"Mad Men" and the Jesuit Priest

My favorite new TV show (other than "Monster Quest") is AMC’s clever series on corporate America, circa 1960, "Mad Men."  Originally, I was fascinated by  the show’s unabashed verisimilitude: to begin with, everyone smokes constantly (at home, at parties, in restaurants, in offices--physicians included).  For another, institutionalized sexism, homophobia and racism abound.  From what I understand from those who worked in corporate America at the time, the show is nothing if not true to life.  For the record, I was one year old in 1962, the current year of the series, which focuses on the lives and families of the employees of a fictional ad agency.  (The "Mad" in the title refers to Madison Avenue, at least in part.)

Last night I was surprised to see Colin Hanks (son of Tom) stride confidently onto the scene in a Roman collar.  One of the show’s main characters, Peggy, a former secretary and now budding copywriter for the ad agency, comes from a strongly Catholic family.  Last season, Peggy became pregnant, and ended up "giving away" her baby to be raised by her sister and mother.  On last night’s show, Peggy, hungover and slipping out of a Sunday Mass, meets a visiting priest, the young Father Gill, who mentions that he’ll be dining at her sister’s home.  The family fawns over the young priest who tells them of his time in Rome, and being in the Vatican at the same time the pope is in residence.  To hammer home their adulation of the priest, the family is shown snapping photos of the young cleric. 

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At the end of the meal, Father Gill somewhat too eagerly offers Peggy a ride to the subway, and looks, as screenwriters say, "meaningfully" in her direction after she gives him some tips on his homilies.  (Keep it simple and make eye contact, she says sensibly.)  Father is clearly entranced by Peggy, and expresses dismay when, on another visit, he’s told that she’s not at the family home.

Later, Peggy’s sister tells the priest in the confessional about Peggy’s child.  And at the end of the episode, at an Easter Egg roll, the priest hands Peggy an Easter Egg, while staring at her child, and says to her, "For the little one."

In other words, Father has just, more or less, broken the seal of the confessional.  Which, by the way, is grounds for automatic excommunication.  For the record, the seal means that you cannot divulge anything about a confession, and are forbidden from discussing confessional material outside the confessional--even with the one who confesses.  Nor, after confession, can the priest act on anything he has heard inside the confessional.  Father Gill, who presumably has just been studying in Rome, would have known that even mentioning something like that to Peggy is strictly verboten.

After Mass the camera zooms in on the parish bulletin, which lists the priest’s name: Father Gill, S.J.  Ugh--he’s a Jesuit!  With a wandering eye and a big mouth.  (And note to the costume designer: if he’s a Jesuit, he’s wearing the wrong style cassock.)

Here’s how the website Television Without Pity, recaps the show: "Peggy meets a young new priest at work, and he asks her for help with an upcoming sermon he has to give. Her assistance renders the speech a big hit, but this raises the long-simmering ire of her sister, who spills the beans about Peggy’s pregnancy to the priest in confession. The priest, in turn, subtly lets on to Peggy that he knows, so we’ll see where that goes."

Colin Hanks is slated to appear on "Mad Men" for three episodes, and I’m curious to see where his priestly vocation leads him.  My hunch: he’ll make a pass at Peggy.  Given the vagaries of television I suppose we should be grateful that he’s not a pedophile.  But is the only way that television can make a priest interesting is by making him not a very good one?

James Martin, SJ

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9 years 4 months ago
I haven't watched the show, but yours is the second post I've seen discussing it. I might just have to tune in to see what it's all about. My mom didn't think much of it when she watched last season and I'm not much of a TV watcher these days, so I haven't heard too much about it. Interesting thoughts and observations about the priest. Having not seen the show, by your description, it does sound like to me he was breaking the seal of the Confessional. Ugh. Fr. Martin said: "But is the only way that television can make a priest interesting is by making him not a very good one?" I wish I knew why that always seemed to be the norm. I really want to see a priest character portrayed in the media as a happy, well-adjusted man, thriving in his vocation, one who is good at it and one who doesn't fall into scandal. Unfortunately, I fear that scandal is what viewers/readers want or expect from these characters. I recently read a novel where the priest character, while a good priest, had to give it all up for a woman he fell in love with and a child he fathered with. I know it happens in real life, but do we always have to expect that to be the norm in fiction and in film? It was disappointing to read. As for this show, I'll probably try to catch this episode and the next few, just to satiate my curiosity and what a bummer that he was a Jesuit and dressed in the wrong cassock, ;-) Maria.
9 years 4 months ago
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, when my sister-in-law would have her mother's friend, Sister Mary Clement, over to her house to do some sewing for the nuns, my husband would drive her back to the convent. I had to go with him to act as a chaperone. Nuns were not permitted to ride in a car alone with a man. It was unseemly.
9 years 4 months ago
You might be very interested in a current post (and lively comment discussion) on this very subject at Basket of Kisses: http://www.lippsisters.com/2008/08/19/bless-me-father/
9 years 3 months ago
It's not just priests that Hollywood has trouble with (although, admittedly, they are particularly clueless when it comes to them), but it's good people in general. The "good" person is usually the boring half-wit, the sheltered uninitiated, the arrogant, self-rightious Christian (shudder, shudder) or, the mentally challenged. Ironically, Colin Hanks' father played a "good" person who has become an icon in the movie "Forrest Gump", but he was a man of limited mental capacity. The most recent Hollywood offering that comes to mind without really thinking hard comes from the 1960's and that's Atticus Finch, due solely to the fact that Hollywood stuck like clue to Lee's novel and Peck did such a fine job. Life is comples; most of us are not perfect. We just hope that in the portrayal of our lives, regardless of our vocations, the dignity of our journeys may once in a while be honored.
9 years 4 months ago
I noticed that Peggy's sister is played by the same actress who portrays the obnoxious neighbor and a Mormon in HBO's 'Big Love.' Maybe she is considered the pro for portraying wacky religious people--and I say that in jest, because the TV writers would definately consider ME a wacky religious (Catholic) person. I was disappointed by the portrayal of the Jesuit--but who knows, maybe there will be a positive twist. Still, dear Jesuits, you are in good company: My husband is in a wheelchair (paralyzed) and he notes that very frequently, people in wheelchairs in movies are the bad guys (Nightmare on Elm Street,' 'The Big Lebowski'). We have turned it into a sort of game; everytime there is a person in a wheelchair who is also the bad guy, we think it's funny. I personally get tired of priests and nuns being portrayed badly, but I guess i should have the sense of humor that my husband does!
9 years 3 months ago
The problem isn't just the characterization of priests on television, though perhaps the problem is most acute in the case of fictional t.v. priests. The underlying problem is the depiction of holiness on television. Of course, to depict holiness successfully one first has to make the attempt. When has television attempted to depict holiness in a character on network television that was not maudlin -- that was not the saccharine sort of holiness in the stories told to the boy in Grahm Greene's "The Power and the Glory." The boy finds these stories boring and uninteresting. And they are. But real holiness is the most interesting thing of all. People are naturally drawn to it, and not only when it is heroic in stature. Even when it takes the form of mundane acts. I'd like to think that the medium can depict holiness in a way that people find appealing. Why does it seem as though real holiness is the one thing that dramatic television finds nearly impossible to show?
9 years 4 months ago
It's 1962 on the show this season, not 1963. They showed the date many times during last night's episode. Last season took place in 1960 and there was a 14 month jump between seasons. Nice catch on the cassock!
9 years 4 months ago
Would the priest be excommunicated? He doesn't acknowledge that it's her son. I would assume he would know there is a 'little one' since he's eaten at the sister's house a couple times. The comment was a little vague and could be 'argued' that the priest was just talking about Peggy's nephew and not her son. I'm sure the priest kept it vague on purpose and in that respect, it's better to say nothing than to be vague.
9 years 4 months ago
Nice catch on the date: I was one year old, then! And if Father is knowingly breaking the seal (by divulging or acting on the information in any way, which he certainly seems to be doing) it would certainly be going against canon law for confessional material. Either way, would you want him to hear your confession?
9 years 4 months ago
When I was a Catholic, fortunately the mesh between myself and the priest in the confessional was much finer. Between that and our large parish/multiple priests, I was never worried that the anonymity was compromised. Also the negligible sins of a 12-year-old wouldn't have been fodder for even the most gossipy priest's mill. When I was about 15 or 16, the parish experimented with a 'face-to-face' confessional, but I don't think it was successful. I always thought the 'open weaves' of TV/movie confessionals were conceits of the piece. Is that not the case?
9 years 4 months ago
Interesting comment. I said to my wife immediately when he said 'for the little one' that I did not like where the show seemed to be going. (And as a fan of Jesuits, I am disapointed - they are making him a rebel but I fear where that will go). First, he is clearly infatuated with Peggy - which could be ok - but I fear the show has trended toward the soap-opera storylines which is ominous for this storyline. Then the breaking of the confessional sanctity - too much for me. Still like the show, though.
9 years 4 months ago
I saw this episode and did not have the same interpretation at all. Father Gill knew there was a little one in her family, he knew she had been watching the little one fail to get an egg because the bigger kids kept grabbing them, and giving her an egg for the child would be a kind act regardless of the child's parentage (delighting a child is a nice experience for anyone, relative or not). Viewers know that Father knows it's Peggy's son, but Peggy doesn't know that he knows. I interpret Father's attention to Peggy as his awareness that she is in need of spiritual guidance. One can read the episode as you did, but I don't believe yours is the only or best interpretation. Maybe the next episodes will show that I'm completely wrong, though. :)
Benjamin Master
5 years 11 months ago
I interpreted the priest's behavior in this and subsequent episodes a little differently.  On the one hand, he was truly doing what he thought best, trying to sway Peggy towards accepting her son.  On the other hand, the show is really all about subtexts in interpersonal relationships.  The priest, a young man, is also attracted to Peggy, and has to sublimate this and instead focuses on his zeal to "save" her.  The show treats this very subtly, but it all adds to one of the show's main themes - Men ignoring their emotions and controlling women, maintaining their authority as an emotional shield. 

All in all, not a particular knock on the priest, relative to all the other flawed characters in the show...  just a dark, human characterization, like Don's, Betty's, etc...

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