One is immediately suspicious of any attempt to distill the glorious complexities of Mad Men down to any single theme. Depending on who you ask, it is a show about the birth of the cool, a nostalgic look at the 1960s (some people talk as if it deserves an official papal pronouncement: “It is how it was”), a byproduct of our late capitalist love of sociopaths, or simply a great character drama soaked in scotch.
One consistent theme, however, is the question of happiness: how to get it, how to manufacture it, how to keep it. The ad men (and women) of Madison Avenue are in the business of selling happiness. But of course as the lives of Pete, Roger, Don, Peggy and the rest of the Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce gang amply demonstrate, abiding happiness remains elusive; in life, the thing you want most is the one thing you can’t have. What does advertising promise us but The Good Life? A family with 2.5 kids, a white picket fence in the suburbs… this utopian 1950s dream of happiness was dead after season one in the Draper household. Can a slick apartment in the city bring happiness? Climbing the social ladder? An affair with a married woman? LSD? What about religion? Judging from Harry’s recent run-in with a group of opportunistic Hare Krishnas, the answer to the latter seems to be a resounding no. Following one’s dream (of becoming a great copy writer)? Growing a successful agency? These ladders keep getting kicked out from under the character’s feet, a reminder that nothing good lasts. In fact, just the moment that you get what (or who) you want – and here the obvious example is Don’s checkered relationship history – entropy sets in. As Sally Draper’s strange young friend put it, the things that make you happy always turn to “crap.”
This past Sunday night’s shocking episode gave us another classic Don Draper line: “Happiness is a moment before you need more happiness.” It’s what advertising is built on – our insatiable appetite to have and hold on to something good, our constant yearning for more and more. Draper’s own desire, which in the first few seasons manifested itself in a seemingly endless string of erotic encounters, has been violently repressed in season five… literally stuffed under the bed, in one profoundly disturbing feverish dream. It resurfaces from time to time in episodes of spontaneous violence – a dark undercurrent that has been percolating in the show since season two. We all know that Don Draper can never rest content with what he has, no matter how idyllic; someone who sells happiness to other people can never be satisfied with what life offers for free.
I have been interested recently, following Bill Dyrness and others, in rehabilitating a “positive” theology of desire in the Christian context. But here we run up against the limits of earthly desire – where yearning turns into possessiveness, a closing off of any notion of ‘gift.’ “Finally, something beautiful you can truly own.” Whether it’s a new Jaguar or a beautiful woman, to “possess” the thing itself cannot yield happiness in the way we want. In fact, the always recurring undesirability of the desired “object” thwarts authentic “happiness” at every turn. This essential “want” is what makes the whole consumer industry work.
William Cavanaugh, in a 2005 piece for Sojourners, sums up this paradox nicely:
What has happened in consumer society is that dissatisfaction and satisfaction have ceased to be opposites. Pleasure resides not in having but in wanting. Insofar as an item obtained brings a temporary halt to desire, it becomes undesirable… Consumerism is a restless spirit, constantly in search of something new. Consumerism is typified by detachment, not attachment, for desire must be kept on the move.
Happiness is a moment before you need more happiness; it is an illusion, a commodity, a kind of perpetual wanting-ness. Happiness is a dream that subsists in the fabrication of new desires – the province of the ad agency, gatekeepers of The Good Life.
Mad Men has, perhaps inevitably, given rise to a spinoff reality show called The Pitch, where modern-day ad agencies compete for campaigns for major corporations. On a recent episode one of the account managers asked the clients – the makers of Popchips, a new snack food – what they valued in business. “Creativity.” “Honesty.” “These are things that all come,” he said (and I paraphrase) “from a place of goodness.” The key to the success of Popchips, he suggested, will be that they must become in a sense equated with the Good. Popchips = goodness = happiness. Our hearts are restless, ’till they find their rest in Popchips.
We might be amused by this bit of pop(chips) psychology. But I am not so sure we are immune to an essentially consumerist understanding of “happiness.” Do we, as the church, not also place ourselves in the business of selling happiness, linking our religious “brand” to goodness in an all-too-easy way… implying that if we possess “Jesus,” we have everything we need to be happy in perpetuity. Jesus = happiness = The Good Life. On my worst days, I wonder if so-called Christian Hedonism (John Piper’s famous approach, as outlined in his book “Desiring God”) manages to make it past a consumerist model – channeling desire past earthly things to the Desire of All Nations – or if it reinforces it by making human ‘happiness’ (a consumer concept) too central. (Though God’s happiness is certainly in play here as well… God’s total contentment with all things, ultimately including suffering and evil, is for Piper what we essentially “buy into” as human beings.) Does following – and desiring – Christ make us “happy”? Does it truly yield The Good Life, especially as it has emerged as a utopian ideal in postwar America? Or is there a better model than the “pursuit of happiness” we could use to describe the mystery of faith in Christ?
I don’t want to be too negative about positivity, though Mad Men has certainly charted a dark course as of late. I recently watched Roko Belic’s thoroughly pleasant documentary Happy (2011), which studies the social, economic and even neurological reasons for happiness. Basically, the message that comes through is that people in the West, despite their great wealth, are often enormously unhappy; many people in the rest of the world, on the other hand, are full of happiness despite often miserable living conditions. The filmmaker points to things like communal living, strong familial bonds, bike riding and simplicity as the keys to happiness. These are all good things, and I think they can certainly make us happy in an authentic, not just “consumerist” sense. However, watching this film, all I could think of was WWRSD – What Would Roger Sterling Do? What would Roger and Don make of this contemporary explanation of the nature of happiness, where capitalism and consumption are demonized and the “simple” life of the poor is held up as superior? Would they dismiss this solution as hopelessly naive? And would they be completely wrong? Can living together in communal houses and eating organic food really make us happy, or is this yet another vision of The Good Life we have sold ourselves?
I don’t expect to answer these questions here. I do know I will be watching Mad Men next season to see if any of the characters finally get what they are looking for. But, knowing how life is in the Age of Ads, I won’t hold my breath.