What Would Jesus Watch: Mad Men

The Jesus Review

Now, make no mistake.  If Jesus came now instead of two thousand years ago, I don’t think he’d spend a lot of time watching television.  There is too much poverty, injustice, and suffering in our world for him to waste even a moment on even the best entertainment.  So, please, take this column with a grain of salt.  We know that Jesus doesn’t Tivo—but we do.

Mad Men is an Emmy-winning series on the cable channel AMC, set in an advertising firm in 1960 (Season One) and 1962 (Season Two).  Matthew Weiner, the creator of the show, is dedicated to showing, as authentically as he can, what life was like in the early 60s.  From the set design, to costumes, to cultural references, every minute detail is planned carefully.  Even if the plots and characters were dull, the show would be worth watching just for the gorgeous costumes and detailed office sets.

Thankfully, each character is as rich as the details that support their stories.  While all the characters are fun to watch, three in particular have resonance for me as a pastor.

First, meet Don Draper.  Don Draper, as played by Jon Hamm, embodies the image of late 1950s masculinity.  He is a war veteran, father, and aggressive businessman.  His creativity and salesmanship have landed him a much-coveted position in the ad agency and he fully enjoys the benefits of his lifestyle: a constant stream of whiskey and an only slightly less steady stream of mistresses.

Draper’s character could have ended there. However, what makes him so fascinating from a pastoral standpoint is that Don is a man living a lie.  Yes, he was in WWII, but he came back from the war a different man. . .literally.  The stress of this duplicity, combined with the stress of a different emerging culture begins to unhinge Don, particularly in the second season.  Hamm’s portrayal of Draper, allows us to see little moments of painful insight when Don learns that he has a reputation among local women, for instance.  However, he is too much a man of his time to fully integrate these parts of himself.  Only time will tell how his crisis resolves.

His wife, Betty Draper, as played by January Jones, is the next character of pastoral interest.  As you can imagine, all is not well for Don Draper’s poor wife!  However, Weiner does not keep Betty as a doormat for too long.  Again, Jones’ completely understated performance portrays a woman coming to understand both her power and her powerlessness. In the first season, we learn much of Betty’s story in therapy.  She is what we would consider depressed and her husband grows more and more frustrated when the therapy does not "cure" his lonely wife.  In the second season–which skips a year–suddenly Betty is brimming with confidence as she hinds behind the material trappings of her husband’s success.  We are not told why she has changed so much, and we also don’t know whether the confidence is unfounded.

Finally, Peggy Olson, played by Elisabeth Moss, is the character I most relate to as a young clergy woman.  While Betty Draper is figuring out what it means to be a whole person while being a wife and mother, Peggy has chosen a professional life for herself.  In the course of the first season Peggy goes from being Don Draper’s wide-eyed secretary to landing a job as a copywriter.  She is focused and talented, but has a hard time sorting out who she is in the midst of her glamorous new Manhattan lifestyle.  She can come off as arrogant and even rude at times, and as the show progresses we learn she also has a naive streak that will have painful consequences.  However, she, like all the characters in this remarkable drama, grow and change in subtle ways and by midway through the second season, Peggy is expanding her repertoire of techniques to break into the "Old Boys’ Club" that is the advertising world.

These three characters are just a sampling of the many rich, complicated, funny and fascinating characters on Mad Men.  Whether characters are wrestling with ethics, their impulses, trust, or each other, their struggles keep us glued to the screen.  Mad Men is a must watch.

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