There are a few moments in which Mad Men has deposited a great deal of existential crisis on the shoulders of a biblical reference, the fleeting Eucharistic reference in “The Strategy” a good example. Mad Men is an exercise in an invigorating form of historiography that banks on the re-evocation of its mid-century Madison Avenue mood as an intellectual and aesthetic service to the present. Hence, things like the little details of Don’s sartorial evolution become matters of cultural analysis rather than just set design footnotes. When they do appear, Mad Men biblical references have a similarly clever historical poignancy.
This is the era of Gutiérrez’ 1969 Toward a Theological Liberation, Moltmann’s 1967 Theology of Hope, and the Vatican II debates. It was the decade during which figures like Derrida and Foucault became intellectual commodities, packaged for mainstream religious discourse. The benchmark theological image of the decade is perhaps the April 6, 1966 cover of Time, boldly asking with Altizer in red serifed font on a black background: Is God Dead?
Such theological movement, for better or worse, began to reconsider the classic theological questions as matters of power, control, and disruption. The idea that theology could become a sort of linguistic violence began to trickle through various ecclesial machines into youth movements and distant revolutions. Against such a background, Don’s musing on advertising sounds perversely prophetic: “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do 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 a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK. You are OK.”
Because Don and associates are not okay, a brute fact made evident in “The Strategy” through a series of reflections on the families created and broken over the years at SC&P. The prior biblical references of note in the series have a Psalmic sense of wonder and regret, drawing on the Psalmist’s ability to trace the deepest recesses of our woe against an impossibly vast canvas of God’s design. The Psalms are always an exercise in narrative proportion, leaving us beholden to the eerie suspicion that our stories grow with their telling.
In Season 1’s “Babylon,” Don finds himself in a Greenwich Village bar after a few days of reading through Uris’ Exodus for ideas to advertise Israel as a tourist destination. A trio takes the stage and performs and exquisite rendition of Psalm 137 in a round, the simple lyrics:
By the waters of Babylon
We sat down and wept, and wept, and wept
When we remembered thee, remembered thee, O Zion
The minor key image here is the exile of Israel in Babylon until the empire fell to invading Persians. It was a time of rich poetic and prophetic reflection captured in bits and pieces across the Psalms and other canonical texts, much of it touched by a grievous sense of God’s absence. In this space of sacred mourning, Don sits transfixed by the Psalmist’s incarnation of exile as a condition of the heart as following edits track us through a montage of the wordless yearnings that tend to round out Mad Men episodes. The complexity of the situation – putting Don Draper, Psalm 137, and the commodification of Zion all together in one dark room in Greenwich Village – is a remarkable work of biblical reflection.
More recently in Season 7’s “Time Zones,” Don tells the attractive widow in the airplane seat to his right “I keep wondering – have I broken the vessel?” It comes across as plaintive, humble, perilously close to the first half of the parallelism in Psalm 31:12 “I am forgotten as a dead man, out of mind; I am like a broken vessel.” On the cusp of Mad Men’s final season, Don begins to think of himself in these sparest of terms, in the kind of ancient language that defines an ageless mood as “out of mind.” In the poetry of the Psalmist, being forgotten is akin to being broken, to being no longer able to do what we once felt designed to do. We were, as the verse suggests, made to be alive and known and full. All descriptors, Don would probably agree, of good ad copy.
And then in “The Strategy,” Peggy stumbles across a startlingly off-hand reference to the Eucharist while searching for an advertising hook for Burger Chef. After Don and Peggy have been at it for a while the conversation begins to slip into personal territory. While struggling to find something that will make Burger Chef alluring Peggy confesses that she cannot connect to the customer. She knows nothing about being a mom. She has just turned 30 and some very basic life experiences are out of her wheelhouse. She has been great for SC&P at manufacturing a sense of reward for housewives and harried husbands, but she never has actually experienced that life she has been learning to hack for return on investment.
And then it clicks. From the depths of her admission, Peggy asks: “What if there was a place where you could go, and there was no TV. And you could break bread. And whoever you were sitting with was family.”
Here is the brilliance of Mad Men’s screenwriting. The hook for Peggy’s ad strategy seems to have emerged from a personal crisis that has dramatic existential and spiritual nuances. But once this idea materializes as ad copy, it transforms into something far less human – perhaps even mercenary. Does she buy what she is selling? We can’t tell. It has never really been clear with Don either.
This “breaking bread” language draws from the synoptic gospel accounts of the last Passover Jesus shares with his disciples prior to his brief trial and crucifixion. The synoptic accounts of this moment are intimate, suspenseful, and culminate with Jesus passing a cup of wine and broken bread to his disciples. Soon his blood will spill and his body will be broken and he will pass away. It is, Jesus says, something they can do in his absence to remember his presence among them. It is, as we find later in the writing of the earliest Christians, something the fledgling church practiced together as a symbolic act of common life and grace. They fed together on the peace of Christ regardless of class or social distinction. It was a remarkable image of a ramshackle family hoping together for restoration.
Mad Men chapter 7, verse 6: Burger Chef. A place where a family can feel like a family again. One can order a burger with or without cheese. One can order a chicken sandwich should that be their preference. It doesn’t matter. We will sit together and in this moment look like the humanity toward which our spirits have been collectively striving. This burger, broken for us, represents everything we ever wished for. Please pass the catsup.
The final shot of the episode is a pretty long shot by Mad Men standards. Peggy has just won Pete over with her family angle on the Burger Chef account. And then they break bread together as the camera pans out to frame the front window of the restaurant. Everything looks perfect; Don, Peggy, and Pete smiling at each other. On the surface, it seems like everything is okay, as if there really is something to Peggy’s idea about family and burgers. But, as the camera holds on the shot the subtleties of the episode begin to dawn on the viewer. There is too much backstory here. We encounter this last image as coated in a David Lynch veneer of gentility and suburban virtue, beneath which lurk a great deal of loss, sadness, and inexplicable grief.
Armond White comments that Stillman’s singular interest in character “reveals each one’s moral quest. The effort to behave decently, even by the most eccentric (self-serving) standards, gives Stillman’s upperclass stories a surprising kick and a fine grain.” It is marvelous to see these moral quests extend beyond the confines of a single movie, as a handful of familiar characters in fascinating variations are stripped of superficial childhood securities to make their slow, stumbling journeys toward grace.
Criterion’s May release of Wise Blood (1979, John Huston) makes available the flawed but fascinating artistic meeting of two uncontested American masters, novelist Flannery O’Connor and film maker John Huston.