Ecclesiastes and the women of Mad Men

“The author’s cool skepticism, a refreshing negation to the lush and seductive suggestions swirling around us, promising everything but delivering nothing, clears the air. And once the air is cleared we are ready for reality - for God.”  Eugene Peterson in his introduction to Ecclesiastes.

I wish I could call upon Peterson to pitch his contemporary paraphrase of Ecclesiastes to the denizens in the disturbingly materialistic and misogynistic world of “Mad Men,” which has its season finale Sunday.  It seems especially fitting to a 1960s advertising agency, with its ad-friendly colloquial phrases and repeated imagery of smoke. (Lucky Strike, anyone?)

Vanity of vanities, all is vanity … Everything is meaningless chasing after wind. These are anti-taglines that protagonist Don Draper (Jon Hamm) could use. He’s had a few decent - even tender - moral turns this season, but he is still very much vainly chasing the altars of power and wealth.

But enough about Don for the moment. I’d like to hold Ecclesiastes’ warnings up to two female characters: Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), the lead copywriter, and the office manager, Joan (Christina Hendricks). They’ve both made daring changes and hard choices this season. Will they be in vain?

Earlier in the season Joan bravely sacrificed security by breaking free from her husband - an aggressively tempered military doctor. He always mistreated and neglected her, even - in the first season - raping her at the office.

"You were never a good man, even before we were married and you know what I'm talking about,” Joan said as she let him go - finally acknowledging to him the evil of what he had done. I can’t be the only fan who internally cheered. She was still a character with her selfish faults and sinful impulses, but one perhaps moving forward into a more worthwhile life. Perhaps what she was chasing could change.

But the world around her does not change - women are still treated like cars to be admired, owned and tossed for the latest model. Single mothers have especially precarious lives - and on her office-manager income even fixing the fridge is a strain. She is lonely, desperate … cracking. And eventually Joan’s coworkers pressure her into a business deal so dirty that even Don cannot condone it: she literally sells her body for a huge salary boost and a five-percent partnership in the firm. For career status and financial gain. For smoke, nothing but smoke.

Then there is Peggy, who over the seasons blazed an impressive path by going from secretary to copywriter - the only female copywriter on staff. Her recent sacrifice results in a fatter paycheck, but it also holds hope for a more worthwhile life. After years of being trained, challenged and eventually championed by Don, she leaves the agency where “her whole life changed.” She forsakes the powerful mentor-protege relationship she has access to, the colleagues she had made and the status she has gained to join a competitor. And she refuses to be bought into changing her mind by Don, who is ready with a checkbook.

Although I know there is selfishness in her choice too, I ultimately applaud her for daring knowing the right time to let go. For stepping out from under Don’s hold and recognizing that for the most part he has been taking her grossly for granted. For seeking a place where her abilities will flourish.

I doubt either Joan, Peggy or any major characters, for that matter, will be ready for God in the season to come. But perhaps Peggy will someday be ready for goodness beyond the false gloss and the grandeur - the dust, shadow, spit and smoke. We’ll have to watch and see.

What Do You Think?

  • What have you made of “Mad Men” this season?
  • How has the series handled the evolution of its female characters?
  • Does the series indulge in the seductive smoke alluded to in Ecclesiastes, or is the show critical of it?


Comments (4)

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Mad Men has been asking this question all season, what is it that drives us and what do we do after we get everything we thought that we wanted? Can things really make us happy? Can one really be fulfilled in this life or is it just a quick succession of busy nothings? There always seems to be something better, just over the horizon, the grass is always greener, our friend’s wife is always prettier, our coworker’s car is always better and the list could go on forever.

I am with you on Peggy and Joan. Betty has been dissatisfied and restless this season as well. I did love her last scene with Sally. I hope it’s the beginning of some sort of character arc. I am as weary with Betty as she is with herself. Megan seems to be the female character who has done some honest assessment and stepped out to pursue what she loves. The fact that she’s good at advertising isn’t enough. I see signs of depth in her character. She’s making Don reassess his self absorbed approach. He seemed to be close to smelling he Ecclesiastes smoke in previous seasons but Don’s seemed stalled this season. Everything that happened in the last episode hinted that Don is in for some more soul searching next season.

I have to admit, I’ve never watched a single “Mad Men” episode (my loss, I know - I need to rectify that when I find the time…). So I can’t really comment on most of this post. :-)

Still, I was struck by your use of the phrase “ready for God” at the very end. I wondered what it meant to be ready for God. On the one hand, no one can be ready for God, at least on our own - I mean, good enough to stand in the presence of God under our own merit. But on the other hand, it seems strangely contrary to the Gospel to suggest anyone wasn’t God-ready. In my church (Methodist) we often take of God taking us as we are and remaking us into what we ought to be.

Still, a very thought-provoking look at the series. I enjoy reading peoples’ reflections on the series even though I’ve never watched it.

Hi Marta. Ah, I certainly agree that God meets “takes us where we’re at”—we’re never in some magic state “ready” (think, after all, of Saul on the road to Damascus). :) So I can see why the phrase “ready for God” would stick out—and perhaps it wasn’t quite the right way to say what I meant. All meant to get at, here, was that I doubted either Joan/Peggy would soon be in a state where they were accepting God into their lives and making their decision based on their relationship with Him. It’s not impossible, of course! Just seems a leap that neither of them will soon make (especially as Peggy, who grew up in a religious household, hasn’t shown any signs of embracing a personal relationship with God). But again, perhaps the “ready” phrase wasn’t quite the right way to say it.

In any case, glad you enjoyed the post! And yes, although Mad Men is not an easy series to watch, I definitely think it’s a series worth finding the time for—and it asks valuable questions of its Christian viewer.

Thanks for your comment.

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