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“Mad Men” and the Depression of Don Draper

About four years ago, I had to take the long flight to New Zealand to give a retreat to the priests of the diocese of Christchurch. In order to pass the time, I brought along an iPad with the entire first season of “Madmen” on it. So in one very intense period, I got immersed in the world of Don Draper, a world that I vaguely remember from my own childhood—not the booze and the affairs, of course, but the look, the feel, the colors, the way people moved and talked. My father was absolutely nothing like Don Draper in terms of behavior, but he dressed like Don: neatly pressed suits and ties, every hair in place, even his casual clothes pretty formal. Then in the course of the past four years, I would occasionally catch a bit of an episode while surfing through the cable, but since I had lost the story line, many of the shows didn’t make sense and I lost interest. Finally, two weeks ago, I found myself flat on my back in a hospital bed, and AMC was running a “Madmen Marathon” in advance of the final episode, and so I got another intense immersion in the program. 

The show is remarkably well-written, beautifully imagined and filmed, extremely well-acted, deeply entertaining—and intensely depressing. Granted, I saw most of the episodes while stuck on an airplane or confined to a hospital bed, but after a steady exposure to “Madmen,” I found my heart just sinking into sadness. It is the story of a group of people trying desperately to be happy but going about it so dysfunctionally that they make themselves perfectly unhappy. The contemporary spiritual writer Anthony de Mello spoke often of the programming that most of us receive from the time we are young and that determines our thinking and action for the whole of our lives. A key component of that hardwiring is that we can become happy by filling up the emptiness of our hearts with money, pleasure, power, and prestige. We are told—by parents, by the popular culture, by books, movies, and songs, and perhaps especially, advertising—that if we just get enough of those four things we will be content. (Do you remember that Don Draper, in an early episode, cracks a grin and says, “The purpose of advertising is happiness!”) The problem is that this programming is haywire and leads, finally, to the breakdown of the machine itself. What in fact makes us happy is conformity to God’s way of being, which is the path of love, giving oneself away for the sake of the other. Once that attitude is firmly in place, then we know what to do with whatever wealth, pleasure, power, or honor we attain; if that attitude is missing, then those very things that we think will please us will end up destroying us. 

Now these are fundamental truths that have been taught by every major religious tradition for thousands of years, but I don’t know if they find any better ratification and exemplification than Don Draper and his friends. If the programming is right, then Don should be the happiest man in 1960’s New York. His wealth buys him a beautiful home in the suburbs, access to the finest clubs and restaurants, vacations across the country, etc. He has all the pleasure—from food, smoking, drink, and sex—that one could possibly want. As a “Madman,” a top ad executive, reigning from an office high above Manhattan, he is a lord of the universe, powerful indeed by mid-twentieth century standards. Handsome, successful, a cool cat, he is universally admired by both men and women. He has it all, and yet his heart is numb and he radiates depression to all around him. The same is true, perhaps even in a more pointed way, of Don’s colleague Roger, a man who would have moved very comfortably with the Rat Pack, indulging his every desire, and who seems, nevertheless, utterly lost, adrift, finally pathetic.

One of the most lyrical moments in the entire series is “Bert’s Last Dance.” Bert Cooper, founder of the ad agency for which Don and Roger work, and a man who always seemed more spiritually alert than his underlings, died suddenly, and the office was in mourning. As Don is making his way through the corridors, he hears, to his infinite surprise, Bert’s voice, “Don, my boy.” He then watches as Bert, along with several beautiful secretaries, does a little dance and sings the song, “The Best Things in Life Are Free.” The vision fades, and Don’s eyes fill with tears. Was it a hallucination, a grief-induced fantasy, a manifestation from a higher realm? Who knows, but in any case it was a breakthrough of the religious truth I’ve been describing.

As I was watching episode after episode of this landmark series, my mind kept drifting to the recently-released Pew Forum study, which showed that the mainstream religions, especially Catholicism, are losing members in droves and that most of the departed are drifting into the category of the “nones,” those with no religious affiliation. Increasingly, it seems, secularism (life without God) is becoming a default position of many in our society. I fully realize that there are many reasons to be impatient with organized religion, but can I beg those who are blithely opting for the secularist lifestyle: take a good, hard look at Don Draper.