissive as the characters of Mad Men are they are subject to rules that can’t be changed.  When all is said and done the God of Mad Men presides over a rigid moral universe where sin is punished and virtue is present even in its absence.

Image credit: Brecht Bug, via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0