‘Mad Men’ as an exploration of human fallenness

The hit TV series is replete with theological metaphors.

By Steven Harmon

“I keep wondering: have I broken the vessel?”

Don Draper’s mid-flirtation confession to his airline seatmate in the April 13 premiere of the seventh (and final) season of the AMC drama Mad Men may prove to be the single most theologically significant line of the series.

Man Men has been rich in material that evokes theological reflection on the human story, for this tale of the excesses of 1960s-era Madison Avenue advertising executives is really an exploration of the fallenness of the human condition. Lest anyone miss what the show is really about, the opening sequence features an image inspired by the falling man poster for the Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo — a silhouetted businessman falling from a Manhattan skyscraper, tumbling through the advertised symbols of American affluence.

The story of lead character Don Draper’s fallenness is really the story of everybody. It keeps searching for the sort of narrative reframing Augustine of Hippo offered for his own story in the beginning of Book II of his Confessions near the end of the fourth century: “I will try now to give a coherent account of my disintegrated self, for when I turned away from you, the one God, and pursued a multitude of things, I went to pieces.”

In last year’s season finale, Don hits the rock bottom of his fallenness. (Season 6, it should be noted, was framed by references to Dante’s Inferno: Don reads from it in the first scene of the premiere, and a Dante’s Inferno poster is hanging on the wall of Roger Sterling’s office in the finale.) He’s in a bar drowning his sorrows with drink when a preacher strikes up an evangelistic conversation with Don, in the course of which the preacher suggests that people like the recently assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were punished by God because they weren’t “true believers.” Whereupon Don demands, “What did you say?,” punches the preacher in the face and spends the night in jail. Don’s lashing out in anger was triggered by a flashback to a childhood memory of another preacher who’d told him, “The only unpardonable sin is to believe that God cannot forgive you.”

The key to the theological dimensions of Don’s story and their trajectory throughout the series is another story to which Mad Men has made not-so-subtle references: Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 play Peer Gynt. Its protagonist, who has numerous parallels to the character of Don Draper, believes himself to be beyond redemption and in the final act asks, “Where was I as the one I should have been, whole and true, with the mark of God on my brow?”

Mad Men connects Don’s story with Peer Gynt’s in Season 2, Episode 12, “The Mountain King.” The title is supplied by Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from his Peer Gynt Suite composed for the first stage production of Ibsen’s play; we hear the piece played by a piano student of Anna Draper, the widow of the “real” Don Draper, when our Don arrives at her home.

The episode itself is framed by Eucharistic references in the opening and what functions as a baptismal scene in conclusion, backed by the George Jones song Cup of Loneliness leading into the end credits — a “se-baptism” that suggests that Don might be on his way toward reframing his story in light of the story of resurrection, which also figures in the episode. (Just to make sure we didn’t miss the Ibsen/Peer Gynt connection, in Season 3 character Joan Harris remarks that a want ad “reads like the stage directions from an Ibsen play.”)

We’ve known for a long time that Don’s struggle with finding a coherent account of his disintegrated self is central to his character. In Season 1, Episode 8, “The Hobo Code,” Don has a series of flashbacks to his early life as Dick Whitman and childhood memories of his deceitful father. Late that evening Don goes up to his son’s room, awakens him, and promises “I will never lie to you.” But in the next and final scene, the next morning he walks into his office and closes the door, and the camera focuses on the nameplate bearing his assumed identity before Gimme That Old Time Religion plays over the end credits.

Will the final season of Mad Men (which will air in two seven-episode parts in 2014 and 2015) end with Don finding a way to reframe the totality of his story with integrity? There are several possible outcomes. But however Don’s story turns out, I’m looking forward to the theological reflection on the human condition its final chapter will undoubtedly elicit.

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