Deconstructing Mad Men: TV's Best Gender-Driven Drama
- Friday, August 14, 2009
Rather than being didactically overt, creator/producer Matthew Weiner (The Sopranos) prefers making literary references to help flesh out greater psychological underpinnings. The most substantial to the series is found in Season 1; it’s of Ayn Rand, the twentieth-century novelist who developed the philosophy of Objectivism. Rand sums up this worldview best in the 35th Anniversary Edition of her most famous work, Atlas Shrugged:
“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”
The practical extension of that philosophy is, in many respects, positively American as it can only be lived out when individual rights are secured and honored. Capitalism would be its natural economic expression. Yet for as respectful and empowering of the individual as Objectivism is, the Christian worldview reveals a higher moral purpose than happiness, knows that sacrifice is more noble than achievement, and its faith is in an Absolute that transcends reason.
Don Draper’s boss Bert Cooper is an Objectivist, a Rand accolade, and in Don he sees a kindred psychology. Both face adversity the same way; as Don puts it on more than one occasion, “Move forward. This never happened.” Certainly there’s a strength to be admired in that motto, but there’s also an irresponsibility to that resilience, and it reveals where Rand’s philosophy is lacking. The problem with Objectivism isn’t that it’s inherently immoral but rather amoral. Without God, the vacuum of amorality is eventually filled with immorality.
We see this in Don’s life. It’s what enables him to have affairs (his own happiness is his moral purpose) without feeling guilty about it when he goes home (Reason—which is absolute—tells him that he’s providing a wonderful life for his wife and kids; he’s doing his job). So when, in Season 2, a beautiful young woman tempts Don by asking “Why would you deny yourself something you want?”, his philosophical response is simple: “I won’t.”
Today we call it “compartmentalizing”, and it’s a hubris that coddles sin. This practice of moral separation leaves in its wake two levels of emotional carnage: the lack of integrity hurts others, and the avoidance of moral consequence destroys yourself. Objectivism is like a band-aid over the gaping wound of unrighteousness that only Atonement can surgically heal.
The credit sequence that opens every episode is a well-crafted animation that depicts a silhouetted businessman slowly falling down the side of a skyscraper. Images of idyllic American life as crafted by ad men are reflected in the glass of surrounding towers. Whether the man slipped, jumped or was pushed is not shown (though ultimately that’s inconsequential). Simply, it’s a perfect metaphor for Don Draper: a successful man in total freefall.
But as Mad Men enters its third season (and hopefully several more), I fear whenever this series eventually ends we’ll come to discover that this opening sequence was more than mere metaphor; that it was, in actuality, foreshadowing. I hope I’m wrong about the fate of Don Draper, but whether I am or not I’ll value how much I learn about myself from his journey even if he never does.
Seasons 1 and 2 of Mad Men are now available on DVD. Season 3 premieres on AMC on Sunday night, August 16, 2009. Check your local cable television listings for times.
Jeffrey Huston is a film director, writer and producer at Steelehouse Productions in Tulsa, Okla. He is also cohost of "Steelehouse Podcast,” along with Steelehouse Executive Creative Mark Steele, where each week they discuss God in pop culture.
To listen to the weekly podcast, please visit www.steelehouse.com or click here. You can also subscribe to "Steelehouse Podcast” through iTunes.
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