Advertising the Abyss: Thoughts on AMC’s Mad Men Is there anything beyond our propensity to be addicted to despair?



“Advertising is based on one thing, happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.”

–Don Draper from Mad Men’s Season 1, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

After seven seasons, my most favorite TV drama, AMC’s Mad Men has come to an end. Now you might find this next statement a little bizarre, but the one thing that I loved about the show was its ability to induce feelings of emptiness. Yes, you read that right. You might start out your day happy or even giddy about life, but after an hour of the futile exercise of rooting for Don Draper, you will find yourself feeling drained and lonely. The show is an expert at tapping into that place in your soul where feelings of meaninglessness lie like a bear in hibernation are fully woken up by the end of every episode. The strange thing is that, in a way, you end up feeling alive somehow and it leaves you coming back for more.

You watch a guy who has everything anyone could ever want: extreme talent, an amazing career,  adored by the people around him, a beautiful wife and family. And yet even with all that he has, Don is too broken on the inside to be happy.

I have to admit, there were days when I was looking for relief from the complexity of the story.  I began secretly begging for a Hollywood type ending. I was hoping that all the disappointment and heartache would  just be the the temporary valley the story needed to go through to get to some mountain top of gloriousness, but it never really happened. At least not in the way one would expect.

The question I find myself asking is: what is it in this story that has compelled me and others  to become such loyal audiences for all these years? Why does it seem like we are so addicted to pain and despair that it’s connected to us at a profound level?

I think part of the answer is that for some of us, we have come to prefer narratives of hollowness and futility because it does lend itself to reality. There’s nothing like the commonality of failure, broken dreams, and betrayal that can leave an indelible mark in our souls; you just don’t walk away from these experiences the same person. This may be the reason some of us won’t trade our pain away – because it is the easiest way to feel something. And feeling something, even if it is gloom and doom, is better than feeling nothing.

The scriptures never plays down the reality of pain and despair. In a lot of ways, it plays it up with some of its main heroes: King David in half the Psalms and King Solomon in his dissertation on the meaninglessness of life in Ecclesiastes. They both, apart from a relationship with God, mirror an ancient day Don Draper. The guy who was everything, the guy you root for, yet keeps on making bad choices and hurts everyone he loves along the way.

While the scriptures affirm the reality about the hollowness we feel, it also refuses to let us believe that it is the only thing that is true. All along it insists that things like Joy, Peace, Hope and Love aren’t just for the those who are willing to delude themselves. And that the core and intention of life is that we are to be bathed in the reality of the beautiful and that everything else is just a temporary glitch. It insists that the God who created the universe did so in an outflow of joy and is at work redeeming our lives.

It is possible that dysfunction and despair are not more real, but they are just easier to get to considering the fallen world we live in.

Jesus offers a counter intuitive approach telling us that we don’t gain life by playing the accumulation game but by giving ourselves away. That self fulfillment really is ironically the fruit of losing ones self. That resurrection, the most glorious of mountains, can only come after a dearth to self and after God himself raises us up. It’s such an outrageous proposition and that might be the explanation for why we need something so transcendent. It may be why we need God.

Header photo: AMC

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