Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Mad Men and the Power of Sin

Mad Men, Don Draper, Roger Sterling, Joan Holloway, Burt Cooper, Peggy Olson
Beautiful. Cynical.

by Lyndsey Graves 

I was never going to watch Mad Men. I caught about ten minutes of an episode once, channel surfing on vacation with friends, and there was some sort of affair going on and everyone in the TV was clearly terribly unhappy. I didn’t want to host such misery in my own television.

Then I agreed to watch “just the first episode” and of course I was hooked. The first season (that’s all I’ve seen) of Mad Men is beautiful, artistic, witty, and addictively voyeuristic. But the first word I’d use to describe it is cynical. I watch the show out of love for the characters and writing, not because it makes me feel good.

One of the most fascinating and frustrating aspects of the characters’ intertwining storylines is that they are all a little bewildered by their own unhappiness. Behind webs of words and actions, deceit and hidden motives, successes and failures, lie carefully hidden layers of sadness, need, and that distinct feeling of unbelonging – along with a kernel of hope that these unexpressed desires will be fulfilled somehow. For each character this dilemma is unique, but most of their stories also share a sense that they can’t quite do what they want to do – what they know is right. The depth of the show’s cynicism lies in the fact that no one is pretending their lies or affairs or petty behavior are right; it is just how things are.

Depravity in motion
Mad Men strikes quite the contrast to the almost aggressively bright outlook on humanity I’ve encountered from a good many people in churches. The show’s characters are usually sympathetic, but they are not “good people”, and at least some of them know it. This is exactly why we sympathize – because they so evidently struggle against themselves. I think we can fairly label this human tendency toward such selfishness, intentional or not, as “sin”, and the writers are counting on the fact that we can all relate to it for many of the show’s moments of greatest tension and pathos.

Could it be that pop culture is more willing and ready than we think to admit something about human depravity? Just how mad do we think the men involved in this show could be? Or what about Mad Men's cable cousin, Breaking Bad? The entire concept of that show is the slow, steady devolution of a man. Or The Walking Dead, another AMC show, that utilizes the time-honored zombie motif as a way to explore the depravity of humanity. In each case, there seems to be a deep brokenness to the world, to the relationships and the characters inside of it. The world is going crazy and they’re drawn inexorably into it. 

While this deep darkness permeates these shows, the same isn't true in much of pop culture. Instead, there is a constant push to refrain from calling certain destructive habits “sin” and a reaction against value judgments overall. I understand the desire not to condemn, to look for the best in people, to offer hope and affirmation rather than despair and finger-pointing – and yet, at least in the social circles where I currently find myself, the word “sin” is an unfashionable conversation-stopper to a degree that I find dishonest.

Mad Men, Don Draper, Jon Hamm, cigarette, set shot
Good or bad?
It seems frustratingly glib to pretend that there is nothing really wrong with anybody, that the sinful are really just unfortunately misguided or environmentally disadvantaged. At its worst, it feels absurdly privileged (a word I normally don’t like using) to assert that people really aren’t all that bad. I don’t know any victims of generational poverty, of child abuse, of addiction, of gang violence, who would say that.
I still bristle whenever I hear the messages of condemnation hurled down by the holier-than-me. I’m certainly not here to say that people are 100% bad, incapable of doing good – or that sin carries no elements of environmental influence or simple misunderstanding. Neither does Mad Men think so. But this world and the people in it are in dire need of redemption at some fundamental level; somewhere far beyond our own attempts to set things right. I think the world Mad Men speaks to – desperate for authenticity, for the truth beyond the layers of advertising we are all wrapped in – won’t reject us for admitting it.

Lyndsey lives and works in Syracuse, NY. She majored in theology at Lee University, which is like eating cake or listening to thunderstorms - too enjoyable to be called work. Also, no one will pay you to do it. You can follow her on Twitter @lyndseygraves and you can find more of her writing at her blog To Be Honest.

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