Should Christians Watch Mad Men? A Rejoinder

Editor’s Note:  This guest post is by Nick Olson, who writes film reviews at a host of places including Filmwell and Christ and Pop Culture

I have a confession: when watching seasons 1 through 4 of Mad Men a couple of years ago, I often had the overwhelming desire to have a drink to go along with the madness. And I don’t think I’m alone. My friend and colleague Josh Larsen seems to have had the exact same response. As he put it, “How do I know that Mad Men has reached a new level of artistic maturity in its fourth season? I no longer want to have a drink while watching it.” I’m not sure if my timeline runs parallel with Josh’s, but I can attest that by the end of season 5, when the general tone of has been captured in the image of Don looking down the abyss of an elevator shaft, a glass of bourbon with Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Campbell and company has grown less enticing.

Mad Men

Mad Men (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This confession might seem like confirmation of Jake Meador’s recent post on the ethics of watching Mad Men, in which he says that the show has lost him because, “[u]ltimately, Mad Men follows the standard narrative of our ad-addled culture, which says that if you dress something up enough, people will buy anything–even things that are morally depraved and terrifying.”  But I don’t think my initial anecdote is quite a confirmation. Rather, I think Mad Men itself is like an enticing drink that doesn’t go down smoothly. And the series, while playing up the alluring shape that deceit often takes, clearly emphasizes the destructive aftermath.

But before offering a few friendly counterpoints to Jake’s article, I want to establish a few points of agreement which, on scale, seem as important here as my disagreement with some of his assertions regarding the ethics of watching Mad Men.

First, I agree with Jake when he suggests that Mad Men is “a horse of a different color” than a show like Breaking Bad. When asked which of the two shows I prefer, I’ve often said that I’d choose the latter because I do think Breaking Bad is a show more intentionally concerned with moral deterioration—or, with a person who has known the goodness of self-restraint and is steadily losing it. The difference between the two shows is evident in their titles. Greg Wolfe probably put it best during a podcast when he said that Breaking Bad, unlike Mad Men, seems to have a more distinct sense of a “moral center.” But it’s important to recognize that the absence of a moral center is also precisely the point. It’s the nature of their madness qua madness that they have no moral center. Their insanity is qualified by their inability to have judicious self-restraint.

Further, I think Jake is right to suggest that perhaps some Christians have overreacted to the cultural legalism that might have characterized their upbringing. I’m all for an article which carefully and humbly questions the cultural artifacts that we enjoy (some indignation may even be appropriate in some cases); Jake’s article is like a Gardnerian analysis brought to bear on television. Christ and Pop Culture had a relatively similar article assessing whether Game of Thrones is a worthwhile cultural artifact. I like Gardner, but I also disagree with his assessment of Updike and Percy. Speaking of Updike, I’ve often thought that Don Draper is basically “Mr. Death” himself, Rabbit Angstrom. There just aren’t many Kruppenbach’s on Madison Avenue in the ‘60’s.

So I agree with the shape of Jake’s argument. I think it’s important that we negotiate enjoying art with discernment, and moral discrimination can undoubtedly be part of that discernment without descending into a kind of legalistic moralism. I’m a film columnist and I often make these sorts of discretionary choices. A recent example was my decision to forego Spring Breakers. Several critics have suggested that it’s a film which subverts spring break culture, but after doing some reading and interacting with some film critic communities regarding their impressions of Mr. Korine, I decided not to see and review it for my audience. Christian critics should both do a kind of direct diagnostic work, but also occasionally (as necessary) provide some discretionary warning. For example, I respect Jeffrey Overstreet for his willingness to not only be transparent about the fact that he walked out of Compliance, but then present his reasons for doing so instead of just ditching the review altogether. These warnings and discretionary moves don’t even necessarily have to be conclusive declarations.

So, in short, I’m glad that Jake has started this conversation on the ethics of watching Mad Men; even in my disagreement with his conclusion, I recognize the benefits of having the conversation. It pushes me—a person who enjoys and plans to continue watching Mad Men—to more carefully evaluate my position.

Frankly, it’s not my intention or desire here to go into a long-winded analysis of the show. I’ve offered more thorough impressions of seasons 1-4 and of season 5. I want to make just a few counter points to Jake’s specific suggestion that the show in some sense glorifies, or at least encourages glorifying, its characters. Taking his post and his comments in the comment thread into consideration, I think the word that best describes Jake’s trouble with the series is “glossy.” That is, he seems to think that the show is too enticing—too enjoyable—in such a way that lessens or even overwhelms the import of its characters’ self-destruction. I can’t help but feel that this analysis is only half true, and doesn’t quite appreciate the very nature of the show. Think first of the opening credit sequence that begins every episode: it’s filled with advertisements of sexed up women and alcohol . . . on buildings as a shadowy outline of Don Draper is falling to his death.

My essential contention has been that the nature of these characters’ madness is a slow, ignorant suicide of the self. Their singular pursuit of happiness qua self-indulgent, unrestrained freedom produces self-destruction—it’s a culture of death. These Ad Men want to find happiness in the superficial identities they sell to themselves as all-encompassing fulfillment; total self-defined self-creation is the business they’re in, and Dick Whitman (dressed up as “Don Draper”) is the quintessential example. A sense of dread hangs over him from the very beginning of the series, when he leaves his kid’s birthday party and doesn’t return until hours later. Instead of returning, he sits in his car by the railroad tracks, looking at an oncoming train as if he might drive his car in front of it. Most recently, pretty much every television critic agreed that season 5 had a positively ominous feel to it. And, yes, a literal suicide eventually came.

So if we’re not going to ignore the essential discontent and sadness which haunts every character, then what do we make of the sometimes “glossy” feel of the show that Jake describes? Well, I would say that this is the very nature of advertising. “Mad Men,” of course, is a play on words of “ad men.” I was somewhat jesting above about the enticement to drink alcohol; what is truly enticing about some of these characters, particularly Don, is their inimitable charisma. When Don Draper gets in a boardroom to sell a product, he sells you on his ability to sell. All of these characters have that advertising charm—that gloss—about them. And I think Matthew Weiner does well to play this up. 

Secondarily, I would suggest that part of the issue is that even as the show presents its characters’ awful behavior, it doesn’t do so in such a way that makes us despise them. Instead, it takes a more sympathetic view of its characters that might inspire a care for them that takes the shape of sympathy, or of wishing they would be better persons. So while I wouldn’t discount an individual’s contention that the show forms him or her in bad ways, I would offer the reminder that allowing people space enough to care for or even like immoral characters isn’t tacit endorsement of who they are as people. I don’t think Jake would disagree with this point, but I think it needs to be considered in the context of his assertion that the show encourages a kind of envious imitation or approval. Maybe they’re messy humans that invite both our disgust and our enjoyment.

I’m not typically the sort of person who takes easy offense at generalizing statements, and I’m not offended here, either. But in this case, I have to ask—who exactly is “we” when Jake says that “we watch Mad Men because we want to be the characters.” We do? Maybe I’m unaware of such an agreeing group, but among the many friends I have who watch the show, I can’t think of any who want to be Don, Pete, or Roger. Again, their charisma may be enticing or even humorous, but that’s not the same thing as being enviable persons. The lasting impression isn’t charisma or conquering manliness—it’s alcoholism, sexism, adultery, suicide, discontentment, and alienation.

One last note about the appeal of mad men and our supposed desire to be like them: any assertion of this sort can’t be adequately made without discussing Peggy Olson. If there is a faint sense of a moral center—or of a character we might feel especially compelled to “root” for—it’s Peggy. Starting out as Don’s belittled secretary, Peggy consistently fights against bullying and sexism to achieve success at the ad agency. But the show clearly has Peggy in a position where she must negotiate “success” as something other than simply becoming like the men who not only mistreat her, but whose lives are evidently falling apart. She finally achieves a semblance of the “freedom” her fellow mad men enjoy, but at certain points her dissatisfaction is evident. Like the other mad men, contentment is always elusive, and she alienates herself from her family, from a potential marriage, and from her unexpected child—the product of an office affair with a then-engaged man.

In short: Peggy wants what the mad men have, and it’s clearly leading to her self-destruction.

But Peggy very much recognizes this conflict during the most recent season. She is dumbfounded when Megan decides to quit her job at the agency, but also seemingly stung by the realization that attaining “Heinz Beans” may not be the personal and professional mountaintop that she perceives it to be. The heart of Peggy’s conflict is perhaps most transparent when she asks if she’s too much like a man; in a sense, she’s effectively wondering if she’s becoming who Don used to be. Peggy increasingly struggles with the fact that pursuing the mad man’s lifestyle that she so desires may just transform her into that which she despises. One minute she is “servicing” a random stranger at the movie theatre, and the next minute she seems hopeful at the prospect of marital engagement.

It’s a question that hangs in the air for Mad Men’s final seasons: what “freedom” must she attain as a woman—as a person—in order to achieve the status of respectability she so desires without self-destructing?

There’s much else that could be said about Mad Men as a show that truthfully depicts consequences—as a show that is inevitably moral—even if it persistently operates on a negative trajectory. But where does that leave us as far as the ethics of watching Mad Men? Well, I’d rather not make a blanket statement on this show. You may or may not find Mad Men worth watching. Far be it from me to take issue with people who decide that the show isn’t a beneficial use of their time. While I agree that “art” is often a cover up for degrading garbage, I would submit that this is a case where the artistic quality of the show shouldn’t be overlooked. Aesthetics and ethics are inevitably bound together. This show may be nihilistic at bottom, but that doesn’t mean it can’t, by virtue of the way it is made, be an illuminating show in pieces of its fragmentation. Compare something like a weekly CBS crime drama that has self-evidently clear “good guys” and “bad guys,” but makes murder and other gruesome violence into redundant titillation with no serious stakes.

Which is to say: I wonder about the ethics of watching CSI in all of its iterations. Are the shows of its ilk more likely to make us mad?

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  • Nate

    While a valiant effort from Jake below to get the conversation going, this was much more spot-on.

  • M. Leary

    Nick, I had a hard time with the previous post to which you are responding, and you hit on those concerns very well. Thanks for your effort here. Your last question is very well phrased. Also digging seeing your byline here at Matt’s house!

    • Nick O.

      Thanks M!

  • Bethany

    Both posts on Mere-O about Mad Men make great points. But I am still left wondering:

    1) Why do we, as the people of God, desire to be entertained by a show about adultery, alcohol, and the slow death of the soul (and body) by this life without God? As a moral and philosophical question, the show is interesting. But for entertainment? There’s enough horrible stuff in life if you just get out and talk to real people, or (in many cases) take a look at ourselves.

    2) Nick – you talk about the benefits of discernment and moral discrimination when it comes to entertainment. But is there anything short of snuff films and hardcore porn that you would not merit as worth watching so long as it scored high enough on the “artistic” scale?

    • Nick O.

      Bethany, briefly to your number 2: sure, I mentioned 2 or 3 in the post, none of which could be described as “snuff films” or “hardcore porn.”

      I also made clear that “art” is often used as a coverup for garbage, and no, I didn’t have in mind snuff films or porn when making the assertion.

      So short of my making a sidebar list of entertainments I discriminate against on the basis of particular moral standards, I think you’ll have to trust what I’ve written in the post itself.

      • Nick O.

        In case it wasn’t clear, I meant above that snuff films and porn would obviously be included under the banner “garbage,” but certainly not limited to them. And I think that’s evident in my post.

    • Nick O.

      Lastly, Bethany, you write, “why do we desire to be entertained by a show about adultery, alcoholism, etc.” The short answer is because of *how* it’s “about” those things. As it pertains to art, more often than not discerning the moral shape of a cultural artifact means dealing with the “how” not the “about.” To ignore the former is to find yourself all mixed up in discerning which shows are beneficial and which aren’t. Hence my concluding lines.

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  • biotrom

    Good thoughts all round.

    In response to your question about who is the “we” who want to be the Mad Med… I don’t particularly enjoy the show myself, but when I read Jake’s “we” I felt like I knew who he was talking about. Especially around Season Two or sometime all of my friends’ profile pictures were those little marketing gimmick cartoons, and I encountered posts like this: http://www.artofmanliness.com/2009/10/27/the-mad-men-guide-to-a-manly-haircut/. And that’s from a site that’s dedicated to promoting virtue.

    So at least some people got stuck at the “glossy.”

    And a quick Google search revealed that it’s at least enough of a phenomenon to elicit this response: http://www.somethingawful.com/d/news/don-draper-curse.php

    Shiny.

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