Thursday, February 10, 2011

Mad Men

Like a lot of people, I don't put much stock in things like the Emmy Awards. But when the nominations were announced a couple of weeks ago, I couldn't help but be excited to hear that they recognized my favorite new show, Mad Men. As the first original series produced by American Movie Classics (AMC), it flew largely under the radar when it aired last summer.

On the surface, the show is about the culture surrounding the Madison Avenue-based advertising industry in the early 1960’s. It has everything one might associate from that period, from chain smoking to hard drinking to overt male chauvinism. But like all good works of art, a more subtle story flows underneath.

Don Draper, the protagonist, is a mid-to-late thirties advertising executive with a well-paying job and a beautiful family. The shiny exterior, however, belies the existential groaning within. In the first episode, Draper hits the viewer over the head with the answer he gives to a question of a potential client: “You’re born alone and you die alone, and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget.”

He’s right about that, by the way. You were born alone and you will die alone. No community is going to join you in that. They will have to face it themselves one day but they will do it alone. The question is where you go with that. Many people choose the Stoic route. Most religions take this way as do many agnostics and atheists. Another way is the Epicurean route. Most people I know, at least, go this way. The final way is Christianity.

Don Draper has chosen the Epicurean route. Get everything you can out of life before you die. This route carries with it a terrible cost. It seems the writers of the show want to emphasize this when they periodically mention the works of philosopher Ayn Rand (apparently she was causing quite an uproar during this period). Rand believed that the goal of life is to fulfill one’s inherent potential and “will to power”. In her system, one person wins over others in a Darwinian struggle to grab the golden ring. The weak fall by the wayside and no compassion is to be given. This is a terrible fate both for the victor and the vanquished. Lutheran theologian Mark Mattes puts it best:

“Humans exist for God’s good pleasure, not vice versa. In this truth, humans can find liberation from their self-imposed tutelage arising from the belief that their freedom could be secured in exercising their self-expression. The need to actualize this potential becomes a compulsion to authenticate and establish the self. In such self-expression, we become like Atlas, bearing the whole world on our shoulders, and in that way are doomed to be free (Jean Paul Sartre [1905-1980]).”

Mad Men attempts to show the truth of these words as they work themselves out on/in a very sublimated man. On the outside: smooth, masculine, and competent. On the inside: a towering inferno of confusion and pain; fueled by a hidden and quite sordid past.

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