by Evy Behling, Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, TC ’17
Thanks to Netflix and my (non)existing free time, I’ve recently started to watch Mad Men. The show, if you haven’t seen it, presents a compelling portrait of the dark side of the early 1960s, when America’s consumer culture was coming into full fruition. The main character is the continually frustrating Don Draper, portrayed by Jon Hamm. Don seems to be searching for a purpose beyond his grey-flannel-suit job as an ad man on Madison Avenue. He’s pretty disillusioned, between his difficult childhood and his participation in World War II as a soldier. Even when his long-lost brother tracks him down, Don pays him off to stay away. He is so clearly running away from his past and from himself. Advertising, to him, is a path to happiness:
Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK. You are OK. (Season 1, Episode 1)
Yet Don, though he does what he wants, when he wants; though he seems quite in control of his own life; though he has everything he could want, the house with a white-picket fence, a model-perfect wife, friendly dog, two kids, and no shortage of mistresses on the side; he seems quite miserable. And yet, he seems to embody the philosophy of the show in general. Like the characters of The Great Gatsby, everyone in this show is a tool, seeking their own good, rather than genuinely caring about anyone else. Yet it is precisely this which makes both Gatsby and Mad Men so fascinating.
The characters treat each other like possessions, rather than human beings. The show is such an accurate portrayal of the human condition: our pride, our failures, and our arrogance. There is truly not one redeemable character to be seen. There are no heroes or villains. There are only mad men, and women forced by society to cater to their needs.
While the show sounds like it could be depressing, it is actually very enjoyable to watch. Granted, I am only in the first season, so I can’t say much about how it evolves, but it is such a rich portrayal of its times that once you start to watch, it is hard to pull yourself away. It both mocks and perpetuates our simplistic, nostalgic views of post-war America, while showing off the most beautiful costumes and sets I’ve ever seen on TV. I think what I find the most compelling about Mad Men, however, is how clearly it shows humanity’s need for redemption. As strange as this may sound, Mad Men draws me to God.
The show illustrates how hollow our consumer culture is. Watching Mad Men, I see how things are never enough, how by possessing others, you become a possession of your own desires. Mad Men is such a clear portrait of what happiness isn’t. It shows a culture that has lost its moral center and is starting to feel the effects of that loss. The world of Mad Men is concerned very much with the appearances of moral propriety, yet cares little about actually doing good. It’s a world that’s missing a whole heart, a world not that much different from our own.
The path to happiness isn’t a new car. It’s a new attitude, an attitude just as radical in 1960 and today as it has always been. True happiness doesn’t come from attaining things or glory or power. Happiness comes from reflecting the love of God, and reflecting that love towards the people around us. It’s so much easier to see how much we need God in a world where His absence is so obvious.