The Ethics of Watching Mad Men

In a recent Comment piece, Jamie Smith argued that one of the foremost challenges facing Christians today is not whether or not we ought to engage popular culture–that battle has been won. The new question we have to face is what the shape of our engagement will be. We’re no longer wondering “Is it OK for Christians to watch R rated movies?” or “Is it OK for Christians to work in politics?” Those questions have been definitively answered in the affirmative. Now the questions are “how do Christians watch movies?” and “what sort of political presence should Christians pursue?”

This weekend Christians will have an excellent chance to put this thinking into practice as we consider AMC’s returning hit Mad Men, which opens season six on Sunday evening. In years past, evangelicals would brush the show aside, put off by its libertine sexual ethics, the colorful language used by some of the characters, and the general moral free-for-all that defines the show. Today’s evangelicals, reacting against the legalism (real or perceived) of their childhood faith, have often instead embraced the show, citing its exquisite settings and costumes, excellent writing, and tremendously complex characters.

While it is certainly good that evangelicals can recognize and appreciate good art when they see it (it was not always so), I do feel some trepidation all the same about our embrace of shows like Mad Men. Churchill famously said that first we shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us. I suspect that something similar happens when we’re talking about stories.

In older stories, what Chesterton would likely call the great fairy tales, we hear a story of a great hero who we come to love. We cheer for him in his triumphs and grieve his failings and above all we hope for him to come to a good end. So we cheer when Frodo destroys the ring or when Orlando and Rosalind are finally brought together.

Mad Men

Of course, other stories create a different sort of hero or, more properly, an anti-hero–a protagonist that we initially admire and support but who becomes a loathsome villain as the story is told. Dorian Gray, Macbeth, and Walter White all come to mind as good examples of anti-heroes.

The important commonality both types of stories share is that there’s a real moral universe standing behind the story and the story takes place in that predefined world. So Frodo is an heroic figure and if we grow to love him we will have done well. Likewise we ought to learn to despise Walter White, even while perhaps holding out hope that something might get through his pride and ego deep enough to remind him of the man he once was.

But there is another way to tell a story, which begins by blowing up that moral backdrop and replacing it with an aimless, purposeless, utterly silent universe. (Here Matt would say that we’re simply talking about the old Greek debate between the chaos of Homer and the order of Plato.) In chaotic stories, we can’t really judge characters as being good or evil, but simply as being effective or ineffective at doing what they want to do. Think of Albert Camus’ The Stranger or the recent film There Will Be Blood. In a chaotic story, all that ultimately exists is the individual. And the individuals in the story are either strong enough to act as free beings unencumbered by limitation (think of Camus’ narrator who kills a man on the beach and feels no remorse) or they’re too weak and are crushed by rival characters more willing to do what’s needed (think of Daniel Plainview killing Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood or Francis Underwood’s manipulation of Congressman Russo in House of Cards). Oftentimes, these chaotic stories may be compelling narratives, but the universe in which they take place is so bleak and terrifying that we can’t feel any attraction to it. (Game of Thrones would be another good example of this, I think.) “Life’s a bitch” may make for an interesting story, but it doesn’t make for much of a world. And when we see the bleak chaos of Sartre’s Nausea or the 2007 film No Country for Old Men, we are rightly horrified and come away from it hoping for something to bring order to the chaos.

And this brings us back to AMC’s Mad Men. The show clearly takes place in a chaotic universe–there are no gods giving direction to the characters, the existing social orders are crumbling, and a person’s identity is completely fluid, to the point that one person can assume another’s identity and build for themselves a pretty successful, comfortable life in the process. The only limits in the world of Mad Men are the limits of ingenuity, conscience, and ambition. In all these respects, this is a classic chaotic world story.

Yet unlike Game of Thrones, The Stranger, or There Will Be Blood, Mad Men still has an incredibly visceral appeal to viewers. We watch Game of Thrones because the characters are interesting, but we watch Mad Men because we want to be the characters. That’s why the show’s marketing includes promotional gimmicks like the “Mad Men” yourself tool on the website that allows you to create a version of yourself that looks just like Don, Roger, Joan, or Peggy. And it’s why the same marketing team has been releasing a new cocktail mix every day in buildup to the show’s release. With “Mad Men” yourself you can dress yourself like one of the Mad Men and with the cocktail guide you can drink what they drink. Everything about the show is intended to draw us into a deeply seductive world marked by good booze, guilt-free smokes, and strings-free sex. The glitz and glamor of the show has the effect of making us smile upon things we ordinarily would find horrifying–like Don’s serial infidelity, Roger’s philandering, and the naked selfishness of Pete Campbell. And that is where the show loses me: Ultimately, 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.

When I first started watching the show a few years ago, a friend of mine commented that the show seemed too decadent for his tastes. Three years on and I think his diagnosis precisely right. And so as season six approaches, I don’t have any plans to watch it. Of course, there can be value in reading bleak stories shorn of any redemptive element. If there weren’t, our Bible–and especially the Old Testament history books–would be a whole lot shorter. So my decision to skip a show that I enjoyed tremendously over the first four seasons isn’t based on some lazy truism about no redemptive themes or some similar nonsense. It can be a very, very good thing for Christians to soak in a world of anti-heroes where there is no happy ending. We learn to love the light a bit more after spending a bit of time in the dark. That’s why I actually think more Christians should watch Breaking Bad. Nothing will make the Bible’s warnings against pride come alive like seeing Walter White’s life fall apart as a result of his pervasive pride. But Mad Men is a horse of a different color. It’s failure is not that it lacks any redemptive characters. In that sense, it is no different than many of the stories from Judges. Mad Men’s failure is that it doesn’t even know what “redemption” is.

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  • flyaway

    For me TV is a tranquilizer but my son challenged me to stop watching soap operas. I decided it was a good idea when I started to pray for the characters. Now if I can’t identify with a character immediately I cross that show off my watchlist. I’m down to NCIS and Elementary as the characters haven’t jumped in to bed with each other yet. I now check books out of our church library to read, as they usually have some socially redeeming characters. Only one Oprah book I read had a happy ending, it was called “The Color of God” by James McBride. I couldn’t read “Poisonwood Bible” as I couldn’t identify with any of the characters. I do like Liz Wiehl books as she doesn’t use bad language and usually has one Christian character.

  • flyaway

    Sorry, the James McBride book is called, “The Color of Water.”

  • GaryH

    Since the show hasn’t ended yet, do you think your opinion of it might change? If “Romeo and Juliet” had a happy ending, then the first two acts would be understood in a completely different light. Until we see the end of Mad Men, I don’t think we can say with much confidence what kind of world the characters live in.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=17221217 Jake Meador

      Gary – It’s definitely a possibility worth considering. But the show will be seven seasons. We’ve had five. At this point if the show changed tone that dramatically, I’d a) be a bit disappointed in it as a work of art (it’d be a complete departure from the first five seasons) and b) I’d be very surprised.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

    Fascinating analysis. First off, I have to confess, I don’t watch Mad Men much. I know it’s top-notch acting, storytelling, etc. but I watched a few early episodes and decided I hate everyone far too much to keep going. That said, my wife watches it and keeps me filled in. We read your review together and the one thing that stuck out most to her, as a viewer, is that nobody wins in the show. Sure, Don has fling after fling, lies about his identity, is an alcoholic, etc. but it does cost him his marriage and you end seeing these as symptoms of his hollow soul. The sex is not consequence-less. In fact, much of the plot is driven by the way his character manages the carnage of his sexual choices. Nearly the same is true for every other character. They look good, and you might want to dress like them, and even learn how to make an old-fashioned, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you want to be them.

    As for the redemptive element, I would put in that not every story tells the 3-act drama of creation, fall, and redemption. This, to my mind, is a depiction of creation broken, gone wrong, fallen, and corrupted. In fact, in discussing it with my wife, we’ve come to the conclusion that Mad Men, while being a sort of chaotic universe, serves the function that Ecclesiastes does within the canon (assuming Tremper Longman III’s pessimistic view.) It shows us life under the sun, in a world without the covenant God. Don Draper is a 1960s Solomon who gets the money, the women, the power, and at the end (which we haven’t seen yet) seems to be experiencing the vanity of it all. The vision is bleak, and redemption isn’t a part of the picture, but that can still serve a redemptive purpose.

    These are just a few off-the-cuff remarks. Still, great food for thought.

    • Hermonta Godwin

      One thing that I would question is, “They look good, and you might want to dress like them, and even learn how to make an old-fashioned, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you want to be them.”

      Why would one want to dress like the characters if they did not find the characters appealing and wish to emulate at some level? No one is going out of their way to dress like Lindsay Lohan, because everyone considers her life to be a train wreck.

      Next, even if one wants to compare the show to Ecclesiastes, I don’t think it works because Ecclesiastes still has a moral universe as its background. What it does is force you to understand that this life is not all their is.

      • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

        It’s actually pretty easy to think someone has a great sense of fashion without wanting to copy their moral lifestyle. Just as it’s easy to think someone is a talented actor, or musician, enjoy their music or performances and not want to participate in the after-parties and such, it’s easy to want to look like someone on Mad Men and not behave the way they do.

        Second, yes, Ecclesiastes has a moral universe of sorts, but according to one interpretation I’m drawing on (Tremper Longman III), it’s one that is not the typical picture we see throughout the rest of the canon. It is the frame narratives that make it orthodox.

        • Hermonta Godwin

          If you wish to take the fashion style angle, then that still does not reach to the point of wishing to dress like them. You can say that they have a great sense of fashion etc without attempting to find someway that you look like them. The only reason to copy a person (to the level of attempting to look like and drink like them), is to like that person.

          For example, let us imagine a well respected fashion designer was found to be a child molester. What would happen to the sales of the lines that people loved the day before?

          As far as Ecclesiastes goes, I suppose one can find various interpretations going in any direction one wants to go, but it seems that an isolated interpretation to be a weak reed to rest a defense of the show on.

          • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

            You’re right. That one time a found out a serial killer wore blue jeans marked the last time I ever wore a pair. ;)

            But seriously though, I disagree. I say this as a guy who sees the way dudes that I have no desire at all to imitate morally dress and think “I could pull that off.” My wife absolutely loves the fashion sense of various celebrities and writes about them, but can’t stand a single thing they say when they open their mouths. It really is possible.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=17221217 Jake Meador

      Derek – I agree. One of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had in which the Gospel looked clearer to me and a bit more beautiful was after seeing a performance of Sartre’s “Dirty Hands.” The character bursts through the door, shouts “unsalvageable!” the lights go out, guns fire, and the curtain drops. It’s a devastating, devastating end. I could easily see Mad Men working the same way.

      That said, I think the way Mad Men glosses everything up makes it a lot harder to see those things for what they are. Put another way, stories in a chaotic world ought to terrify us as Christians, absolutely terrify us. Sartre’s books do that for me. No Country did that, There Will Be Blood did that. But Mad Men looks so good that it has a seductive quality those other shows don’t have, which is what scares me with it.

      • Nick O.

        Hey Jake,

        Does “glossing things up” necessarily mean that the consequences are bypassed or less ugly? I don’t know about that. The show is “glossed up” in the sense that madness is seductive. Not to mention this “glossy” effect is precisely the effect of advertising.

        In short: MAD MEN makes death look sexy in its *appeal*–not in its *effects.* This is an important subtle difference, I think.

        I get it: Josh Larsen once said that Mad Men foremost made him want to have a drink, which wasn’t a comment about the ethics of drinking, but about the primary effect of the show. I sense this “gloss,” but the show too often shows its characters edging toward the abyss.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=17221217 Jake Meador

          Nick – It’s a fair point, but I think there’s an important difference between the negative consequences most the Mad Men characters experience and the negative consequences that a character like Walter White experiences.

          One of Roger Sterling’s funniest, most horrible one liners is “when God closes a door, he opens a dress.” That seems like as good a summary of the “consequences” of Mad Men as anything. Save Sally Draper, there isn’t anyone who I think has seen their life completely fall apart with minimal chance of putting it back together. Pete cheats at business and cheats on his wife, but the baby he fathers disappears without effecting him and he manages to continually climb the ladder. Don cheats for three solid seasons, gets a divorce, spends one year finding his feet again, and then ends up with an even more attractive wife who isn’t completely insane. I’d say that’s a net win for him. Roger isn’t what he was at the start, but I think that’s more a factor of his age and the world passing him by then a direct consequence of his decisions. Lane is obv. the other one whose life falls apart in a big way, but even there’s he treated as more of a victim, from what I’ve read (I only read about season 5, so I can’t say for sure). So we have two guys who make crap choices and are rewarded for it and two guys who become victims of forces beyond their control. I’m still waiting for the Walter White figure.

          If all we’re saying is “destructive behaviors in Mad Men lead to initially unpleasant consequences,” I can buy that. But “initially unpleasant consequences” and “reaping what you sow” are different things. Walter White’s life has fallen apart. Don Draper and Pete Campbell have some nasty consequences, but what makes them who they are is their ability to snap back and overcome adversity (note the Nietzschean theme) whereas Roger and Lane are too weak to overcome their challenges and end up being overwhelmed by them.

      • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

        My wife basically said the same thing as Nick. O did. She points to the opening credits with all the adverts and the inherent sexiness, but in the end its a guy falling to his death.

        I do appreciate your point, though. i think its probably easy for a lot of viewers to miss the subtlety.

  • Jared Wilson

    “Strings-free sex”? We must not be watching the same show. Smiling at infidelity and boozing? I don’t think so. The dramatic power in the show, from my perspective, is how empty these people’s lives really are, how it shows these things, in the gathering stream of the moral obtuseness of the 60′s and the crumbling privilege of powerful white men, as sad attempts at filling a leaky bucket.

    Don’t all the characters engaged in these acts seem sort of, well, *sad*? That’s kind of the point, I think. I don’t think it glorifies their sin at all, at least not any more than the sense that all sin looks shiny at first.

  • SJ

    I think the mixed feelings people have with Madmen is part of how we few the 60′s as a whole. We want to dress like them sure, with the nuclear family model in its hay-day through the 50′s, social constructs were much more apart of daily life. Of course we were requiring to dress more formally and complex codes of conduct sprouted out of the closer connectivity

    We, far more postmodern, live in neighborhoods where we could careless what people think. Where it is thought immoral to judge other lifestyle choices. All of this is quite opposite of the yesteryear madmen brings to life. Especially in the church we have a utterly un-biblical infatuation with the dreamy 1950′s. We are in love with the idea of the “happy home” Don and Betty are faking through the earlier parts of the show. How many a sermon have we all heard about the “glory days” and how family values need to return to the atomic era.

    The contrast to this stary-eyed notion is why I love madmen so much. It is the more blatant reminder that things were not at all what many people were happy to pretend. That in the mist of a supposedly more moral culture was really a more stringent code of conduct easily likened to our postmodern “political correctness.” Statistically the depravity portrayed is accurate. While we are far more aware of teen suicide, child abuse, and sexual violence the statistics seem to indicated that these darker facets of humanity are actually decreasing. As a church we desperately need to take off the rose colored glasses in view of the 50′s and 60′s and remember the utter irreverence of the church which abandoned a generation in a sexual revolution,and the often lukewarm stance on racial equality we have taken. Madmen has character that do potray an exaggerated darkness of the world we live in, but they are equisitly written as human.

  • tara wagner

    I’m also a former fan who decided it wasn’t in my best interests to keep watching the show. As a female, I realized the more I watched Don Draper…the more what he did seemed acceptable. Even appropriate.

  • http://www.facebook.com/diedunkeleins Ryan Hood

    I’m very disappointed. I feel like the analysis here falls short of recognizing the nuances of this fantastic work of television. It is not a simple tragedy. His life doesn’t simply fail every time he makes a bad decision. There is no spiral. Because that is not how the world works. We twist and writhe in sin until we die, barring the grace of God. We rarely go out in flames. Don Draper isn’t happy. He doesn’t get away with pretending to be someone he’s not. His wife leaves him. His brother haunts him. Everyone is on the brink, but as in life, only occasionally does someone find themselves at the end of a rope. Mostly they just muddle on and try to forget the dream of happiness. I believe this show diagnoses the life that you accuse it of endorsing. Certainly the ad campaigns and marketing take a bad spin. Have you ever seen Breaking Bad’s stuff. It’s hugely glorifying of Walter. I really think this show, possibly uniquely among all the dramatic TV I’ve watched in my life, shows life in all its joy and pain, unflinchingly. No drugs, no murder, no explosions, just life.

  • Kim Karpeles

    I’ve found Mad Men to be a fascinating series. So fascinating I chose to use four episodes from the first season for a cultural and theological analysis paper in my Cultural Hermeneutics class in seminary.

    I grew up during the time period covered in the first five seasons of the show and remember the historical events through a child’s eyes with the running commentary of my parents in the background. As an adult watching the dramatization of this era, I have gained a greater understanding and appreciation for the incredible societal shifts that occurred in the 60′s.

    The incredible accuracy as to props and clothing brought back long-forgotten memories of a certain yellow kitchen stool, pedal pusher pants and a set of kitchen canisters — much to my amusement.

    Do the sexual capers dampen my enthusiasm? Do I find the nihilism depressing? Does the lack of one redeeming character bug me? Does the lack of character growth and change drive me crazy?

    Yes. But I’m still a fan and the DVR is ready to roll.

  • Dustin W.

    You’re a great writer and this piece is fantastic.

    • Dustin W.

      Are there any books you would recommend that have informed your understanding of story and theology?

  • http://twitter.com/sometimesalight hannah anderson

    So at what point do the lack of redemptive themes become problematic? Most of the comments in support of Mad Men argue that it doesn’t glorify sin but that it accurately shows the nihilism and muddled mess that we get ourselves into as human beings. True enough, but isn’t it just as dangerous to show the muddled mess with no hope of redemption as it is to show sin without consequences?

  • SJ

    Thought, how is this series (lacking redemptive themes, inappropriate sex, and complex character and social developments) any different to some of the more depressing Russian novels acclaimed for capturing humanity?

  • Jonny M

    I fail to see how Mad Men falls short of displaying redemption, but Breaking Bad doesn’t. Couldn’t Mad Men’s lack of redemption be reason enough to watch the show- so that it magnifies the gospel (like BB)?

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  • jim

    From the 1st episode of this new season, & the 1st time we hear Draper’s voice, he reads the opening lines of Dante’s “The Inferno.”

    “These are stories of men who experience the ways of death without
    actually dying”

    It’s a capsule of the meaning of Mad Men. The episode goes on to explore the loss or death of identity… and the desire for change.

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  • Matt

    I quit reading this after this line: “We watch Game of Thrones because the characters are interesting, but we watch Mad Men because we want to be the characters.” I like Mad Men but I wouldn’t want to be any of the characters.

  • Dan

    I haven’t watched television since Seinfeld left the air. It’s the most evil addictive drug in America. It makes you fat, lazy, and stupid. Seems to me in a world where millions starve, where there’s not enough clean energy or clean water, where Christians in non-English-speaking countries are persecuted, where war and famine are endless realities for billions, it’s bad enough to waste time watching TV, but to add to that the insult of writing about it too, is simply asinine. If they actually had good drama on TV that might be one thing. Sorry, but I just don’t find shooting people and fornicating to be entertaining. We’re saved by grace so you do what you like with the precious few moments of life God gives us on this earth.