When your heart is in a state of chaos, happiness isn’t really possible. That’s the story of Don Draper and the larger narrative behind Mad Men, which aired its final episode last night on AMC.
Now, I promise there are no spoilers here. In fact, I’m writing this before I watch the final episode, just to be sure I don’t slip up. And if you’re not a Mad Men watcher, stick with me anyway (and maybe tee it up in your Netflix queue for when you’re stuck inside this summer).
The show, if you’re not familiar, is the saga of ad executives on Madison Avenue (hence, Mad Men) during the 1960s and early 1970s. These men and women pitch products as paths to fulfillment while their personal lives fall apart around them. If you’re suspicious that there are some parallels to modern culture, well—you’re right.
In a nutshell, there are corrupted childhoods, affairs upon affairs, wealth accumulation, business power plays, deaths, divorces, drunkenness, and extravagance. And while each character wanders in and out of these themes, it really centers on Don Draper, who despite all his desperate searching, can’t find love or contentment in any of it.
We resonate with Don, because in a lot of ways, he’s the guy we’d like to be. He’s wealthy, brilliant at his job, confident, and handsome. As the show progresses, though, we start to see a different Don—one with a war being waged on the inside that’s so much stronger than the image he projects. He grapples with an identity crisis, a broken childhood, failed marriages, and a whole slew of behaviors he hopes will distract him from the pain that those circumstances induce.
We want Don to find an inward contentment that matches his outward success, and each time he falls short, we feel our own insecurities and sinfulness bubble up. Don reminds us that sin doesn’t win; no matter how many eggs we put in its basket. It’s convicting every time.
While we’re all on our own journeys of faith, we’re also all on Don’s journey. Don samples success in a lot of different ways, and each time worldly success fails him, his desperation becomes even more pronounced. He moves from shortcoming to shortcoming in a way that feels familiar, but his spontaneity keeps him from looking critically at what’s causing the damage—his heart and its endless misplaced desires. Fans of the show want to believe that Don gets free of his demons in the end, but if we’re honest, we don’t really believe he did.
In a lot of ways, Mad Men doesn’t tie itself up with a neat little bow like we wish a TV series would. And while it’s tempting to want to overreach for some spiritual allegory here and end with an alter call, maybe it’s best that we sit with the discomfort and remind ourselves of the devastation that a sinful lifestyle leaves in its wake.
Isn’t it beautiful that there’s a God whose mercies are new each morning and who will join us in the fight for our hearts? Isn’t it beautiful that regardless of our previous shortcomings, our God is a God of grace who calls us ever forward?
There was an interview that I read in which Mad Men creator, Matthew Weiner, had this to say:
“What you’re watching with Don is a representation, to me, of American society. He is steeped in sin, haunted by his past, raised by animals, and there is a chance to revolt. And he cannot stop himself.”
Don’s revolt looks different from ours. While he challenged society by withdrawing from it, we challenge society by stepping into it. Jesus didn’t come to create a new nation of believers. He didn’t call them to overthrow a government and form a new one. In fact, “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.’” (Luke 17:20-21 with emphasis added.)
As Christians—as Wesleyans—our revolt looks a lot like love. It looks like unexpected service, extravagant generosity, and incomprehensible freedom in the midst of a society driven by sex, fame, and wealth. Love is a revolt characteristic of the kingdom of God and a welcome well for the Don Drapers of the world to come and find a drink.