Mad Men, Priests and the Catholic Worldview

Let’s talk about Father Gill first.



Last night, on the absolutely superb season finale of the AMC hit show “Mad Men,” the priest came back, in the midst of a show that considered abortion, suicide, infidelity, confession, forgiveness and mortality. 


This season, Colin Hanks has been featured in a three-series arc as the Jesuit Father John Gill, a young priest visiting the local parish frequented by Peggy, one of the show’s lead characters.  The Cuban Missile Crisis, which unfolded during last night’s show, has given everyone a case of apocalyptic jitters, including the normally cool ad execs at Sterling Cooper. 


Like any good preacher, Father Gill is savvy enough to address the “signs of the times” with his congregation.  His homily is, more or less, about attentiveness to the state of one’s soul as the end may be, or is, nearing.  (By the way: why is Father dressed up like an altar boy, in cassock and surplice, at the pulpit?  Where are his vestments?)  After Mass, Gill runs into Peggy in the church basement and—for roughly the third time in as many appearances—breaks the seal of the confessional.  Peggy’s sister had earlier confessed to Father that she was caring for Peggy’s baby, which Peggy had given up in order to continue with her career.

Father admits that he feels as if he’s been sent to the parish to care for her.  (Oh boy, I thought, so much for the other parishioners.)  Plus, he says, Peggy risks going to hell if she doesn’t reconcile herself with God.  First of all, he shouldn’t be using information he’s received in the confessional, no matter how noble his intention.  Second, would a priest tell a woman that she’s going to hell for allowing her sister to raise her child?  Maybe.  But his censure seems more suited to her having had an abortion.


On the other hand, Father Gill is presented as a good priest who is sincerely interested in helping Peggy with her spiritual life.  But there are probably better ways for him to do this.  Overall, Hanks (and the writers) have given us an appealing, three-dimensional character.  Essentially good, but, like everyone else in the show, flawed.  Let’s hope his assignment at St. Peggy’s Parish is permanent.


In response, Peggy says that she believes in God, but she doesn’t believe in a God who acts like that.  Which is pretty sophisticated, circa 1962.  (Maybe she’s been taking night courses at Fordham.)  Later on, she "confesses" her giving away of her child to Pete, the child’s father, who is rendered nearly speechless by her honesty, an honesty that he finds hard to incorporate into his own life.  Towards the end of the show, as Peggy’s lying in bed that night, she makes the Sign of the Cross; Pete, on the other hand, is shown in his office, with a rifle.  (My friend Greg Kandra, at Deacon’s Blog, noted that this, not any time in the confessional with Father Gill, is her real confession.  Perhaps this is why she can sleep.)  

Of late this utterly fascinating show--with crackerjack writing, terrific acting and high-toned production values--has seemed suffused with a deeply Catholic sensibility.  In one recent episode, the account execs were trying manfully (and I mean that: they were more or less ignoring Peggy, as usual) to develop a new pitch for Popsicles.  “Take it, break it, share it, love it.”  Peggy notes that it sounded “very Catholic,” that is, very Eucharistic.  Or at least “Christian,” she says, “in the social sense.”  Many of Don Draper’s perorations to their clients’ products come close to sounding as if he’s describing a sacrament: visible symbols of invisible realities, as when he describes the Kodak Carousel as a “time machine,” complete with references to Hellenistic culture.  Frankly, Don gives better homilies that Father Gill.  (His penchant for high-flown advertising rhetoric was nicely sent up on “Saturday Night Live” this week, along with Peggy’s feverish nods at Don’s words.)  By the way, there’s a wonderful interview with Matt Weiner, the series’ creator, who discusses some of his Catholic sources.  (H/T: Deacon’s Bench).


Ever present, and always looming outside the windows of Sterling Cooper’s offices, on Madison Avenue, are the gray steeples of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  (Actually the view is more a Park Avenue view, but as we New Yorkers say, “Whatevah.”)  Traditional religious values are still visible; they’re just not relevant.  You can see them, but you can’t seem to get close enough to touch them.  But those values, which have been abandoned by many of the denizens of Sterling Cooper and their families (Don, having already stolen someone’s identity, goes AWOL from his family for several weeks; Roger, the silver-haired Lothario carelessly dumps his wife for a secretary; Joan’s fiancé practically rapes her in the office; Betty throws herself into a tryst with a stranger in a bar), seem not only AWOL, but oddly…necessary.  “Tell the truth,” counsels Peggy to Pete, the climbingest of the young  execs, in a throwaway line.  That seems to be difficult for the characters, and their failure to do so, and to live truthfully leads to unhappiness, isolation and anomie. 

At the beginning of the series, it was a lark to catch all the crazy 1960s signs and symbols: everyone smoked; everyone drank; no one wore seatbelts.  Look, another rotary phone!  An ashtray!  But as "Mad Men" has progressed, it has become less like “American Graffiti” and more like an Albert Camus novel, in which the characters search for meaning, and seem hard pressed to find any, other than what they create.  Existence precedes essence?   Pete would laugh ruefully and say that it sounds like a failed ad slogan.

The meaninglessness and the lack of an underpinning of any sort of value system (other than getting ahead in Sterling Cooper and in the world) has left the characters lost, confused, and yes, a little mad. 

James Martin, SJ

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9 years 12 months ago
'By the way: why is Father dressed up like an altar boy, in cassock and surplice, at the pulpit? Where are his vestments?' The priest is giving a sermon in choir dress. Choir dress would be worn by a cleric who attends a Mass but is not celebrating the Mass. (In other words he is not the presider, to use a word familiar to you.)
9 years 11 months ago
Peggy's sister is not raising her child. We learned this in episode 5, "The New Girl," when we saw that Anita was enormously pregnant right around the time that Peggy gave birth. It was a red herring; the child was actually given up for adoption, as Peggy told Pete. Interesting, then, that what Father Gill thinks he "knows" from the confessional is false, he assumed. Peggy is not only able to sleep after confessing to Pete, she is able to pray. Father Gill is right in his observation that Peggy believes in God. I would not be surprised if Peggy chose to take communion now.
9 years 12 months ago
When the poet Christian Wiman was asked about his book 'Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet', he stated, 'Art is like Christianity in this way. At its greatest, it can give you access to the deepest suffering you can imagine.' Wiman tells that is 'why art resists sentimentalism.' He further tell us, 'I was trying to point out how the highest moments of art can at once enact our deepest sufferings and provide a peace that is equal to them, and how this is similar to (though lesser than) what I understand to be the deepest truth of Christianity. The peace does not eliminate the sorrow or the tragedy: Great art acknowledges intractable human suffering, and Christianity's promise of resurrection is empty without a clear, cold sense of the cross. So yes, art does resist sentimentality, as does, at its best Christianity.' Wiman adds, 'Some people - those inclined to severity and sternness - actually need sentimentality in their lives, and others who are over-inclined to frivolity and vapid cheerfulness need to be dropped more often into the depths of their beliefs. Art is a good means for achieving both of these.' (From Martin E. Marty's CONTEXT)
9 years 12 months ago
'It is necessary to have had a revelation of reality through joy,in order to find reality through suffering.' ~ Simone Weil 'I would qualify Weil's statement somewhat, then, by saying that reality, be it of this world or another, is not something one finds and then retains for good. It must be newly discovered daily, and newly lost.' ~ Christian Wiman
9 years 12 months ago
I really enjoy reading this blog and enjoyed this post. However, I'd like to make one point: what Joan's fiancé did was rape, pure and simple. Not "practically rape." She told him no, more than once.
9 years 12 months ago
Good points. To Anthony: yes, perhaps it was a sort of hurriedly put-together service, where choir dress would have been the norm. To Toya: yes, you're right: Joan said no, so it was a rape--by her fiance, revealed as the precise opposite of the clean-cut 'catch' that Joan had hoped for.


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