Why I think Mad Men is headed for the abyss

Steven Koster

I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind. Ecclesiastes 1:14

From the animated opening credits of the first episode, AMC’s Mad Men has been about holding one’s composure in the face of life’s terrifying abyss. We see a silhouette of a man entering a well-appointed office, which he claims by setting his briefcase on the floor. Suddenly, the walls begin to fall apart and the man himself tumbles as the floor gives way. He falls and falls against a backdrop of Babel’s towering skyscrapers, superimposed with the images of wealth and happiness that advertising creates. It seems to betray the inner chaos of one with nothing real on which to stand.

Quickly in the first episode we meet Joan (Christina Hendricks) as she advises Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) on how to get ahead in the man’s world of advertising. (For starters, “don’t dress like child.”) We meet Roger (John Slattery), whose pragmatic hedonism exemplifies the entitled ruling class of industry, at once providing comic relief and a cautionary tale straight from Ecclesiastes. And we meet Don Draper (Jon Hamm), whom we soon enough learn isn’t Don Draper at all, but a stolen identity and carefully crafted persona designed to raise himself above his upbringing in a brothel.

Don’s drive to paint and sell an image that others crave is the backbone of the show. Don’s whole life, personally and professionally, is about projecting a façade designed to hide ugly truths about life’s brokenness. Ever at the edge of falling into the abyss of his own emptiness, his machinations have given him some professional success, but for what? We’ve met many others who have come and gone, sometimes violently, sometimes in defeat and collapse. Don (just like his colleagues) has gained and lost clients, co-workers, wives, mistresses, children, respect, prestige and, most symbolically this final season, his own agency.

In these final episodes, the company these characters have built has been absorbed by a bigger conglomerate. Gone are the wide and bright hallways, replaced by the narrow and dark ways of the new bosses. Joan, once a full partner, is told to flop on her back or get out. Peggy has been reclassified as a secretary. Roger plays an organ like he’s on the deck of the Titanic, waiting for the end. And Don, who somewhat came to terms with his past while sharing war stories in the second-to-last episode, still found himself alone, sitting beside an empty highway on meandering road trip.

For Don, there's nothing out the window but the windy abyss, and the emptiness may finally consume him.

Interestingly, Jesus has made a few appearances in the series, most recently when a man from Wisconsin offered a brief testimony that Christ is Don’s only hope for salvation. One wonders if such a blatant pitch from the writers might be a setup for Don’s true redemption in the final episode. But as we’ve seen before, Don would rather punch a preacher in the nose than surrender himself.

Rather, I wonder if the series will end where it begins each week, with Don literally falling into the abyss from a tower of his own making. Windows have been a continual symbol in the series, with Don staring over a balcony or hearing the wind blow outside his skyscraper. For Don, there's nothing in the mirror or out the window but the windy abyss, and the emptiness may finally consume him.

Endings always call for a summary. What was it all about? What is it for? So far it feels to me like the writers are highly familiar with the wisdom literature of Scripture - there is much that is enticing and shiny in the world, but it is deadly at worst or meaninglessness at best. Ecclesiastes, Proverbs and the Psalms all warn against the follies of self-made success and also our envy for those who seem like they’ve done well. We see it too in Mad Men: we admire the characters’ style and talent and success, but we don’t really like them as people. They may have a little money, but their lives are a trail of broken relationships and personal emptiness. Somehow I expect it to end in sugar-coated despair.

Topics: TV, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Theology & The Church, The Bible