One of the things I love about Mad Men is that it’s never settled for the stasis of what works. After hooking us with the first season’s glamour, the show moved on – to shocked responses – to explore Don Draper’s terrible fall. Don and Roger’s sexy swaggers grew quickly pathetic and, then, for a short time, quite repulsive. And we began asking how cultures of privilege can hurt those living at their center, not just their margins.
Those following this season have felt the show move on to yet another new focus. It is mid-summer, 1966, and cultural revolution is stirring. Almost everything that happens seems to point toward those sparks that will light the fires of ’68. And we’re seeing the rise of cultural desires that will culminate in the types of consumer identities for whom Don could never write a compelling ad campaign; indeed, as we saw in Lady Lazarus, not only does Don not know what music is cool, he can’t even fathom why that matters.
Mad Men always relies beautifully on visual clues to tell its stories. And so as this season endeavors to place Don and Roger – the prior height of cool – outside every version of The Now, it has relied on fairly stylized dreamscapes that, quite literally, remove them from the reality in which they live.
To accomplish these flights, we’ve had a number of visuals that blur the borders between what is real and what is not for SCDP’s old guard: Roger’s LSD trip and his subsequent conversations with Jane about their marriage, and Don’s feverish, violent dream sequences, along with that strange, seemingly random moment his elevator doors opened on to a descending shaft. I would even put Lane’s fantasies about Delores, the girl in the wallet photo, in this category. Each of these forays into alternative imaginative worlds is intertwined seamlessly with reality in the show. We’re left wondering where the real is in Roger and Jane’s break-up, for example. It also took a while for us to realize that Don was dreaming with the adultery/murder sequence, and even then we were left tracking back through the episode to try to figure out when the dream began. Far Away Places fooled our sense of chronology, leaving us wondering not only where, but also when, we were. And I’m still puzzling over whether that view of the elevator shaft was supposed to be real, fantasy or delusion – and how it would matter in either case.
These sequences all show how alienating and disarming the cultural revolutions of the late ‘60s were to those living just a step outside of youth culture. One obvious response to the reconstruction of reality entailed fleeing it. What intrigues me as a theologian who enjoys engaging culture here is the complete absence of religious overtones in the cultural imaginary of flight from the real – at least as Mad Men portrays it. The arbiter of everything within that imaginative space is the self who constructs it – pure psychological, not at all spiritual, projection. We have what we might describe as transcending reality without a transcendent reality.
The season opens only three months after the famed Time magazine cover that asked, “Is God Dead?” Mad Men’s (tacit) “Yes!” reminds us that despite our illusory visions of a well churched 1950s America, God had been on life support for a while. And as it pictures cultural revolution and its “Question Authority” ways, the show also reminds us to consider the roots of the self-generated “Sheilaisms” that Robert Bellah so aptly described in Habits of the Heart.
Mad Men this season thus depicts a thoroughly secular imagination that both pre-dates ’68 and which already reveals a cultural apotheosis of a long-building trend toward the authority of the I. Especially as the show centers on people whose trade is the construction of consumer identities, it reminds us to keep questioning the multiple structures that give rise to the individualism we know so well today in our churches. We’re still trying to figure out how to tell the story of religion’s decline in America, particularly given its rapid resurrection that leaves sociological theorists of religion and secularism a bit puzzled. As contemporary critics point out with greater precision how “Sheilaism” is alive and well within religious organizations, not just outside them, Mad Men reminds us to examine all the historical trajectories that give rise to the ways we narrate our own reality, both to ourselves, and to each other.
Natalie Wigg-Stevenson teaches theology and directs the Contextual Education Program at Emmanuel College, University of Toronto. She blogs about Mad Men and other pop culture phenomena at http://themothchase.com.