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The Ethics of Watching Mad Men

April 5th, 2013 | 8 min read

By Jake Meador

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.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).