Manhattan Gothic: Mad Men and the shock of recognition

Flannery O’Connor explained the grotesquery of her characters and plot twists by saying that the subject of her fiction was “the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.” She felt her characters and plots needed to be distorted to the point of the surreal to produce in the reader a “shock” of recognition. O’Connor’s stories each contain “an action that is totally unexpected, yet totally believable,” often an act of violence, like the murder of the cantankerous and haughty grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” or the self-blinding of Hazel Motes in Wise Blood. Violence, she said, is “the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially.” We are meant to see in her stories our need for grace.

Amy Hungerford, an English professor at Yale, sometimes asks her students whether they would want to have dinner with O’Connor’s characters—unlikeable folk. The same can also be said about the characters of “Mad Men,” the critically lauded AMC series, although it would more likely be a cocktail that one would decline to enjoy in their company. Don Draper and the executives with whom he works at the Sterling Cooper Ad Agency are hollow, rapacious Philistines. Draper would not want to have a drink with anyone without the promise that it would lead to his success in business or philandering.


“Mad Men” employs the same creative device Flannery O’Connor used. It radically resets a character or situation so that readers or viewers see themselves from a previously unknown vantage point. O’Connor did this geographically by exploiting her native, rural South—strange territory to many of us. Matthew Weiner, the creator of “Mad Men” and a writer for the last three seasons of “The Sopranos,” accomplishes the same through temporal dislocation. He takes us back to the early 1960s and, with the aid of a half-century of hindsight, we see ourselves with new eyes.

In the series’ first season, a child is shown in the Draper family home playing with a plastic dry-cleaning bag. A parent scolds, warning not of danger to the child but of wrinkling the garment. When the Draper family picnics in a bucolic setting, Betty Draper, Don’s wife, concludes the festivities with a brisk shake of the blanket, sending all their trash onto the field. So many people smoke in the offices of Sterling Cooper that one wonders whether they’ve had a premonition that one day the practice will be prohibited. When Don, driving while drunk, causes a car accident, the local Long Island cop decides to get tough. The errant New Yorker must pay the full $150 fine before he can drive away. There’s no arrest, just a small contribution to the local economy.

The series’ chief moral pedagogy lies in its depiction of 1960s sexism. A woman at Sterling Cooper is called a “girl,” “babe,” “sweetheart,” almost any form of address except one that suggests equality. Peggy Olsen, a secretary raised to the position of copywriter, is sidelined and belittled by the men with whom she works and shunned and resented by the women. In season two, she is told—by a woman—that the only way to succeed in a man’s world is to become an object of men’s desire. A lesson in sexism is combined with one in racism when Paul Kinsey, a copywriter and aspiring novelist, dates an African-American woman from New Jersey. At a party with his co-workers, he instructs her not to speak in his absence, lest her socioeconomic background become ap-parent to the others.

But do we get it? Do we see ourselves in the characters of “Mad Men,” or do we superciliously take pride in having left behind their sexism, their racism, their ecological callousness? When the Democratic Party chose to nominate Barack Obama in preference to Hillary Clinton, was it a sign that racism is dead or that sexism is still alive? And if racism is dead, why did it take a White House summit to conclude the contentious national debate over the arrest of the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.? Racism, like any other prejudice, can be the mote we have simply learned to look past, making it all the more difficult to diagnose. Today many Americans must leave their offices to smoke, but some toss their cigarette butts onto the street, despite the ecological damage (the butts are not biodegradable, take 10 to 15 years to decompose and leach toxic chemicals into the water and soil).   

Students first encountering Flannery O’Connor’s fiction often protest that her stories are too “Gothic” to be realistic. She insisted that her stories were credible, though not easy to believe. The difficulty in accepting their verisimilitude is meant to trigger our recognition of grace; the stories are heightened in feature so that clouded-over contemporary eyes can see God at work. Hazel Motes really sees only after he has blinded himself. We are supposed to ask ourselves what it would take for us to see.

The danger of the temporal dislocation of “Mad Men” is that so many years have passed since the 1960s that viewers no longer recognize themselves in the insecure men and women who bed each other in hotel rooms and commit rape in corporate boardrooms. Do career women today feel themselves more secure at work than Peggy Olsen does? Is the emotionally suffocating marriage of Don and Betty Draper a relic of the past? “Mad Men” is a morality play, and Don Draper is an everyman. Even his identity is borrowed from a dead comrade of the Korean War. As brilliantly played by Jon Hamm, Draper is reminiscent of Walker Percy’s oft-repeated protagonist, a walking wound that no philandering can cure, here transplanted from New Orleans to Ossining, N.Y., the Draper suburban home. The self-alienation that expresses itself in perfervid promiscuity is not a thing of the past.

Both O’Connor’s fiction and “Mad Men” can be received without any shock of grace. (Students are often surprised to learn that O’Connor intended her stories to be all about the action of grace.) Some read them simply as macabre stories without a moral. Not everyone sees the morality tale implicit in the saga of Sterling Cooper. Surely there are viewers who wish they could be Don Draper, who don’t recognize the soul-sadness stirred into his martinis. Hollow men have hollow dreams. It takes a lot to see grace at work in territory held largely by the devil. The same might be said of time, as O’Connor might put it, when Satan winds the springs.

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Leonard Villa
8 years 3 months ago

I think there is a problem with Mad Men but not what Fr. Klein identifies.  I think the problem with Mad Men is the anachronism of the movie/tv industry which revisits past time periods like the 1950's with 2009 spectacles, specifically with respect to sexual mores. Sometimes the narrative is like the movie Pleasantville where the 50's stood for sexual repression as opposed to the "enlightened" current era hence the 50's

Pleasantville is black and white (strict moral code) while the present is in living color (liberated and sensitive). Other times the narrative is like Mad Men where all the props etc are 50's but the sexual mores are 2009.  I don't see any connection between O'Connor's grotesque characters and Mad Men.  Fr. Klein's chief problem with Mad Men, it seems to me, is that the Mad Men characters are not politically correct: smoking, no feminism, no concern for the environment etc. as defined by today's standards. I doubt Flannery O'Connor would care a whit about that.

Susan Sink
8 years 3 months ago

I also don't see the connection between Flannery O'Connor and "Mad Men." In terms of the social mores, I do think we have a sort of smug feeling about "how far we've come" in terms of banning smoking and not littering and putting seat belts on our children. (And is there not some irony in the fact that public service advertising campaigns effected a lot of that change?) But this is such small stuff in the scope of the show. I think ultimately the show is about power- who has it, who wants it, who can get it and who can't, and how. In this way "The Sopranos" is an interesting connection. It is also at its core about lies and truth: from advertising to the self-made man (literally) Don Draper. I find Fr. Klein's connections hard to follow and wonder if he's finding things that really aren't there. What is the role of grace in "Mad Men"? That we should see ourselves in the lying, philandering characters? Huh?


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