The tagline for the critically acclaimed AMC series Mad Men, which recently received 16 Emmy nominations and whose third season premieres on Sunday, is “Where the Truth Lies.” Set in the early 1960s, the series entwines the world of advertising, with its manipulation of images to evoke a sense of accomplishment and happiness, with ordinary citizens’ conception of the modern American dream. The simultaneously alluring and deceptive role of images in a consumerist society, evident in the show’s paradoxical tagline, illustrates some of the concerns central to Pope Benedict XVI’s latest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate.
Beyond specific economic issues, about which there has been much media commentary, Benedict’s chief concern is the severing of charity from truth, the consequence of which is devastating:
Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love. It falls prey to contingent subjective emotions and opinions, the word “love” is abused and distorted, to the point where it comes to mean the opposite.
Mad Men perfectly illustrates the way in which human affection in a consumer society falls prey to the manipulation of images.
The series focuses on Don Draper (Jon Hamm), a successful and handsome executive at the Madison Avenue advertising company Sterling Cooper. But Draper’s very identity is fraudulent — the most dramatic example of constructed images in the series. During the first season, clues are planted to indicate that Draper is not who he says he is, including an encounter with a man who claims to be his brother. Initially dismissive, Draper eventually admits his true identity and tries to bribe the man never to contact him again. Having escaped from the past, Draper cannot look back; he is, as he says, living his life “in one direction” — forward, not backward.
This is the aspiration and the dilemma of what Benedict calls the “Promethean presumption,” the claim of the individual to be radically “responsible for producing what he becomes.” There is for Draper nothing that is simply given, no past that he can allow to inform his present character. Benedict’s observation is apt: “Gratuitousness is present in our lives in many different forms, which often go unrecognized because of a purely consumerist and utilitarian view of life . . . . Sometimes modern man is wrongly convinced that he is the sole author of himself, his life and society.”
Critics of the series see it as a straightforward celebration, a romantic affirmation, of a lost patriarchal society in which masters of the universe had the freedom to achieve and enjoy greatness in a free economy. But that interpretation does not penetrate beneath the elegant and attractive surface of the drama — an image for unreflective viewers. Lacking a formation in love, Draper is, despite his smooth exterior and cool demeanour, a tragic and truncated soul, isolated from others and longing for he knows not what. Mad Men is sophisticated art precisely because it illustrates both the attraction of such a life and its essential emptiness, the way in which, as Benedict mildly puts it, “a person’s development is compromised.”
On Mad Men, love recedes because it lacks what Benedict refers to as a “foundation”; no longer grounded in truth, but rather connected to an ever-shifting set of illusions, charity itself vanishes. It demonstrates the obstacles to genuine friendship in a consumer society — not just between man and woman, husband and wife, but even between free and allegedly equal men. One of the problems with living life in one direction, with no regard for the past, is that everything and everyone rapidly becomes disposable.
Draper, for instance, is a trusted member of his company, with a position of high authority. Roger Sterling (John Slattery), one of the company’s senior partners, has cultivated and supported Draper, who regards the older man with some degree of affection. But whatever friendship that exists between the two men is jeopardized by a dinner at the Drapers’ home in which Don suspects, rightly, that Sterling has made a pass at his wife. Draper cannot help but see his future self in the declining Sterling, whose chasing of younger women Draper finds distasteful. Meanwhile, Draper views the younger members of the advertising team, particularly Peter Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), as potential threats to him — and with good reason.
Draper is a complex character, exhibiting vulnerability and longing for family and love in one moment and capable of coldly facing the abyss of meaninglessness in the next. In one of the show’s funniest episodes, Draper shows up the beatnik rebellion as superficial when attending a party with a group of artists. When one of the beatniks self-righteously rails against Draper as an instrument of a system that perpetrates the “big lie,” Don calmly responds, “There is no big lie and there is no system. The universe is indifferent.” Frightened at his blunt comment, one of the others complains, “Man, why did you have to say that?”
Draper embodies what Benedict calls “man’s basic and tragic tendency to close in on himself, thinking himself to be self-sufficient or merely an insignificant and ephemeral fact, a ‘stranger’ in a random universe.” As Draper frankly and darkly states in another scene, “We live and die alone.”
Perhaps the greatest artistic achievement of the series is its convincing portrait of Draper’s complex humanity; in this, it is a far better depiction of soul-starved consumerism in the early 1960s than that found in, say, Sam Mendes’s recent film Revolutionary Road. Having invited viewers to see the vacancy beneath the surface appeal, Mad Men points up the residual humanity of Draper, his sense of entrapment, and his longing for escape.
For all of his efforts to live in one direction, Draper cannot entirely suppress his past. It is this very complexity that both haunts him and makes him such a superb salesman. He grasps that people want not just novelty and freedom but also the idea of returning, of recovering the past. In one episode, he pitches a campaign for Kodak’s new slide projector, which Kodak has dubbed “the Wheel.” Deploying the projector, Draper darkens the room and projects a series of images of happy families, including his own. He narrates:
This is not a space ship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards, and it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called “the Wheel.” It’s called “the Carousel.” It lets us travel around and around and back home again.
The pitch not only persuades the executives from Kodak but leaves his hardened Sterling Cooper colleagues teary-eyed as well. But such an approach to the past is not to be confused with tradition — the living memory of the dead, the treasuring of ancient ideals, and the cultivation of gratitude for what previous generations have bestowed upon us. Instead, it is mere nostalgia, a vague aspiration to return to what once was, or at least to an image we now have of what once was.
Such banal sentimentality is a powerful advertising tool. As Benedict explains, “Without truth, without trust and love for what is true, there is no social conscience and responsibility”; without some larger context within which human relations can be understood, love reduces either to “private interests and the logic of power” or an “emotionalism that deprives it of relational and social content.”
Indicating that our human nature can never fully be eradicated, Draper is not entirely content with his fictional life, and yet he is habituated to a concept of happiness that is self-constructed. In the scene in which Draper is finally able to come clean about his past to another person, it is significant that the person to whom he confesses is a newly cultivated lover. Having made the confession, his impulse is not to reconcile with his past, but rather to escape again into yet another newly constructed future. He invites his lover to drop everything and move away with him. He tells her, “Let’s start over, like Adam and Eve.”
That’s a rich line. Such a fictional notion of self-creation, of starting from scratch, supplies an illusory sense of transcendence of past and present. As Benedict observes, without a natural or social order reflecting a higher law, progress, for either humanity or the individual, becomes meaningless. The “social question,” as Benedict perceptively puts it, has become a radically “anthropological question.” At its best, Mad Men provokes that question as it illustrates the illusion of choice, novelty, and control in a radically consumerist world.